Tony Perkins: GOP Must Never Retreat on Pro-Life Cause


The stresses on America both internationally and domestically are immense. We face the brute reality of war in Ukraine, which could easily spill into a NATO country. The Middle East is more volatile than at any time since the founding of Israel 76 years ago.

There are grim warnings from some people of civil war here at home as the cancel culture seeks to silence and even eradicate voices with which they disagree. Political invective has become personal and ugly — even among friends.

These challenges we face have been entrusted to us, this generation, by God. We have no reason to fear the difficulties we face because as 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

While there are many things that deserve Americans’ attention, there is one topic that many political leaders are doing verbal gymnastics to avoid talking about. It’s an debate that has been, is, and will be a defining issue for our nation.

Two years ago next month, the Supreme Court reversed the calamitous 1973 abortion rulings that led to the taking of nearly 64 million lives. But what should have been the fulfillment of decades of effort to heal a blot on the Constitution and our national conscience has become a flashpoint of conflict.

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In the past 23 months, tens of thousands of infants have been saved in pro-life states — but perhaps two million more have been lost as the Biden administration and the abortion industry have combined to end all pretense that abortion is about health care and begun promoting do-it-yourself abortions by mail.

The Dobbs decision has given America a second chance, an opportunity to repent. The times call for a new campaign for life, but instead, we see sign after sign of a retreat among our fellow Republicans on this defining issue. And now, there are rumors and reports of an organized campaign to weaken or remove altogether from the GOP Ppatform language that insists every boy or girl in the womb has a right to life.

Having written a large portion of the last two Republican Platforms and been elected to the upcoming platform committee, I am involved in those conversations, and I am hopeful we will end in the right place.

But I want to be clear: The right to life transcends other political debates and the interests of any and all political parties and candidates. It is truly the right without which no other right has any meaning.

Should the GOP refuse to back down on its pro-life stance?

In his last speech before his death on April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln said, “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.”

Please don’t mistake my words as partisan. Advocates for the sanctity of human life want all political parties to embrace what our Founders declared as the first among the rights with which we are endowed by our Creator. On this, we are and must be inflexible.

It’s time for us to reflect on what one political party did right — and now risks getting completely wrong. And it is fitting to go back to the very beginning of the Grand Old Party nearly 170 years ago to understand the stakes that loom today.

All of us are familiar with the high drama of the mid-19th century, the turmoil that would divide a nation. The focus of the debate was not at first slavery itself but the extension of slavery into the territories of a rapidly expanding nation. The times compelled America’s representatives to take a stand. Many did so at odds with the political parties that brought them to office.

One of them, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, was first elected as a Democrat in 1844. Two years later, he stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and offered what became known as the Wilmot Proviso. The Proviso set the condition that no addition to U.S. territory resulting from the Mexican War would permit either “slavery or involuntary servitude.”

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Democrat Lewis Cass replied with the idea that became known as popular sovereignty. He wrote of this idea to a colleague, “Leave it to the people who will be affected by this question to adjust it upon their own responsibility, and in their own manner[.]”

This manner of dealing with a matter of profound and universal significance, leaving it to one segment of the public or state to determine whether other men could be owned as property, should sound familiar to our ears right now.

Thus was laid out the core debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, between the Democratic Party and the newly forming GOP.

Wilmot re-emerged in time as a Republican. In 1856, the newly formed party met in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence. The Convention adopted a platform that tracked the text of the Declaration, then proceeded to make its applications clear.

It said: “[I]t is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.” Those twin relics of barbarism. From the very beginning, the Republican Party concerned itself with moral questions — and rejected the idea that these were merely matters for local debate and resolution.

Four years later in Chicago, in May 1860, Wilmot was among the first to take the floor of the Republican Convention. Speaking of the reigning Democrats, he said, “A great sectional and aristocratic party, or interest, has for years dominated with a high hand over the political affairs of this country. That interest has wrested, and is now wresting, all the great powers of this government to the one object of the extension and nationalization of slavery. It is our purpose, gentlemen, it is the mission of the Republican party and the basis of its organization, to resist this policy of a sectional interest.”

Wilmot went on to cite the Constitution and hail the Revolutionary era, saying of the Founders: Had they thought that “they were called upon to endure the hazards, trials and sacrifices of that long and perilous contest for the purpose of establishing on this continent a great slave empire, not one of them would have drawn his sword in such a cause.”

To the delegates gathered in the Windy City, these were not mere catchphrases, tossed among the “real issues” of commerce and taxation. They were the embodiment of the ideals of Washington and Jefferson.

They were the very reason the party existed. And the reason was no mere, to use Wilmot’s expression, “sectional interest” — it was the principle that all men are created equal and that governments exist to protect their unalienable rights.

Now, we could spend hours discussing the history that followed these events in the 19th century. For my purposes, I will only note that our Republic developed rapidly in that era, and the direction was almost uniformly toward protecting fundamental, natural rights.

The century saw the abolition of slavery and the adoption of three constitutional amendments to ensure its demise. The century saw the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, events an ever-growing body of scholarship shows were led by women who decried abortion as the ultimate exploitation of women.

The 19th century brought another band of progress: the great wave of states acting to protect the unborn child. These policies were advanced and adopted not by extremists, or Christian nationalists or whatever the slurs of our day might furnish, but by the newly formed American Medical Association. These forces converged in proposing and ratifying the 14th Amendment in 1868.

I urge us all to take a fresh look at the scholarship of people like Professor Robert George at Princeton and John Finnis at Oxford. They persuasively argue that “[T]he 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection apply to human beings, as persons, at all developmental stages — pre-natal, as well as post-natal — and in all conditions.”

Some might say, “This is well and good, Tony, but what has this got to do with the 21st century and the role of the parties and legislatures of our day?” My answer is straightforward. It has everything to do with it.

Let’s begin with the stark reality of the world as it revealed itself in the 20th century. For all the progress in science and technology — we can debate whether that includes the invention of the cell phone, the internet, and the “Barbie” movie — the 20th century was unparalleled in the development and use of mass violence.

There were two world wars, dozens of smaller conflicts, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the development and dropping of two atomic bombs, the H-bomb and long-range nuclear missiles, the millions of victims of Stalin and Mao.

There was also something new to humanity — the top-down imposition of coercive population control, beginning in China but spreading worldwide. If the Republicans were right about slavery, how should we respond to this latest manifestation of a dismissive view of human life?

The start of the 21st century has seen the emergence of a related issue. Is it surprising that once man is free to end the life of a helpless child in the womb, then he will next turn to the weak, elderly, or vulnerable who are outside the womb?

To find our way forward in the 21st century, we only need to look back to America’s debates on slavery. The Democratic Party once embraced “popular sovereignty,” which held that issues of profound significance, such as slavery, were private decisions for the plantation owner and his state.

The Republicans of those days passed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery; the 14th Amendment, providing that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”; and the 15th Amendment, providing that the rights of citizens to vote shall not be “denied or abridged … on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

That Democratic Party was wrong then. And its ideology of “privacy” has been wrong for the past 50 years. To see abortion and assisted suicide as merely matters of private conscience is a cynical misreading of American history and a threat to the foundations of our American Republic.

I said at the outset that the life issue is not a partisan one. We would, of course, like to see the party of Lincoln stand firm on what it has held as a matter of principle since 1856.

We’d like to see it do so because it’s the right thing to do, and the party’s pro-life position has brought it more and more support from young people, African-Americans, and Latinos.

In the first GOP Platform to be written after Roe v. Wade in 1976, the Republicans took a stand that has remained to this day. Let me quote that platform verbatim:

“We protest the Supreme Court’s intrusion into the family structure through its denial of the parents’ obligation and right to guide their minor children. The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

In 1980, the GOP took another and even bolder step. Ronald Reagan was engaged in a nip-and-tuck primary contest with George H.W. Bush. To salvage his campaign, Reagan sought to resolve a controversy over his signing of a liberal California abortion law in 1967 by sending a strong letter of commitment to pro-life leaders.

They responded with endorsements, and Reagan marched to victory. Once again, Michigan was at the center of the drama. The action moved to Detroit, where a triumphant Reagan selected Bush as his running mate and crafted a platform built on the 1976 language, unifying the party.

You know the rest of the story. Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter handily. Carter, for his part, was deeply uncomfortable with abortion and supported the Hyde Amendment.

In 1984 the GOP Platform took another massive step forward, going beyond endorsing a constitutional amendment and actively asserting that the Constitution, properly understood, already protects unborn human life.

It said, “The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

From that point forward, the Republican Platform has not only consistently affirmed the unborn child’s “fundamental individual right to life,” it has expanded its language to include issues from adoption and defunding of abortion providers to opposing cloning and supporting federal protections for infants born alive after induced abortion.

Likewise, abortion has not stood alone in these platforms, because the issue is transcendent in other ways too. Attacks on human life have led to some of the most egregious assaults on the family and on religious freedom and conscience. To these the GOP has consistently said a vigorous “no.”

As the last four decades have now shown, when these principles are celebrated, the Grand Old Party prevails at the ballot box. When the messaging or the candidate deviates from these principles, failure is assured — look at the results in 1996, 2008, and 2012.

What are we to think when Republican leaders suggest reconsidering the party’s stance on the sanctity of human life, on constitutional protection for the unborn, and on a commitment that has lasted over half a century? That the Republican Platform, for the first time in half a century, may sound a retreat on this core principle?

In such a situation, the alarm cannot be sounded too soon or too loud.

We, champions of the God-given right to life, are under no illusions. The ravages of the Sexual Revolution are all around us. Today, we even debate whether mutilating the bodies of children in vain attempts to change their sex is a good thing.

Shame on us.

Under these circumstances, standing for the sanctity of each and every human life is hard. But, “important principles may, and must, be inflexible.”

I don’t dismiss this challenge, as ballot initiatives in various states have shown. All I can say is, we are not doing this for ourselves. We are seeking the protection of law and public policy for the most vulnerable among us, the unborn, and for their mothers, who either did not expect to be pregnant or did not expect the man in their lives to reject them when they got the news.

Praying, standing, and voting for justice is always the hard road, the way of the cross.

Justice is never won easily. The fight for justice is never time-limited. A single presidential election settles a country’s policy for four years. But our nation’s policy on the right to life is timeless. Like millions of conservative voters and activists, the issue of life is the issue above all others that drew me into the world of politics and policy three decades ago.

To abandon it now, to adopt a platform that declares this issue of no national significance, that leaves the unborn completely exposed to dismemberment, cardiac injections, and poisoning in the womb, that sets the stage for a national policy of abortion on demand by a Democratic majority, would be a tragedy of historic proportions.

After all is said and done, what is being asked of us? For me, it is no more than that we be faithful. To not fear, but to respond in the spirit of power, and of love and of the sound mind we’ve been given.

Being faithful is all that is being asked of us. Luke, the Great Physician, records Jesus’s words, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).

Let’s rededicate ourselves to this battle for true freedom — the freedom that celebrates life and refuses to destroy it. Over the next two months, this battle will play out over a single document, the national Republican Platform, but its object and prize are the soul of a nation.

Let’s stir the spirit of the American people, of every party and persuasion, to rediscover the gift of life and our duty to uphold it in every sphere.

My friends, we must be inflexible on this important principle of the sanctity of human life — the future depends upon it.

This article appeared originally on The Washington Stand and was adapted from a speech given at the 2024 Lincoln Day Dinner in Muskegon County, Michigan, on May 21.

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The Washington Stand is Family Research Council’s outlet for news and commentary from a biblical worldview. The Washington Stand is based in Washington, D.C. and is published by FRC, whose mission is to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview.