What People Get Wrong About George H.W. Bush’s Position on Abortion
George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, vice president to Ronald Reagan, and father of former president George W. Bush, died on November 30. Since then, many have been eager to discuss his legacy.
Though he served only one term in office as president after losing his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, the elder Bush’s time in office packed a punch against marginalized people. From allowing the AIDS crisis to rage without federal help to covering up the Iran-Contra scandal, H.W. Bush’s legacy is messy to say the least. Still, there’s been some effort in the few days since his death to embellish his record on abortion rights.
A staunch conservative his entire career, Bush always took a reactionary position on reproductive rights — yet one of his positions on abortion seems to be winning him some undeserved credit from the media in the wake of his death.
“Former President George H.W. Bush is praised by anti-abortion rights groups but he once supported Planned Parenthood and began as a moderate, reflecting a larger GOP shift amid pressure from religious conservatives,” NPR’s Sarah McCammon said in the lead-up to a segment on All Things Considered about the former president’s abortion legacy.
The show went on to play a clip of law professor B. Jesse Hill asserting that “his family and George H.W. Bush had real pro-choice cred.”
“Hill says Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood,” McCammon continued. “[I]n the late 1960s and early ’70s, George H.W. Bush himself supported family planning as a congressman and an ambassador to the United Nations.”
Prescott Bush, who himself served as a Senator in Congress for a time, did support Planned Parenthood. In fact, he served as treasurer of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign after it re-branded from the American Birth Control League post-World War II. But his alignment with the organization can’t be assumed to be because he was “pro-choice,” a term reserved for those who advocate for access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion.
Before, during, and for a time after World War II, Planned Parenthood co-founder Margaret Sanger and her work were deeply embedded in the eugenics movement, and sought to use birth control as a means to “limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” This is not a progressive or “pro-choice” position, but an extremely discriminatory one. Though Sanger’s birth control advocacy was not solely motivated by eugenicist values — she also wanted women to have control over their reproductive outcomes — it’s likely that at least some of Planned Parenthood’s early supporters were attracted to the cause for unsavory reasons.
Regardless of what Prescott Bush’s own beliefs were, the family whose firm he worked with prior to his entry into politics funded the establishment of a Eugenics Record Office in New York. (That firm would would go on to conduct business directly with Nazi financiers during WWII, while Bush was on the company’s payroll.) Just as it would be presumptuous to assume Prescott Bush was a Nazi-sympathizer and eugenicist based solely on the business affiliations he kept, we cannot presume he supported Planned Parenthood on progressive, women-centric grounds simply because he was an early champion of the organization.
George H.W. Bush himself is sometimes given a pass by less-critical observers of his legacy, who contend he was once “moderate” on abortion or even “pro-choice” because he supported abortion policies as a method of population control. Bush was a key supporter of the Family Planning and Population Research Act while he served as a congressman representing Houston, Texas, which provided funding for birth control and research on low-income women and teenagers.
While everyone who wants birth control deserves access to it regardless of their income, this particular piece of legislation was less about empowering women to have reproductive freedom than simply getting more women to have fewer babies — particularly those who might not otherwise be able to access contraception. While government family planning programs have proven effective to that end, their implications for the poor in particular remain a point of debate.
Divorced from comprehensive sexual education (which neither Bush president championed and, in fact, the latter Bush actively fought against, though H.W. proposed family planning education), sexual health care (ditto on the part of Bush senior), and affordable options for childcare, this policy amounts not to a pro-choice or even necessarily pro-birth control position, but more discrimination.
As for the matter of the Bush family’s “pro-choice cred” Hill mentioned to NPR: that’s stretching the truth. Advocates for reproductive justice have always fought conservative policies, like those supported by the Bushes, that seek to control others’ reproduction. Indeed, H.W. Bush upheld Reagan’s “global gag” rule on restricting funds to programs abroad that provide abortions or even educate others about abortion, a rule that has since also been upheld by various other presidents including Donald Trump.
Without context, the legacy of George H.W. Bush on reproductive health is distorted. Justice for those who have been harmed by his policy endorsements demands that we speak plainly about wrongdoings, even if doing so is unpleasant.
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