The platform that the Republican Party is expected to approve this week includes a plank declaring that "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" and calling for "a human life amendment to the Constitution" as well as "legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." That language is closer to the position taken by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin) than the one taken by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who says he would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest. It is hard to see how those exceptions can be reconciled with a "fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."
Does it matter? As The New York Times notes, the GOP's two most recent presidential nominees, George W. Bush and John McCain, were both more flexible on abortion than their party's platform. So were Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, took the Ryan/Akin position, saying abortion should be illegal except when necessary to save the mother's life. It was under Reagan that the current version of the abortion plank was originally adopted:
1972 (before Roe v. Wade): no abortion plank
1976: "We protest the Supreme Court's intrusion into the family structure through its denial of the parents' obligation and right to guide their minor children. The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children."
1980: "There can be no doubt that the question of abortion, despite the complex nature of its various issues, is ultimately concerned with equality of rights under the law. While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children."
1984: "The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."
That plank has remained essentially the same since then, although it did not reflect the presidential nominee's publicly stated views from 1988 on. A constitutional amendment to ban abortion is, in any case, a highly improbable scenario, and any legislation construing the 14th Amendment to cover fetuses (such as the bill supported by Ryan and Akin) would be subject to Supreme Court review in the unlikely event that Congress approved it. The abortion plank, like the porn plank, is aimed at appeasing social conservatives without unduly alarming potential Republican voters who do not share their views. The assumption is that such voters, assuming they notice the pro-life lip service, will understand it has little practical significance.
Newsweek columnist Kathleen Parker, in an essay titled "What the *#@% Is Wrong With Republicans?!," argues that such appeasement is a big mistake. Parker concedes that "the human life amendment is actually a relic, having been part of the platform since 1984," but worries that the 2012 platform "also includes new language for the first time declaring abortion bad for a woman's 'health and well-being.'" I doubt that paternalistic judgment will upset many voters who are not already alienated by the nearly absolute ban on abortion that the party officially favors. But maybe Parker is right that the temporal conjunction of the platform's approval with Akin's widely ridiculed comments about rape will make the abortion plank more damaging than it would otherwise be.