Adamantly pro-choice? Ronald Reagan and abortion in 1967.
The governor is innocent of Romney's charge.
By Mark Kilmer Posted in 2008 — Comments (63) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Was Ronald Reagan ever pro-choice? Did he champion and sign pro-choice legislation in 1967 when governor of California? Was he "adamantly pro-choice," and outspoken protector of a woman's right to choose?
It has been said that he was, indeed, "adamantly pro-choice." It's quite an accusation, and it is not true. First, if words mean anything, it is a false accusation. According to Merriam-Webster, for one to be adamant, he must be "unshakable or insistent especially in maintaining a position or opinion." To be pro-choice, one must be a proponent of a woman's right to choose legally to abort her child and in favor of legal abortion on demand. Governor Reagan did not favor the general legalization of abortion and did not hold that a woman had a right to terminate her pregnancy, and he most certainly was not adamant about it.
We have examined this within our RedState community -- here, here, and here -- but we have not reviewed what actually happened in 1967, when Governor Reagan signed California's 1967 Therapeutic Abortion Act. We shall do so now.
Please Read On.…
According to the jacket blurb, "Lou Cannon covered Reagan for thirty-six years, first as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, later as The Washington Post White House correspondent." In 1969, he wrote extensively about the early years of Ronald Reagan's governorship in a book called Ronnie and Jessie. My source is his 2003 tome, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power, which I have just purchased used in hardcover from Amazon.com for about $5 including shipping. It is within Mitt Romney's budget, and I wish he would have purchased it before he made his infamous pronouncement, but let us look at what it says.
With access to mountains of previously unpublished material – including Governor Reagan's "cabinet minutes" -- Cannon writes a good book of history, devoting seven pages to the matter of the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, beginning on p. 208. There had been a bill in the California legislature, Cannon tells us, that legalized abortions only to save the life of the mother. Its sponsor dropped it in 1965, and its sponsorship was grabbed by a young Democrat named Tony Beilenson, a State senator representing an "affluent, liberal district in Los Angeles County." It was Beilenson's bill, a watered-down version, which Reagan would sign.
Cannon, by way of background, writes: "Abortion on the 1960s was discussed in whispers. Until mid-decade, the word itself was taboo in most newspapers. … The phrases 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' did not yet exist, and battle lines on the issue were drawn almost entirely on religious lines." Conservatives who were not Roman Catholics, Cannon writes, believed "that government should stay out of 'the boardroom and the bedroom.'"
Now, it could be argued that since the euphemism "pro-choice" had not yet been concocted, Governor Reagan could not have been that as claimed. I'll discard that argument as pure semantics, as Reagan could have fit the definition – right to choose to abort on demand – without it being labeled any particular way.
Cannon writes that when Beilenson introduced his Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967, it would probably have disappeared again but for Daniel Creedon, a lobbyist pal of Senate leader Hugh Burns, telling Burns to "give the kid [Beilenson] a chance." It went to the Judiciary Committee, on which Beilenson sat.
Writes Cannon: "Beilenson's bill amended California law to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest, when a doctor deemed that the birth was likely to impair the physical or mental health of the mother, or when there was 'substantial risk' that the child would be born deformed." The Beilenson bill gained even more traction when the Colorado legislature voted to liberalize their abortion law and in response to public outrage over eight San Francisco doctors being arrested for performing abortions on women with German measles. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, mobilized against the legislation, fearing that a move to liberalize the abortion law in California might spread elsewhere
After six hours of debate past midnight, the bill was sent to the Senate floor with the minimum seven votes favoring it, five of which were from Senators of the governor's Republican Party. The governor had expressed some support for the bill, but he was caught off guard when it sailed through committee as quickly as it did. The governor's Senate liaison, Vern Sturgeon, and Senate leader Burns, whom we met earlier, worked to get it sent back to committee, but they failed. Beilenson's problem, though, was that he didn't have the votes to have it brought up on the Senate floor. Realizing this, he put his bill in the inactive file while he worked on finding more support in the senate and from the governor.
Here, Cannon describes Governor Reagan as "not his usual decisive self. … [N]either his doctrines nor his staff offered a compass to guide him." (Lyn Nofziger and Ed Meese favored the bill, while Phil Battaglia and Bill Clark opposed it. Cannon writes that Nancy Reagan was said to favor the bill, but this is uncertain.) Reagan talked to his wife's father, Dr. Loyal Davis, a retired surgeon who favored liberalizing the abortion law. [NOTE: It is important to remember that the proposed liberalization of the California law we discuss here, even though more permissive than zero, did not fit into the modern category of pro-choice.] In opposition to the Beilenson measure, the governor spoke to Cardinal Francis McIntyre.
"Faced with an abundance of contradictory and absolutist advice, Reagan behaved as if lost at sea."
It is impossible to get from that to "adamantly pro-choice," but we are in the middle of a very important history lesson.
Cannon's prose reveals the tension in the air:
"At a news conference on May 9 , he displayed almost total confusion about the bill, freely contradicting himself and claiming he had discovered some 'loopholes,' which on close examination turned out to be the purpose of the legislation."
"The clear sign that the governor was wavering in his support for the bill," Cannon writes, "came when" he suggested that they see how the measure worked in Colorado, where something similar had already been passed, before imposing it on California. This made Republicans nervous. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Donald Grunsky, a Republican, told Reagan: "This will keep coming back as an emotional issue year after year. If the Legislature acts now, the issue will be resolved and settled once and for all." (Yeah, right.) Governor Reagan was still torn, reading through all the information given him by both sides in an unsuccessful search for some sort of compromise.
"I have never done more study on any one thing than on the abortion bill."
Cannon reports that Governor Reagan "lied to reporters" when he twice denied that he had met with Cardinal McIntyre. Cannon attributes this to the stress under which Reagan found himself at the time and that the governor was "playing for time." Before the Senate vote, Governor Reagan called for a compromise and said of the provision which would allow for aborting a baby which would be born with birth defects that it was "not different from what Hitler might do." And he was right. Beilenson, eager to get his abortion vote, stripped that provision and the Senate passed it with 21 votes, the fewest necessary. Ronald Reagan was not a cheerleader for the bill, even without the provision, and it was unclear if he would sign it.
In his weekly press conference, Reagan discussed how the "mental health of the mother" provision could be abused by abortionists. When asked, he said that he was unsure if he would sign the measure, and Republican lawmakers, according to Cannon, were "tired of Reagan's dithering." The gravity of the measure was not known at this point.
The bill's floor manager, Republican Assemblyman Craig Biddle, declared that Governor Reagan would be "breaking a pledge" if he didn't sign the bill, and the Senate passed it, 48-30.
At this point, the governor's media guy, Lyn Nofziger, told Reagan that he wanted to announce immediately that Reagan would sign the measure, pushing the press to focus on the bill itself rather than a possible veto. Cannon writes: "Reagan wearily agreed, and Nofziger produced the press release within minutes."
In his heart, Reagan agreed with Cardinal McIntyre, not Dr. Davis, and he really wanted to veto the Therapeutic Abortion Act. Instead, he subordinated his personal feelings to the commitment he had made to Republican legislators to sign the bill. He wasn't happy about it. "Those were awful weeks," Reagan told me a year later. He added that he would never have signed the bill if he had been more experienced as governor, the only time as governor or President that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.
He had no idea of the horrors which the bill, though far from pro-choice, would unleash on the unborn. (The "horrors" bit is mine, the reportage is Cannon's.)
Cannon does have Reagan adamant about one thing, though Cannon uses a form of the synonym "unwavering":
"You can't allow an abortion on grounds the child won't be born perfect," Reagan said. "Where do you stop? What is the degree of deformity [required] that a person shouldn't be born? Crippled persons have contributed greatly to our society." He never wavered in this view.
Lawmakers tried to amend the bill in 1970, and Governor Reagan refused: "Who might they be doing away with? Another Lincoln, or Beethoven, an Einstein or an Edison? Who shall play God?"
That was Ronald Reagan when the Therapeutic Abortion Act became law. That was the Ronald Reagan whom Mitt Romney cavalierly calls "adamantly pro-choice." He was not the prescient and decisive crusader for life for which our romantic imaginings might long, but he was with certainty not pro-choice.
Mitt Romney, in the same interview with Chris Wallace in which he slandered Reagan, wouldn't even admit that he himself was pro-choice:
I never called myself pro-choice. I never allowed myself to use the word pro-choice because I didn't feel I was pro-choice. I would protect the law, I said, as it was, but I wasn't pro-choice.
Yet he had just moments earlier declared that "[a]s governor, he [Reagan] was adamantly pro-choice."
We've established that Governor Reagan was anything but pro-choice. By any convoluted word-game definition, the governor was not "adamantly" anything, in that uncharted territory, but opposed to abortion to ensure "perfect" babies. Romney, who declared his path similar to Reagan, on the other hand, once proclaimed: "Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose [to abort her child]."
I posted this to clear President Reagan's good name. A retraction, an apology, and an explanation from candidate Romney would also be welcome. Mitt Romney has the money and the looks to compete in this nominating process, so let's keep this as honest as possible.
(To any student of Ronald Reagan, I recommend Lou Cannon's Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. Adamantly.)