Prolife political activists considered White House Chief of Staff John Sununu their administration linchpin on the abortion issue. But with his departure last month and President Bush’s subsequent appointment of prochoice Samuel Skinner to the post, those activists are now wondering about the future. As the 1992 electoral season begins in earnest, many fear that the administration’s uncertainty over how to handle abortion reflects a wholesale Republican quandary over the issue.
Despite his abrasive style, Sununu was a valuable asset to the prolife movement. “Sununu wasn’t only a conduit between prolifers and the administration, he was an activist,” says National Review Washington correspondent Jack Fowler. “You knew he was a true believer, and he went to the mat on this issue.”
Prolife leaders say they will sorely miss that activism. “Sununu has done the President a great service by ensuring that legislative and policy matters were resolved in a manner consistent with the President’s prolife commitment,” says Doug Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
Virtually all observers agree the appointment of Skinner will not radically alter the President’s abortion stand. “George Bush has really cemented himself into his prolife position,” says Fowler. “Molly Yard could be chief of staff and I think he would still veto … bills trying to roll back standing abortion policy.”
But Family Research Council (FRC) staff director Chuck Donovan believes prolife representation “may lose something in intensity.” Adds the former Reagan administration official: “Intensity means a lot on this issue.”
The President’s position on abortion has become critical for the movement because of the erosion of prolife support in Congress following the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision allowing states to regulate abortion. Congressional advocates of abortion have attempted to take advantage of the political situation by chipping away at prolife policies adopted in the Reagan era. So far they have been unsuccessful, largely because of Bush’s veto clout.
Over the past three years, Bush has vetoed six bills that would have expanded abortion rights. The most significant occurred late in November, when he vetoed a bill that would have overturned Title X rules prohibiting federally funded family-planning clinics from counseling on abortion. The House’s narrow failure to override that veto was credited in part to heavy lobbying efforts by Sununu.
The vote was not only a Republican victory over the Democratic majority, but it was a win for the prolife wing of the GOP as well. According to Donovan, if the House had overridden the veto, in addition to the “substantive loss in policy,” there would have been an avalanche of “finger pointing” and “intra-Republican bitterness” over who was responsible.
Looking To November
As both parties gear up for the November elections, it is clear that economic issues will dominate the campaigns. However, for Republicans, abortion could turn into a highly contentious item. For more than a decade, there has been a prolife plank in the Republican platform. In 1988, despite a modest prochoice challenge, the GOP passed its strongest language yet, asserting that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” even in cases of rape or incest. This year, though, Republican advocates of abortion have vowed a major assault on that plank at the party’s August convention in Houston.
A newly formed political action committee (PAC), Republicans for Choice, is actively lobbying previous convention delegates and working to elect prochoice delegates for this year. The group has a goal of recruiting 250,000 members by the end of this month. “We are not going to roll over again,” says chairperson Ann Stone. “We will continue to be somewhat civil, but we are no longer going to be silent.”
Meanwhile, prolife Republicans have launched their own PAC, called LifePAC, aimed at defending the party’s prolife stance. “The worst thing is to be a prolife Republican who retreats from his position,” says Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly, who is organizing the effort with the FRC’s Gary Bauer and Beverly LaHaye from Concerned Women for America.
The Bush administration appears to be trying to head off any confrontation. During a meeting with reporters in October, Vice-president Dan Quayle, a staunch prolifer, made conciliatory motions toward the prochoice movement. “We are a party that is diversified.… Though we have a position on abortion, those who disagree with us should not feel excluded because of that issue,” he said. “We do, in former [Republican National Committee] chairman Lee Atwater’s words, offer the party as a big tent,” Quayle said, hinting there could be some compromise language in the platform or its preamble. Many prolifers were disturbed by Quayle’s remarks. But he sought to reassure them during a November meeting of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. “I am confident that our platform will be prolife in 1992,” he said.
The extent to which the administration and other GOP leaders may be able to finesse a compromise remains questionable. The National Review’s Fowler believes the Republicans might be able to include broad language acknowledging party diversity on a range of issues. “But if they just single out abortion, I think there could be some degree of trouble” from the prolife movement, he says. And with Bush’s diminished popularity rating in recent polls, Fowler adds, “they need the enthusiasm from prolifers who are going to toil in the vineyards.”
Given the state of the economy, political pundits say it is unlikely abortion will be a major issue in most races. One place sure to be an exception is Pennsylvania, where state legislator Stephen Friend is challenging U.S. Sen. Arlen Spector (R). Friend is an active prolifer who crafted one of the strictest sets of abortion regulations passed in the post-Webster era.
Ironically, it is that legislation that could still turn abortion into a partisan political bombshell before the elections. The Supreme Court has been asked to rule on the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania law. At press time, the Court had not yet announced whether it would review the case by this spring. If it does, the Court would likely hand down a decision by June—just before the summer political conventions. Some believe the Court could use the case to overturn Roe v. Wade, making abortion once again a key state and local issue.
Whatever happens, observers say the issue will not go away anytime soon, and Republican and Democratic politicians alike will have to deal with it. “The future,” says FRC’s Donovan, “is very much up for grabs.”
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