Ronald Reagan Spoke About Fetal Pain…and ‘Personhood’


WASHINGTON, D.C., September 12, 2014 ( – Posting yesterday’s throwback video of Ronald Reagan addressing the 1988 March for Life brought up an important aspect of the current pro-life debate: In his 1988 speech and elsewhere, President Reagan spoke about both fetal pain and the concept of “personhood.”

In the address, his last before a March for Life, Reagan remembered:

A few years ago, I spoke about the pain that we now know an unborn fetus experiences in the course of an abortion. At the time there was an outcry – enraged criticism and angry denials. But criticism wasn’t the only response. It so happened that I 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. They discussed recent advances in medical technology and concluded: “Mr. President, in drawing attention to the capability of the human fetus to feel pain, you stand on firmly established ground.”

The president noted that, then as now, media bias was at work. But notice where he went next:

Well, you know, I couldn’t help noticing, that letter received far less coverage than the many derisive attacks that preceded it. Modern medicine treats unborn children as patients. Mothers are advised to calm the fetus with music. Some say that Mozart is particularly soothing. Isn’t there enough evidence for even skeptics to admit that those who assert the personhood of the fetus may be right? And if we are to err, shouldn’t it be on the side of life? I believe it’s time the law caught up with science.

The speech he was referring to made the same delicate balance between these issues. As far as I can find, he first mentioned the concept of fetal pain in a January 30, 1984, speech before the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). “There’s another grim truth we should face up to: Medical science doctors confirm that when the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing,” he said.

Later in the speech, he said, “Well, today another question begs to be asked: How can we survive as a free nation when some decide that others are not fit to live and should be done away with?”

“I believe no challenge is more important to the character of America than restoring the right to life to all human beings,” he added.

I note this, because in some quarters of the pro-life movement a battle rages – sadly, one often fought more fiercely than the war against abortion – over the approach the pro-life movement should take to making its case. Some cite the fact that babies at 20 weeks can feel pain as a reason to ban abortion at that time, with the goal of gradually reducing the circumstances under which an abortion can be performed so drastically that it establishes a de facto ban. Others focus on the personhood of the unborn child; if a “fetus” is, indeed, a separate living human being, then no one has the right to end his or her life without due process of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment – a fact cited by, among others, Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade. (In his 1988 speech, Reagan mentioned the importance of “original intent,” the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its wording, likely with Blackmun and his black-robed successors in mind.)

Reagan here used the example of fetal pain as one of many reasons why abortion is cruel, inhumane, and morally and legally wrong for the mother and the child. He affirmed on numerous occasions his belief that it should be restricted in every instance except to save the life of the mother. That is, he used fetal pain as another argument to urge the near-total abolition of abortion in the United States.

His words show that the tactic of citing the pain abortion causes babies helps to humanize them, makes people understand that abortion inflicts a great and permanent wrong. And if it is wrong to cause babies pain, is it not infinitely worse to kill them?

As usual, the past shows the way forward. Ronald Reagan shows how these two approaches can, and should, work together. Not using the emotional impact of fetal pain robs the pro-life movement of one of its most visceral arguments. Not connecting fetal pain to the greater issue of abortion-on-demand at any stage, rather than as a stand-alone cause, means that our argument is lacking an ingredient Reagan saw was necessary to move closer to  our ultimate goal.

Ronald Reagan spoke uncompromisingly, about many things, especially the twin (and not unrelated) evils of Communism and abortion. People of goodwill were destined for victory, he believed, consigning both to the ash-heap of history. He lived to see one. May we live to see the second.

Ben Johnson is U.S. Bureau Chief of, the guest host of Nothing But Truth with Crane Durhamon AFR Talk Radio, and the author of three books. His personal website is Connect with him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Cross-posted at