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Choosing Life

How pro-lifers become pro-lifers.

12:00 AM, Sep 1, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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HOW DO PEOPLE BECOME PRO-LIFERS? What turns people into passionate foes of abortion and related issues like euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research? I'm not referring to those who supported the pro-life position because of their family upbringing or religious faith or because of a political requirement as, say, a Republican candidate in a red state. I'm talking about people who, as adults or mature teenagers, were either pro-abortion or basically indifferent to the issue. Then something changed their mind, prompting them to take up the anti-abortion cause. Perhaps they began defending the pro-life position without realizing they'd flipped. In any case, what caused the change? What happened?

The answer can be found in the experiences of five people: Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde, Ramesh Ponnuru, Wesley Smith, and myself. And their stories, I think, are roughly representative of what a multitude of others went through as they came to embrace the cause of saving unborn children. The five experienced two things in common that should be easy to spot as we look at their five cases.

Let's begin with Reagan. In his first year as California governor in 1967, the legislature passed a bill to legalize "therapeutic" abortions. It was an issue Reagan hadn't thought much about and he was torn over whether to veto the measure. Many Republicans in legislature strongly urged him to sign the bill. And so did aides on his staff, including conservatives Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger, who later followed Reagan to Washington. Reagan was assured it would result in only a handful of abortions.

His instinct was to veto the bill and the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles urged him to follow that course. But he signed it into law. Reagan was disturbed by his decision, however, and continued to think long and hard about abortion. The bill, according to Lou Cannon in Governor Reagan, "permitted more legal abortions in California than occurred in any other state before the advent of Roe v. Wade." Reagan's worst fear was realized.

By 1980, Reagan had changed his mind and become a firm opponent of abortion. He insisted on a pro-life plank in the Republican platform for the first time. In 1983, he published a passionate pro-life essay, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. It turned out that signing the abortion bill in 1967 was the only political mistake that Reagan ever admitted.

HENRY HYDE had been a member of the Illinois legislature for five years when he first was confronted by the abortion issue. It was the early 1970s--before the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion-on-demand nationwide. Hyde was asked by another legislator to co-sponsor a bill easing the state's ban on abortion. And he was receptive.

When he read the proposed legislation, however, his thinking changed. Hyde, too, had never given much thought to abortion. But suddenly he had to. And the result was he wound up rejecting, rather than sponsoring, the pro-abortion bill and leading the successful opposition to it on the floor of the Illinois assembly.

Hyde was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and quickly became a leading pro-life voice. In 1976, he won enactment of legislation barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Thirty years later, the Hyde Amendment is still the law of the land.

RAMESH PONNURU, a writer for National Review who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, remembers as a teenager "not wanting to be a pro-lifer." In America, he told me, "it's just easier to be pro-choice. You're running with the tide."

In 1991, people he knew in Kansas City joined the Summer of Mercy anti-abortion protest in Wichita. The demonstration drew enormous media attention and the protesters were reported to have created a tense standoff, a near-crisis. Ponnuru followed the event closely enough to know that the protesters were "about as tense as a church picnic." In fact, his friends who took part "were the kind of people who go to church picnics."

The effect of the Wichita demonstration on Ponnuru, miles away in Kansas City, was profound. That summer, he thought about the morality of abortion. And by the time he entered Princeton at the end of the summer, he was a full-blown pro-lifer. Since then, his opposition to abortion "has deepened every year." And this year, he published Party of Death, a compelling account of the Democratic party's emergence as a strongly pro-abortion party.

AS A LAWYER and colleague of Ralph Nader, Wesley Smith was an unlikely prospect to become a pro-lifer. He got there in an unusual way that led him to become America's leading critic of euthanasia, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research.