Like any descendants of a famous political figure, I often turn the corner and bump into some aspect of my father’s legacy. I haven’t checked with other political descendants, but I suspect we all run through the same questions: am I speaking out, am I trying to offer a broader or more personal perspective? Or do I shut up, let the news cycle go on without me and shy away from questions?
That’s my dilemma since the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion heralding the end of Roe v. Wade. I chose silence at first, but I’m haunted by memories that I think provide insight into how my father came to his views on abortion—beliefs that had global policy implications and also stemmed from some complicated, human emotions. Beliefs that were more personal than political.
In 1967, as governor of California, my father signed a law that made abortion legal for victims of rape and incest, and in cases where a woman’s mental or physical health was at risk. That law was one of the first in the country to decriminalize abortion. He was well aware that women who had been victims of rape or incest and who became pregnant would again be victims of the forced delivery of their attacker’s baby. But his religious faith made him doubt when life begins.
I was 14 when he signed the law; I didn’t think much about it then. About a year later, I met a girl who had been raped by her uncle and became pregnant. She had an abortion in California, and she said the bill my father signed made that possible. She asked me to thank him, but I never did. I never told him about her, or how proud I was of him at the time, because I was afraid of being asked questions about who my friends were, who I was hanging out with. To this day I wish I had passed on her gratitude and my pride.
In 1970, my father recaptured the account he had signed. Charles Schulz wrote a “Peanuts” comic that many people saw as a focus on the abortion issue, with a brief exchange between Linus and Lucy. My father wrote Schulz a letter referring to the “soul examination” he had done before signing the 1967 bill and the long hours of reading and research he had put in. He began to regret having learned that some psychiatrists diagnosed suicidal unmarried mothers after five-minute examinations so they could have an abortion. My father tended to hear a story and assume it was a sign of a broader pattern. That’s how his mind worked. And it came to weigh on him.
That seems to be one of the triggers that led him, nearly a decade later, to stand firmly in the anti-abortion camp and declare that the bill he signed as governor was a mistake.
The problem also struck closer to home. I believe my father was haunted by the death of his baby and that of Jane Wyman shortly after her birth. To my knowledge, he never spoke of Christine Reagan’s death, nor did he write about it in his autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” I didn’t hear about it until I was in my 40s, and I wondered about his unresolved grief—the pain he kept to himself. If you don’t acknowledge your grief, it will continue to pull you and lead you back to the waters you are trying to avoid. I think the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement – phrases like “kill babies” – put him in those waters, in the pain of losing a small, innocent life, and the two things became intertwined for him.
My father’s views on abortion have clearly changed over the years. All these years he struggled with his feelings. I think that needs to be said. Although he stated that abortions after rape or incest fell into the category of “self-defense” as well as saving a woman’s life if pregnancy or childbirth threatened it, he could not accept the idea that a woman would choose to have a to abort the fetus for other reasons.
In 1981, shortly after my father was shot, I was dining with my parents at the White House. I don’t remember how the abortion issue came up, but it did, and my father said it should only be allowed for rape, incest, or risk of a woman dying. Nothing else. I asked about situations where a woman can’t take care of a child at that time – shouldn’t it be her choice? For some reason I turned to my mother with the question and she said softly, “Yes, it should.” I’m haunted by that exchange—and by the fact that I didn’t push further to try and see what the conversation between my parents would be. But I had so little money back then. My activism in the anti-nuclear movement burned through all the influence I had had, so the subject was changed and never revisited.
I assume that my mother never lobbied my father about her feelings about abortion and agency. Or at least not violently. He did listen to her opinion, although there was no guarantee that he would change his mind.
And it clearly wasn’t. In 1986, he elevated William Rehnquist to Supreme Court Chief Justice and nominated Antonin Scalia to fill the vacant position. Abortion rights groups warned that Roe v. Wade could be in danger. Mr. Rehnquist had consistently opposed Roe v. Wade, and Mr. Scalia was known to be against abortion rights. For me, they were disturbing appointments.
My father continued to support exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the pregnant woman in other cases, including when he instituted the Global Gag Rule, which restricted women’s access to abortions in other countries where groups received money from the United States. For reasons I don’t understand, when he defended a constitutional ‘right to life’ amendment, he only included an exception for the life of the pregnant woman.
Here’s what I want you to know about Ronald Reagan: There was complexity in his views on abortion; there was, as he said, “soul research,” and I believe his views remained a work in progress to some extent. I can’t change how some see his legacy, but I can offer some insights, some obscurity to what many want to see as brightly enlightened facts. I can’t change the things he said or did, but I can ask you to look a little deeper and consider the jumble of emotions beneath the surface. I may ask you to consider that his faith drew to him in considering this matter, as well as his personal history of losing a newborn baby. It is ultimately possible to strongly disagree with people, understanding that they have delved deep into their own hearts and trying to be at peace with their points of view. But at this point I’m not sure if my father ever found that peace.
Patti Davis, the daughter of President Ronald Reagan, is an author. Her most recent book is ‘Floating in the Deep End’.