Voices: Remember when Republicans were pro-choice? Conveniently, neither does Samuel Alito

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Pro-choice and anti-abortion activists demonstrating outside Supreme Court (Getty Images)
Pro-choice and anti-abortion activists demonstrating outside Supreme Court (Getty Images)

My grandmother is 84. She drives a hybrid and has a deeply impractical white leather sectional in her lakeside condo — all the sand? all the wet bathing suits? — and is a registered Democrat.

She also goes to Mass every Sunday, and being a good Catholic, feels more comfortable with the Church’s pro-life stance than with her granddaughters’ pro-choice one. (That keeps her in line with the Church’s official teachings, but not with the majority of U.S. Catholics, of which I and her other granddaughters no longer identify: as of 2019, the majority of Catholics in the U.S. agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.)

My grandmother grew up in a time where her views on abortion weren’t at odds with her political party. In 1972, hers was the party of good Catholic values, and more Republicans than Democrats — 68% to 59% — agreed that abortion should be decided only by a woman and her doctor, not the law.

Five years earlier, in 1967, Ronald Reagan, then the Republican governor of California, signed the country’s most liberal abortion law — only to reverse that position by the time he was campaigning for the presidency in 1976.

What happened, then? How did the trend line in Republican self-identification on the issue of abortion tick upwards like party bunting, climbing from only 51% pro-choice in 1995 to 74% in 2021? How did it work out that my grandmother is a pro-life Democrat, and my second cousins — the ones who we grew up with at the lake — are all staunch pro-life Republicans? The kind who go on school field trips to wave signs dripping in Catholic guilt in front of the Washington Monument at the March for Life?

Plenty of scholars have mapped the change, and their mile markers points tend to go like this: Republican analysts saw an opportunity to capture Democrat Catholics (and other religious voters) in the elections of the late 70s and early 80s. They tried and failed to successfully deploy scare tactics to fan outrage at segregated schools facing defunding. So they turned to what they rightly hoped would be a lightning-rod issue for the very religious: the Roe decision, and the moral high ground of protecting “unborn life.”

The Republican thesis on abortion wasn’t ever about being a bastion of morality or saving unborn souls. It wasn’t even about protecting the states’ rights to legislate the issue. It was using the issue as cover as conservatives gripped ever more tightly that which has long mattered most to them: the preservation of white supremacy.

It’s the same argument made in Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion.

Alito references, over and over again, the Fourteenth Amendment, which limits the rights conferred by its due-process clause to those that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”

“The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” he says in one of those references. This after noting that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.”

Let us pause and consider that the Fourteenth Amentment language Alito cites so often in his opinion was passed only 18 months after the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery after nearly 250 years of the practice.

It was passed four years before the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave Black people the right to vote, and nearly 100 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it less difficult for Black people to exercise that right by banning literacy tests and other racist restrictions on their voting ability.

Does that make the rights of Black Americans to live free from the shackles of slavery, or to vote, or to have interracial marriages, also egregiously wrong, being similarly bereft of a deep rooting in American history and tradition?

The religious right and Alito share the same fondness for short-term memory. For cherry-picking paths through the past, latching onto only that which serves them, repackaging that incomplete source material into a seemingly sweeping argument.

This is the way things have always been, they say: America has never supported abortion rights, per Alito. The Republicans have always defended the sanctity of human life, per the current Republican supermajorities in 16 states.

Both are wrong, and both are frightening for the same reason that it’s frightening how staunchly my very-Catholic second cousins — the ones that got in trouble right next to me for tracking sand into the condo — connect their faith to their pro-life stances.

When we use history as a convenient pall for obstructing an argument rooted in morality, whether that argument is about racism or abortion or another topic, we do a disservice to everyone that history impacts.

To everyone, that is.

You cannot pull language from American Constitutional amendments and conveniently forget the history around their ratification. The irony of using the Fourteenth Amendment to deny women rights on the basis of history and tradition — when, per that history and tradition, they wouldn’t be allowed to vote today, yet alone have free rein over their bodies.

Being malleable with meaning and memory might have won the Republicans a few presidential elections in the 1980s. But it has no place on our highest court of law.

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