Paul Ryan: Republicans must stay strong on abortion to win elections

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued in a speech to activists Thursday night that robust opposition to abortion rights is crucial to the GOP's political chances.

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Ryan's remarks to the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List gala were his most extended on abortion since the 2012 election cycle, when several GOP candidates lost following controversial remarks on abortion and rape.

Ryan, the former GOP vice presidential nominee, acknowledged that a "careless remark or an ugly sign" can damage the cause against abortion rights "in an instant."

But he challenged the view that Republicans should soften their approach in order to attract centrist or female voters, who favored President Obama by more than 10 points in November.

"Our critics say we should abandon our pro-life beliefs. But that would only demoralize our voters," Ryan said. "It’s an odd strategy, I think: the cynical ploy followed by the thumping defeat."

Ryan opposes abortion rights, except when the woman's life is in danger.

His selection for Mitt Romney's presidential ticket last year called attention to their disagreement on the issue. (Romney supported banning abortion with additional exceptions for cases of rape and incest.) To the chagrin of some activists, Ryan yielded to Romney's view during the campaign.

The election cycle amounted to all-out war between supporters and opponents of abortion rights on behalf of their respective candidates.

Organizations like the SBA List made it a particular priority to batter Planned Parenthood, which spent millions supporting President Obama.

As recently as this week, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser condemned the group for mounting a "defense of infanticide."

But on Thursday night, Ryan encouraged activists to seek out areas of possible collaboration with their opponents.

"People who consider themselves pro-choice don’t agree with us on everything," he told the audience. "But many agree we should stop taxpayer funding of abortion … Many agree we should require parental notification."

Ryan gave the example of former Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), a centrist abortion-rights supporter who sided with his more conservative peers on some abortion votes.

"Last year, he lost to a Democrat who today is another down-the-line, pro-choice stalwart in the House," he said. "Dold was an ally of our cause. We need to work with others like him."

"Our task isn't to purge our ranks. It's to grow them," Ryan added.

The event took place at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.

--This report was originally published at 6:44 p.m. and updated at 9:15 p.m.