While the role of the president in managing the economy is often overstated, most serious voters would rightly dismiss such a narrow claim as absurd. Yet how often do we hear the similarly misleading assertion that the only significant role the president plays in advancing the pro-life agenda is nominating Supreme Court justices?
The fact is that the president has a limited, but substantial and broad-based, role in protecting life and defending the most vulnerable in society. Here are five ways that a president can advance---or impede---the pro-life cause:
1. Preserving the Pro-Life Riders --- Each year pro-life provisions or "riders" are attached to the annual appropriations bills, preventing public funds from supporting abortions, abortion providers, or abortion promoters. The pro-life riders are attached to funding legislation and typically come up in the appropriations process or Department of Defense reauthorizations. Under President Ronald Reagan and the George H.W. Bush, federal regulations were clearly written to prevent recipients of Title X funds from referring for abortions or combining family planning services with abortion services (i.e., working at the same location).
Examples of pro-life riders include:
- The Dickey-Wicker provision which prohibits federal funding for research that harms or destroys human embryos.
- The Kemp-Kasten Amendment which prevents funding from going to those who support or participate in a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.
- The Hyde-Weldon provision which offers conscience protections for health care entities that refuse to provide or encourage abortions. It requires federal funds to be withheld from any state that discriminates against a hospital, insurance provider, or individual doctors and nurses for refusing to participate in abortion.
- The Mexico City Policy which prohibits USAID (foreign aid) money from going to any organizations that promote or perform abortions.
- Other provisions that are more specific include bans on funding for: abortions for federal prisoners, abortion in the District of Columbia, abortions through the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, abortions through Peace Corp, and abortion through the international HIV/AIDS bill.
The president can threaten to use the veto to prevent the removal of such riders or veto any legislation that included these pro-life provisions.
2. Filing of amicus briefs in cases before the judiciary --- Where a case may have broader implications, amicus curiae briefs are a way to introduce those concerns, so that the possibly broad legal effects of court decisions will not depend solely on the parties directly involved in the case. Both John Roberts, as a Special Assistant to U.S. Attorney General, and Samuel Alito, as Assistant to the Solicitor General, submitted briefs defending the pro-life cause. Reagan's Solicitor General Charles Fried also called for Roe to be reversed in a brief. While the briefs themselves rarely decide the outcome of a particular case, they are useful in limiting the scope of a particular legal change or interpretation
3. Issuance of executive orders --- Executive orders help direct the operation of officers within the executive branch. They also have the force of law when made in pursuance of certain Acts of Congress, when those acts give the President discretionary powers. For example, on the fourth day of the Clinton presidency---the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade---Bill Clinton signed, in a televised Oval Office ceremony, a series of executive orders undoing the pro-life policies of the Reagan-Bush era. The orders repealed the Mexico City policy, repealed prohibition on federally funded clinics referring for abortion, lifted the ban on military abortions, and lifted the ban on fetal tissue research.
4. Selection of political appointments --- The president fills many political appointments that have a direct and significant impact on the pro-life cause. Examples include Health and Human Services (responsible for enforcing the Hyde Amendment, etc.), the FDA (e.g., approval and regulation of abortifacients), and the State Department (which sends multiple delegates to UN conferences like CEDAW and Population and Development, where the international battle for human dignity is waged).
The Justice Department is another agency that has a key role, specifically in deciding how to defend law cases involving U.S. statutes. For example, Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno cleared the way for the nation's first assisted suicide law by deciding that physicians may provide lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients without losing their licenses to write prescriptions. She did so by overturning the position taken by the head of one of her own agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which had said that doctors who prescribe drugs under Oregon's assisted-suicide law could face severe sanctions.
5. Using the "bully pulpit" --- President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the White House as a "bully pulpit," meaning a wonderful platform (Roosevelt often used the word "bully" as an adjective meaning superb) from which to persuasively advocate an agenda. As previous presidents have shown there is simply no better single platform for advocating the pro-life cause than from within the Oval Office---and also no better place to stand to argue for the continuation of federally protected abortion.
Christians have an obligation to the most vulnerable members of our society to elect politicians who have both a robust view of human dignity and the temerity to govern accordingly. We betray this duty when we downplay the role the executive branch in advancing the pro-life cause. While judges and legislators are important for the protection of human dignity, presidents matter too.