Jimmy Carter’s Forgotten Courage on Taxpayer Funded Abortions

By John Murdock Published on December 7, 2015

There was even more good news than usual at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia this past Sunday. The congregation’s most famous Sunday School teacher, the 91 year old former President Jimmy Carter, announced he was cancer free. Meanwhile, back in Washington, a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood for a year and roll back much of Obamacare was making its way to the Oval Office. There, barring a miracle, it is sure to be greeted as a bottle of poison pills and vetoed with much fanfare by its current occupant. That the nation’s top Democrat would pull out the veto pen to defend money for abortionists is now no surprise, but that wasn’t always the case.

It is a bit odd that the forces of the sexual revolution would firmly grab the Democrat Party wheel while the born again Navy man Jimmy Carter was the unlikely captain of the ship. While Carter chose not to challenge the very undemocratic mutiny that was Roe v. Wade, he did nobly defend one principle, that of no public funding for abortion.  For that the pro-life movement owes Carter some overdue thanks.

That policy derived from a larger understanding that abortion — involving as it does the destruction of a unique human individual rather than, say, a tumor — should not be treated as just your garden-variety healthcare, even if judicially declared legal. Beginning in 1976 these principles manifested themselves in a rider that must be repeatedly added to each annual appropriations bill. The Hyde Amendment, named for its chief sponsor, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde but also championed by House Democrats like Jim Oberstar, first passed in 1976 under President Ford but was immediately enjoined by a New York federal judge before it could take effect.  That meant that Medicaid and taxpayers continued to pay for some 300,000 abortions a year.

Despite a sometimes wobbly campaign message on abortion (he disliked it and the Roe decision personally but would not champion a constitutional amendment) Carter kept his word and lent strong support to Hyde’s bipartisan effort to stop federally funded abortions. And while his administration was often populated with social liberals, he put a pro-life Catholic, Joseph Califano, in charge of the important Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that would oversee this matter.

The Media Balks and the West Wing Revolts

Carter’s support of the Hyde Amendment was not without serious political and legal risks. Most of the media was against him, with the Washington Post editorializing that he was “on the wrong side” of history by championing what they saw as “bad social policy” and “bad constitutional law.” Pro-abortion feminists were also irate across the nation — and across the hall.

Midge Costanza was an upstate New York liberal Catholic politician who had jumped on the Carter bandwagon early. She was rewarded by becoming the first woman with the title Assistant to the President. Constanza was the chief public liaison, occupying the same official role that Charles Colson had filled for Nixon. With an outspoken nature and an activist’s heart, she was ill-suited to the job when her views did not match those of her boss, as on the public funding of abortions.

After listening to calls of frustration through her sympathetic ear, Costanza drafted a memo urging Carter to change his position. The President replied with a blunt handwritten “No” and warned that his public stance was “actually more liberal than I feel personally.” Undeterred, Costanza brought 30 or so female presidential appointees to the White House in a show of feminist force.  Carter faced down the internal revolt and helped to hand the young pro-life movement a key legislative victory.  Constanza was soon given a narrower portfolio and a new office in the White House basement. She eventually got the hint and resigned. Soon thereafter she would use the notoriety brought by her year and half in (and below) the West Wing to criticize Carter for failing to fund abortions.

A Narrow Victory

After a long slog through the courts, the Hyde Amendment would eventually be upheld and finally took effect in 1980 just a few months before Carter suffered a landslide defeat. In Harris v. McRae, the Supreme Court ruled that the shadowy new constitutional right to abortion it had found in the penumbras of the Fourteenth Amendment did not include the right to have that decision subsidized by the state. Neither was the United Methodist Church’s Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries able to convince the Court that First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion were impinged. (Yes, this liberal bastion within the multi-faceted United Methodist Church really did use collection plate dollars to intervene and argue that their religious rights required publicly funding abortions.)

While a contrary outcome sounds ridiculous to anyone who views the actual text of the Constitution as a mildly relevant factor, this was, in fact, a 5 to 4 decision. With Ford appointee John Paul Stevens on board to strike the statute down, victory required that three from the Roe majority be willing to rein in the horse that they had helped let loose from the barn. Such an unlikely result would have been impossible had the Carter Administration not vigorously defended the Hyde Amendment through a lengthy trial and then continued appealing after the district court declared the statute unconstitutional.

When it was finally time to argue before the Supreme Court in 1980, the winds of political change were blowing hard against a President already weakened by a slow economy and the Iran hostage crisis. The Ronald Reagan-led GOP was increasingly seen as the party of life and traditional values. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the Democratic nomination from the left. The President had managed to carve out a space that was not life-affirming enough for the newly coalescing Christian right but was anathema to a key component of his own party’s base. In short, there was little political rationale for maintaining his stance against the federal funding for abortions.

Unlike some politicians today who regularly refuse to defend policies in court once they are no longer political assets, Carter stood firm. The best explanation is that he actually believed it was the right thing to do. It was. And since then the no public funding principle has stood as a bipartisan buffer between the armies of the culture wars, with Carter’s example helping to keep Presidents Clinton and Obama from explicitly crossing this line, even as the Democratic platform has moved to calling for the public funding of abortion on demand.

A Shield for Planned Parenthood?

Oddly, in the current debate over the $500 million in public money that Planned Parenthood receives annually, many defenders of the funding quickly point out that federal law blocks direct public spending on most abortions. Of course, Planned Parenthood has long fought the Hyde Amendment, but now it serves as a rhetorical shield of sorts, hiding a bigger reality. By offering “women’s healthcare” services from pap smears to the Pill to a third trimester D & X under one brand name and often under one roof, Planned Parenthood launched a still ongoing frontal assault on the idea that abortion is outside the mainstream of medicine.

Planned Parenthood also built a financial model that used federal funds to support abortion, even if the government would not pay for them directly. Public money instead helps meet payroll and cover the rent on facilities where approximately 300,000 abortions are performed each year — with the bodies of babies sometimes harvested for an additional payday. Those millions made from abortion and abortion related products combine with the millions from Uncle Sam to feed the billion dollar beast that is Planned Parenthood. And this institution knows where its bread is buttered, conferring its Margaret Sanger Award on the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.  In the process, Planned Parenthood makes a sly mockery of the principles that President Carter once dug in his heels to safeguard.

Will Carter Speak Out Again?

While never shifting his own views to a fully pro-life position like many of his evangelical brothers and sisters did during his presidency, neither did the Sunday School teacher from Plains fully flip in the pro-choice direction like a long list of Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Jackson and Al Gore. The former President has even periodically tried to call his party back from its growing abortion absolutism. In 2005, he publicly stated that Democratic leaders “overemphasized” abortion and failed to “demonstrate a compatibility with the deeply religious people in this country.” He also noted that many Democrats shared his concern about “late-term abortion, where you kill a baby as it’s emerging from its mother’s womb.” In 2012, he called on his party to move its platform away from supporting public funding for elective abortions, a plea that went unheeded.

As recently as this July, Carter told the New York Times, “I have never believed that Jesus would be in favor of abortion, unless it was the result of rape or incest, or the mother’s life was in danger.” While one could question the theology behind the exceptions (instances that cover only about 2% of abortions), this is clearly a long way from the “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology” rhetoric now being bandied about in liberal circles.

Carter also told the Times that abortion represented “the only conflict I’ve had in my career between political duties and Christian faith.” Arguably, he dealt with that conflict incorrectly by failing to support the constitutional amendment process at a time when it had a real chance of success, but his resolve on the Hyde Amendment did help ensure that there is now no constitutional law barrier to defunding Planned Parenthood. And one shudders to think of just what Planned Parenthood might be today if it long had the added incentive of direct federal abortion funding.

The man in the White House today refuses to even watch the videos that show how some of his closest political allies operate and document the chilling actions they have taken in the name of medical research. As the Democratic Party’s elder statesman, Carter finds himself in a unique position to call for unfettered investigations and the defunding of an organization built on taxpayer dollars and abortion. Such would be one more act of courage and service in a public life that, while far from perfect, has nevertheless seen many.


John Murdock is an attorney who now writes from his native Texas after spending over a decade in D.C.  His online home is johnmurdock.org.  



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