Looking Back On President George H.W. Bush's Legacy On Abortion

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Originally published on December 5, 2018 9:14 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn to another part of Bush's track record - his record on abortion. Those who oppose abortion rights have praised him for what they describe as his pro-life policies. But President George H.W. Bush, like many Republicans of his generation, began his political career with a reputation as a moderate on social issues. NPR's Sarah McCammon looks at how Bush and his party shifted stance on abortion.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: George H.W. Bush came from a generation of Episcopalian New Englanders that didn't talk a whole lot in public about issues like abortion. But when he was asked about it during a 1988 presidential debate, he got personal. He spoke of his family's experience with adoption.

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GEORGE BUSH: When I was in that little church across the river from Washington and saw our grandchild christened in our faith, I was very pleased indeed that the mother had not aborted that child and put the child up for adoption.

MCCAMMON: Abortion rights opponents say that tone characterized the George H.W. Bush presidency. Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: He always toed the line. He always made the right choice when it comes to the pro-life question.

MCCAMMON: The Bush administration opposed federal funding for abortion and unsuccessfully urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide in 1973. But that wasn't always Bush's position, says Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University.

B. JESSIE HILL: His family and George H.W. Bush had real pro-choice cred.

MCCAMMON: Hill says Bush's father, Prescott Bush, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood. And she notes in the late 1960s and early '70s, George H.W. Bush himself supported family planning as a congressman and an ambassador to the United Nations.

HILL: And he had never really been vocally anti-abortion either - if anything, had been pro-choice actually throughout his political career just until about the time that he ran as Ronald Reagan's running mate.

MCCAMMON: When Bush ran for president in 1980, he took a moderate stance on abortion, opposing public funding without favoring an outright ban, says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University.

MARY ZIEGLER: So for some time, there were lots of politicians that wanted to make room for people who were really neither pro-choice nor pro-life in either party or to find a kind of middle way politically when it came to abortion.

MCCAMMON: But in the post-Rowe era, abortion was becoming an increasingly partisan issue for both Republicans and Democrats. So when Bush signed on as Ronald Reagan's running mate, he embraced Reagan's more restrictive position. Reagan himself had made a similar shift since his time as California's governor when he'd supported expansions of abortion rights. Jerry Falwell Jr. is the son of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who was a leading figure in the Christian right at the time. He says some social conservatives were skeptical of Bush.

JERRY FALWELL JR: My father took the position that he was going to befriend him and try to move him off of center of some of those issues, and I think that's what happened.

MCCAMMON: Carin Robinson, a political scientist at Hood College in Maryland, says Bush's trajectory followed a larger movement within the GOP.

CARIN ROBINSON: It was a partisan shift, and candidates that wanted to be successful at that time within the Republican Party had to go with the flow, or they would not survive. And that was really solidified into the '80s and '90s as the Christian right became critical to the Republican Party's success in electoral politics.

MCCAMMON: A partisan shift, she says, that his son George W. Bush continued and that still characterizes American politics today. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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