In an unprecedented show of opposition to abortion, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is delaying the start of the party's annual winter meeting so he and other committee members can join the March for Life on the Mall, The Washington Times has learned.
Mr. Priebus, a plain-spoken Greek Orthodox lawyer from Wisconsin, will join members of his party's national committee and thousands of other abortion opponents in the annual right-to-life march scheduled for Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that declared abortion a constitutional right.
"I saw that there was a real interest among a significant portion of our members to attend and support the Rally for Life," Mr. Priebus said in an email to The Times. "This is a core principle of our party. It was natural for me to support our members and our principles."
Mr. Priebus, in his second term as elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, chose to delay the start of the four-day winter meeting of the GOP governing body, also scheduled in Washington, to allow himself and RNC members to attend the march. The delay is unprecedented for a major U.S. political party, several state Republican Party chairmen and other RNC members said in telephone interviews.
Mr. Priebus also decided that the RNC will charter a bus to and from the march for those among the RNC's 168 members who wish to attend, he said.
"I will attend the March for Life and am making a few simple modifications of the schedule and ensuring that the members have safe and adequate transportation to and from the rally," he said in his email.
In an email circulated among other members, Alaska RNC member Debbie Joslin said, "I have served under a number of chairmen and not one of them ever made any opportunity for us to attend the March for Life, and they always scheduled critical meetings for the same time as the March for Life. Big thanks to Reince for standing up for the unborn!"
The chairman's action is an example of the increasingly bottom-up instead of top-down way the RNC functions.
On paper, the RNC is quite democratic in structure — it is made up of an elected state party chairman and an elected committee man and a committee woman from each of the 50 states and five U.S. territories. But for almost its entire history, the national chairman, in an informal alliance with the GOP congressional leadership and top fundraisers, has called the shots.
But this act was different.
"When Reince got wind of what members were planning on their own, he emailed that he would shift our RNC schedule so we could attend, and he offered that the RNC would get transportation for us," Missouri GOP Chairman Ed Martin said.
Oklahoma RNC member Carolyn McLarty, an evangelical Protestant, said the schedule change had its origins in an email reminder about the march from Virginia RNC member Kathy Hayden "about a week ago and that we could probably attend at least part of it prior to the start of the RNC meetings. ... Things have snowballed from there."
She said West Virginia RNC member Melody Potter had "contacted the bus company and the emails started flying with members wanting to attend."
"I am pumped at the opportunity that we have as a party," Mrs. Potter said. "There is nothing that we cannot accomplish together. We are Republican for a reason."
The March for Life is one of the biggest events of the year for social conservatives. Although neither the National Park Service nor any other government agency publicly releases estimates of such demonstrations and rallies, organizers said about 650,000 people marched last year.
As testimony to the steady increase since the 1980s of social and religious conservatives — especially evangelical Protestants — in the Republican Party electoral coalition, House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican and a Catholic, addressed the rally last year.
"It wasn't easy for my mother to have 12 children, but I'm sure glad she did," Mr. Boehner said. "So I've never considered 'pro-life' to be a label or a position. It's who I am, and it's who we are as a people."
The pro-life rally and march will run from noon to 1 p.m. with a warm-up event and concert in the hour before the rally begins its route up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Priebus made his decision after learning that about 20 members were planning to hire and share the cost of a bus to take them from the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington to the rally and back.
Responses to the march from Mr. Priebus' predecessors have ranged from quiet opposition to pro-life language in the party's platform to a public and determined effort by Haley Barbour to quash attempts to deny RNC financing to pro-choice GOP candidates.
The Democratic National Committee platform has long featured a pro-choice plank supporting the 1973 Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in all states and territories.
"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay," its plank says.
In vivid contrast, the Republican platform reads in part: "Faithful to the 'self-evident' truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."
Some political observers see the American public in recent years moving in the pro-life direction.
A Gallup poll in May of 1,535 adults found 48 percent saying they consider themselves pro-life and 45 percent pro-choice, with 5 percent saying they are unsure or don't know what the terms mean. An April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults found 52 percent thinking abortion should be illegal under all or almost all circumstances.
In a reflection of leanings on abortion by the press and the entertainment industry, 51 percent said they think most Americans are pro-choice.
Not so in reality, according the conservative American Enterprise Institute's resident scholar Karlyn Bowman. Over four decades, she writes, a variety of polls show "opinion about abortion is stable, it is also deeply ambivalent. Americans are at once pro-life and pro-choice.
"On the one hand, substantial numbers tell the pollsters that abortion is an act of murder. On the other, they say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice. ... They believe in the sanctity of life and in the importance of individual choice."
Many major donors — considered vital to the party's competitiveness in elections — historically have opposed the Republican Party's embrace of an abortion ban because it would, they feared, alienate female voters, particularly the unmarried and young.
Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue, a Methodist, doubts a backlash from wealthy contributors as a result of Mr. Priebus' actions.
"Major donors might feel the RNC should not use party money to pay for buses," Mr. Yue said. "But during the conservative steering committee conference call, members were talking about booking a bus and sharing the cost. If major donors complain about the bus cost, they will be viewed as petty."
The conservative movement — whose members usually vote Republican — generally retains its long-held view that someone can be a true conservative regardless of which side of the abortion issue is favored.
Pro-life Republicans in general, however, often are less tolerant of their opposites on the issue, which is the mirror image of the pro-choice Democratic Party, whose pro-life members say they, too, often find themselves muzzled.
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