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Tape Reveals Nixon's Views On Abortion

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Tape Reveals Nixon's Views On Abortion

Politics

Tape Reveals Nixon's Views On Abortion

Tape Reveals Nixon's Views On Abortion

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President Nixon reacted privately to the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion by saying he believed some abortions were necessary, as in cases of rape. The president's thoughts were caught on his Oval Office recording device and released to the public Tuesday, 36 years after the tape was made.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host;

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The National Archives released new tapes today of President Richard Nixon. They capture the time back in 1973 when the Supreme Court announced its landmark abortion decision Roe versus Wade. At the time, President Nixon made no public comment. In private, though, he had a number of things to say, and they were captured on that now-notorious secret recording device in the Oval Office.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The comments are startling, and as in many of the previously released tape recordings, they reveal more about the president than the issue. Mr. Nixon is meeting with a variety of aides, including Henry Kissinger and Charles Colson, and the crosstalk often makes the conversation difficult to decipher.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

TOTENBERG: Still, a listener can discern some comments from the president disapproving of the decision because he thinks it will lead to promiscuity and family ruptures. At one point the president indicates he thinks that abortion is justified in cases of interracial mating or rape.

I know there are times when abortions are necessary, he tells an aide, I know that - when you have a black and a white, or a rape. I just say that matter-of-factly, he adds. You know what I mean? There are times. Abortions encourage permissiveness, he says. A girl gets knocked up, she doesn't have to worry about the pill anymore, she goes down to the doctor, wants to get an abortion for five dollars or whatever.

Listening to the tape, it's hard to remember now that Roe vs. Wade was not an instantaneous cause célèbre, or even the basis for a political movement. The decision was not the top story in the nation's leading newspapers that day. The Washington Post and New York Times led with banner headlines about the death of President Lyndon Johnson, who'd left office four years earlier.

Joseph Craft(ph), one of the nation's leading columnist, wrote that a conservative court had reached a conservative conclusion in a battle between individual rights and state power. And almost all of the immediate criticism of the decision came from the Catholic Church.

A decade earlier, the Supreme Court had invalidated a Connecticut law that made it a crime for married couples to use contraceptive devices, a decision also denounced by the church, but widely embraced. And in 1973, many commentators believed that the abortion decision also would quickly lose the steam of controversy. After all, California Governor Ronald Reagan had signed a bill liberalizing abortion laws in his state, and other states were contemplating similar measures.

Quite unanticipated at the time was that the growing Evangelical movement would embrace opposition to abortion as a bedrock principle and drive it into the Republican Party platform, reversing the prior position taken by the party. And that Ronald Reagan would campaign for president, promising to appoint Supreme Court justices who would reverse Roe vs. Wade. He named some who wanted to do just that, but his first nominee to the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, would end up repeatedly casting a vote against such a reversal. And today, the core decision in Roe remains the law of the land, perhaps threatened by a new conservative court majority, but still standing.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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