The 1980s

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

Ronald Reagan's election as President in 1980 was an enormous boon to the anti-abortion movement, but Reagan proved reluctant to be publicly wedded to anti-abortion forces because he saw the issue as too divisive and explosive to be politically wise. Though Reagan himself was a true believer, he did not prioritize abortion as uncompromisingly as his New Right supporters expected. He did, however, appoint avid anti-abortion activists to positions within his administrative bureaucracy and issued executive decisions hidden in his administration's bureaucracy.8 These anti-abortion appointments included the heads of the Federal Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control, the Surgeon General, and members of the White House Staff. The work of Reagan appointees sympathetic to the pro-life position and nested within the Executive branch resulted in setbacks to abortion rights such as removal of insurance coverage for abortion costs from federal employees' benefits and the elimination of Planned Parenthood from the payroll deduction plan for federal charitable giving.

New Right strategists recognized that the Reagan Administration presented an opportunity to change the political balance of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Reagan moved Justice William Rehnquist up to the position of Chief Justice in 1986, and Antonin Scalia filled his slot. Both are anti-abortion. Reagan's second nomination for a Supreme Court seat, anti-choice candidate Anthony Kennedy, was also approved. (His nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, however, was more troublesome to anti-choice watchdogs, since her record as an Arizona state representative had been mildly pro-choice, despite her personal opposition to abortion.) Reagan's judicial appointments to the federal courts were consistently pro-life. Moreover, under him, the process for appointing federal judges changed, and powerful Republican leaders like Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) helped control the flow of pro-life nominations. As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thurmond shortened the review periods, increased the number of hearings per day, making it more difficult for Democrats to challenge nominees.9

But it was advisors close to Reagan, like Chief of Staff Patrick Buchanan, who inserted multiple anti-choice strategies into the everyday decision-making at the White House, from scrutiny of family planning programs in the US and abroad to strategizing ways to deny access to abortion. Bureaucratic moves such as these did more than appease pro-life forces in Washington. It gave their members a sense of empowerment and helped to craft anti-choice positions as the New Right litmus test.

Blockbuster groups helped swell the ranks of the New Right. Christian Right organizations such as Focus on the Family grew enormously in the decade following Roe, thanks in part to the popularity of the "family-oriented" themes the New Right showcased. The frame of "traditional family values" was a wise choice because it described the challenge of modern life in terms that reassured many conservative Christians. The "ills befalling our culture" were reduced to a simple target- straying from God, or secular humanism.

The New Right's agenda was broader than abortion, but its web of issues was entirely compatible with an anti-choice world view. Conservative Christian definitions of the family and its traditional values were fast becoming household topics. A strong heterosexual, nuclear family, according to conservative Christians, will protect its members from outside corruption. Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority, explains that the purpose of such families is to "insulate the Christian home against all evil forces."10

In the decade after Roe, the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and other well-funded multi-issue national organizations joined single-issue groups like the National Right to Life Committee and its Life Amendment Political Action Committee (LAPAC) in their fight to eradicate abortion. LAPAC was created in 1977 to persuade Congress to pass a Human Life Amendment to the US Constitution. Because the work of these mainstream pro-life organizations resulted in only torturously slow progress toward their goal of banning all abortions, more extremist pro-life organizations grew bolder and began to advance a different sort of program. Their committed, charismatic leaders were impatient with failed attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade and were itching to try something else. Some of these leaders share with their less radical associates a fundamental agreement on the importance of pro-life activism.

Timothy and Beverly LaHaye came to pro-life work through their Baptist marriage counseling company, Family Life Seminars. Tim, another invitee at the founding of the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell, had been prominent on the right since the 1970s through the authorship of best selling non-fiction Christian titles and in the 1990s gained new celebrity co-authoring apocalyptic novels. His wife Beverly was the founder in 1979 of Concerned Women for America, the premier Christian anti-feminist women's organization. They both are Christian theocrats, believing that the United States should be governed by biblical law.

Some individual leaders were dissatisfied with the strategies of the New Right's leadership. They struck out on their own, creating somewhat free-standing groups focussed exclusively on ending abortion. Chicago-based Joseph Scheidler founded the Pro-Life Action League in 1980 after being ousted from other pro-life groups for his resistance to compromise. A master of public relations and a former journalism professor, Scheidler knew how to draw mainstream media attention. In 1985, he published a provocative tract, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, in which he suggested that civil disobedience, harassment, and militant direct action were justified interventions where abortion was concerned. Scheidler argued that because the act of abortion was murder, it must be prevented at all costs.

Perhaps more important, Scheidler influenced other confrontational pro-lifers like the founder of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, and his successor, Flip Benham. Rochester-born Terry, "born-again" at seventeen and a graduate of Elim Bible Institute, began his abortion clinic protests alongside his wife in 1983 when he was in his early 20's. Twelve years older than Terry, Benham was a bar owner before his conversion in 1976. After a stint as an evangelical pastor, he founded Operation Rescue Dallas/Fort Worth in 1988 and succeeded Terry in the National Director's slot in 1994.

Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, founded in 1989, the same year the Moral Majority disbanded, also shared the right's vision. The Christian Coalition was to rise to prominence under its first executive director, the charismatic Ralph Reed, Jr. Robertson's explicit goal was to "give Christians a voice in government." These mass movement organizations were determined in their campaigns to send Christians to the polls. Robertson's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 had given him national prominence and a platform for his erratic conservative Christian views.

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