When Ted Kennedy Was Pro-Life and Ronald Reagan Was Expanding Abortion Access

The forgotten abortion politics of the pre-Roe era


Forget Mars: If you want to visit an alien landscape, check out the reproductive politics of the 1960s and '70s. It wasn't that long ago that allowing more abortions could get support from Southern Baptists while sparking protests from Black Panthers.

The shift from then to now is encapsulated in two comments from a well-known religious leader. Here he is in 1976, answering a question on the TV show Press Conference USA:

Perhaps [abortion] reflects at one level the moral decay and ambiguity in this society. I think that whenever human life ceases to represent the highest value in the human sphere, the society is in trouble. The issue to me is not a choice between legal, healthy abortions or illegal, backroom abortions. There's almost no attention spent on serious sex education. It's still taboo. It's still superstitious. At this point, with the Court having ruled that abortions are legal, it almost takes away from the young man the responsibility, and from the young woman the responsibility, of the act that they have engaged in. And when people began to use excuses like "This girl is not ready yet," it means that the law of convenience becomes the highest law.

As you may have guessed from the line about sex education, this particular pro-lifer was not Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. He was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a man often seen as one of the leftmost figures of the Democratic Party. Jackson spoke at the anti-abortion March for Life the following year, and he was scheduled to speak again in 1978, though illness prevented him from attending.

Now here's the same guy eight years later, seeking the Democratic nomination for president:

I am not pro-abortion, I'm freedom of choice….Even theologically, God gives us choice. We must live with the consequences of that choice, whether we go to heaven or hell, but at least we are not robots. We're people. We have choice. Within the law, we have the choice. I would never encourage abortion. I would not embrace it. I put more focus on sex education before the fact and self-discipline before the fact, that people might be responsible and disciplined and mature, and make decisions the day before so they will not make decisions the day after. The fact is, it is one's choice, and it is also one's consequences that must be lived with.

He's still talking about self-discipline and sex education, but his position on the policy itself has flipped, and his rhetoric now stresses the word choice, not life. Clearly, something had changed. Indeed, it was already changing when Jackson made those comments in 1976; the change just took a while to congeal.

Once upon a time, the country was crawling with pro-life liberals and leftists. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the period's preeminent liberal Democrats, once declared that the right to life begins at "the very moment of conception," a position he held until 1975. Further left, the Black Panther Party fiercely denounced abortion, a procedure it associated with eugenics. When New York liberalized its abortion rules in 1970, the party paper declared the change a "victory for the oppressive ruling class who will use this law to kill off Black and other oppressed people before they are born….How long do you think it will take for voluntary abortion to turn into involuntary abortion to turn into compulsory sterilization?" Like Kennedy, the Panthers didn't reverse themselves on the issue until the mid-'70s.

Feminist readers might object here that the Panther Party was infamously rife with sexism, that Kennedy wasn't exactly known for treating women well either, and that Jackson had a strong socially conservative streak in the 1970s. And that would all be true. But you can't simply reduce the left's old anti-abortion wing to misogyny. From Daniel Berrigan to Nat Hentoff, more than a few progressives sincerely believed that fetuses had human rights. In Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, historian Daniel Williams demonstrates that many anti-abortion leaders of the day saw their movement as a liberal "effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority." This was especially true in the pre-Roe era, when much of the debate focused on whether the law should include a specific exception to allow abortions in cases of fetal deformity.

The Republican Party, conversely, had far more room than it does today for people who favored the liberalization of abortion laws. But those liberalizers didn't always deploy the rhetoric of choice. Early on, the movement was dominated by other arguments, such as the health risks of illegal abortions or, on a creepier note, the alleged need for population control. It was the feminists, with their rhetoric of "my body, my choice," who did the most to introduce arguments about individual liberty to that side of the debate.

It wasn't just the right as a whole that wasn't united. Even the Christian right wasn't united. In We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, historian Neil J. Young notes that while conservative Catholics were forthrightly opposed to abortion throughout this period, conservative Protestants were at first divided. The Southern Baptist Convention "initially offered mild support for abortion law reform"—that is, for some degree of liberalization. "Some Baptists even scoffed at Catholic involvement in the issue before eventually taking an absolutist stand against abortion." (The Catholic-Protestant-Mormon alliances that seem to come naturally today had to be built very delicately in the decades before.) And just as the supporters of abortion rights did not always rest their arguments on choice, their opponents did not always center the idea of life. Many focused instead on sexual morality, in some cases refraining from decrying abortion as murder.

In that landscape, it was possible for Gov. Ronald Reagan, of all people, to sign California's Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, which extended the number of circumstances in which the procedure could be performed legally. The most notable thing here isn't Reagan's role—in Defenders of the Unborn, Williams shows that the future president was ambivalent about the law and reluctant to sign it. (He wanted to ensure abortions were available in the case of rape and when necessary to save the life of the mother, but he still worried, in Williams' words, that the bill "might be too permissive" and that the lack of a residency requirement could make his state an "abortion center." The day the state Senate voted for the legislation, he publicly vacillated about it.) No, the most notable thing here is the background politics. "Many Republicans in the state legislature, including members of the conservative wing of the party, supported [the law]," Williams writes. Meanwhile, "Many of the opponents of the bill were Democrats who would never have supported Reagan under any circumstances. Some of the strongest attacks on the bill in the Assembly came from the liberal Democrat John Vasconcellos, whose impassioned statements against the bill also included a denunciation of the Vietnam War and the death penalty."

It's not that left and right were reversed; it's that they were scrambled. The bill's sponsor was also a liberal Democrat, and the forces pressuring Reagan to veto it included conservative Catholics who had backed his campaign.

Two years later, when Richard Nixon became president, he strained to remain neutral on the issue. In practice, he was making abortion easier in modest ways, not on freedom-of-choice grounds but because he was worried about population. (His vice president, the combative culture warrior Spiro Agnew, wasn't a likely pro-life icon either: As governor of Maryland, he had signed a liberalization bill in 1968.) But the grounds were shifting. When Ed Muskie, running in the Democratic presidential primaries, started stressing his pro-life bona fides, the man in the White House worried that the liberal Maine senator would pick up support among the Catholic voters Nixon needed. So Nixon moved further in an anti-abortion direction as the 1972 race proceeded.

Nixon's eventual opponent, George McGovern, is widely remembered as the party's most left-wing presidential nominee, a man whose foes famously derided him as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, and abortion." But McGovern's running mate, Sargent Shriver, was the last pro-lifer to appear on a national Democratic ticket. Shriver wasn't McGovern's original pick: He replaced the Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton after it came out that Eagleton had received electroshock treatments. But Eagleton was pro-life too. Indeed, that "acid, amnesty, and abortion" slogan was a slightly modified version of a quote that Eagleton himself had said anonymously to a columnist during the primaries. (McGovern's own position was that the question should be left to the states—the same outcome the bulk of the anti-abortion movement is rooting for now. In those pre-Roe days, this was not an innately pro-life stance.)

But that was before the great sorting. As late as 1976, it was possible for a Republican president's wife to be a socially liberal feminist while his Democratic challenger earned the endorsement of Pat Robertson. By 1980, the religious right was not just clearly anti-abortion but clearly aligning itself with the national Republican Party; organized feminism, meanwhile, was increasingly drawn to the Democrats. Over the course of the '80s, most politicians with national ambitions altered their stances accordingly. George H.W. Bush, who had started his political career as a population-control Republican, turned around and embraced the right-to-life movement. Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and other Democrats who had once been on the right-to-life side joined Jesse Jackson in reinventing themselves as defenders of the right to choose. (The straggler of the bunch was Dennis Kucinich, a firmly left-wing Catholic populist who held onto his pro-life position into the 21st century. He finally aborted it around the time he decided to enter 2004's presidential primaries.) These days you're not even likely to hear a pro-choicer falling back on Bill Clinton's conciliatory '90s line about making abortion "safe, legal, and rare"—and we're starting to hear rumblings in some anti-abortion quarters of not simply sending the issue back to the states but trying to enact a national ban. The sides haven't just been sorting; they've been moving further apart.

Pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats still exist, but hardly anyone doubts where the national parties stand. More broadly, hardly anyone doubts where the ideological left and right stand: Letting people have abortions is a "left-wing" cause, and stopping them is "right-wing." But as is often the case when people are mapping the political spectrum, none of that is set in stone.