In October 1999, Donald Trump appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to announce he was planning to run for U.S. president as a nominee for the Reform Party. During the interview, he was asked, “Would President Trump ban partial-birth abortion?” He said, “I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion . . . but I support choice.”
Sixteen years later, Trump won the presidential nomination of another party and moderated his views on abortion. He later claimed to be proud to be “the most pro-life president” in American history. Yet in his latest bid for the presidency, Trump seems to be reverting to his former support for “choice.”
In his recent appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, Trump repeatedly declined to say whether he would support a federal ban on abortion. He was also asked about a bill signed by his primary opponent, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said.
With those words, Trump signaled that the Republican Party—of which, as the former president, he’s still the de facto head—would no longer remain pro-life now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. Some GOP politicians remain convictionally pro-life, of course, and will continue to support policies that oppose abortion. But the party is sending not-so-subtle signals that they’re abandoning their general commitment to the pro-life cause now that it’s become an electoral liability.
The shift may appear to be rapid, but close observers have seen this coming for years. Here are four reasons the political viability of the pro-life movement is threatened.
1. Many Republican politicians were anti-Roe but not pro-life.
Central to the pro-life ethos is the belief in the inherent value and dignity of human life. The acknowledgment that life is sacred from conception until natural death undergirds the entire movement.
A primary approach of the pro-life movement for half a century has been incrementalism, which advocates that we should work to save what children we can through taking actionable steps to put limits and restrictions on abortion in whatever ways are possible. The ultimate goal, of course, is putting an end to the practice of abortion. To oppose a six-week ban would, therefore, conflict with the core pro-life principle that every life is worth preserving. One cannot affirm the value of life and yet make exceptions based on gestational age or convenience. Any politician who does so, including Trump, has abandoned any right to the label of “pro-life.”
Central to the pro-life ethos is the belief in the inherent value and dignity of human life.
Many politicians weren’t pro-life but merely anti-Roe. For decades, opposition to Roe was a necessary position to gain support from social conservatives within the party. Politicians could signal they were anti-Roe with little cost to themselves. They were eager to allow the judicial branch of government to take the lead, since there wasn’t much they could do while abortion-on-demand was the law of the land. But then the Supreme Court threw the issue back to the legislators, and they had to choose between supporting bans on abortion or placating pro-choice voters.
Few have the courage to completely abandon the pro-life constituency. But it’s unclear how many are still dedicated to an incrementalist approach, especially when it it will be unpopular or likely to fail. Some Republicans even believe they can now successfully equivocate—as Trump has said, “Both sides are going to like me.” They think the “compromise” is allowing abortion into the second trimester.
They’ll make nuanced arguments suggesting that, while they believe in the value of life, they don’t wish to impose strict laws that remove “choice” from the equation. But it’s critical to acknowledge that the ultimate goal of any genuinely pro-life politicians is to oppose, whenever possible, any and all legal protections for abortions. A pro-life stance that hesitates to support even the low bar of a six-week ban isn’t only inconsistent but also undermines the ethical foundations of the movement.
2. Many pro-life groups are hesitant to oppose the GOP.
Once upon a time (as far back as 2007), a Republican candidate who wasn’t consistently pro-life couldn’t gain the support of conservative Christians and other pro-lifers, and so couldn’t win the Republican nomination for president.
When Rudy Giuliani ran in the 2008 Republican primary he said the government shouldn’t restrict abortion. In response, pro-life leaders denounced him. For example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in response that when people hear Giuliani speak about abortion, “they don’t hear a choice, they hear an echo of Hillary Clinton.”
Times have changed. Perkins talked about Trump’s comments on his radio show but didn’t criticize the former president. He said he found the comments “troubling,” before rushing to clarify, “I love Trump.” Perkins was joined on his show by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading pro-life group. Dannenfelser has been one of the most vocal defenders of unborn life. Her organization even had a project called “Votes Have Consequences” that worked to defeat candidates considered insufficiently anti-abortion. And yet even she didn’t offer more than mild criticism of Trump’s remarks. Dannenfelser and her group have never endorsed a presidential candidate who wasn’t fully pro-life. Will that standard change for the next election?
For decades, pro-lifers have worried that leaders of our pro-life organizations were becoming so enmeshed with the GOP that they lost sight of their primary objective: protecting unborn children. But now it may be too late. The electoral needs of the GOP seem to take priority over vulnerable children. Consider the remarks of Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican National Committee member.
The electoral needs of the GOP seem to take priority over vulnerable children.
“There’s a wide variety of opinion. Should there be a national ban? At how many weeks? Should it be entirely left to the states?” Scheffler said. “Some people get it wrong when they think this constituency is in lockstep.”
Is making room for abortion “choice” the official party line among some pro-life organizations? Certainly, some leaders in the movement have already been vocal, such as Lila Rose of Live Action, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Denny Burk writing at World. But every pro-life leader should be expected to clarify where they now stand and what they will and will not tolerate from politicians who want their support.
3. The Democratic Party made it possible for the GOP to be pro-choice.
In the Democrats’ party platform, they’ve staked out the most extreme position possible by stating they oppose all governmental restrictions on abortion at any time during pregnancy. This position allows Republican politicians to appear “moderate” for taking any stance that’s less than complete abortion-on-demand. The GOP could support allowing abortion up through the eighth month of pregnancy, and they’d still be less radical than the Democrats.
Republicans will happily embrace that opening, because they’re aware of the polling on abortion. According to a Pew survey, Americans are about twice as likely to say abortion should be legal at six weeks than to say it should be illegal at this stage of pregnancy: 44 percent of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal at six weeks (including those who say it should be legal in all cases without exception), 21 percent say it should be illegal at six weeks (including those who say abortion should always be illegal), and another 19 percent say that whether it should be legal or not at six weeks “depends.”
Such polling data is the reason we should expect the GOP either to officially adopt a position of opposing abortion restrictions in the first six weeks of pregnancy or to make “choice” a matter of choice for candidates.
The reality is that the first six weeks are when such restrictions are most needed. The overwhelming majority of abortions (about 93 percent) occur during the first trimester, which means restrictions after the first trimester aren’t going to save many children. Republicans are hoping to take advantage of the Democrats’ willingness to fight for the other 7 percent of abortions by “compromising” and allowing it only early in pregnancy.
That will provide voters with the illusion there’s a morally serious difference between the parties on the issue. But in reality, if both parties support a position in which the vast majority of abortions would still be allowed, then it’s clear there’s no longer a “pro-life” option for American voters among the major political parties.
4. Many ‘pro-life’ voters aren’t consistently pro-life.
We can expect political parties and organizations aligned around political issues to cave on this issue when it threatens their power. But the disturbing reality is that such “leaders” compromise without worry because they’re merely following the crowd. There simply aren’t enough committed pro-life voters to scare politicians into holding a consistent pro-life position. The Democrats learned this lesson long ago, and the GOP is embracing that truth now.
There simply aren’t enough committed pro-life voters to scare politicians into holding a consistent pro-life position.
For decades, I’ve heard pro-life Christians (including myself) say they couldn’t support any political party or candidate who wasn’t fully pro-life. We heard the claim so often that we began to truly believe the majority of “pro-life voters” were unwilling to compromise on protection for the unborn. After all, why would they be pro-life if they were willing to make exceptions? Just as it would have been absurd for an abolitionist to support some exceptions for slavery (only after age 18) or civil-rights advocates to endorse some exceptions for segregation (segregated lunch counters allowed only five days a week), it would have been inconceivable for pro-lifers to support policies that allow 93 percent of abortions.
Yet here we are, with just such a compromise being proffered. The frontrunner of the political party that once claimed to be pro-life has abandoned the cause—and it likely won’t cost him more than a handful of votes.
Can the Movement Come Back to Life?
What then do we do now? What options are left for those of us who refuse to embrace abortion “choice” or compromise on this issue?
If we’re optimistic, we can take a wait-and-see approach. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, and leaders of pro-life organizations will put morality ahead of politics by refusing to support politicians who aren’t consistently pro-life. (If so, they should say so now.) Maybe pro-life voters will be so outraged that they’ll embrace convictional inaction as the painful short-term solution to fixing the long-term problem.
But if I’m right, and this is the first shift in the leftward trend of the GOP on abortion rights, we need to formulate a plan of action. If we’re witnessing the political end of the pro-life movement, it might be time to abandon those organizations, leaders, and politicians who compromised and brought us to this point. We may need to replace them en masse. We may need to find and promote those who are truly willing to fight for the unborn instead of those who kowtow to a political party.
We don’t have much choice, and the stakes are too high to maintain the status quo. A politically dead pro-life movement will only result in the death of more babies. We need to find a way to resuscitate the movement before it’s too late.