Ronald Reagan and His Role in Changing the Republican Party's Abortion Policy

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When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, there was no doubt that he would be an anti-choice president. Well, almost no doubt. In 1967, Ronald Reagan (the governor at the time) signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Law which “authorized California physicians to perform abortions in a hospital up to twenty-one (21) weeks in cases in which the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or endangered the physical or mental health of the mother. In 1969, the California Supreme Court found (in People v. Belous) that women have a fundamental right to choose whether to bear children under both the California and United States Constitutions. As such, the state may regulate the right to have an abortion only when a compelling state interest exists, such as protecting a woman's life”. However, the Therapeutic Abortion Act was not at issue in the Belous case and was it had been left intact by that decision. This decision opened the door for several other states, like North Carolina and Colorado which were thought to be Republican strongholds at the time, to also create and pass liberalized abortion laws. Later, Reagan said that he regretted signing this into law. As Reagan became a rising star in the Republican Party, his rhetoric surrounding abortion became increasingly partisan and aggressive when it came to abortion.

The Republican Party’s platform in 1980 said that “...we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion”. To truly understand where modern day anti-choice rhetoric originated, one must look at Ronald Reagan’s anti-choice rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was the first American president to come out strongly against abortion. He vehemently defended his anti-choice attitude, and he also gave the anti-choice movement legitimacy. When speaking about abortion, Reagan’s language was ‘impassioned and moralistic’, which was a way Americans were not typically used to hearing a president talk about such a subject. Typically, language and rhetoric surrounding abortion avoided any direct or harsh language so as to not upset voters. Reagan did not shy away from saying that abortion was taking a human life, unlike his fellow Republican predecessors who straddled the fence on abortion. Reagan understood what vernacular could do to mobilize not only the people in the United States, but also Congress. Reagan’s goal in the abortion debate was to attempt to push through a constitutional amendment, but in his first couple of years in the Oval Office, Reagan failed to do anything of the sort. He and his team in the White House were preoccupied with economic concerns, like creating Reaganomics, to put any meaningful action into the abortion debate. In the 1982 midterms, the Republicans lost twenty-six seats in the House of Representatives. Part of this devastating loss of control of the House was due to the inaction on abortion in the White House. Moving into his second term as President, though, Reagan’s chances of making meaningful change in the anti-choice sphere of legislation seemed less than stellar because the Republicans had lost the majority in the Senate. With this knowledge, Reagan decided to turn his anti-choice efforts elsewhere, Federal benches.

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One of the many perks of being the President of the United States is being able to nominate, and essentially choose, judges that will sit on the Federal Court benches. Typically, this is a partisan effort, meaning that Democrats nominate judges who have a history of handing down verdicts that align with the Democratic Party, and Republicans will do the same, except with judges who align more with the Republican Party. Reagan’s strategy in order to nominate judges was to put them through “rigorous and ideological screening processes” such as asking the judges what they would rule in hypothetical abortion cases. Specifically, the Reagan administration was looking for judges who “opposed judicial decisions permitting abortions and affirmative action”. The reason Ronald Reagan wanted to pack the federal courts was so that he could potentially push through restrictive regulations on abortion. If those restrictions were taken all the way to federal court, it would be the judges that he had carefully selected through this meticulous process who would be the ones hearing the case. This would allow Reagan to make good on his promises to the anti-choice Americans who wanted to see some sort of restrictions on abortion. Since the judges had been asked by Reagan’s staff what they would rule in those types of cases before they had even been nominated, the Reagan administration was confident that his restrictions would hold up in court. If Congress would not pass any antiabortion measures, then Reagan would do it his own way- through the courts.

Though Reagan had moderate success in stacking the lower courts in his favor, he had his issues with the highest court of the land. During his eight years as President, Reagan nominated three different conservative justices to the Supreme Court, in hopes of overturning Roe vs Wade, but it never actually came to fruition. Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor in May of 1981, fulfilling a campaign promise to put the first woman on the Supreme Court. However, Reagan had ulterior motives behind her nomination and subsequent approval. O’Connor shared very similar values and morals to Reagan, specifically about abortion. This was a common theme again when Reagan had another seat open up on the court in 1986 when Reagan nominated Justice Antonin Scalia for similar reasons to that of O’Connor’s nomination. Reagan believed that by putting conservative justices on the Supreme Court, there would be a much higher chance of overturning Roe. However, even after Reagan’s Supreme Court appointments, the court continued to reaffirm Roe, specifically in City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983, where the Supreme Court actually ended up striking down many restrictions that were placed on women seeking abortions.

Overall, on the topic of Ronald Reagan, it is clear that he singlehandedly changed the Republican Party’s course of action on abortion. By taking a much tougher stance than any Republican in the White House had before him, Reagan was the ultimate catalyst in turning the Republican Party from lukewarm to boiling over about abortion. Reagan did his best to fulfill the Republican Party platform by pushing for legislation to begin the process of implementing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. However, in his eight years of being President, Reagan had little to no effect on actually minimizing the amount of abortions in the United States. In 1980, every three out of ten pregnancies ended in abortion, which was almost exactly the same as when Reagan left office in January of 1989. The only real difference that happened was that by the late 1980s, more abortions were being performed in clinics because they were cheaper and more accessible to those women who needed abortions (specifically women of color, poor women, and teenage girls) than getting an abortion in the hospital. The Republican Party had also been infiltrated by the ‘Moral Majority’ during Reagan’s presidency, which changed the course of the country and the Republican Party forever. The 1980s were a major turning point for a United States post Roe v. Wade because it tested the waters of how far the Republican Party was willing to go to advance their anti-choice agenda.

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Ronald Reagan and His Role in Changing the Republican Party’s Abortion Policy. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
“Ronald Reagan and His Role in Changing the Republican Party’s Abortion Policy.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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