Dispatches: Don't Abandon Principle

National | Religious leaders call GOP to maintain its pro-life position

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

Sixteen key religious leaders signed a letter Feb. 29 to Republican candidates for president, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and party chairman Haley Barbour imploring these political leaders to preserve the GOP's opposition to abortion. The full text appears below. We, the undersigned, have watched with deepening concern the debate escalating within the Republican Party over a constitutional amendment banning abortion. We commend those party leaders who have thus far rebuffed efforts to eliminate or modify this pro-life plank in the platform. However, it is clear that the dispute is far from resolved. In recent months, prominent Republican leaders have launched a highly publicized campaign to end or weaken the GOP's historic support for the sanctity of life. They propose abandonment of a policy that served as a centerpiece of Republican ideology since 1980. That leads us to ask, why has a constitutional amendment suddenly become expendable? Because, we are told, "it lacks popular support." Need we be reminded that Presidents Reagan and Bush won three overwhelming electoral victories with that sanctity-of-life plank in their party's platforms? And in the general election of November 1994, not one pro-life congressional candidate lost to an opponent who was pro-choice. Of the 98 new members elected to serve in the House of Representatives and the Senate, 73 are pro-life and only 25 pro-choice. A total of nine million first-time voters went to the polls in support of candidates who espoused traditional family values. Indeed identification with principles of morality made the GOP the majority party in both the Senate and the House for the first time in 40 years. Given this record it is difficult to understand why some party leaders are now rushing to abandon the very foundation on which their stunning victory of 1994 was based. Furthermore, we find it indicative that the first two Republican presidential hopefuls to drop out of the race in 1996, a governor and a senator, were enthusiastic supporters of "a woman's right to choose." Each withdrew from the campaign because of an inability to raise money. So much for popular support. It is true that the country is divided on the issue of abortion and that a constitutional amendment might not be feasible today. But since when have right and wrong been determined by the shifting sands of public opinion? The Republican Party-the party of Lincoln-understood the moral imperatives at its inception. They recognized slavery as an unmitigated evil and fought a bloody war to eradicate it. They stood on principle-not because it was popular or easy-but because it was the right thing to do. We pray that today's political leaders will summon a measure of that courage and conviction in this critical year of decision. Another rationalization for abandoning the sanctity of life is that we must first convince the American people that abortion is wrong. We agree that the battle to protect the unborn child will be won or lost in the hearts and minds of our countrymen. But the law is also foundational to the struggle. Why should the moral and legal dimensions be subjected to an "either-or" proposition? The civil rights movement a generation ago divided the people of this land yet legislation was passed to outlaw discrimination. What if our political leaders had waited for consensus to develop before changing the law? Fortunately, civil rights activists never abandoned their commitment to rewrite the law even when riots were occurring in the South and their opponents in the Senate were effectively filibustering. The force of their argument eventually took root in the fabric of American society. Indeed reformers have always recognized that the law is itself a moral teacher and must therefore reflect moral truth. Two key Supreme Court decisions demonstrate why abortion must be opposed on both moral and legal grounds. In Roe v. Wade, the court ruled that abortion was protected by a "right of privacy" implied in the Constitution. The debate following that decision dealt with the issue of whether the constitution contained such an implied right. A later court could easily have said there was no such thing (and thus reversed the Roe decision). However with the Casey v. Planned Parenthood case of 1992 the Supreme Court forever crushed that hope when it ruled that abortion was not an implied right but rather an expressly justified liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus any discussion of the implied right of privacy became a moot point. Abortion is now protected under the specific tutelage of the Fourteenth Amendment. No court regardless of how "conservative" could reverse Roe v. Wade today because no court has ever reversed that which is defined by the Constitution as an expressed liberty. Though this point is seldom addressed in public debate-for obvious reasons-it is quite clear that as a matter of constitutional law, a constitutional amendment is the only way to reverse the most unjust Supreme Court ruling since the Dred Scott decision, which sanctioned slavery. The implications here are obvious: To oppose abortion only on moral grounds is to effectively agree that Casey v. Planned Parenthood has settled the issue that abortion is an expressly protected constitutional liberty. The Republican Party will absolutely doom its own credibility if it chooses to abandon the pro-life amendment because it will become pro-choice as a matter of law, and pro-life only in its rhetoric. This is not only moral schizophrenia but a classic example of political double-talk, and it will not go unnoticed by the American people. Would it not be more judicious to adhere to an amendment as a matter of principle while at the same time working to change people's attitudes? After all, in order to win the debate for the hearts of the people one must maintain a commitment to principle. Republican leaders have made other arguments that seem illogical, such as the suggestion that the pro-life plank should be eliminated because it has failed to stop the practice of abortion. This contention hardly merits a response. Murder, rape, robbery, and a host of other crimes take place daily across the country, and yet the laws against them are never called into question. Why? Because evil is evil and must be opposed whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Finally, Republican leaders have charged that pro-life activists are unwilling to accept incremental steps toward the banning of abortion. That is also untrue. We have vigorously opposed partial-birth abortion, government funding for Planned Parenthood, third-trimester abortions, etc. We have also fought for parental notification, waiting periods, and other measures that help protect the unborn child. We will accept small victories if they result in fewer babies being killed. But acceptance of incremental change does not mean it is necessary to abandon principle. We welcome all incremental steps and at the same time remain committed to the end of abortion. Politics aside, our primary concern is the defense of the most helpless in our society-the unborn-and the unjustified taking of a human life. Some of us who signed below do not believe that Christian leaders should make any partisan endorsements, and many of us do not. Nonetheless we feel it our duty to speak on moral issues and felt it only prudent to address this issue at this time to the party that has been most consistently pro-life. As the Republican National Convention fast approaches, millions of Catholics and evangelicals will be anxiously waiting to see what route you will take on this issue. We are praying that you will not abandon principle. This matter has been terribly obscured by both political parties as well as by the media. Thus we have written this letter in an earnest effort to clarify the debate as we perceive it.

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