(Earl Brightbill/AP)

But all that changed in 1976, when both political parties adopted official planks on the issue. In a recent paper, University of West Georgia’s Daniel K. Williams recounts the unexpected challenge that the then “pro-choice majority” in the Republican national convention encountered that year:

As Ford’s campaign managers struggled to draft a platform position on abortion that was acceptable to the president, they recognized that it would be difficult to navigate a middle course between the wishes of social conservatives such as Melady and women’s rights advocates such as the First Lady. One adviser, taking the president’s previous statements as a guide, drafted a Republican Party platform plank that stated, “The 1973 Supreme Court decision and recent decisions have gone too far. The way abortion is treated should be decided by the people in their own state, close to their own homes.”

But Bob Dole, who was trying to win support from conservatives in his bid to become Ford’s running mate, realized that a strong antiabortion platform plank could conciliate Reagan delegates and gain approval from Catholics and social conservatives. With memories of his own successful pro-life reelection strategy fresh in his mind, Dole met with representatives of Ellen McCormack’s Democratic presidential campaign in order to find out what they would accept in a platform plank on abortion, and he then worked with Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a sponsor of a “human life amendment,” to draft a platform plank that opposed abortion in much more strident language than the president had originally desired. Helms, who considered abortion to be “murder,” was one of the earliest conservative Republican converts to the pro-life cause; by 1976, he had already written an antiabortion article for Human Events and had been a featured speaker at national pro-life rallies, so he was well versed in the language of the right-to-life movement. He was also a staunch Reagan supporter. By enlisting Helms’s support in drafting the antiabortion platform plank, Dole helped to mollify conservative Republicans, Reagan delegates, and pro-life activists, all of whom had been reluctant to support the president.

Twenty-eight female delegates that year did sign a “minority report urging the Republican Party not to take a position on abortion,” Williams notes. But they were talked out of pursuing any serious opposition on the issue, out of fear that it could derail the Republican party’s support for the Equal Rights Amendment, already under siege from prominent party members like Phyllis Schafly.

“Republican women recognized that the party had already begun to move to the cultural right and that they had no chance of persuading the party to adopt a pro-choice platform,” he writes. “In such a situation, they were willing to sacrifice their pro-choice position in order to save the party’s endorsement of the ERA.”