Surprised Barbara Bush Now Says She’s Pro-Choice? Don’t Be. She Always Was.

One of the more widely discussed “revelations” coming out of Matt Lauer’s interview with former President George W. Bush was the story of “the fetus in a jar.”  As Robin reported here this morning and others have discussed elsewhere, George H. Bush (Bush 2), recounted how, when his mother, Barbara Bush, miscarried a pregnancy, she showed her then-teenage son the miscarried fetus, which she had put in a jar to take to the hospital. 

It was this moment, said the former President, that made him “pro-life.”

I’ll state up front that, while I don’t doubt there was a fetus in a jar, I have a small problem with believing much this President says or has said, or seeing him as “pro-life,” based on his abysmal record of protecting actual born human beings.

But that’s somewhat beside the point for now.

The piece of this story that got the most attention today from women writers was about Barbara Bush.

Tracy Clark Flory wrote in Salon: “The startling story is getting lots of attention — but no one is mentioning that Barbara now says she’s pro-choice.”

This bizarre anecdote may make Barbara sound like a pro-life extremist who used scare tactics to sway her son’s views of abortion, but what the Post doesn’t mention is that the former first lady eventually became pro-choice.

In fact, Barbara Bush was always pro-choice, and so was her husband, until of course he had to run for President.  Then women went right under the campaign bus.  Sound familiar?

The Bush family has a long history of support for Planned Parenthood.  Prescott Bush, father of George H. W. Bush (Bush 1) and grandfather of Bush 2 was the treasurer of Planned Parenthood when it launched its first national fundraising campaign in 1947. Birth control being controversial in the period pre- Griswold v. Connecticut (and yes, history obviously repeats itself), Prescott Bush was attacked for his pro-choice position and knocked out of the running for a Senate seat in Connecticut.

Writing at in 2005, Vicki Haddock recounts the history:

Prescott Bush won a Senate seat two years later, and his son George and daughter-in-law Barbara continued to support Planned Parenthood even after George’s election to Congress from Texas.

“In fact,” writes Haddock, “he was such an advocate for family planning that some House colleagues gave him the nickname “Rubbers.”” 

While he was a Congressman, George H.W. Bush was a leader in establishing Title X, the program that most in the contemporary right wing love to hate. The fact is that most programs today targeted for extinction by Republicans and Tea Party fanatics were either supported or established by…Republicans, albeit for reasons having more to do with population control than women’s rights.

In the sixties, the connections between family planning and economic security were becoming clearer.  President Lyndon Johnson was the first to establish public funding for family planning services as part of the War on Poverty. According to a brief review of legislative history by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association Johnson began offering grants for family planning services in 1965, the same year the Supreme Court struck down the Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives by married couples in Griswold.  Then, in the late sixties, the Social Security Act was amended to require state welfare agencies to make family planning services and information available to recipients.

Following on this platform, Republican President Richard Nixon “took a special interest in family planning.” 

“Soon,” the NFPRHA brief states, “Congress responded, enacting Title X of the Public Health Service Act, the first – and to this day, only – federal program dedicated to providing family planning services nationwide.”

Signed into law by President Nixon on December 26, 1970, champions of the program during its enactment included then-Congressman George H.W. Bush, who said in 1969:

“We need to make population and family planning household words. We need to take sensationalism out of this topic so that it can no longer be used by militants who have no real knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program but, rather are using it as a political steppingstone. If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.”

Yeah.  You can do the reading double-take.   You might think this was something you’d hear from, say, President Obama, but….there it is from good ol’ George 1.

While the Bush family supported Planned Parenthood, George H.W. Bush also strongly supported the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) before he became President. During his years as Ambassador to China in the mid-seventies, he became a China expert, and even sometimes argued on behalf of the Chinese one-child program (to which UNFPA has no connection).  So as part of a patrician family, George H.W. Bush supported family planning for its role in poverty reduction and as part of the population control paradigm of the sixties and seventies. And Barbara Bush was right there along with him.

As Vice President under Ronald Reagan and later President, he made a 180-degree turn to placate what was then an increasingly vocal anti-choice constituency beginning to develop within the Republican party, the precursors to today’s virulent anti-choice movement.  When his political aspirations outweighed his support either for voluntary family planning or programs like China’s which were not voluntary, he extended the Mexico City Policy or Global Gag Rule and supported calls for cuts in the very programs he helped found.

That he made this shift purely out of political expediency is no surprise: Reproductive and sexual health and rights have become for men in power the bargaining chips they use to prove their “bona fides” with the far right, including the now-silent President Obama.  All along the way, Bush 1 and Bush 2 have tried to soften their images slightly by allowing their wives to quietly signal that they were pro-choice.

A lot of good that has done for women.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

Follow Jodi Jacobson on twitter: @jljacobson

  • hmprescott

    I’m not surprised by this at all.  Support for population control was pretty mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s, but the reasons behind it were not exactly pro-choice (and not just because they were talking about contraception, not abortion).  Rather, the Johnson and Nixon administrations and Congress at this time supported federal funding for birth control clinics because they believed that overpopulation contributed to international terrorism and domestic political unrest.  This is quite different from a rights-based framework that advocates expanding women’s access to birth control because it gives them more control over their bodies.  Because these programs targeted poor women of color, militant civil rights groups alleged that these programs were “genocidal.”  Women of color who supported reproductive rights criticized this argument, but they also found fault with the population control approach that disproportionately affected their community. For these women, reproductive freedom meant not only the right to limit their fertility but also the right to reproduce regardless of race or income level.  For more on this topic, see Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement.

  • jodi-jacobson

    You are correct about this, and I personally have worked on and written about these issues for a long time.  I noted in the article this very point. And quite frankly, there is still much more of a bent toward demographic concerns than women’s rights concerns in many circles, but that is a far different and more complicated argument.

    The point I was underscoring here was a) in reaction to the surprise many people expressed that Barbara Bush “had become” pro-choice (she already supported family planning and we can’t really critique her reasons for support as they personally are not known) and b) that the Bush family had long been invested in family planning, Planned Parenthood, Title X, etc until it became politically inconvenient for George Bush.

    It wasn’t a critique of the substance of his positions; it was a historical perspective on the fact the assumption that George W. Bush came from a long-line of people opposed to family planning until Barbara Bush had some recent epiphany.  That is not the case.


    Thanks for your note!



  • hmprescott

    You’re welcome — and I understand your point completely.  I’d also like to hear more about the bent toward demographic concerns that still happens among some experts in reproductive health.  I find it a disturbing trend, and a counterproductive one at that.

  • crowepps

    Why do you find attention to demographic trends disturbing?  Isn’t an awareness of demographics a basic tool in most matters of government, but especially in those touching on public health?

  • arekushieru

    Crowepps, I’m not certain but I *think* (from what I can see from the context, anyways) they are talking about being overly concerned with demographic trends, overly concerned with population control more than women’s right.  Just my thoughts, though! 

  • jodi-jacobson

    Dear Crowepps,

    Thanks for your question; it is important.  There are a lot of differences of opinion on this.  I will give you mine and say for the record that this has been the focus of much of my career to date.

    Demographic trends–population growth, population age structure, distribution, and so on–all are important.  They also obviously intersect hugely with consumption rates and patterns and have implications for resource use (environment, fiscal, human, social).

    Some historical problems have been:

    • trying to address, for example, high fertility and high rates of population growth in populations where women have few or no choices in marriage and childbearning by, in effect, coercing women to limit pregnancies.  It does not address the core issue (women’s status/lack of power/human rights abuses) and adds another problem–coercion.  There also has been coercion of men such as in coercive vasectomy strategies in the past in some countries.
    • targeting specific populations because of race, class/poverty, ethnic status, mental or physical disability.  There are too many examples of people–from those who have mental disabilities to black and latina women (or black latina women) and native american women being targeted for population control.
    • targeting the poor writ large, when “poverty” is not the causal factor of much, but is rather the symptom.

    The fact is this: Where population growth rates are or have been high, you will almost always find a situation where women have few or no choices and very very often where they have higher numbers of children they desire.  Policies that simultaneously address gender inequality as well as deal with unmet demand for family planning–on the terms of the people in question, not under coercion from the government–promote the human rights of people and have broader demographic effects.  Too many governments have sought short cuts to reducing population growth by coercing, instead of dealin with causal factors.

    I hope that makes sense.  it’s a whole other set of issues than this article addressed, but that we will be addressing in greater depth in the coming months as we increase our international coverage.

    best always,



  • hmprescott

    Thanks, Jodi — this is what I was trying to say in my comment but you have expressed it much more clearly than I did.