George Herbert Walker Bush??
No, the competition isn’t especially strong, but a good case can be made that George H. W. Bush is in fact the most pro-life president we’ve ever had.
This is especially topical now that Romney has essentially wrapped up the Republican nomination. Romney is not especially trusted by conservatives, or by the pro-life movement. In his 1994 and 2002 political campaigns, he repeated again and again that he was emphatically pro-choice. His sudden conversion to the pro-life side around 2006 appears to be nothing more than the crassest sort of political opportunism.
The political life of George H. W. Bush followed a similar trajectory. He was one of the principal masterminds behind the Family Planning Act of 1970, and when he ran for president a decade later, he disclaimed any desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned. After becoming Reagan’s vice president though, Bush quietly switched to the pro-life position. In the 1988 Republican primaries, he managed to weather attacks from Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, whose pro-life bona fides were beyond question.
Two decades later, I still doubt that Bush ever had any truly deep philosophical opposition to legal abortion. And yet, I would say he compares favorably to any other president who has served since Roe v. Wade. The only real competition comes from Reagan and Bush Jr.
The Souter Pick
If it weren’t for one inexcusable and tragic lapse in judgment, the competition wouldn’t even be close. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Bush was responsible for putting David Souter on the Supreme Court – a terrible decision which had repercussions far beyond the narrow issue of abortion. Given the frequency of 5-4 splits on the Supreme Court these days, a good case can be made that the Souter pick was the single greatest misfortune to befall American conservatives in at least the past half century.
But what makes the Souter pick most tragic of all was its striking improbability. When you look at the list of those considered for Supreme Court slots during the Bush administration, Souter truly was the single turd amongst a collection of diamonds. Clarence Thomas, in my opinion the greatest Justice of all time, was of course given the nod one year after Souter. Other candidates included Edith Jones, Laurence Silberman, Emilio Garza, and Kenneth Starr. Not even Reagan (who appointed O’Connor and Kennedy) or Bush Jr. (who wanted to appoint Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales) can compare in terms of overall quality of the pool of candidates.
In 2004, the aforementioned Edith Jones wrote a scathing critique of Roe. “The perverse result of the Court’s having determined through Constitutional adjudication this fundamental social policy, which affects over a million women and unborn babies each year, is that the facts no longer matter. This is a peculiar outcome for a Court so committed to “life” that it struggles with the particular facts of dozens of death penalty cases each year.” Fourteen years earlier, on the morning of July 23, 1990, Bush had narrowed his choice to Jones and Souter. In what he would characterize as a “very close call,” he chose Souter.
But what if God had been kinder, and this “close” choice had gone the other way? History would record that Bush replaced liberal giants Brennan and Marshall with conservative giants Jones and Thomas. It would have been an accomplishment for the ages, and it truly did come agonizingly close to actually happening. Bush, I believe, deserves our sympathy rather than our condemnations. Even the greatest of statesmen can make one sadly crucial mistake.
The Rape and Incest Vetoes
Since the start of the Clinton administration, federal funding of abortion has generally been prohibited except when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, or resulted from rape or incest. Before then, rape and incest related abortions were denied federal funding as well. During the Reagan years, this reflected the will of Congress. Reagan did nothing except sign the bills into law.
But then in 1989, in the aftermath of the Webster ruling, Congress abruptly lurched in the pro-choice direction. Rape and incest were added to the mother’s life as allowable funding exceptions in the bills passed by Congress. Time after time, throughout all four years of his presidency, Bush vetoed these bills, and asked Congress to drop those exceptions. Time after time, Congress fell just short of being able to override these vetoes, and caved to Bush’s demands.
Even in the best of times, quibbling over abortions for rape and incest victims is pretty much political suicide. But to do so from 1989 to 1992, an era when many longtime pro-life stalwarts were abandoning ship, was truly a remarkable act of courage. That Bush never backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition is almost a miracle.
Reagan and Bush Jr. make for interesting contrasts. Legislation to ban abortion during Reagan’s first term never got off the ground, in large part because Reagan gave it only the most tepid, halfhearted support imaginable. He was unwilling to go to bat for it. During his second term, Republicans in Congress did not even attempt to advance any major pro-life initiatives. George W. Bush, to his credit, got the partial-birth abortion ban into law, and twice vetoed attempts to fund embryonic stem cell research, but unlike his father he freely signed into law funding bills with rape and incest exceptions.
Would Mitt Romney be anything like George Bush as president? There’s no way to know for sure. On the one hand, we can pretty much rule out the possibility of him re-opening the war over rape and incest funding exceptions. On the other hand, the likelihood of him appointing another David Souter to the Supreme Court seems minimal – Supreme Court vacancies have become a much bigger deal than they were in 1990. My point is that there likely would not be much difference between a Romney presidency and a Santorum presidency. Certainly Romney is not ideal, but if the Bush presidency is any indication, even the most reluctant of pro-life converts can still do a lot.