Abortion and the Catholic Church in the 1976 Election

Abortion and the Catholic Church in the 1976 Election June 25, 2024

The presidential election of 1976 presented the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) with a difficult dilemma. With the two parties taking opposing stances on the issue of abortion, one might have thought that the bishops would endorse the antiabortion party and its presidential candidate. But the bishops didn’t want to do that.

Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford at a presidential debate, 1976 (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library / Wikipedia)

That was not because they didn’t care about abortion. In fact, the bishops had already suggested that the abortion issue was their foremost political priority. Three years earlier, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, the NCCB created the Committee for Pro-Life Activities to coordinate the church’s political activism against abortion, and shortly after that, they organized the Committee for a Human Life Amendment to lobby for the one thing that they thought could most effectively protect human life from the moment of conception: an amendment to the US Constitution. In 1975, the bishops released a “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” that directed every parish to appoint a pro-life coordinator and identifying the Human Life Amendment (HLA) as their chief goal.

In February 1976, the NCCB issued a list of policy issues to consider when voting that began with abortion. “The right to life is a basic human right which should have the protection of law,” the bishops declared. “Abortion is the deliberate destruction of an unborn human being and therefore violates this right. We reject the 1973 Supreme Court decisions on abortion which refuse appropriate legal protection to the unborn child. We support the passage of a constitutional amendment to restore the basic constitutional protection of the right to life for the unborn child.”

Because the bishops had identified a Human Life Amendment as a top political priority, they were therefore dismayed when the Democratic Party voted in June 1976 to adopt a platform statement opposing the HLA. By later standards, the statement was quite moderate. It did not directly endorse abortion rights, as pro-choice feminists wanted. Nevertheless, it declared that the Democrats considered it “undesirable to attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision” on abortion. This was enough to alarm the Catholic bishops. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the president of the NCCB at the time, called the platform statement “morally offensive in the extreme.”

A few weeks later, the Republican Party adopted a platform statement that endorsed “the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” Compared to later Republican Party statements, the GOP platform of 1976 was relatively moderate on abortion. It acknowledged a diversity of views within the party on the issue and expressed more concern about the “intrusion” of the Supreme Court into the matter than about abortion itself. And President Gerald Ford said himself that the only constitutional amendment he supported on abortion was a “states’ rights” amendment to rescind Roe v. Wade and return the matter to the states, whereas the bishops wanted a constitutional amendment to protect human life from the moment of conception and ban abortion nationwide.

The bishops wished that Ford would go further, but when faced with the choice between a Democratic Party platform that repudiated the idea of an antiabortion constitutional amendment and a Republican Party platform that explicitly endorsed it, they had no doubt which platform statement was superior. “The specific difference is an unwillingness, at this time, on the part of the Democratic candidate to support any kind of constitutional amendment and a willingness on the part of the Republican candidate to support an amendment,” Bernardin explained to the press. He was “encouraged” by his conversation with Ford on the subject, but found Carter’s position “deeply disturbing,” he said.

Immediately after Bernardin’s statement, he was deluged with criticism – not just from those outside of the church, but also from some of the Catholic press. Catholics needed to consider a variety of issues when voting, not merely the party platform statements on abortion, America magazine (a Jesuit publication) editorialized. After all, if the Ford administration’s policies on international food aid had resulted in the withholding of needed food aid to parts of the world that were starving, could one really claim that the Republican Party was the party of life?

Bernardin himself seemed to realize this. He insisted that he had not intended to endorse a particular candidate or political party. Indeed, only a few months before he met with the candidates, he had led the bishops in issuing a statement against single-issue voting: “We specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc; nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing candidates. We urge citizens to avoid choosing candidates simply on the personal basis of self-interest. Rather, we hope that voters will examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues as well as the person’s integrity, philosophy, and performance.”

Bernardin decided to live by that statement even when it seemed that the Human Life Amendment that he and other bishops had worked so hard to achieve might be at stake in the election. And even when Ford lost in a close race against Carter, Bernardin did not suggest that he had made a mistake. In 1980, the nation’s Catholic bishops worked even harder than they did in 1976 to avoid giving the suggestion that they favored the Republican candidate simply because of the GOP’s stance on abortion.

Indeed, for the rest of his clerical career, Bernardin pushed back against the idea that voters should look at abortion alone when evaluating candidates. Abortion was an extremely important issue, he believed, but it had to be understood as part of a larger pro-life philosophy that, by the early 1980s, he had come to believe would include opposition to other threats to life, such as capital punishment and nuclear war.

Bernardin could take this stance because he understood the church’s position on abortion through the lens of Vatican II, which outlined a social vision that George Weigel called “Christocentric humanism.” Vatican II insisted that the value of human life must be defended from the moment of conception, but opposing abortion was only one part of that defense.

“Whatever is opposed to life itself,” declared the Vatican II Council in Gaudium et Spes, “such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction – whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society . . .”

A campaign against abortion was therefore only one component of a larger campaign against all attacks on life and human dignity. A political party’s stated position on abortion was extremely important, but could not be a definitive litmus test without also considering the party’s stance on a whole range of issues affecting human life.

In 1976, most evangelicals who were concerned about abortion agreed with this holistic approach, although they had a slightly different list of issues of concern than the Catholic bishops had. Instead of talking about “subhuman living conditions” and “arbitrary imprisonment,” they listed pornography, drug abuse, and the evils of the sexual revolution as symptoms of moral decay that needed to be addressed through public policy.

But after 1980, some evangelical voters adopted a different approach. They insisted that abortion should be a political litmus test and that voting for antiabortion candidates was the key to saving unborn babies. “There is no doubt that the future of our nation for the rest of this century and into the beginning of the 21st century rides on the outcome of this election,” Moral Majority vice president Cal Thomas declared in March 1984. “Supreme Court judges will probably be chosen by the next President. Will they keep the abortion floodgates open or start to close them? It’s up to you.”

But the reality is more complicated, as I think Bernardin realized. On the issue of abortion, the election of 1984 did not turn out to be quite the watershed that Cal Thomas thought it would be. Even though Ronald Reagan won reelection by a landslide, the justices that he appointed did not uniformly vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

And although we cannot know for certain what would have happened if Ford had won in 1976, the chances are very low that his election would have tipped the balance in favor of an antiabortion constitutional amendment – especially since Ford himself didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea. After all, his wife, Betty Ford, had called Roe a “great, great decision” in 1975, and his first vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, was a strong supporter of abortion rights. But regardless of that, passage of a constitutional amendment would have required a degree of congressional support for the pro-life cause that didn’t exist at the time.

As Bernardin realized, the pro-life cause did not depend on the outcome of any single election. It was not a matter of simply mobilizing the vote to ensure a bare majority at the polls. Instead, it depended on a long process of convincing people of the value of the unborn and of all human life.

“The Church’s position on abortion is certainly clear,” he wrote in a personal letter in December 1975. “The problem is not in making that position known; it is in convincing people of the validity of the position and motivating them to do something about it. We are faced with a situation in which there are no quick and easy solutions. We can anticipate a long and difficult struggle, on which will take much patience and determination. Although we will all be tempted to look for and long for some escape in a quick solution, I am convinced that our ultimate success will be determined by our willingness to continue to make headway little by little.”

Today, nearly fifty years later, those who believe in the pro-life cause face a similar situation. Roe v. Wade has been overturned, but abortion is still legal in most parts of the United States, and the abortion rate is even higher than it was shortly before Roe’s reversal two years ago. As we prepare for the 2024 election, it may be tempting to believe that the election of a particular candidate or party will give us a “quick solution” to the issue, but that is not likely to be the case. Instead, those who believe in the value of all human life may need to “continue to make headway little by little,” not merely through political victories or legal maneuvers but through a sustained testimony of the value of human life and human dignity.

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