Help sustain TGC as we support the church. Become a monthly partner today.


[Note: This is the second in an occasional series on how Christians should think about voting and the electoral process. For the first entry, click here.]

What if I told you the only significant influence the President of the United States has on the economy is in selecting the Chairman of the Federal Reserve?

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 bizzare 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. The presidential election season is a prime time to provide a reminder of some of the reasons why it’s important for Presidents to be pro-life.

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. For example, under President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush, federal regulations were clearly written to prevent recipients of Title X funds—such as Planned Parenthood—from referring for abortions or combining family planning services with abortion services (i.e., working at the same location).

Examples of past and present 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, first enacted by Reagan and later reinstated by George W. Bush, which prohibits USAID (foreign aid) money from going to any organizations that promote or perform abortions. President Obama was in office three days before overturning this policy.
  • 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 Corps, and abortion through the international HIV/AIDS bill.

A pro-life President can use the veto power (or simply threaten to use the veto) to prevent the removal of such riders. Pro-abortion Presidents, however, have historically vetoed legislation that included these pro-life provisions or repealed them using executive orders (see below).

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. Defending Pro-Life Laws in Federal Courts 

The President selects the U.S. Attorney General (A.G.), the head of the Department of Justice and the chief lawyer of the United States government. The A.G. is responsbile for representing the United States in legal matters and supervising the “representation of the United States Government in the Supreme Court of the United States and all other courts, foreign and domestic, in which the United States is a party or has an interest as may be deemed appropriate.” But what happens if the government’s chief lawyer decides that the law is “unconstitutional”? In such cases, the governement may simply choose not to defend the law in court. This occurred most recently when the Defense of Marriage Act was challenged in the federal court system. As Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time, President Obama found a reason to conclude DOMA was not constitutional. “Given that conclusion,” Holder said, “the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President’s determination.” 

Similar situations could arise with pro-life legislation. If a pro-abortion President determines the law is “unconstitutional,” he or she can simply tell the A.G. not to defend the law. This can mean the pro-life law will automatically lose in court. As Lyle Denniston, the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy, explains, “It will not always be true that a case will continue after an attorney general gives up the defense of a law. If the law has been struck down when initially tested in the trial court, after an attorney general has refused a defense, there may be no one to appeal that case.”

4. 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—President 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.

5. Selection of Political Appointments 

The President fills many political appointments that have a direct and significant effect on the pro-life cause. Examples include Health and Human Services (responsible for enforcing the Hyde Amendment, implementing the Affordable Healthcare Act’s abortifacient mandate, and so on), 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, President 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.

6. 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 some previous pro-life Presidents have shown, there are few better political platforms for advocating the pro-life cause than from within the Oval Office. And as some pro-abortion Presidents have shown, there is also no better place to stand to argue for the continuation of federally protected abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

If we choose to vote, we 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.

Although judges and legislators are important for the protection of human dignity we must never forget that Presidents matter too.

Next in the series: Must a Christian vote?