President Reagan Put His Pro-Life Stance Center Stage In Supporting the March for Life

Penny Starr | January 20, 2012 | 6:26pm EST
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President Ronald Reagan, in office Jan. 20, 1981 - Jan. 20, 1989. (AP Photo)

( – On Monday, Jan. 23, thousands of pro-life Americans will gather in the nation’s capitol on the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that set in motion a wave of abortions that, to date, have claimed the lives of more than 50 million unborn American children.

But in an election year, even surrounding an event centered on overturning Roe v. Wade -- and its legal precedent that has led to a death toll almost double that of the people killed under Soviet communism -- some commentators are putting a new twist on one of the staunchest pro-life presidents: Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In the New York Times on Jan. 19, Neil J. Young, a historian at Princeton University and commentary writer for liberal outlets such as The Huffington Post and Slate, said President Reagan disappointed the “religious right wing.”

“Reagan’s tepid and ineffectual support for key school prayer and anti-abortion legislation in Congress during his first administration frustrated and angered religious conservatives who watched various bills die while the president did little,” Young wrote.

“The religious right wing of the Republican Party has clung especially close to the memory of Reagan,” Young wrote. “In Reagan, religious conservatives remember a president who spiced his speeches with Bible verses, fought for their issues, and championed the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.”

“But memory is an unreliable guide, and history in the service of politics often breeds soothing myths that camouflage inconvenient truths,” Young wrote.

March for Life. (AP Photo)

Young advised voters to “better evaluate the candidates that stand before them rather than hopelessly praying for the second coming of a president who never really was.”

Guy Raz, host of Weekends on NPR’s All Things Considered, was even more pointed on the topic when he reported the story “Will the Real Ronald Reagan Please Stand Up?” on Jan. 15. In it, Raz interviewed journalist Walter Shapiro, a veteran of liberal media outlets, including Slate and Salon.

RAZ: "[Reagan] wasn't really a culture warrior, was he?"

SHAPIRO: "I mean, he -- it is telling that every year he addressed the National Right to Life anti-abortion march in Washington by telephone, even though they were half-a-mile from the White House, because he didn't want the visuals of being perceived as that much of a cultural warrior. And abortion was as legal when Ronald Reagan left office as it was when he came into office.”

Strong evidence of Reagan’s pro-life stance came in 1983 – the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- when he submitted an essay to the Human Life Review, the publication founded by James P. McFadden, a former journalist turned pro-life activist. Maria McFadden, who now is at the helm of her late father’s quarterly journal, said McFadden knew the document was real when it was delivered by the White House with notes and revisions on its pages, written in the president’s own hand-writing.

In the first paragraph of the lengthy essay, Reagan cut to the chase: “The consequences of this judicial decision are now obvious: since 1973, more than 15 million unborn children have had their lives snuffed out by legalized abortions. That is over ten times the number of Americans lost in all our nation's wars.”

Reagan said that abortion-on-demand is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution and that “Roe v. Wade has become a continuing prod to the conscience of the nation.”

Reagan quoted Mother Teresa, who said, "the greatest misery of our time is the generalized abortion of children."

Human baby in the womb. (AP Photo)

“The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life? Reagan wrote. “The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother's body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being.”

“The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law—the same right we have,” Reagan wrote.

Reagan cites in the essay the challenges of morality and governance, writing about his support for life-affirming legislation and even a constitutional amendment.

“As we continue to work to overturn Roe v. Wade, we must also continue to lay the groundwork for a society in which abortion is not the accepted answer to unwanted pregnancy,” Reagan wrote. “Pro-life people have already taken heroic steps, often at great personal sacrifice, to provide for unwed mothers. I recently spoke about a young pregnant woman named Victoria, who said, ‘In this society we save whales, we save timber wolves and bald eagles and Coke bottles. Yet, everyone wanted me to throw away my baby.’”

“Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves,” Reagan concluded. “Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide.”

“My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning,” said the president.

In each of the four years of his second term (1985-88), Reagan addressed the marchers and activists at the March for Life via telephone broadcast on loudspeakers

“Hello Nellie Gray,” Reagan usually began his remarks, addressing the tireless pro-life activist who, at 80-something years of age, still answers the March to Life phone line and shows up every year to oversee the event.

In 1988, Reagan’s address noted that since Roe v. Wade 20 million unborn children had been aborted, “twice the population of New York City and close to the population of California.”

Reagan also addressed the March for life in 1985, 1986 and 1987, and each year he emphasized his dedication to overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the “terrible national tragedy of abortion." (1985)

Human Life Review Editor Maria McFadden still recalls the reaction of her father and other pro-life activists’ to Reagan’s 1983 essay on abortion.

“They were jubilant,” McFadden told, adding that “they never had any doubt that he was a dedicated pro-lifer” but the essay articulated his beliefs in one permanent document. It was later published in book form.

Reagan did not accomplish everything he wanted to in the pro-life arena during his two-term presidency. He did, however, usher in two pro-life cornerstones of U.S. policy. One, the Hyde Amendment --  passed by Congress in 1976 as a rider to the annual appropriations bill and has been approved every year since -- prohibits federal funds to be used to pay for abortions.

In 1983, Reagan signed the Mexico City Policy executive order that prohibited federal funds from being used by non-governmental organizations around the globe that promote or provide abortion.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values who served in the Reagan administration, including as an advisor on domestic policy from 1987 to 1988, told that Reagan’s pro-life credentials were solid.

“I was in dozens of White House meetings with the President in which he passionately discussed his pro-life views,” Bauer said.

And Roe v. Wade was not a passing fancy left for the annual March for Life address, Bauer said.

“When he left office in 1988, during an exit interview with a reporter, Reagan was asked his biggest regret,” Bauer said. “And he said that he regretted that he didn't get enough court appointments to be able to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Some of the events for the Jan. 23, 2012 March for Life are presented below.

7 p.m. Saturday – Youth rally, hosted by Bryan Kemper, Hyatt Regency Hotel

8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday -- Rally at Lafayette Park, Keynote speaker former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee

6:30 p.m. Sunday – Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Noon Monday – March for Life Rally at the National Mall; House Speaker John Boehner offers opening remarks

7 p.m. Monday -- Rose Dinner, Hyatt Regency Hotel; Keynote Speaker Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

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