But Reagan’s legacy on abortion is far more complicated, and antiabortion advocates have long considered his actions a disappointment.
In 1967, nearly six years before Roe v. Wade went to the Supreme Court, newly minted California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country. The Therapeutic Abortion Act allowed for pregnancy terminations if the mother was in physical or mental distress as a result, or if the pregnancy was a product of rape or incest.
At the time, abortion was considered so taboo that newspapers referred to the procedure as an “illegal operation.” But the burgeoning feminist movement, coupled with horror stories of butchery that desperate women had suffered at the hands of practitioners who performed it outside the law, had compelled policy to address the issue nationwide.
Reagan regretted the legislation, which his aides said did better as a compromise than as a bill that would have been overturned as a veto, according to the National Review, which called the ordeal his “darkest hour.”
The law, former Washington Post reporter and biographer Lou Cannon noted, was “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.”
The episode hounded Reagan as he sought the 1976 Republican nomination for president, as he tried to portray himself as a man of conservative, pro-life values. He blamed physicians and other advocates for leading him astray.
“If I had it to do all over again I would have more restrictions than I agreed to,” Reagan said in 1976, the New York Times reported then. “I placed too much faith in those who were entrusted with insuring [sic] that the patient met the terms of the bill.”
In a way, Reagan also played a role in protecting legalized abortion even after he left office. His first judicial appointee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, led the effort to uphold Roe v. Wade in a 1992 case over restrictive abortion laws in Pennsylvania.
Trump’s tweet was the not the first time he has inaccurately described Reagan’s position. In December, Trump said Reagan sought and failed to build a barrier along the southern border in his two terms. That wasn’t true.
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