As we contemplate the increased conservatism of this year's Republican platform, we need to keep in mind that when it comes to abortion, the Party's position hasn't changed since 1984. That was the year the GOP went from acknowledging a diversity of opinions on the subject to embracing the following:
The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children. We oppose the use of public revenues for abortion and will eliminate funding for organizations which advocate or support abortion.
The comparable passage in this year's version is:
Faithful to the “self-evident” truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or fund organizations which perform or advocate it and will not fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage.
It's just not significant that this year's abortion plank makes no mention of exceptions for rape, incest, or the life and health of the mother because such exceptions have not been made in 28 years. Since 1984, the GOP has opposed abortion, period. More than that, the Party has all along advocated what can only be understood as treating embryos and fetuses as persons under the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment declares that no State shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Applying the Amendment's protections to an "unborn child" evidently means that it will enjoy the same rights under the Equal Protection Clause as a "born child."
It's not as if GOP leaders have never before perceived that they might have a political problem with this absolutist approach. In 1996, there was considerable worry that it would make Bob Dole's task of unseating Bill Clinton way too difficult. So Ralph Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, proposed a solution: Keep the platform position as is, but let Dole himself stake out more moderate ground. For his pains, Reed was denounced by other prominent Christian conservatives, some of whom were more than happy to stick a shiv into the Boy Wonder of the Religious Right; and indeed, he resigned his position shortly thereafter and went into the political consulting game.
But the Reed Dodge survived, and has since been embraced by a succession of GOP standard-bearers, including most recently Mitt Romney. "My position has been clear throughout this campaign," Romney told CBS News a few days ago. "I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother."
The difference this time is that it's become clear over the past few years that the abortion plank really does mean what it says for a lot of Republican politicians. The current congressional effort to defund Planned Parenthood, supported by Romney, represents the first sustained effort to keep faith with the 28-year-old promise to withdraw federal support from organizations that provide abortions. And in a number of states around the country, GOP lawmakers have sought to have the unborn child declared a legal person.
Under the circumstances, it behooves us not only to have that adult discussion about abortion (here and here--and over at Pat Perriello's NCR blog) but to inquire of Republican politicians 1) whether they support their Party's abortion plank; and if so, 2) how they propose to embody constitutional recognition of the personhood of unborn children in civil and criminal law. GOP politicians clearly take their longstanding abortion plank seriously. So should the rest of us.