Posted on June 24, 1996 in Washington Watch

An intense and divisive debate over the issue of abortion is once again threatening the unity of the Republican party. For two and a half decades the issue of abortion has been one of the most morally troubling and politically volatile issues facing both political parties.

Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that laws allowing abortion were constitutional, two deeply divided poles emerged in the U.S. policy debate. On the one side were those who supported the Supreme Court decision, who held that women should have the right to an abortion and that the question was a personal matter of free choice and should be a private one between a woman and her doctor. On the other side were those who held that abortion was a moral question involving the ending of a human life and that it should be outlawed except in extreme cases.

As debate over the question has evolved, a strange political alignment has taken shape. The Republican coalition became more strongly identified with the anti-abortion position, while the Democrats have become the strongest supporters of the freedom of choice position. This was an ideologically confusing state of affairs, since historically Republicans have espoused a libertarian philosophy of less government involvement in personal affairs, while Democrats have identified themselves as the party that viewed government intervention as necessary and desirable in upholding issues of morality affecting the public good.

It was Democrats, for example, who led the fight in the 1960s for Civil Rights and affirmative action, arguing that government had an obligation to guarantee equal rights for all citizens and to offer protection to those who had been denied their rights. Republicans, back then, argued unsuccessfully that passing legislation on Civil Rights constituted government intrusion into issues of personal choice and morality. If a neighborhood or coffee shop or school board wanted to be “white-only,” Republicans argued that the government had no right to order them to do otherwise; and even if such free choices were repugnant, those who made them were entitled to such freedoms.

One result of this alignment was that abortion, in addition to being a deeply troubling moral issue, became an intensely partisan issue as well, with both Republicans and Democrats hardening their official positions during the past two decades. Because the philosophical underpinnings of the pro-choice and anti-abortion positions did not match the overall ideologies of their adoptive parties, there continued to be strife within each party over this question.

In part, because of the inter-party division over abortion is so deep, on many occasions intra-party differences were put down by the increasingly doctrinaire groups who came to dominate the debate within each party.

As religious fundamentalists and traditional conservatives became the activist base of the Republican party, more libertarian Republicans found it difficult to air their views on abortion. Over time the official view of the Republicans hardened and excluded tolerance for any alternative view.

In 1976, for example, the Republican party position reflected an internal party debate. While calling for respectful dialogue between groups on opposite sides of the abortion issue, the party affirmed its anti-abortion position, stating:

“The question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time. It is undoubtedly a personal and moral issue…. There are those in our party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court positions which permits abortion on demand. There are other who share sincere convictions that the Supreme Court’s decision must be changed by a constitutional amendment banning all abortions. ...The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

By 1992, the anti-abortion Republican activists had succeeded in hardening the position of their party so that the platform read:

“We believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

Increasingly, advocates of the pro-choice position (as supporters of the Supreme Court decision allowing abortion came to be called) found it difficult to even raise their concerns in the context of Republican party debates. The atmosphere became so intolerant that pro-choice Republicans who spoke at the 1992 Republican National Convention were roundly booed by the delegates in attendance.

Because the activist base of the Republican party – those who participate in the primaries and caucuses that elect party officials and presidential delegates – has come to be dominated by religious and traditional conservative hard-liners, Republican candidates for President must compete with each other over who will be the most anti-abortion.

The growing intolerance for alternative views has become worrisome to party leaders. Neither party is based on a single issue. In fact, both parties are, in effect, coalitions of interest groups who are unified by several common concerns and simply agree to disagree about others. Pro-choice Republicans remain Republicans because they agree with the basic Republican thinking of decreasing government involvement in business and reducing taxes, even though they sharply disagree over the issue of abortion.

But as the official party view on abortion hardened and became increasing less tolerant, pro-choice Republicans and several influential party leaders began to warn that the party could lose the support of voters in the general public who were either pro-choice or concerned about the lack of tolerance within the party.

During the 1996 Presidential primary season Bob Dole joined other candidates in taking a hard-line position on abortion. In an effort to outflank his opponents, Dole adopted or emphasized positions of the far right. He changed his position on affirmative action and gun control and displayed his anti-abortion credentials. The Christian right seemed mollified by these moves. While many in their ranks had supported Pat Buchanan, Dole picked up enough of their support to ensure victory.

But no sooner were the primaries over than the internal party debate over abortion intensified. Six pro-choice Republican governors called on Dole to change the party platform to express acceptance of alternative viewpoints. Some even asked that language on the abortion issue be dropped from the platform completely. In response, the anti-abortion forces announced that they would mobilize their supporters to block any attempt by Dole to change the platform and to make clear their opposition to Dole selecting a pro-choice Republican as his Vice Presidential nominee (Colin Powell, for example, is pro-choice, and such a position would effectively block him from running as a Republican in 1996).

Some anti-abortion leaders, including Pat Buchanan, have gone so far as to suggest that if the Republicans changed the party position on abortion, they might leave to form another political party.

In an effort to head off a confrontation, a few weeks ago Dole suggested that he would affirm the party’s abortion platform language from 1992, but would add a clause to the platform calling for tolerance of differing views. This brought peace for two days, as Pat Buchanan and other anti-abortion leaders expressed satisfaction with Dole’s compromise and pro-choice Republicans, while they wanted Dole to go farther, expressed at least some acceptance of his new position.

Then, almost inexplicably, a few days later Dole reignited the fire of controversy by announcing that the clause on tolerance would be written into the abortion plank itself, not in a general appeal for tolerance on all issues appearing in the preamble to the platform as many activists initially expected. Dole also launched a bitter personal attack on Gary Bauer, one of the leaders of the anti-abortion movement. Implying that Bauer was intolerant and not a good Republican, Dole made certain that the debate would not end any time soon.

In recent weeks, the anti-abortion forces in the Republican party have struck back. In some states’ Republican conventions, where Christian fundamentalists and traditional conservatives dominate, those groups have combined to block the election of some of Dole’s pro-choice delegates and have instead elected leaders from their own ranks to the national party platform committee.

Some analysts have suggested that Dole’s striking out was a deliberate attempt to take control of his own campaign and his party platform. They compare Dole’s move to some of the steps taken by Clinton in 1992, when then-candidate Clinton faced down some traditional hard-line Democratic groups in order to show his independence and establish his credentials as a “new Democrat.”

Polling on abortion presents a confusing picture, as the majority of the American people support the official position of neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. By a 72-20% margin Americans are opposed to the Republican party’s call for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. At the same time, the majority of Americans (65%) also do not support the Democratic party’s liberal view of abortion, with 45% saying abortion should be illegal and another 18% saying that there should be stricter limits than exist today.

Dole may find some public support for his position, but he may also find that he has created an earthquake which may cause structural damage to his party’s efforts to remain unified and win the general election. What is certain is that the abortion debate is far from over and resolving it will not be, as Dole asserted last week, “A piece of cake.”

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus