Pro-choice Republicans have a place in the party

November 29, 2012

Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer, was deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration.

I am a pro-choice Republican. We are not an endangered species. Since the Republican Party declared itself pro-life, most of us have been in the closet.

I appreciate that both viewpoints are sincerely held: Pro-choicers believe that the government should not intrude in such a private decision; pro-lifers believe that life begins at conception. I have supported each.

Raised Catholic, I accepted the church’s doctrine that abortion was morally wrong. This was before Roe v. Wade, so in many states abortion was also illegal. A personal experience changed my view.

At 28, pregnant with my third child, I discussed tubal ligation with my OB-GYN. He said I was fortunate. Only because it would be my third Caesarean section would Texas law permit the procedure. Otherwise, I was told, a woman had to attain a mathematical formula of 120, calculated by multiplying her age and number of children. In other words, a woman who had her children without C-sections was required to have four children and be 30 years old before the law permitted a doctor to perform a procedure preventing pregnancy.

“Why?” I inquired. My doctor explained that legislators, assuming that women “often change their minds,” set an age of maturity linked to a sufficient number of children. I left his office thinking that government had no business dictating my childbearing decisions.

Since then I have been an active advocate of a woman’s right to choose. I was a founding board member of Women in the Senate and House (WISH), an organization created to elect pro-choice Republican women. In that capacity, and having worked for pro-choice conservative Barry Goldwater, I have spoken with numerous Republican senators about abortion. One Southern conservative told me to tell him if we ever needed a crucial vote. But because his publicly stated view was pro-life, he cautioned, he could go only so far.

A senator from the Northeast told me he had not thought about the issue before seeking office in 1980. When he had to take a position, he followed Ronald Reagan’s lead. A decade later, he told me, he realized that government had no business telling pregnant women what to do but, politically, he could not reverse his stand.

I never believed that Mitt Romney rejected his pro-choice position because of one meeting with doctors and learning what was done to stem cells. Rather, I thought he had one meeting with political consultants who told him he could never get the Republican nomination unless he was pro-life. Romney made a major mistake declaring that he would defund Planned Parenthood; he should have said that, since he is pro-life, he would donate $10,000 to any organization that helps women plan their pregnancies. His mother promoted “more liberal abortion rights” in 1970 when she ran for the Senate in Michigan. But that was before the Republican Party made pro-life a platform plank.

Today, any Republican who believes, as I do, in a strong national defense and fiscal conservatism, and that limited government is consistent with being publicly pro-choice, knows that if she takes the latter position she will get creamed in the primary. The choice is to not run or to get in the closet. By discouraging potential candidates, our tent gets smaller and we end up with a Richard Mourdock and a Todd Akin, who confuse rape with sex.

As a political matter, being pro-life has not helped Republicans. John McCain lost Catholics by nine points. Romney lost the Catholic vote by two points, even after four years of President Obama’s strong pro-choice position and Obamacare forcing certain Catholic entities to cover birth control.

As a results-oriented matter, the pro-life position cannot prevail. In the 39 years since Roe v. Wade, no pro-life president has overturned it and, because that ruling is constitutionally based, no member of Congress can overturn it via legislation. Even Republican-appointed justices would have a difficult time overturning Roe after four decades because of the conservative philosophy of upholding precedent. If Roe were overturned, each state would decide the issue, and, presumably, local politicians would vote their constituents’ position. Many states would approve abortion, so pro-lifers would not attain their goal of outlawing the procedure.

In legislating morality we Republicans are vulnerable to hypocrisy. Tennesseeans reelected Rep. Scott DesJarlais this month. DesJarlais, a doctor who campaigned as pro-life, has admitted to sexual relationships with patients and co-workers, evidence submitted in his divorce trial. Significantly, he twice supported the woman he later married in getting an abortion. How can a political party eschew candidates who do not want government to decide whether a woman should have an abortion but welcome a person who asks his wife or mistress to have one? To be true to principle, House leaders ought to isolate DesJarlais, giving him no committee assignments and prohibiting him from attending their caucus.

I am not arguing that our party should be pro-choice. I just want our candidates to feel free to leave the closet. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels wisely counseled Republican presidential candidates last year: “Declare a truce on social issues” and address the dire economic problems. As for morality, our party should live it, not legislate it.

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