Barney Frank is no fan of pro-life Republicans. The Massachusetts Democrat who succeeded Father Drinan in Congress memorably chastised them as hypocrites who “believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
Yet even Frank had to concede that his barb didn’t apply to Henry Hyde, the 11-term Republican from Illinois whose name is on the single most important piece of pro-life legislation ever enacted by Congress. As the news of Hyde’s death reached Washington, Frank was among those mourning the loss of a “dedicated parliamentarian.”
Hyde was in many respects an accidental pro-life crusader. He has told reporters that he never really thought much about the issue until a colleague in the Illinois legislature asked him to co-sponsor a bill liberalizing the state’s abortion law. After careful study and reflection, Hyde ended up helping to defeat the measure instead.
Elected to Congress in 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade as the Watergate scandal depleted Republican ranks on Capitol Hill, Hyde was enlisted in an effort to prevent Medicaid funding of abortions. He told National Review‘s John J. Miller last year that a more senior pro-life Republican congressman had asked him to put his name on an amendment prohibiting the funding, because “the other side wouldn’t see it coming.”
The Hyde Amendment passed in 1976 and its effect was almost immediate. The federal government had subsidized 300,000 abortions the year before. Afterward, the number plummeted to almost zero. The National Right to Life Committee has estimated that the legislation has prevented between 1 and 2 million abortions over three decades, through means that even a pro-choice libertarian could endorse.
An eloquent debater, Hyde became a sought after proponent of the pro-life position in the public square. When then New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gave his famous 1984 Notre Dame speech in which he defended the ability of Catholic Democrats to be simultaneously pro-choice and faithful to their church’s teachings, Hyde traveled to South Bend to forcefully rebut him.
“Why is it,” Hyde asked, “that Archbishop O’Connor threatens the separation of church and state when he tries to clarify Catholic teaching about abortion, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson doesn’t when he organizes a partisan political campaign through the agency of dozens of churches?”
Hyde punctured the paradox in Cuomo’s case: The “personally opposed” Democrats’ “dilemma is that they want to retain their Catholic credentials but realize that in today’s Democratic Party to be upwardly mobile is to be very liberal and to be very liberal is to be a feminist and to be a feminist is to be for abortion.” He continued, “I won’t quarrel with their political game plan, but their rationale is absurd.”
The social issues debates did not just help build a Republican majority in evangelical churches. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won 49-state landslides by combining the votes of Southern conservative Protestants and Northern ethnic Catholics, people whose families had voted Democratic for generations but were alienated by their former party’s embrace of foreign-policy weakness and cultural weirdness.
Like Ronald Reagan, Hyde himself was part of this trend. A Chicago Irish Catholic and New Deal Democrat, he began to gravitate toward the Republican Party in the 1950s as the Cold War intensified and his anti-Communism deepened. The culture wars of the 1960s ensured he could never go back.
And those were the struggles to which he devoted his career. Hyde was a staunch proponent of the 1980s defense buildup and a foe of the nuclear freeze movement. He stuck by the Reagan administration when it was trying to aid the contras in Nicaragua — and also when it was trying to weather the Iran-Contra scandal.
Despite his advocacy of contentious issues — and perhaps because of his independence in debates on gun control and term limits — Hyde was usually held in esteem by liberals and conservatives alike. The period where he led the effort to impeach Bill Clinton was a notable exception. Hyde was introduced to liberal family values. An old extramarital affair that had been kept secret for thirty years was exposed. The actor Alec Baldwin fumed on national television that Hyde and his family should be stoned to death.
That experience, combined with Clinton’s acquittal by the Senate, might have demoralized Hyde but he continued on in the House until he retired just last year. He might also have been demoralized to see what has become of his brand of Republicanism, with the Cold War over and a pro-choice Catholic considered the frontrunner for his party’s nomination. Or maybe not — all the Republican presidential candidates, including that frontrunner, have pledged to ensure that Hyde’s pro-life legislative handiwork lives on.
Henry Hyde conservatism doesn’t end at birth. Nor will it end with his death.
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