This piece originally appeared on Salon.com during the platform hearings for the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Salon.com Politics | Inside the Republican pro-choice coalition - (cont'd)
President Bush sold out
Merrill, for one, finds the right's success in seizing the party "upsetting," and has few kind words for former President George Bush, a classic country club Republican whom she sees as having helped the right achieve its aims. "His voting record in Congress was pro-choice," she explains, "and his wife is a member of Planned Parenthood." For Bush to have moved over to the anti-abortion side for the sake of political expediency, she says, "doesn't play with me." In her 70s, Merrill, who starred in "Desk Set" and "Butterfield 8," is still a well-appointed beauty, her perfect, champagne-blond pageboy swept behind a black hairband.
"People ought to stand up for what they believe in," she says, emphatically. "If you have a strong belief and a passion, you don't sell out. And he sold out, in my humble opinion."
Though Merrill is one of the group's well-heeled and notable members, her story is not unlike others in the group. Born to a rock-ribbed Republican family, she was raised with the values of civic involvement and attachment to good causes that typically engaged many of her class. She has long supported Planned Parenthood as one of its celebrity advocates, but she never considered herself to be terribly political until she saw Susan Cullman in action at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego. In 1996, Cullman's organization, then called the Republican Coalition for Choice, nearly pulled off a floor fight over the platform.
"For the first time, we have a real grass-roots movement coming together on this issue," says Cullman. "That's what we want to build."
While liberals may scoff at the notion of a grass-roots movement of the bourgeoisie led by the privileged, they'd be wise not to. For the future of abortion rights, and civil rights in general, lies less with the Democrats than it does with the Republicans -- simply because the Republican Party, as currently constituted, poses a grave threat to both, and Republicans have been known to win the presidency, and countless other offices, from time to time. And that's one reason, these women will tell you, that they stick with the party -- but not the only one.
"I'm a Republican because I believe in less government in all aspects of my life," explains Cullman. "I also believe in a strong defense, I believe in less regulation, I believe in less taxes -- these are the issues that make me a Republican. And to have the pro-life position determine whether or not you're a Republican will make us a very small party in the end."
At first blush, Cullman herself is an unlikely activist. She came to Washington in 1981, the wife of a well-off Reagan appointee, whom she has since divorced. A Washington wife with a penchant for good works, she ran Call For Action, a national nonprofit that provides a help line to the public that steers callers to appropriate agencies and organizations that provide assistance on a host of problems. She was a volunteer for the President's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. Though she never agreed with Reagan's anti-choice views, she didn't perceive a real threat to reproductive rights at the time, taking comfort in the notion of abortion as a constitutionally protected right as decided by the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal nationwide.
But times changed, as did Cullman's personal life. The influence of the right grew ever stronger, not only in the GOP but throughout the country, as anti-abortion judges grew in number at all levels of government. Cullman divorced and began contemplating the landscape that confronted her only child, a girl. In 1991, motivated by a 1989 Supreme Court decision (Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services) which gave states the right to restrict abortion, she brought the focus and organizational skills honed during her years of volunteer work to the Republican Coalition for Choice, a group she founded with like-minded party activists.