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.

NEXT: Ending Roe Threatens More Than Abortion Rights

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  1. Why is every single discussion about abortion policy discussing whether horny young people can have consequence free sex and just grind up any babies that result from that? Is that where the majority of abortions come from? Does anyone want to supply some data proving that? Because every bit of data I've seen says most women who get abortions are doing so under the medical advice of a doctor. They want to be pregnant, but for one reason or another they are advised not to attempt to bring this pregnancy to term.

    Honest question. I really would like to see some hard data on how many abortions are being done on horny people who didn't realize sperm could make babies.

    1. I believe that there was a book called Freakonomics that made the case that the reason Crime had a long decline starting in the 1970s is because black women were having fewer "unwanted" babies.

      There was a... 'lively' discussion on that book here in the comments back when it was published.

      In fact, now that I think about it... that book would be a hoot to publish today in our current political climate.

      1. Yeah! Would be funny to see that and maybe progs would accuse the Freakonomics authors of trying to drive Blacks to the pro-life/GOP side. Another more likely cause of the decline in crime could have been the removal of lead from gasoline. Also, a general increase in wealth during the 1980s and 90s.

        1. It has ready had claims of racism against it as the application of their correlation is killing black babies at a higher rate than the population reduces crime.

          1. Hm. When I mentioned the book you launched into a bunch of personal attacks. Why aren't you attacking Reynolds and Nick? Oh, that's right. That would require intellectual honesty. Sorry. Didn't mean to mistake you for someone who argues in good faith. My sincerest apologies.

      2. An important correction. Freakonomics did NOT say that the decline in crime was because black women were having fewer unwanted babies - they said the decline was correlated with all women having fewer unwanted babies. Race had nothing to do with their claims.

        There was a correlation based on socio-economic status but that is already accounted for in the definition of "unwanted" - if you are desperately poor, a baby is much more likely to be unwanted. That's why, by the way, they used "unwanted" instead of "unplanned".

        1. And which percentage of the population made up a disproportionate amount of the "desperately poor"? Or is disparate impact suddenly no longer a thing?

        2. In fact, this was one if the central disputes of Levitt's claim.

          Levitt seemed to running two simultaneous programs. He intimated that increased access to abortion after ROE was responsible for the drop in crime after the 1970s because "fewer unwanted babies" but claimed that the largest proportion of these abortions were happening among well-to-do white women.

          That was one of the central matters of the dispute. So... if well-to-do white women were the ones having abortions, children of well-to-do white women were responsible for most of the crime pre-Roe? And the evidence betrayed Levitt's claims, that it was in fact a disproportionate amount of poor black women who were receiving most of the abortions.

        3. And further, my problem with Levitt's claims was not the racial angle, but I just didn't support his tenuous connections between abortion and crime:

          George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz have argued that legalized abortion actually increased the number of out-of-wedlock first births—because the availability of abortion, along with the advent of new contraceptive devices, rendered sex "cost-free" for men but not necessarily for the women they impregnated. Were the children who were increasingly likely to be born to unmarried women "unwanted"? Perhaps they were, but we do not know; Akerlof and his colleagues have not given us sufficient evidence.

          As of now, no one is entitled to decide who is correct in this matter, whether Levitt or any of his critics. But it is certainly premature to say that Levitt is right, and positively disconcerting to take the word of an enamored journalist that Levitt must be right.

    2. No doubt you're very careful about what kind of data you see. College girls do not need a doctor to know that they don't want a baby. Nor do poor women with three kids from three different men. Doctors really do have better things to do than push abortions on unwilling girls and women.

      1. I'm asking how many of those there are. How many healthy college girls are getting abortions on otherwise healthy fetuses? How many women with three kids out of wedlock are getting abortions on the fourth? Where are the statistics showing this is the epidemic that people claim it is? I have no doubt at all that those events do happen, I'm not saying they never do, but when people claims that America is short a million people because of the baby murdering cult I can only compare it to the absurd school shooting statistics that wrap up every gun discharge within 9000 miles of a place designated as educational. It's sheer dishonesty.

    3. Almost half of all pregnancies are unintended.

      In 2011, nearly half (45%, or 2.8 million) of the 6.1 million pregnancies in the United States were unintended. Specifically, 27% of all pregnancies were “wanted later” and 18% of pregnancies were “unwanted.”2

      I highly doubt your inference on abortion is for medical reasons over unintended pregnancy.

      1. That's pregnancies. How many abortions are "unwanted"? The distinction is fine but extremely important.

        1. Probably very few. Late stage complications are fairly rare. I would say abortions due to genetic tests are much higher than for safety of mother.

          1. That's not nothing and pregnancy is far from "perfectly safe" for mothers even in the best circumstances. The risks of pregnancy are generally considered acceptable when you expect to give birth to a healthy child, but it's not risk free, and taking on those risks for a child that is extremely unlikely to survive or whose life will be a waking hell for them and those charged with caring for them, that's not reasonable, or at very least I don't find it to be reasonable and I don't think government has any business telling people they need to go through with that. The decision should belong to the parents and the advice of the doctors they choose to trust.

            1. Practically no abortions are done on children who are unlikely to survive or whose lives will be "a living hell."

              Who anointed you the judge on "life unworthy of life" as the Nazis would say?

              1. n00bdragon isn't asking to judge; n00bdragon says would-be mothers should judge! Shame on you for distorting the HELL out of what n00bdragon is writing, you fanatic!

      2. Best info I can find is this:

        - Women in their 20s account for ~56.9% of abortions (not surprising, given that women in their 20s are much MUCH more fertile than later in life), this is split between 27.6% for women 20-24 and 29.3% for women 25-29.
        - You make a point that the highest abortion rates are among women <19 years of age.
        - The overwhelmingly vast majority of abortions are done before 9 weeks of pregnancy

        So, I can actually see some people have a point then. I was wrong, or at least I made some bad assumptions about other people. People who are concerned about teenagers having abortions have an actual issue they have a right to be concerned about. I just hope that more people can look at data and whatever they decide to do with the pregnant teenagers doesn't adversely affect people (like myself) who are struggling with fertility and want nothing more than a healthy baby and a healthy mother.

        1. Teenage women haven't refined their senses of "character judgment", and have often been tricked by the likes of the below! "Bad boy allure"! NOT good father material!

          https://www.psypost.org/2022/04/secondary-psychopathy-in-high-school-boys-positively-predicts-future-dating-involvement-study-finds-62988 Secondary psychopathy in high school boys positively predicts future dating involvement, study finds

      3. Unintended doesn't equal unwanted.

        1. I agree. Particularly, because last time I read this stuff unintended was defined as everything not explicitly planned. So, a married couple who is off contraceptive but not actively aiming for a baby counts. I'd have to see how they defined it in that data specifically, but it tends to be pretty broad and, honestly, how most babies come about.

        2. yeah, I'm trying to think of the number of people I know who had unintended pregnancies and didn't rush for the coathanger in the back alley.

          People act like we're still living in a Jacob Riis world...

    4. Probably too much reading for people who don’t do their own research:

      They put the hard cases of rape/incest/LoM at under 7%

    5. Your idea that most abortions are done for medical reasons is completely backwards. Almost no abortions -- much less than 1% -- are done for medical reasons.

      1. MANY of them are done to defeat "Lying Lothario"!

        Well, a lot of pro-lifers are men, and I would bet that even those pro-lifers who are women? Very few of them have found themselves in the following shoes: Lothario endlessly says “Love ya, babe, Love-ya- Love-ya- Love-ya, NOW can I get down your pants?” After she falls for him and he gets her pregnant, the abuse (from him) begins, and she finds out that he has 7 other “Love-ya” babes on the side, 4 of them also pregnant by him! So as I have said before, abortion is “veto power” against scum-bucket men. If these behavioral genes get passed on and on, humans will evolve into something like elephant seals, where the men most skilled at lying, and fighting off the other men, get a harem of 40 babes, and the rest of the men get nothing! So abortion is empowering women to fight off this sort of thing… And reserve their baby-making powers for men who are less lying scum, and will actually make good fathers to the children.

        So, they want to “capitally punish” the “offenders”, while they have never been in the above-described shoes! Self-righteousness, basically…

        Or maybe some of the anti-abortion men fantasize and lust after being the elephant-seal-like men who can gather the baby-making powers of a harem of 40 lied-to women, under the new scheme of things?

        I am glad that SOME you oppose theft. Theft by deception is also theft; I hope you can see that! When a severely lying Lothario-type dude (as described above) appropriates the baby-making powers of a deceived young woman, that, too, is theft! Abortion is anti-theft, when a deceived woman no longer wants to rent out her womb to a deceptive scumbag, prospective god-awful supposed "father"!
        Those who are anti-abortion unmarried men should be out there desperately courting women who have already been deceived by scumbucket men, and volunteering to raise these unborn children (who are NOT their biological offspring), to fend off a HUGE root cause of abortion, and to put their money where their mouth is! And married anti-abortion men? Check with your wives; see if they mind you donating all your spare time and money to helping out these future unmarried moms!

        Abortions outlawed is a "pro-Lying-Lothario" measure, intended to turn humans into elephant seals! He who lies the BEST, and deceives the MOST women, into getting pregnant, WINS the genetic lottery! Meek and mild, honest men who would make good fathers? Well, WHO CARES about THEM?!?!

    6. I think horny people having abortions is the overwhelming majority. I've done it. And I'm well educated and old. So if I'm doing it there are tonnes of others doing it.

    7. "Because every bit of data I've seen says most women who get abortions are doing so under the medical advice of a doctor."

      Yeah, that's the trap Reagan fell into: Once you legalize abortions where they're medically indicated? Well, turns out there are a significant number of doctors ready to say, on the record, that ANY abortion a woman wants is medically indicated.

      1. So your argument is that instead of letting people choose bad medical advice we should mandate bad medical advice by law?

      2. Sounds like that will become more popular in red states soon.

  2. This is not our biggest problem.

  3. What’s up with the graphic? Looks like the fetus has a gianormous boner.

    1. Every miscarriage will have to be reported and investigated by the coroner. A "cause of death" determined. They're gonna need a whole entire police force to do this.

      1. Covid!

      2. lol no. votes will be held. why do you fear the people?

      3. Because heart attacks are always treated like that. Ditto strokes.

        You do realize that unless there is a reason to suspect foul play or is requested by families, most deaths do not, in fact, have autopsies?

      4. Complete and utter horseshit.

        As imaginary as any claim could be.

      5. You mean, the way miscarriages were all investigated in the days before Roe v. Wade?

  4. 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.

    FYI, this is possibly because people had a better handle on the history of abortion and why white progressives pushed for it.

  5. "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids..." Kennedy said.

    In Ted Kennedy's America women would be forced into the back seat of his Oldsmobile if they refused a back-alley abortion.

  6. Had to stop reading at calling the panther extreme left. Not sure what about a nationalist constitutionalist ideology is left wing... Is it just the racism?

    1. The party was explicitly Marxist-Leninist, which most people would consider far left. (And what I actually wrote was that they were "further left" than Ted Kennedy.)

  7. "So it's to be wall to wall abortion, 24/7 then?"


  8. Teddy could no longer credibly claim the "Pro life" label after what happened to Mary Jo Kopechne.

    1. I think there's a new documentary making the rounds about America's Worst Nuclear Disasterrrr!.

      The images I saw made it look like Chernobyl.

      More people died in Ted Kennedy's car than died at 3 mile Island.

  9. But it's not "ones choice for one", it's "ones choice for two".

    1. Correct!

      1. Nope, that's definitely wrong.

  10. The writer exaggerates the extent to which abortion positions were "scrambled."

    There were essentially two types of migration on abortion positions in the 1970s.

    First, some Republicans came to think about abortion for the first time and they realized that legal abortions weren't going to be remotely rare as the number skyrocketed from a handful to about 1.3 million a year at peak. This caused those Republicans -- like Reagan -- to rethink abortion.

    Second, blue-collar oriented Dems -- like Kennedy, Biden, and Jackson -- came to realize that they would get nowhere in a party dominated by the left wing if they remained against abortion. So, they searched their consciences and found that they had none. So, they became pro-aborts.

    1. A bigger factor is that until the late 1960s there wasn't much public discussion of abortions at all in America. See https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=abortion%2Cabortions&year_start=1900&year_end=2019&corpus=28&smoothing=3 Like narcotics and pornography, it wasn't much a matter of public controversy. People don't have opinions about a lot of things until they're asked, and this was one of those things. I see the numbers in the Ngrams started upward a few years earlier in British English, not sure what that's about.

  11. The Black Panthers also used to be in favor of gun rights.

  12. Republican WROTE Roe v Wade........................
    But [WE] Power-Mad Gov-Gun toting mobs weren't happy yet.

  13. It did take several years for the present alignment to emerge, and with a few it never did. The severest pro-abortion advocate was on the "right": talk show host Bob Grant, who wanted mandatory abortion for ghetto types (as the Black Panthers feared), choice for everyone else.

  14. 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."

    Heh...ask people where on the spectrum to place those who don't want to let people refuse abortions!

  15. I wonder whether all quadrants are populated, including one that's just plain anti-choice re abortions — who think that whether someone gets an abortion or continues a pregnancy should always be determined by an external authority.

  16. "The Republican Party, conversely, had far more room than it does today for people who favored the liberalization of abortion laws."

    You have to look at that relative to the status quo then. "liberalization of abortion laws" would still leave them much stricter than ANY state is permitted under Roe.

    1. Anyone who wanted abortion laws liberalized AFTER Roe, OTOH, was verging on an advocate for infanticide.

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