Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

How Republicans can win on the abortion issue

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 02, 2023

With two prominent candidates already announced for the 2024 president contest (the same two who were finalists last time), and others positioning themselves for a possible race, it is not too early to discuss electoral strategy.

One of our major political parties is now slavishly committed to the promotion of abortion. The other party, unfortunately, is divided. “Moderate” Republicans warn that abortion is a winning issue for Democrats, and therefore Republicans should avoid it. Even Donald Trump, whose record in the Oval Office was solidly pro-life, has suggested that pro-life support may be a burden rather than a benefit for Republican candidates.

That myth—that abortion is a winning issue for Democrats—has persisted, rarely even challenged, for years. Fortunately, as both candidates and their consultants look toward 2024, a few analysts have discovered that Republican candidates could capitalize on the abortion issue, if only they took a firm and clear stand. The Democratic platform represents the extreme end of the spectrum, they reason, and if American voters are simply presented with the facts, they will vote against the extremists.

Although I wholeheartedly endorse that argument, I have to point out that it is not a new discovery. In fact it is an argument that I presented more than thirty years ago, in a memo to a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts. The candidate declined to follow my advice, and lost the party’s nomination to an avowedly pro-abortion opponent.

A great deal has changed on the American political scene since I wrote this memo, most notably with the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Some states have instituted bans on abortion (at least in most cases), which would have been impossible at the time I wrote. Nevertheless in America as a whole—as in Massachusetts at that time—the political climate remains unfavorable to an abortion ban. How then should pro-life candidates approach the issue? I think my arguments still make sense, mutatis mutandis. If anything it has become more persuasive over the years, as abortion advocates have edged further and further toward the lunatic fringe. That otherwise savvy politicians have resisted the logic of these arguments, despite the ever-growing evidence, highlights the stranglehold that the abortion lobby has held on public information. If Republican candidates can break that stranglehold, they—and unborn children—will reap the benefits.

Herewith I reproduce my memo in its entirety, without changing a word.

A campaign memo—dated 1990

Abortion will be an unavoidable question in all 1990 electoral campaigns. Pro-life candidates can turn this question to their advantage if they frame the issue clearly, mobilizing the two-thirds majority of Americans who favor restrictions on abortion.

Democratic candidates in Massachusetts will refuse to support any restrictions on abortion. A pro-life Republican can demonstrate that this is an extreme position; responsible regulation of abortion is the moderate path.

In the aftermath of the Webster decision, proponents of unrestricted abortion have mounted an enormous propaganda campaign. With the help of a sympathetic media, they have broadcast the notion that most American voters are “pro-choice.” The results of recent elections disprove their claim.

Election results prove one fact beyond doubt: pro-life candidates who waffle on this issue are inviting disaster. Pro-abortion propagandists will accept no compromises. A candidate who straddles the fence, therefore, will have the worst of both worlds: he will be abandoned by pro-life activists, yet still attacked by pro-abortionists.

Pro-life campaigners in 1990 must emphasize one central point: The question at issue today is whether abortion should be totally unrestricted and unregulated. We do not have the political support (in Massachusetts, at least) to ban all abortions; and in any case, until Roe is overturned, no state can implement such a ban. The question of banning abortion, therefore, is politically irrelevant. The only relevant question is whether abortion should be restricted.

Election Analysis

Three recent contests—the New York mayoral race and the gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia and New Jersey—have been depicted as victories for legal abortion. This is inaccurate. In each case, the Republican candidate attempted to compromise his position of abortion, thereby losing the allegiance—and the campaign help—of the pro-life movement.

The Virginia contest was most instructive, particularly because Governor-elect Wilder strongly emphasized his support for unrestricted abortion. He thus attracted enthusiastic support from abortion advocates all over the country. Marshall Coleman waffled, losing pro-life support. Therefore, this was a one-sided contest, pitting the strength of the pro-abortion forces against no organized opposition. Yet Wilder won by a very slim margin!

Moreover, Wilder’s victory cannot be attributed to pro-choice sentiment. An exit poll conducted among Virginia voters by Tarrance & Associates found that only 12% of the voters based their choice solely on the issue of abortion, and of these, a slim plurality (42-39%) voted for Coleman. Only 10% of the voting population cited their preference for a pro-choice candidate as an important factor in the election. A slightly larger number, 12%, cited pro-life beliefs as an important factor.

The National Right to Life Committee has identified ten post-Webster electoral contests in which the two candidates offered a clear choice on abortion. Pro-life candidates won seven of those ten contests. The most noteworthy contest was the victory of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, succeeding Claude Pepper in the 18th Congressional district in Florida.

Public Opinion

Recent polls purport to show that a majority of Americans would oppose a ban on abortion. But the question of banning abortion is irrelevant. The relevant question is whether abortion should be restricted, and a clear majority supports restrictions on abortion.

On the eve of the Webster case, a CBS News poll asked Americans whether they would support a law banning abortion in their state except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. A solid majority—66%—said they would approve such a law.

To date the best available poll—because it is the most thorough—is the one conducted by the Boston Globe in March 1989. By asking questions on a case-by-case basis, the Globe poll revealed public attitudes regarding abortion in practice rather than in theory. The results demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of American disapprove of abortion in an overwhelming majority of cases.

According to the Globe poll, solid majorities believed that abortion should be legal:

  • to save the life of the mother (86%),
  • in cases of rape (86%),
  • in cases of incest (83%),
  • if the mother’s health is endangered (81%), and
  • in cases of genetic deformity (63%).

However, according to the Guttmacher Institute (an affiliate of Planned Parenthood), those conditions account for only 7% of all abortions performed in America. And that 7% figure is inflated; it includes 4% in the catch-all category “health of the mother.” On the other hand, large majorities thought abortion should be illegal:

  • as a means of selecting the child’s sex (93%),
  • as a means of birth control (89%),
  • when the father is unwilling to help (83%),
  • when the timing of the pregnancy is inconvenient (82%),
  • when the father is absent (81%),
  • when the woman cannot afford a child (75%),
  • when the father pressures the mother into abortion (75%),
  • when the father wants to keep the baby (72%), or
  • when the pregnancy would cause emotional strain (61%).

There has been no discernible change in public attitude regarding the restriction of abortion. Every year since 1965, the National Opinion Research Center has polled on the same question: “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances.” The answer have been remarkably consistent. Invariably, the “always legal” response is between 20-25%; “always illegal” between 17 and 21%; “legal under certain circumstances” between 52 and 59%. There is no sign of any trend.


A successful pro-life Republican strategy for 1990 can be built on the following principles.

1. The pro-life candidate must be firm and unwavering. Any perception of fence-straddling, or sudden changes of heart based on political expediency, on this vital issue will raise questions about the candidate’s character. Only a few voters are militantly pro-choice, and these voters will cast their lot with an equally militant pro-choice candidate. Since the Democratic Party has staked its claim for unrestricted abortion, no Republican candidate can count on any support from this small constituency. By taking a clear pro-life stance, the candidate can claim the support of a somewhat larger pro-life constituency. A candidate whose pro-life position is clear can count on the support of loyal pro-life workers; a candidate who waffles cannot.

2. The pro-life candidate must mobilize public disapproval of abortion. The overwhelming majority of Americans view abortion with extreme distaste. The candidate should emphasize how many abortions now take place in Massachusetts: roughly 40,000 every year. Massachusetts ranks 48th among the 50 states in birth rate, but 8th in abortion rate. Taxpayers have financed nearly 50,000 abortions, at a cost of $1,400,000 annually. Massachusetts pays for far more abortions than the entire federal government. After 16 years of completely untrammeled access to abortion, no one can be happy with our present situation.

3. The pro-life candidate must oppose “convenience” abortions. The candidate should point out that, at present, access to abortion is utterly unrestricted. Many women choose abortion for trivial reasons. Abortion has become commonly used as a form of contraception. One-half of those now obtaining abortions admit that they used no contraceptive. And over 40% of all abortions are repeat abortions; some women keep coming back. In one year, at one clinic in Brookline, over 600 women procured an abortion for the fourth time or more. The “hard cases” involving rape, incest, or the life of the mother account for no more than 7% of all abortions.

4. The pro-life candidate must call for restrictions on abortion. Massachusetts voters will not support a total ban on abortion. But they should support measures:

  • making it illegal to use abortion as a mean of selecting the sex of the child;
  • requiring abortionists to take all steps necessary to protect the life of a viable fetus;
  • setting tough safety standards and reporting requirements for abortion clinics;
  • giving women complete information about what an abortion will involve, and the available alternatives; and
  • protecting the rights of the unborn child’s father.

By supporting such moderate measures, a pro-life candidate could energize the dedicated pro-life workers, and mobilize the passive pro-life sentiment of the voting majority. Moreover, since pro-abortion candidates will reject any restrictions, a firm pro-life leader will demonstrate the extreme, uncompromising nature of his opponent’s position on this crucial issue.


The great majority of voters are uncomfortable with the issue of abortion, and will support a candidate whose views represent some common ground. A pro-life candidate can succeed by demonstrating:

  1. Abortion has become an all-too-frequent occurrence.
  2. The only relevant question is whether we should continue to allow completely unrestricted, unregulated access to abortion.
  3. The moderate position is to promote responsible restrictions, eliminating “convenience” abortions and forcing the abortion industry to conduct itself responsibly.
  4. By insisting on unrestricted abortion, “pro-choice” politicians are taking an extreme position, risking a major rift in society and encouraging the needless slaughter of unborn children.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mooreshi7489 - May. 05, 2023 9:05 AM ET USA

    We have degenerated as a society since you wrote this in 1990. After the Dobbs decision, 75 health care organizations decried the harm the decision will cause health care entities, including a lack of embryonic body parts useful in research. I don’t believe you can regulate intrinsic evil as an industry. Forcing the abortion industry to behave responsibly? What would that look like? How can you kill an innocent human being for industrial profit “responsibly “?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - May. 03, 2023 8:22 AM ET USA

    Few politicians make this argument publicly and, if it is made, the mass media will suppress it whenever possible. As a result, the average American rarely engages the debate at this level of specificity. Meanwhile, many wander merrily and cluelessly towards the fall of modern-day Rome.

  • Posted by: FredC - May. 02, 2023 6:36 PM ET USA

    My suggested argument for Republicans: DNA science proves that the human fetus, even the human embryo, is a human being, not part of the mother or father; therefore, science shows that abortion kills a human being. Republicans follow the science. They want to put at least some restrictions on when a human being who has done no wrong can be put to death. Democrats want no restrictions, even to the point of allowing infanticide, as Governor Northam wanted, with taxpayers doing the paying.