The former first lady drew on the experience of her 3-year-old daughter's death in privately working out exactly how she felt about abortion

By Adam Carlson
April 04, 2019 06:46 PM

“What do I feel about abortion?”

That’s what former First Lady Barbara Bush wrote to herself as her husband was on the campaign trail and as she thought through one of the thorniest political issues in America.

Across “four ruled sheets of paper” that were later tucked away from public view, Bush worked out exactly why she was pro-choice and how the wrenching death of her 3-year-old daughter decades earlier had shaped her beliefs.

Bush’s opinion on abortion is not new — she made headlines in 1992 for saying it was “personal” — but her “struggle” with abortion and how she arrived at her stance on it is recounted in detail in Susan Page’s biography The Matriarch, which was released earlier this week.

“In all our years of campaigning, abortion was the toughest issue for me,” Bush wrote in her 1994 memoir.

According to Page, “[Bush] tried to sort out her views on abortion, to figure out where she stood” during George H. W. Bush‘s first presidential campaign.

And so she did: “She wrote out by hand what she believed and why. She never disclosed this paper or discussed the reasoning she outlined in it. It was in effect a conversation with herself,” Page writes.

The letter was undated but kept with other papers from 1980, according to Page.

Daughter Robin, who died in 1953 from leukemia, at a time when the disease was a death sentence for many, was at the top of her mother’s mind as she wrote.

As Page describes it, Mrs. Bush saw abortion turning on the question: “When does the soul enter the body”? And following that: “Does the life begin (soul entering the body) at conception or at the moment the first breath is taken?”

In her writing, Mrs. Bush continued, “If the answer to that question is at conception, then abortion is murder. If the answer to that question is the moment the first breath is taken, then abortion is not murder.”

She drew on her own experience as an eyewitness to Robin’s birth and death.

F:PHOTOReady RoomActionsInsert Request33747#Bush Presidential Library and MuseumHS1173.jpg
Barbara Bush (far right) with husband George H. W. Bush, son George W. (on horse) and daughter Robin (on her father’s shoulders) in 1950
| Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
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George H. W. Bush with daughter Robin in 1953, not long before she died
| Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

“I have decided that that almost religious experience, that thin line between birth, the first breath that she took, was when the soul, the spirit, that special thing that separates man or woman from animals + plants entered her little body,” Mrs. Bush wrote to herself, according to Page’s book.

After so many years, and even with the softening of her “extreme grief,” Mrs. Bush wrote that she “vividly” recalled Robin’s passing — “that split second, that thin line between breathing and not breathing, the complete knowledge that her soul had left and only the body remained.”

And so the answer to her question — “What do I feel about abortion?” — was this:

“Having decided that the first breath is when the soul enters the body, I believe in Federally funded abortion,” Mrs. Bush wrote. “Why should the rich be allowed to afford abortions and the poor not?”

According to Page, Mrs. Bush was not against some possible restrictions on abortion but felt it wasn’t “a Presidential issue.”

“Abortion is personal,” Mrs. Bush wrote, and should be between the mother, father and doctors.

She also wrote that she believed “education is the answer.” Specifically, “I believe that we must give people goals in life for them to work for—Teach them the price you must pay for being promiscuous.”

Bush Family Portrait, Summer 1955
From left: George H. W. Bush with son George W. and wife Barbara in 1955
| Credit: Newsmakers/Getty
George H. W. Bush with Wife Barbara
From left: Barbara and George H. W. Bush
| Credit: Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty

Even knowing herself, Mrs. Bush did not believe it was her place to share her views publicly, writing in her memoir: “The elected person’s opinion is the one the public has the right to know.”

She did not want to complicate her husband’s career. “She had refused to discuss her support for abortion rights during the primaries [in 1980],” Page writes of Mrs. Bush.

Page describes this anecdote: During an event for the National Federation of Republican Women, after Ronald Reagan was named the Republican presidential nominee, Mrs. Bush “arrived sporting a pro-choice button.” But the button was gone by evening.

Her husband “tried to navigate a position down the middle,” Page writes. “He opposed abortion but also opposed passing a constitutional amendment to ban it. He was against federal funding for abortion in general but sup- ported exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to preserve the health of the mother.”

The Bushes’ balancing act was even more necessary in 1988, when H. W. Bush became the Republican nominee.

“The GOP platform was even more strongly pro-life,” Page writes. “It asserted that ‘the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.’ ”

Four years later, as her husband was in the middle of his re-election campaign, Mrs. Bush spoke up in what the Los Angeles Times called a “stunning contrast” with President Bush.

“Days after Republicans finished work on a platform that takes an uncompromising anti-abortion stance, Barbara Bush has told interviewers that she does not believe that the issue has any place in the party’s platform,” the New York Times reported in August 1992.

In her ’94 memoir, she wrote, “Let me say again: I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for someone else.”

Abortion, she continued, “should be allowed in the first trimester only. … Education is the answer. Morals cannot be legislated.”

According to the letter she wrote herself working out her abortion views, Mrs. Bush acknowledged her feelings were not absolute.

On the last of the four pages, in the margins, she wrote, “Needs lots more thought.”