If Americans today often read “Republican” as “antichoice,” GOP leaders from just a few years ago would have balked at this political shorthand, and probably taken their party to task for many of its recent initiatives against reproductive choice. For example, in 2011 the GOP proposed to defund the 40-year-old Title X Family Planning program, which provides contraceptive and related services, such as cervical cancer detection, to some five million low-income women a year. In doing so, current Republican leaders are trying to dismantle a program that was essentially created by Republicans. Not only was the GOP the pro-family planning party for decades, but its support of individual rights and a modern approach to sexuality led to widespread GOP support for abortion rights, especially in the critical early period of abortion legalization. How many in the Republican party became divided from the very principles of its tradition is a story that was written little by little, carefully shaped by strategists and politicians at least as much as it was driven by a small but determined ultra-conservative cabal that rose through the ranks. But the roots of the current attack on reproductive choice do not go very deep in Republican history.
On the contrary, the origins of Republican support for reproductive choice lie not only in the basic tenets of republicanism, but also in the sociodemographic makeup of the Republican Party before its leadership was hijacked by the Christian Right. For much of the 20th century, the GOP was the party of upper-middle-class Protestants. These individuals, who were generally more socially progressive then the rest of the population, were the first group to, in large numbers, adopt birth control to limit family size. From the 1920s until the 1960s, it was these wealthy, progressive Republicans who led efforts to legalize and promote birth control. At the time, distributing contraceptive information was illegal under federal law and many states banned the sale or distribution of contraceptives. Well-off women could get birth control from private doctors, but poorer women who couldn’t afford private doctors had no access to birth control.
Katherine Hepburn’s mother, Katherine Houghton Hepburn, who led efforts to legalize contraception in Connecticut in the 1920s and 1930s, epitomized the type of wealthy, well-educated, progressive Republican drawn to the birth control movement. John D. Rockefeller III, the grandson of John Rockefeller and brother of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whose social moderation and fiscal conservatism gave birth to the moniker “Rockefeller Republican,” was another prominent Republican supporter of birth control. He founded the Population Council in 1952 to build support for US funding of international family planning efforts.
The most outspoken opponents of efforts to legalize contraception were the Catholic bishops. They couldn’t do much about rich women who got birth control from private doctors, but they wanted to make sure that no state or federal funding went to providing birth control to poor women and that birth control never became easily accessible in public clinics. This kept birth control out of the hands of Catholics, who were at the time mostly poor, recent immigrants with little knowledge of contraceptive methods, and other poor women. The bishops wielded so much authority on this issue that in 1921, New York Archbishop Patrick Hayes got the police to raid a meeting of the Voluntary Parenthood League on the grounds that a public discussion of birth control was harmful to society.
Despite opposition from the bishops, birth control acceptance grew dramatically throughout the 20th century. Beginning in 1930, most of the major Protestant denominations declared the use of birth control—at least by married couples—morally acceptable. In 1960 the Pill debuted and in 1965 the Supreme Court decided that the government could not ban married couples from using contraceptives. Liberal Protestant birth control reformers like John D. Rockefeller began prodding Congress to fund contraceptive services for poor Americans. Some were motivated by altruism and others by concern about the population burden on the earth’s natural resources or the burgeoning welfare rolls as out-of-wedlock pregnancy increased.
The Democratic Johnson administration cautiously supported the idea but was afraid to lead on the issue because of fear of a backlash from the bishops. Catholics had become an essential part of the Democratic electoral coalition and Johnson could not afford to alienate them. As a result, leadership on the issue fell to progressive congressional Republicans, led by Congressman and future President George H.W. Bush, whose father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, had been active as a fundraiser for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rep. Bush helped secure the first federal funding dedicated to family planning for the poor in the 1967 budget. House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, another future Republican president, was also a strong supporter of federal family planning funding. When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, one of the first things he did was call for the passage of a national family planning program with the support of Bush’s Republican Research Committee Task Force in Earth Resources and Population. In 1970 the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, creating the Title X Family Planning program.
At this time there was a movement underway to liberalize the laws governing the circumstances under which abortions could be performed because the procedure was banned by most states except to save the life of a woman. Many of the early leaders of this abortion reform movement were the same progressive Republicans who supported family planning. The movement tied into the Republican belief in limited government, particularly in people’s personal lives, and the generally progressive sexual ethic of upper-class Protestants. California Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan signed one of the first abortion law reform bills in the nation into law in 1967. New York Republican State Assemblywoman Constance Cook wrote and successfully steered the passage of the landmark bill that repealed New York’s abortion ban in 1970, presaging Roe v. Wade. In addition, one of the co-founders of Catholics for Choice, Joan Harriman, was a Republican.
But beginning with the legalization of abortion in New York and picking up steam after the historic Roe decision in 1973, the issue of abortion increasingly became intertwined with partisan politics. It was the Nixon administration that first politicized the issue when it recognized the potential for the abortion issue to separate conservative Catholics from their home in the Democratic Party. During the run-up to the 1972 presidential election, Nixon publicly voiced his support for the largely Catholic “right to life” movement and New York Cardinal Terence Cooke’s efforts to repeal New York’s liberal abortion law. In an attempt to attract the “Catholic vote” in the 1972 presidential election, Nixon also disavowed the findings of his own presidential commission on population, which was chaired by Rockefeller, when it recommended liberalizing the abortion law and distributing contraceptives to minors.
If the current environment within the Republican Party is hostile to choice, then it is the result of a deliberate strategy—convincing Republican candidates for office that they had to adopt an antichoice position to get elected.
By the 1976 presidential election, the Republican Party was courting a coalition of socially conservative voters, including Catholics, worried about crime, taxes and “moral decline.” This last was a code word for legalized abortion and other issues related to increased rights for women, like easier divorce and less stigma attached to premarital sex. That year the party took an official stance against abortion rights when its platform called for a “constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” Republican presidential nominee Gerald Ford, who was prochoice and a long-time supporter of family planning, found himself in the position of having to disavow abortion rights to secure the nomination, although he personally backed the more moderate position of returning the issue to the states rather than a constitutional amendment conferring rights on fetuses. The rise of the Christian Right as a major power broker within the party during the presidential election of 1980, largely on an antiabortion platform, solidified the antiabortion position of the Republican Party and assured that no future GOP presidential nominee could publicly back abortion rights. This included George H.W. Bush, who had been a strong supporter of family planning and opposed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion but, like Ford, avowed an antiabortion position by the time he ran for president.
The Republican Party may have been officially antiabortion at the top level by 1980, but there remained a viable pro-family planning Republican presence in Congress throughout the 1980s. This translated into bipartisan support for both domestic and international family planning programs. There was also a substantial Republican vote in favor of choice that derailed attempts to pass a constitutional amendment to ban abortion; for example, House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IL), who served as party leader from 1981 to 1995, was prochoice. That began to change in the 1990s with the ascent of the Christian Coalition, which rose from the ashes of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid and the Christian Right’s disenchantment with moderates like Bush who had failed to push a strong antiabortion agenda.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the Christian Coalition launched a strategy to take over the Republican Party that would move the GOP far to the right. Led by strategist Ralph Reed, the organization worked from the ground up to elect far-right, religiously conservative candidates, concentrating on school board elections, state legislatures and Republican Party committees—races with low turn-out where a concerted effort could bring a minority candidate to power. Control of state legislatures gave the GOP and the Christian Coalition control over redistricting, allowing them to create more safe seats for social conservatives. The Christian Coalition also launched a sophisticated voter identification effort and produced influential voter guides identifying socially conservative candidates that were distributed through church networks. In 1994, the Republicans took over the House for the first time since 1954—largely fueled by religiously conservative voters, who comprised 33 percent of the electorate, up from 18 percent in 1988.
The situation began to deteriorate for Republican moderates at that point, notes former Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD). “Under Mr. Gingrich you had a movement to the right and an effort to get into the bedroom and control what goes on there,” she says. Immediately following the 1994 mid-term election, the US Catholic Conference, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the Christian Coalition began meeting to craft a legislative wish list to capitalize on the conservative ascendency. They designed a strategy to chip away at abortion rights through a number of avenues, such as trying to ban a rarely used late-term abortion procedure they termed “partial-birth.” They also began conflating abortion and family planning, claiming that US funding for family planning services both domestically and overseas freed up money to allow abortions to be performed. This signaled the end of traditional GOP support for family planning.
The antichoice agenda now included defunding organizations like Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which received US funding for contraceptive services but provided abortions with separate money; reinstituting President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy, which required any nongovernmental organization that received US family planning money to refrain from performing or promoting abortion with their own money; and repealing the Title X Family Planning program.
In the mid-1990s, the Christian Coalition and the NRLC began scoring votes on domestic and international family planning issues on their influential congressional vote scorecards, which were used by many religious and conservative voters to make their electoral choices. According to Robert Gustafson, who served as chief of staff for moderate, prochoice Illinois Republican Rep. John Porter at the time, this was a pivotal moment in GOP politics. “When the very conservative groups started including international family planning on their scorecards—things like the UN Population Fund and population programs—and scoring them as if they were abortion votes, things really changed. Because of the influence of the Christian Coalition, Republicans needed to have 100 percent on all these scorecards. If you opposed abortion but voted for UN family planning funding, you got 90 percent, and that was unacceptable,” he said.
Suddenly the moderate, pro-family planning Republican was an endangered species, especially in leadership positions. By 1998, every single candidate for the three top GOP leadership posts scored 100 percent on the Christian Coalition’s scorecard, which rated bills that would require parents to be notified when minors were provided contraceptives through Title X family planning clinics, as well as legislation that would deny US funding to overseas NGOs that performed or provided information about abortions.
Gerrymandering also contributed to the problem, according to Morella and former Rep. John Porter (R-IL), referring to the practice of creating ideologically pure districts where the race is basically won or lost in the primary. Reproductive issues became the tool of choice for conservatives to challenge moderate Republicans in primaries. “The opposition organized around choice issues in my district. It was very polarizing,” notes Porter, who survived three primary challenges in the 1990s from antichoice candidates. While Porter was in a moderate district and able to maintain his seat, moderate Republicans in other districts were replaced by far-right candidates throughout the 1990s, shrinking the number of GOP moderates in office.
“In the 1990s we had about 45 members who were moderate Republicans. They didn’t all vote prochoice but a number of them did. Now it is down to just a handful,” notes Morella. In 1999, a vote to restore $25 million in funding to the UNFPA after the agency had been defunded by conservatives attracted nearly 50 Republican votes. But a 2003 vote to protect UNFPA funding received only 30 GOP votes. When Rep. Mike Pence offered a measure to defund Planned Parenthood in February 2011, only six Republicans opposed it.
Today, what used to be the party that supported reproductive choice increasingly looks like the party that is more than willing to make choices for others, especially women. But if the current environment within the Republican Party is hostile to choice, then it is the result of a deliberate strategy—convincing Republican candidates for office that they had to adopt an antichoice position to get elected. In reality, there are millions of Republicans—policymakers and constituents—who support some prochoice positions but who feel they are alone. The prospect of articulating those views will continue to be daunting as long as the myth of the antichoice Republican Party, and some extreme voices from within it, remain unchallenged.
Only by understanding the roots of the current antichoice position within the GOP can advocates of choice on both sides of the aisle seek to encourage and work with prochoice Republicans to advance the prochoice cause for all Americans.