When the Republican national convention convened in Kansas City in 1976, the party’s pro-choice majority did not expect a significant challenge to their views on abortion. Public opinion polls showed that Republican voters were, on average, more pro-choice than their Democratic counterparts, a view that the convention delegates shared; fewer than 40 percent of the delegates considered themselves pro-life.1 The chair of the Republican National Committee, Mary Louise Smith, supported abortion rights, as did First Lady Betty Ford, who declared Roe v. Wade a “great, great decision.” Likewise, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who had taken a leading role in the fight for abortion rights in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was solidly pro-choice. Even some of the party’s conservatives, such as Senator Barry Goldwater, supported abortion rights. But in spite of the Republican Party’s pro-choice leadership, the GOP adopted a platform in 1976 that promised an antiabortion constitutional amendment. The party’s leadership viewed the measure as a temporary political ploy that would increase the GOP’s appeal among traditionally Democratic Catholics, but the platform statement instead became a rallying cry for social conservatives who used the plank to build a religiously based coalition in the GOP and drive out many of the pro-choice Republicans who had initially adopted the platform. By 2009, only 26 percent of Republicans were pro-choice.2
The Republican Party’s shift on abortion reflected the party’s struggle over issues of religion and cultural politics in ways that ultimately transformed the GOP. As long as Republicans viewed the right to an abortion as a mainline Protestant cause that was in the best interest of middle-class women, doctors, and American society, they supported the liberalization of state abortion laws. But when they began to view “abortion on demand” as a symptom of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and cultural liberalism, Republicans became less supportive of abortion rights, and they became more amenable to the demands of party strategists who believed that a strong stand against abortion would bring Catholics into the GOP. Abortion policy played a pivotal role in transforming the GOP from a predominantly mainline Protestant party into a party of conservative Catholics and evangelicals. Although Republicans did not perceive its importance at the time, their decision to adopt an antiabortion platform plank in 1976 created the basis for the party’s outreach to social conservatives.
Despite the importance of the abortion issue in redefining the GOP, the subject has received only limited attention from political historians. Histories of the pro-life and pro-choice movement make passing references to the Republican Party’s shift on abortion, and several studies of the politics of birth control touch on abortion as part of a larger discussion of the political debate over contraceptives. But none of these works engages in a comprehensive analysis of the debates over abortion that occurred among party leaders in the 1970s or explains the role that the abortion issue played in the GOP’s shift toward social conservatism. Nor do most histories of conservatism and the Christian Right adequately cover the subject.3 Yet one cannot fully understand the Republican Party’s shift toward social conservatism without examining the way in which the abortion issue transformed the party.
Prior to the 1970s, when abortion became a divisive issue for the Republican Party, the GOP had not seen any conflict between its support for women’s rights, including the right to contraception, and its advocacy of a Protestant-based moral order. The party enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of the nation’s Protestant ministers, and the party’s leaders routinely invoked the cause of God and religion in their denunciations of Communism. At the same time, many Republican Party leaders took a moderately progressive stance on women’s rights and birth control, causes that many mainline Protestant ministers supported. In 1940, the GOP became the first major party to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. Republicans in state legislatures also led the fight against Catholic clergy to expand the public availability of contraceptives. Planned Parenthood’s Republican supporters included Senator Prescott Bush (R-Conn.) and...