How Ronald Reagan Helped Abortion Take Over the Republican Agenda

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Ronald Reagan campaigns in Houston ahead of the Republican Convention in 1976. Credit - Tony Korody—Sygma via Getty Images

Abortion is dominating the news once again, illustrating the political peril Republicans face on the issue.

On April 1, the Florida supreme court upheld a state abortion ban, which in turn triggered an even stricter ban that begins on May 1. Then, on April 8, Donald Trump reversed course and announced he would not support a federal abortion ban and that the matter should be left to the states. Yet Trump’s strategic flip on the issue did not signal that the GOP is abandoning its quest to ban abortion. That became clear within 48 hours when — after the Arizona supreme court found that the state’s almost total 1864 abortion ban was still the law of the land — Republicans in the state legislature thwarted an attempt to repeal it despite a national outcry.

These recent events have emphasized how a zealous desire to restrict abortion rights has become a defining characteristic of the modern Republican Party. Yet, that wasn’t always the case. Even as late as the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s GOP prioritized cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, and winning the Cold War, devoting little energy to fighting cultural battles. But despite this lack of enthusiasm, Reagan was instrumental in empowering a cultural and social conservatism with roots in the white South. This cultural conservatism now dominates the Republican Party and drives the war against abortion rights in 2024.

Historically, the GOP was the more liberal party on abortion — especially given the Democratic Party’s strong appeal to Catholics across the North. That began to change in the early 1970s, as various states loosened their abortion restrictions. At the national level, a Republican shift on abortion first became evident during Reagan’s dramatic 1976 primary challenge against President Gerald Ford.

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After losing the first five presidential primaries, North Carolina became a must win for Reagan. He entrusted his campaign in the Tar Heel State to the North Carolina Congressional Club — the political machine of Senator Jesse Helms. A former Democrat, Helms had only joined the GOP six years earlier. He and his lieutenants devised a campaign centered on social and cultural issues, and Reagan stunned the incumbent president by six points.

The victory rescued Reagan's campaign, and demonstrated his popularity with southern conservative voters, donors, and strategists — many, like Helms, recently converted Democrats — who relished Reagan’s anti-statist rhetoric and despised Ford as an establishment moderate. As his campaign struggled to break through in the North, it was southern support that propelled Reagan all the way to the party convention in Kansas City. His Southern success gave Reagan’s backers significant influence as the GOP met to select a nominee and draft a platform.

At a pre-convention meeting, Helms and his allies formulated a range of right-wing policy positions that they wanted to force into the GOP platform. Alongside opposition to gun control and school busing to achieve racial integration, these southern Republicans demanded that their new party explicitly oppose legal abortion. Reagan, though far more focused on economic issues and foreign policy, owed so much of his success to Helms and his political machine that he reluctantly green-lighted their platform challenges.

In platform committee meetings, Ford’s team objected to the planks that the Helms forces were pushing. But wary of risking a delegate revolt that could cost the president the nomination, they too grudgingly acquiesced. Those strategic calculations resulted in a party in which most leaders, convention delegates, and voters were pro-abortion rights running on a platform that demanded a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

Though Reagan lost the nomination, Helms was delighted that he and his allies “were able to project the conservative message to millions of Americans” and make the Republican platform “the most conservative in recent memory.” But he couldn’t have imagined just how profound their impact would be. From that point on, opposition to abortion became a non-negotiable tenet of Republican orthodoxy.

Between 1976 and 1980, the emergence of the Christian Right — a largely southern phenomenon and a vehicle for the region’s conservative values and priorities — as an influential GOP voting bloc acted to further cement a national abortion ban as a key element of the Republican Party’s agenda. The anti-abortion campaign, previously led by Catholic groups and hampered by disputes and disagreements, quickly came to be directed by Christian Right organizations that were both politically astute and media savvy.

The rising importance of the movement’s leaders meant that Reagan needed their support in his bid for the 1980 presidential nomination, and he artfully deployed moralistic and evangelical rhetoric to win them over. In August 1980, Reagan addressed Christian Right leaders at the National Affairs Briefing and allied himself with their cause by declaring “I know that you can’t endorse me, but… I want you to know that I endorse you.” Yet, crucially, Reagan maintained a marked distance from the Christian Right’s anti-abortion demands — his speech did not mention the topic once.

It set the tone for a presidency in which Reagan’s Administration showed little interest in the abortion issue. While Helms repeatedly attempted to pass anti-abortion legislation in the Senate — with vociferous backing from the Christian Right — Reagan offered nothing more than occasional supportive rhetoric, preferring instead to focus on pursuing his economic priorities. Behind the scenes, Reagan aides expressed relief that they were able to avoid becoming entangled in controversial social issues and had limited themselves to providing only “passive support.”

But anger was steadily rising among southern conservatives and Christian Right leaders. In a furious letter to the White House in 1981, Moral Majority vice president Cal Thomas mocked Reagan’s famous “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” question from the 1980 campaign. If the administration continued “allowing the slaughter of one and one-half million unborn babies a year,” he argued, “I will not be able to say that we are better off at all.”

With almost no support coming from the White House, efforts to ban abortion ultimately made no substantial progress during the Reagan Administration. But that obscures the role Reagan played in making the anti-abortion rights cause central to the GOP’s agenda and, ultimately, in rolling back abortion rights.

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The Christian Right took an important lesson from the failures of the 1980s. Anti-abortion crusaders needed to shift their focus from Congress to the Supreme Court and the appointment of conservative justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. Here, Reagan’s record drew plaudits from both southern conservatives and Christian Right leaders. While two of his three appointees to the Court — Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy — proved to be moderate conservatives, his third, Justice Antonin Scalia, became a powerful judicial ally for opponents of abortion and an influential force in pushing the Court to the right on social issues.

More broadly, Reagan reshaped the federal judiciary, working to appoint younger, more conservative judges, and ultimately appointing almost half of all federal judges during his eight years in office. Alongside the appointment of Scalia, shifting the previously liberal federal judiciary dramatically rightward was, in the eyes of Moral Majority president Jerry Falwell, Reagan’s “chief legacy.” It was this conservative revolution in the judiciary that eventually provided the avenue for opponents of abortion to achieve their aims.

Reagan’s public embrace of the Christian Right brought the movement political credibility, firmly anchoring them in the Republican Party and moving the social and cultural values of the white South to the forefront of American political debate. Likewise, his deliberate appeals to disaffected southern Democrats in 1976 and 1980 — including newspaper advertisements targeting George Wallace supporters in Texas and appearances with Mississippi’s former Democratic governor John Bell Williams — were vital in convincing conservative white southerners that the GOP was a viable political home after generations of their region being a Democratic stronghold. With Reagan in the White House, conservative southerners regained a status of acceptance and prominence in Washington that they had not enjoyed since the early 1960s. Simply by paying lip service to the southern conservative agenda, Reagan helped the anti-abortion push to garner strength and influence within the GOP.

Yet as the Republican Party’s electoral grip on the white South tightened, and without the charismatic leadership of Reagan to unite the party, the divide between Reaganite fiscal conservatives and southern cultural conservatives deepened from the 1990s onwards. As southern conservatives increasingly became the dominant force in the party, the Republican leadership lost their ability to control an ever-more confrontational and demanding base.

The result is that anti-abortion rights forces dominate the GOP in 2024. By allying with southern conservatives, Ronald Reagan helped to empower a cultural conservatism in the GOP that eventually overwhelmed his own political agenda. And when Jesse Helms and his southern conservative allies forced opposition to abortion into the GOP platform in 1976, it proved to be a crucial early step in transforming the identity of the Republican Party.

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Jonathan Bartho is an independent scholar and researcher and the author of Whistling Dixie: Ronald Reagan, the White South, and the Transformation of the Republican Party.

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