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The struggle to defend life at the Republican National Convention

Will it be life’s first cry or its final breath?

Pro-life protestors stand outside the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix in May. Associated Press/Photo by Matt York, file

The struggle to defend life at the Republican National Convention
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The Republican Party has stood for the unborn for nearly half of a century. Next week, that could all change as party officials meet in secret to water down the GOP platform’s resolute language on life. Pro-life conservatives must hold the party’s feet to the fire here or watch the national party of life transform into the national party of apathy on the life issue.

In 1973, the Supreme Court issued its infamous Roe v. Wade ruling, inventing a supposed constitutional right to abortion out of whole cloth. At every single meeting of the Republican National Convention since then, the party’s platform has made it clear that Republicans would defend life at the national level. In fact, the language has only grown cumulatively stronger over time.

From 1976 onward, the GOP has voiced support for a constitutional amendment protecting the unborn. From 1980 onward, the party pushed to end taxpayer support for abortion. From 1984 onward, Republicans have made it clear that unborn children are already protected under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying “the equal protection of the law” to “any person.”

Over time, the Republican Party has supplemented these with condemnations of partial-birth abortions (1996), killing those born alive after an attempted abortion (2004), as well as sex-selective abortions and the aborting of pain-capable unborn children (2012). The platforms have even been relatively prescient on bioethical issues like in vitro fertilization. 2016’s platform opposed federal funding for embryo harvesting (a far cry from some Republicans today who want the federal government subsidizing these controversial practices).

If the GOP platform is strong today, it is because the pro-life coalition won the argument back in 1976 and at every convention thereafter. Even in 1976, though, the platform acknowledged that there was not a uniform consensus among Republicans on the issue: “There are those in our Party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand.” Had the 1976 convention used this as a pretext to dodge the issue, the pro-life movement would undoubtedly be weaker today.

Political evasion and cowardice at this year’s convention would have consequences far beyond the 2024 election.

But the principle works in reverse, as well. Political evasion and cowardice at this year’s convention would have consequences far beyond the 2024 election. Any watered-down language in the platform could haunt the party and the pro-life movement for decades to come.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision restored the right to regulate abortion to “the people and their elected representatives.” Even the court’s liberal justices acknowledged that this means there is a federal role for abortion policy. It would be the height of tragedy if this century’s greatest pro-life success were ultimately undermined not by progressives but by frightened Republicans downplaying the decision.

If backtracking on life would be disastrous in the long term, it’s also important to emphasize that it is a stupid strategy in the short term, as well. While pro-life voters are unlikely to buck the party anytime soon, the outcome of the 2024 campaign will most likely come down to motivating the base.

The biggest breakouts for Donald Trump this election cycle have come as a result of the lawfare against him, not some nebulous strategy of reaching across the aisle to Democratic and independent voters (much as that may have been a successful strategy for other candidates in the past). Softening on abortion would only sap enthusiasm and voter turnout of the 80 percent of white evangelicals we keep hearing about who backed Trump in 2016.

Soon, the Republican National Committee will release a draft platform. While Trump campaign and party officials have attacked those who have voiced concerns with the process, shutting out pro-life organizations and the general public hasn’t exactly instilled confidence that the end result will be positive.

No amount of verbal assurances about the platform, not even from the platform committee’s executive director, will suffice. The pro-life provisions in the platform have been a restraint against mischief from liberal Republicans for nearly five decades. The 2024 platform must uphold or strengthen those safeguards. The pro-life movement cannot afford to win in the Supreme Court only to lose at the Republican National Convention.

John Schweiker Shelton

John Shelton is the policy director for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke Divinity School and the University of Virginia, and he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.

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