Politics & Policy

How Have Trump’s Pro-Life Promises Held Up?

President Trump watches as Neil Gorsuch is sworn as a Supreme Court justice in a White House ceremony, April 10, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
There have been a few key pro-life victories in the first year of the president’s administration.

Is Donald Trump a man of his word? This question is and has been the subject of intense and sustained public debate, but pro-life Americans have yet to find reason to believe that the president they helped launch into office won’t follow through on his promises — at least inasmuch as it is in his power to do so.

According to exit polls from the 2016 election, Trump carried the Protestant vote (excluding Mormons and Evangelicals) 58 to 39 percent, triumphed in the Mormon vote, was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Catholics since 2004, and netted a shocking 80 percent of Evangelicals — all voting blocs that tend to prioritize supporting pro-life candidates. Trump also won a majority of voters who reported regularly attending religious services.

While there are no exit-poll questions about the way voters’ abortion views influenced their votes, two data points further elucidate this issue. The 21 percent of respondents who said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their vote went for Trump 56 to 41 percent. And Trump narrowly won out among the 70 percent of voters who considered Supreme Court appointments “important.”

Supreme Court appointments bear on a number of issues in addition to abortion, but it is no secret that pro-life Americans have long rested their political hopes in regaining the balance of the court and reversing 1973’s Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. The possibility of a Clinton presidency was seen by many as a final blow that would reshape the court against pro-life forces for decades to come.

Trump and his campaign team seized on this fear with great success, pelting these uneasy social conservatives with repeated guarantees that the billionaire businessman would side with them on issues of crucial importance, chief among them abortion.

Religious and social conservatives who remained on the fence about voting for a man who so clearly lacked character and pro-life conviction were bombarded relentlessly with the refrain, “Remember, he’s not Clinton.” Much of the rhetoric from avidly pro-Trump Republicans focused not on the GOP candidate’s authentic anti-abortion bona fides but rather on his maniacally pro-abortion opponent — the insinuation to pro-life voters being, “You don’t have a choice,” rather than, “He will be your champion.”

But, wisely, Trump’s campaign did offer pro-life voters some concrete reasons to hope. In a letter to the pro-life community just before the election, for example, he highlighted four central promises: nominating pro-life Supreme Court justices; signing the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act; defunding Planned Parenthood and reallocating its funding toward comprehensive health-care centers; and making the Hyde Amendment “permanent law.”

Some on the right remained concerned that Trump wasn’t authentically pro-life — pointing to, among other things, his well-known record of pro-choice statements and his less-than-stellar grasp of pro-life arguments and policy goals. But his campaign promises, coupled with intense fear on the right of Hillary Clinton’s America, won out.

One year into his presidency, Trump has managed to retain the support of key pro-life groups and even to push forward a few key victories for the movement. Most important, he nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, in a huge triumph for originalist jurisprudence and a promising sign for anti-Roe Americans. His track record on other confirmed judicial appointments has been similarly without reproach. (Though these successes are arguably more attributable to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s tenacity than to any skillful maneuvering on Trump’s part.)

The president signed legislation — passed under the Congressional Review Act — that allowed states to remove Title X funding from Planned Parenthood over its provision of abortion. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department announced that it is formally investigating the abortion group for possible involvement in the illegal fetal-tissue-trafficking industry.

Like every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, Trump reinstated the largely popular Mexico City policy, which denies U.S. aid money to any international group that funds or promotes abortion. But he took the policy a step further, expanding it to cover nearly all U.S. foreign health spending, not just family-planning funds. The administration also moved to defund the United Nations Population Fund on similar grounds.

The Trump administration drastically expanded the religious and conscience exemption to the Health and Human Services Department’s contraception mandate, which had been added to the Affordable Care Act to require that employers provide employees with subsidized birth control. This exemption enabled religious employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor — an order of charitable Catholic nuns — to avoid paying for abortifacient drugs, among other contraceptives.

In rhetoric, too, the White House has been outspokenly pro-life. Vice President Mike Pence addressed the 2017 March for Life, making him the highest-ranking presidential-administration official ever to speak at the event. The president voiced his willingness to help in the case of Charlie Gard, the terminally ill infant in the U.K. whose parents wished to obtain further care for him in the U.S. rather than take him off of life support at the command of his doctors.

And Trump expressed a willingness to sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act if it were passed by Congress. The bill would ban abortions nationwide after 20-weeks’ gestation based on research showing unborn children have the capacity to feel pain at that age. The bill passed the House in the fall but stalled in the Senate.

Anti-abortion leaders have rightly been pleased with this progress. But pro-life Americans can’t forget the biggest punted promise of the last year: The government’s inability to defund Planned Parenthood. The Republican party has spent years promising — and failing — to remove federal funding from the abortion group. Congress passed a bill that would have defunded the group a few years ago, but it was vetoed by President Obama. There is no excuse for a similar failure this year, and the pro-life movement must continue to demand that the GOP follow through in the year to come.

The first year of the Trump presidency has been a political roller-coaster, marked all too often by the president’s predictable insistence on exaggerating his own successes and overstating his role in the few GOP accomplishments we’ve seen. But, if he can be forgiven for promising beyond what the executive can rightly deliver, his work on pro-life issues has been a modest success.


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