Ronald Reagan, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation

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There are no easy answers but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.

Ronald Reagan

Today is my 57th birthday.  I am pleased that I share my natal day with the man I consider the greatest president of my lifetime:  Ronald Wilson Reagan, who was born one hundred and three years ago today in Tampico, Illinois.  I greatly admire Reagan for many reasons:  his wit, eloquence and good humor;  his prime role in bringing about the destruction of Communism as a ruling ideology in the former, how good it is to write that adjective!, Soviet Union and Eastern Europe;  his restoration of American prosperity by wringing inflation from the American economy;  his rebuilding of the nation’s defenses;  his restoration of American pride and optimism.  However, there is one stand of his that, above all others, ensures that he will always have a special place in my heart, his defense of the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, the unborn.

In 1983 Reagan submitted an essay on abortion to the Human Life Review, then and now, the scholarly heart of the pro-life movement.  He entitled it, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.  Go here to the Human Life Review’s website to read it.

Reagan in the article attacked Roe on its tenth anniversary and stated that Roe had not settled the abortion fight:

Make no mistake, abortion-on-demand is not a right granted by the Constitution. No serious scholar, including one disposed to agree with the Court’s result, has argued that the framers of the Constitution intended to create such a right. Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision, Professor John Hart Ely, now Dean of Stanford Law School, wrote that the opinion “is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” Nowhere do the plain words of the Constitution even hint at a “right” so sweeping as to permit abortion up to the time the child is ready to be born. Yet that is what the Court ruled.

As an act of “raw judicial power” (to use Justice White’s biting phrase), the decision by the seven-man majority in Roe v. Wade has so far been made to stick. But the Court’s decision has by no means settled the debate. Instead, Roe v. Wade has become a continuing prod to the conscience of the nation.

Reagan saw that abortion diminished respect for all human life and quoted Mother Teresa as to the simple truth that abortion is the “greatest misery of our time”:

We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life—the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life. We saw tragic proof of this truism last year when the Indiana courts allowed the starvation death of “Baby Doe” in Bloomington because the child had Down’s Syndrome.

Many of our fellow citizens grieve over the loss of life that has followed Roe v. Wade. Margaret Heckler, soon after being nominated to head the largest department of our government, Health and Human Services, told an audience that she believed abortion to be the greatest moral crisis facing our country today. And the revered Mother Teresa, who works in the streets of Calcutta ministering to dying people in her world-famous mission of mercy, has said that “the greatest misery of our time is the generalized abortion of children.”

Reagan, ever a student of American history, tied the fight against Roe with the fight against the Dred Scott decision:

Despite the formidable obstacles before us, we must not lose heart. This is not the first time our country has been divided by a Supreme Court decision that denied the value of certain human lives. The Dred Scottdecision of 1857 was not overturned in a day, or a year, or even a decade. At first, only a minority of Americans recognized and deplored the moral crisis brought about by denying the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters; but that minority persisted in their vision and finally prevailed. They did it by appealing to the hearts and minds of their countrymen, to the truth of human dignity under God. From their example, we know that respect for the sacred value of human life is too deeply engrained in the hearts of our people to remain forever suppressed. But the great majority of the American people have not yet made their voices heard, and we cannot expect them to—any more than the public voice arose against slavery—until the issue is clearly framed and presented.

Reagan demonstrated how the cheapening of life by legal abortion was also cheapening the lives of newborns:

What more dramatic confirmation could we have of the real issue than the Baby Doe case in Bloomington, Indiana? The death of that tiny infant tore at the hearts of all Americans because the child was undeniably a live human being—one lying helpless before the eyes of the doctors and the eyes of the nation. The real issue for the courts was not whether Baby Doe was a human being. The real issue was whether to protect the life of a human being who had Down’s Syndrome, who would probably be mentally handicapped, but who needed a routine surgical procedure to unblock his esophagus and allow him to eat. A doctor testified to the presiding judge that, even with his physical problem corrected, Baby Doe would have a “non-existent” possibility for “a minimally adequate quality of life”—in other words, that retardation was the equivalent of a crime deserving the death penalty. The judge let Baby Doe starve and die, and the Indiana Supreme Court sanctioned his decision.

Reagan sounded the alarm against influential forces in our society working to systematically eliminate reverence for human life:

A Nobel Prize winning scientist has suggested that if a handicapped child “were not declared fully human until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice.” In other words, “quality control” to see if newly born human beings are up to snuff.

Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her status as a “human being.”

Events have borne out the editorial in a California medical journal which explained three years before Roe v. Wade that the social acceptance of abortion is a “defiance of the long-held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status.”

Reagan hearkened back to Abraham Lincoln and his struggle for a recognition of the common rights and humanity of the slave:

We fought a terrible war to guarantee that one category of mankind—black people in America—could not be denied the inalienable rights with which their Creator endowed them. The great champion of the sanctity of all human life in that day, Abraham Lincoln, gave us his assessment of the Declaration’s purpose. Speaking of the framers of that noble document, he said:

This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on … They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.

He warned also of the danger we would face if we closed our eyes to the value of life in any category of human beings:

I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?

Reagan cited legislation pending before Congress and called for its support:

The Congress has before it several measures that would enable our people to reaffirm the sanctity of human life, even the smallest and the youngest and the most defenseless. The Human Life Bill expressly recognizes the unborn as human beings and accordingly protects them as persons under our Constitution. This bill, first introduced by Senator Jesse Helms, provided the vehicle for the Senate hearings in 1981 which contributed so much to our understanding of the real issue of abortion.

The Respect Human Life Act, just introduced in the 98th Congress, states in its first section that the policy of the United States is “to protect innocent life, both before and after birth.” This bill, sponsored by Congressman Henry Hyde and Senator Roger Jepsen, prohibits the federal government from performing abortions or assisting those who do so, except to save the life of the mother. It also addresses the pressing issue of infanticide which, as we have seen, flows inevitably from permissive abortion as another step in the denial of the inviolability of innocent human life.

I have endorsed each of these measures, as well as the more difficult route of constitutional amendment, and I will give these initiatives my full support. Each of them, in different ways, attempts to reverse the tragic policy of abortion-on-demand imposed by the Supreme Court ten years ago. Each of them is a decisive way to affirm the sanctity of human life.

Reagan remembered that helping pregnant mothers with crisis pregnancies was an essential component of the pro-life cause:

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. 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.” She has been helped by Sav-a-Life, a group in Dallas, which provides a way for unwed mothers to preserve the human life within them when they might otherwise be tempted to resort to abortion. I think also of House of His Creation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where a loving couple has taken in almost 200 young women in the past ten years. They have seen, as a fact of life, that the girls are not better off having abortions than saving their babies. I am also reminded of the remarkable Rossow family of Ellington, Connecticut, who have opened their hearts and their home to nine handicapped adopted and foster children.

Reagan concluded his essay by writing something that I firmly believe:  America cannot survive as a free land with abortion:

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. 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.

More to explorer

Father Dwyer Lays It on the Line

  [1] I charge thee, before God and Jesus Christ, who shall judge the living and the dead, by his coming, and

No Kangaroo Courts

  Well, isn’t this precious:   MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia ( – The Director of Public Prosecutions for the Australian territory of Victoria


  1. The state does not own the victims of abortion or capital one homicide. The victims of abortion and homicide , sovereign persons, are dead; denied their civil right to life.
    Would our culture be any different without Roe versus Wade? Roe backed the state out of any responsibility toward the victims of abortion, 56 million victims, civil right to life, in the same way the death penalty ban backs the state out of any responsibility to the victims’ of homicide civil right to life.

  2. First, Donald, I also wish you a happy birthday! May God bless you and your family through this coming year.

    Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were the two most vocal anti-abortion presidents which we have had.

    I am an Independent, certainly not home in the party presently in dominance, but not fully at ease with the Republican Party as well. I am wondering, waiting for, and hoping for a Party which will raise up a new Lincoln who sees clearly that what is driving our country into fragmentation and a downward spiral is the compromising of the foundational principles of our Country. Yes, I know the country was founded as a ‘secular’ country, but not a secularist one. It was founded on a broad based foundation of Judaeo-Christianity as expressed by the Protestant majority at the time. That Protestant ethos is no longer present, but it does not mean we can just choose to overlook, or worse militate against each and every principle of Judaeo-Christiantity. A new Lincoln will realize that each and every human being has a right to life from the moment of conception until natural death. He will lead the charge to establish a human life amendment just as President Lincoln brought about the amendment ending slavery and seeing Afro-Americans as equal under the law.

    The Democratic Party backed slavery as the Democratic Party backs the culture of death. Is this coincidental? In the meantime I wait, hope and pray, not as a member of the party of the donkey, or of the elephant but of the Lamb.

  3. “America can not survive as a free land with abortion.”

    The innocent blood erodes the foundation that this great Country was build upon. That forty one years of erosion is showing signs. Physical sign..? The Washington monument and our aborted dead.

    Thank you Donald and Happy Birthday.
    Thanks for shoring up whats slipping away, and helping us to do the same in our quest to love neighbor & God.
    Have a blessed day and 57th year on Earth.

  4. Happy Birthday!

    I’ve been reading a little about Charles Martel and Charlemagne recently. There aren’t many politicians who have been canonized as saints, but in reading about history you do find the occasional leader who, whatever his own beliefs, cooperated with the saints of his time and genuinely sought the good. He will often be fondly remembered, growing larger over time in a secular process that parallels the vox populi recognition of a saint. They are rare, the countries that produced them have a justifiable spring in their step at the mention of their name.

  5. Thank you Pinky. The hallmark of a great leader is often that they resolve some great issue of their day. Reagan did this with the Cold War. Charlemagne cemented the alliance between the Franks and the Papacy that did so much to shape Christendom. Great leaders make mistakes as we all do, but they served their people well on some great issue that causes them to be remembered while most of their contemporaries are forgotten by all but historians.

  6. Happy birthday Don.
    In addition to sharing this day with Ronald Reagan, you also share the day that what has become recognised as the birthday of New Zealand – that day, February 6th. 1840, in which the Treaty of Watangi was signed, where the “tangata whenua” – the people of the land – the maori chiefs of New Zealand ceded sovereignty of the country to the British crown, thus bringing British law and order to an otherwise lawless and chaotic mingling of races and nationalities.
    The day is now known as Waitangi Day, and is a public holiday, with the re-enactment of the signing of the treaty at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, Northland. Unfortunately today it has become a day of protest by radical maori, claiming all sorts of additional rights and compensation from the government – which most kiwis, including the majority of maori consider a disgraceful disruption to an otherwise festive occasion.
    Today is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s call into the arms of the God whom she loved and worshipped all her life – I’m sure her joy is complete.
    Have a great day Don – hope its not too cold 😉

  7. It is a balmy -17 Don! I am honored to have my birthday on Waitangi Day! I am sure your Mom is enjoying the Beatific Vision even now Don. I was thinking of my own Mom just before I read your comment and how she was 20 when she had me. Seems mighty young compared to the 57 I am now. How much I owe to that young lady and to my father who was an ancient 24 when I was born. They seemed old and ripe with wisdom when I was growing up, and they managed to raise me and my brother up properly while they were in their 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s. Of course my grandmother McClarey had her first son when she was an aged 16. People simply accepted awesome responsibilities back then at very young ages and usually did well for the kids they brought into the world.

  8. Kiwi – As Donald and I were saying, not all great people have been canonized, but we’re grateful for their lives and we can hope to meet them in Heaven.

  9. Happy Birthday, Mr. McClarey! My McLuckie (Mom’s maiden name) Scot heritage salutes you.

    I saw a bumper sticker last week. There was a picture of Ronald Reagan, and the caption was “I miss Ronnie.”

    Me, too.

  10. Donald – Here’s a thought (actually, two thoughts). I was pondering this hypothetical: if you could travel back in time and replace any one world leader in order to play out history differently, who would it be? I thought about this for a while and it occurred to me, there’s no chance in the world that Churchill wasn’t a time-traveler.

  11. “if you could travel back in time and replace any one world leader in order to play out history differently, who would it be?”

    The Kaiser circa 1900. The World paid a very high price that the man at the helm of Germany was a fool who did not realize that he was a fool.

    In regard to Churchill, I have often suspected that he was a man both a century behind his time and also a century ahead of it.

  12. I know I’m being simplistic and biased, but it seems like Prussia was the embodiment of everything Protestant and evil in German nature, and Austria was nothing but purity and Catholic virtue. Once Prussia came to dominate Germany, everything that followed takes on an air of inevitability. I know that individuals, not historical trends, make history, but wow, there really wasn’t much good to come out of unified Germany.

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