Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Briefing for Right to Life Activists

July 30, 1987

Senators, Congressmen, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to you all. Before I get on with things here, I think I'd better explain a little bit. This is just a small billboard that says—it's a reminder that says, "Stay out of the Sun." [Laughter] Well, there's one Congressman I see in the front row to whom I have to say a special word: Henry Hyde. Watching your contributions to the hearings, Henry, I couldn't help thinking— [laughter] —forgive me for this—other politicians can run, but there's only one I know who knows how to Hyde. [Laughter] It's a great pleasure to welcome all of you to Washington and an honor to be able to speak to this assembly of Americans who are doing so much to declare and defend the sacredness of all human life.

One of the aspects of this gathering that impresses me most is that just a few years ago many of you, perhaps most, never dreamed of getting involved in politics. What brought you into politics was a matter of conscience, a matter of fundamental conviction, and that gives you an integrity that Americans of all views cannot help but respect. It also happens to make me feel a particular kinship with you. You see, there was a time in my own life when nobody who knew me ever expected me to go into politics myself. [Laughter] In fact, back in 1966 when someone told my boss, Jack Warner, that I was running for Governor of California, he is supposed to have said, "No, Jimmy Stewart for Governor. Reagan for best friend." [Laughter]

But we come here today on an issue of the most fundamental importance. Many of you've been attacked for being single-issue activists or single-issue voters. But I ask: What single issue could be of greater significance? What single issue could say more about a society's values than the degree of respect shown for human life at its most vulnerable: human life still unborn?

Many of the most compelling arguments against abortion are as old as our civilization. Indeed, I would submit that a reverence for all human life is one of the distinguishing marks of true civilization. In our own time, medical science has added to our knowledge of the processes of life that take place before birth, deepening our understanding of what abortion means to the mother and the unborn child. We know, in particular, that when an abortion is performed the unborn child often feels pain.

You might be interested to learn that when I first mentioned this in a 1983 speech there was an outcry, enraged criticism and angry denials. But criticism wasn't the only response. It so happens that I also received a letter signed by 24 medical doctors, including eminent physicians like the former chief of pediatrics at the St. Louis City Hospital and the president of the New York State Medical Society. The letter stated that in recent years medical techniques have "demonstrated the remarkable responsiveness of the human fetus to pain, touch, and sound."

And the letter concluded: "Mr. President, in drawing attention to the capability of the human fetus to feel pain, you stand on firmly established ground." Well, in recent years medical science has taught us so much more about the individuality and responsiveness of the fetus, even at very early stages of development. My friends, isn't it about time the law of the land recognized the medical evidence of 1987? [Applause] If there's even a question about when human life begins, isn't it our duty to err on the side of life?

The law of the land—that's a phrase with special resonance for Americans. After all, ours is not a nation founded upon centuries of shared history, like the nations of Europe or Asia. No, ours is a nation founded upon a shared and basic law, the Constitution. And because it is the Constitution that must reflect our most fundamental values—freedom, equality before the law, and yes, the dignity of human life—because of this, the duty of everyone here today is clear. We must not rest—and I pledge to you that I will not rest—until a human life amendment becomes a part of our Constitution.

At the same time, we must continue to search for practical steps that we can take now, even before the battle for the human life amendment is won. I've submitted a bill to Congress that I know interests each of you keenly, and I'd like to talk about that with you in just a moment. But first, permit me to mention four other important steps our administration has taken, steps that I believe represent powerful examples of what can be done now to protect the lives of unborn children.

First, our position on international population policies—as you may be aware, some international organizations have chosen to support abortion as a means of population control. Well, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, or UNFPA, for example, works with Chinese population programs , which include abortion. Our response to that? We cut off American funds from UNFPA and from overseas organizations that support or promote abortion. As I said in my statement to the 1984 Mexico City International Conference on Population-incidentally, one of the best parts about being President is that from time to time you get to quote yourself— [laughter] —but as I said then: "We believe population programs can and must be truly voluntary, cognizant of the rights and responsibilities of individuals and families, and respectful of religious and cultural values." Well, that means no coercive measures such as involuntary sterilization and no use of abortion for population control.

Second, permit me to mention our recent actions concerning the District of Columbia. You'll recall that the Congress has the responsibility to oversee and appropriate all funds in the District of Columbia budget, but each year Congress has chosen to restrict only Federal funds in the DC budget from being used for abortions on demand. Yet in practice, the record is clear. There is no way to separate Federal from locally raised funds, and this has permitted the District to go right on financing abortions. And you know, I just felt that the great beauty of this capital city meant nothing if right here, in this city that belongs to all Americans, the dignity of human life was being neglected and even attacked. So, this year we took action. You'll be pleased to know that, in transmitting to Congress the District of Columbia budget for 1988, we made it clear that both Federal and local funds must comply with the Hyde amendment.

I want, third, to restate our firm opposition to the so-called, Grove City legislation sponsored by Senator Kennedy. This bill, S. 557, would mean that all hospitals and colleges receiving Federal funds, even those with religious affiliations, would be open to lawsuits if they failed to provide abortions. In other words, the legislation would virtually force these institutions to provide abortion on demand. I don't mind telling you this one really touches my temperature control. I don't want to get started, but let me just say this: As far as I'm concerned, every Member of Congress should oppose this proabortion Federal intrusion. [Applause] Thank you. You just made the day for some Legislators here. [Laughter] We support an amendment offered by Senator Danforth, an amendment that would eliminate the proabortion aspects of that legislation. As I said before, this administration will oppose any legislation that would require individuals or institutions, public or private, to finance or perform abortions.

Now, the fourth point is one that will come to you as especially good news, a set of initiatives that we will pursue immediately. The first of these is a revision of the title 10 Family Planning Program guidelines. Current guidelines require grant recipients to provide abortion counseling and referral. This policy has effectively barred family planning organizations that will not engage in abortion activity from participating in the title 10 program. I'm directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to publish regulations in the Federal Register removing this bias against groups that refuse to engage in abortion activities. In order to give effect to the statutory prohibition on the use of appropriated funds in programs where abortion is a method of family planning, I am also directing Secretary Bowen to make sure that the regulations specifically state that a program which does provide counseling and referral for abortion services as a method of family planning will not be eligible for title 10 funds.

Then there's an initiative that represents an important change in the title 10 regulations so that any organization that provides abortion-related services will be required to clearly separate these services from title 10 programs that the Federal Government is paying for. At present, the coexistence of abortion with federally supported family planning services fosters the view that abortion is an acceptable and government-sanctioned method of family planning. In order to ensure that this will no longer occur, I'm directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to publish in the Federal Register regulations that require grant recipients to separate, financially and physically, their eligible and noneligible programs.

Now, a third initiative is the development of a thorough and solid body of public health information on the effects of abortion on women. Growing numbers of women who've had abortions now say that they have been misled by inaccurate information. Making accurate data on maternal morbidity available to women before an abortion is performed is an essential element of informed consent. I am, therefore, directing the Surgeon General to issue a comprehensive medical report on the health effects, physical and emotional, of abortion on women.

The final initiative is a restriction on the use of Federal funds for activities that advocate abortion. It is inconsistent with title 10 for Federal funds to be used to provide speakers to debate in opposition to pro-life speakers, to lobby for proabortion legislation, to provide transportation to abortion clinics, or make reservations at abortion clinics, to bring lawsuits in support of abortion as a family planning method, or to provide or distribute materials that advocate abortion. And I am, therefore, directing Secretary Bowen to publish regulations in the Federal Register to ensure that no title 10 funds go to any program that encourages, promotes, or advocates abortion or which assists a woman in obtaining an abortion.

You'll be pleased to know that Secretary Bowen is fully supportive of my position on abortion and of these initiatives. Secretary Bowen has agreed that all necessary work will be completed in time to publish draft regulations in the Federal Register within 30 days. And I'm also pleased to say that the Secretary's newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs is Nabers Cabaniss. Nabers will be among those charged with implementing these new initiatives at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And this brings me to the bill I mentioned earlier. To begin with, a word or two of background. In the past, we've been successful in restricting the use of Federal funds for abortions on a department-by-department basis, making use of the Hyde amendment. Yet each year there have been a few departments and agencies not covered by the Hyde amendment. The bill that we're submitting to Congress will change that. And listen, if you will, to the key provision: "No funds appropriated by Congress shall be used to perform abortions, except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term." In other words, this one piece of legislation would permanently restrict the use of funds for abortions throughout the Federal Government, with absolutely no exceptions.

And introduced in the Senate by Senator Gordon Humphrey, this bill has 12 Senate cosponsors. And in the House, the bill was introduced by Congressman Henry Hyde and has garnered cosponsors numbering 124. Yes, opposition is stiff. But the very fact that this bill has been introduced has drawn attention to the importance of the debate and demonstrated the growing strength of the pro-life movement throughout the country.

Will the bill pass? The pundits certainly don't think so, but I have to tell you, at this point in my career, I'm used to a little skepticism. [Laughter] "The Impossible Became Inevitable"—that's what the Washington Post headline said when our tax reform was finally enacted. And I just have to believe that, given the fundamental goodness of the American people, given this great nation's reverence for life itself, pro-life measures like this legislation will become inevitable, too. So, I intend to push for these pro-life measures just as hard as I know how. Can I count on your support? [Applause] Thank you. I knew that was a foolish question when I asked it.

Many who turn to abortion do so in harrowing circumstances, and we must remind those who disagree with us, and sometimes even ourselves, that we do not seek to condemn, we do not seek to sit in judgment. Yes, we must take our stand without apology. Yet at the same time, it is our duty to rise above bitterness and reproach, to call upon all Americans to come together in a spirit of helping and understanding. For we know that in this great and good nation, positive solutions to the tragedy of abortion can be found.

If I could, I'd like to leave with you a quotation that means a great deal to me. These are the words of my friend, the late Terence Cardinal Cooke, of New York. "The gift of life, God's special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern, and reverence. It is in and through the weakest of human vessels that the Lord continues to reveal the power of His love."

The weakest of human vessels—surely there is no human life more frail and vulnerable than that of an infant still in its mother's womb. And surely it is our task to appeal to the goodness we know we can find in every American and to call upon the power of His love.

I thank you all, and God bless you all for what you're doing.

Note: The President spoke at 11:50 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to a basal cell carcinoma on his nose. He also referred to Representative Henry ]. Hyde of Illinois, who participated in the congressional hearings on the Iran-contra controversy.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Briefing for Right to Life Activists Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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