Dismantling the RNC’s Legacy of Hostility To Abortion Access

This week, the Republican National Convention has featured graphic and deceptive rails against abortion—the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that Trump has made mainstream over the last few years. 

Dismantling the RNC Legacy of Hostility To Abortion Access
During her RNC speech on Tuesday, anti-abortion extremist Abby Johnson talked about her final day at Planned Parenthood, when she allegedly witnessed an ultrasound-guided abortion. But Johnson’s account has been disputed by several reports. (EpiskopatNews / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This brand of over-the-top opposition to abortion (Abby Johnson promised “the most provocative, impassioned, memorable” anti-abortion speech in history) may seem like a departure from the genteel conservatism of past conventions.

But, in reality, nearly 40 years of GOP opposition to abortion and the party’s failure to respect the importance of making fundamental decisions about our reproductive lives has led us to this point.

The RNC platforms from 1984 on have endorsed a growing number of restrictions on abortion.

The 2016 platform “salute[s] the many States that have passed laws for informed consent, mandatory waiting periods prior to an abortion, and health-protective clinic regulation.” It also “oppose[s] the use of public funds” for abortion, a reference to the Hyde Amendment and the other laws denying abortion coverage to those eligible for Medicaid and others who rely on federal insurance programs. 

This strategy to chip away at abortion access has resulted in more than 1000 laws against abortion enacted by states across the country since Roe v. Wade. In the last year or so, that has included nine states passing bans on abortion. The impact of clinic closures, waiting periods, and insurance coverage bans has fallen hardest on Black people and other people of color, low-income communities, and immigrants, pushing abortion access out of reach for many. 

Dismantling the RNC Legacy of Hostility To Abortion Access
Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Starting in 1984, the platforms have called for a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution and legislation that would make clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections would apply to “the unborn child.” Put simply, a fetus would be considered a “person,” allowing, among other things, a ban on all abortions—and the provider or the person having the abortion could be subject to prosecution and punishment, including the possibility of jail time.

So, it’s not simply hyperbole when Trump promised to pack the federal judiciary—including the U.S. Supreme Court—with anti-abortion judges, a mainstay of the Republican platforms since 1984. 

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And in 2016, when Trump infamously said that “there should be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, that wasn’t empty rhetoric. 

Perhaps in a nod to then-President George W. Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” the 2004 GOP platform was an outlier, containing flowery, albeit inconsistent language, about showing concern for women who have abortions:

Our goal is to ensure that women with problem pregnancies have the kind of support, material and otherwise, they need for themselves and for their babies, not to be punitive towards those for whose difficult situation we have only compassion. We oppose abortion, but our pro-life agenda does not include punitive action against women who have an abortion.

But in 2008, this language was scaled back to a more narrow and uncompromising position, noting only “a moral obligation to assist, not to penalize, women struggling with the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy”—language echoed again in 2012 and 2016. 

Dismantling the RNC Legacy of Hostility To Abortion Access
The Republican National Convention in September 2008. (Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress)

So, if abortion were made illegal as the platforms propose, what would actually happen to someone who had an abortion? What about abortion providers—the ones that Trump and his followers have demonized through lies and disinformation? What about people who self-manage their abortions? Or who experience a miscarriage or a still birth?

We’re already seeing the answers to these troubling questions as prosecutions in state after state have revealed their willingness to misapply various laws to investigate and prosecute people for their pregnancy outcomes. 

The fact is that extreme attacks on abortion access and antipathy toward people who have them are seeded deeply in the party’s playbook, embedded in many of our federal and state laws, and animate many members of the federal judiciary who have lifetime appointments. 

This all doesn’t magically disappear if Trump loses in November. 

Rather, to turn the tide and ensure that those who need to make decisions about their reproductive lives are protected and supported, resist the false narrative about abortion that Trump and his allies will push in the coming weeks.

In the 2018 and 2019 elections, this issue activated voters and candidates alike, and we saw champions for reproductive freedom elected at the state and federal levels. 

In 2020, voters have the chance—and the responsibility—to continue this momentum.


Andrea Miller is the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) and its Action Fund, an advocacy organization that fights for just and equitable access to reproductive healthcare in states and cities nationwide.