Phyllis Schlafly. How the Republican Party Became Pro-Life. Skeillig America, 2018.
This is the third volume of a series of books entitled “Phyllis Schlafly Speaks,” edited by Schlafly’s successor at Eagle Forum, Ed Martin. It is about Schlafly’s attempts from 1976-2016 to make the Republican Party into a pro-life party. Specifically, she pushed for and defended a plank in the GOP platform supporting the right of the unborn to live. This book also includes excerpts from national Republican platforms about abortion.
It may have been in William Martin’s With God on Our Side that I first learned about the Republican Party’s historic positions about abortion. Prior to the 1970’s, the narrative runs, the Republican Party was the pro-choice party, in accord with its belief in less government intervention in people’s lives. Pro-lifers were largely Catholic, and they tended to be Democrats. The genesis of conservatives becoming pro-life is debated. Some cynically regard it as a wedge issue, proclaimed by religious conservatives whose true agenda was to protect their private segregation academies from government intervention. Frank Schaeffer has declared himself the father of the pro-life movement, since he, in the 1980’s, encouraged his influential father, Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, to promote the pro-life cause with Dr. C. Everett Koop, resulting in numerous evangelical converts to the pro-life cause. While Schaeffer and Koop obviously deserve a place in the history of the conservative pro-life movement, the fact is that there were prominent pro-life conservatives prior to the Schaeffers’ efforts in the 1980’s. Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA movement was an example, for one reason Schlafly opposed ERA in the 1970’s was that she feared it would constitutionally enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion.
This book is not particularly helpful in explaining the history of how conservatives became opposed to abortion. Conservatives at the beginning of Schlafly’s story are opposed to legalized abortion, whereas moderate and liberal Republicans, such as Nelson Rockefeller, support it. Conservative pro-lifers initially were marginal within the GOP, but they gained power. While they fought back pro-choice Republicans in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the pro-life Republicans eventually became dominant, such that disputes over the Human Life plank of the platform became a thing of the past.
Schlafly, a loyal Republican, compares the GOP’s opposition to abortion to its opposition to slavery, on which the Republican Party was founded. On both issues, the Republican Party affirms the value of human life, whereas the Democratic Party believes people’s choice takes precedent.
The Human Life plank of the GOP platform has been controversial because it is regarded as absolutist, advocating a complete ban on abortion with no exceptions (i.e., rape, incest, life of the mother). Schlafly does not engage the question of whether there should be exceptions in an abortion ban. She does differentiate, however, between legislation and a plank in the platform. Crafting legislation allows for compromise, whereas a plank in the platform must be a bold proclamation of what the Republican Party believes, the principles to which it is committed. For Schlafly, the GOP platform should affirm the right of the unborn to live rather than get into nuances and exceptions. Would she be open to exceptions in legislation?
The book revolves around Schlafly’s activism regarding the GOP platform, but one may ask if that is important. As Schlafly points out, Bob Dole in 1996 said that he had not even read the platform and did not intend to abide by it. For Schlafly, however, the platform is significant because it is the party’s manifesto, its flag in the election.
The passages about abortion in the GOP’s platforms also talk about adoption reform and supporting mothers who are contemplating abortion due to financial difficulties in raising a child. If the GOP has supported adoption reform, that is commendable. But cutting social programs, in my opinion, hurts women contemplating abortion. A strong social safety net can contribute to a decline in abortion, as has been the case in Western Europe.
The platforms also speak in favor of religious liberty in the workplace. Christians should be free to proclaim their faith where they work, without fear of recrimination. This gets into murky territory. Would conservative Christians be open to allowing homosexuals to talk about their same-sex relationship in the workplace, without fear of recrimination, or would they expect homosexuals to keep that in the closet? Understandably, some have argued that religion and politics should be kept out of the workplace altogether: do and believe what you want, on your own time, but, at work, your job is to serve everyone.
The Republican Party’s historical relationship to abortion is nuanced. It is not simply a matter of the GOP becoming pro-life. Reagan and George H.W. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, with some exceptions, but few Republican Presidential candidates since then have done so. George W. Bush in 2000 declined to commit explicitly to overturning Roe vs. Wade, saying instead that there are too many abortions, and proclaiming his opposition to judicial activism. Donald Trump opposed Roe but focused his opposition to abortion on late-term ones. At the same time, states throughout America are passing laws against abortion, even before the late term.
This book is a disappointment, in areas, but it is still valuable, as when Schlafly talks about Roe vs. Wade and quotes from the Supreme Court justices who dissented.