Magazine | April 30, 2018, Issue

Trump’s Choice on Life

President Donald Trump, speaking from the nearby White House, addresses attendees of the March for Life rally by satellite in Washington, January 19, 2017. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
His unlikely alliance with the pro-life movement is proof of its growing strength

‘I’ll tell you the moment when I really knew the pro-life movement had won,” says Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America (CWA). “It was at the March for Life, just after President Trump was inaugurated. I’m backstage, and the vice president’s limo pulls in, and black SUVs pull in. Not only did Vice President Pence get out of the car, but so did a dozen brand-new staffers, all of whom I know very, very well.

“These were people that have worked alongside CWA and supported life in government and non-profits in very tangible ways over many years,” she continues. “Frankly, these are real pro-life heroes. It was at that moment that I knew it was real, because people are policy. I went home, and I was standing alone in my kitchen late that night watching a video of Pence’s speech, and I just started to weep. It almost makes me cry again thinking about it now. My husband and son came in and found me crying and thought something terrible had happened. And I looked at my husband and just said, ‘We won. We won on life.’”

Nance’s story is a familiar one to most anti-abortion leaders, who even today — a little over a year into President Donald Trump’s first term — speak in tones of slight wonderment when relating how the current administration has worked hand-in-hand with them to advance a pro-life agenda.

Interviews with more than 20 of the pro-life movement’s most prominent leaders paint a vivid picture of how that relationship came to be, as Trump himself underwent a remarkable transformation from being arguably the least pro-life candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination to standing at the head of what many of his supporters call the most pro-life executive branch in U.S. history. Trump’s journey was a completely unexpected one. The way his administration has achieved so many victories so quickly for the pro-life cause is a testament above all to the movement’s tenacity and growing clout within the Republican party.

When the former Democrat and Manhattan businessman entered the Republican primary, anti-abortion advocates’ views on his candidacy ranged from intense skepticism to outright scorn. Although Trump told a story of how he came to oppose abortion late in life — after a friend facing a crisis pregnancy decided to keep the baby, a child Trump has referred to as “a total superstar” — his forays into pro-life rhetoric were often unconvincing. Even after his apparent change of heart, he said “millions of women are helped” by Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, and suggested that post-abortive women should be punished — things no politician familiar with the pro-life cause would think to utter.

Most of the movement’s leading figures tell me that anti-abortion leaders were nearly unanimous in their doubts about Trump’s sincerity. “Many of his past positions and statements did not suggest that he would be the most pro-life president the country has had,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, tells me. “That just wasn’t in our thinking.”

“Trump was seen as the Manhattan, pro-choice liberal,” one source in the Catholic anti-abortion orbit adds sharply.

“Before Trump ran for the presidency, his record was avowedly pro-abortion,” a longtime pro-life advocate says. “What indication was there that he was pro-life? He had funded Hillary Clinton. He had funded pro-abortion politicians. He had said he didn’t think there should be limits on abortion. If you wanted to vote for a candidate based on record, what was Trump’s record?”

“When he came forward and decided to run, I don’t know that anyone felt really comfortable about whether his pro-life position was genuine or if he’d stick to it,” says Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who himself ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and again in 2016. “Was he just saying this to get through the Republican primary?”

Pro-life leaders formed a remarkably united front against Trump. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses in early 2016, Nance joined several other pro-life women in urging voters to support “anyone but Donald Trump.” Their letter read, “On the issue of defending unborn children and protecting women from the violence of abortion, Mr. Trump cannot be trusted and there is, thankfully, an abundance of alternative candidates with proven records of pro-life leadership whom pro-life voters can support.”

Perhaps the most prominent of its signatories was Marjorie Dannenfelser, longtime president of the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), a highly influential anti-abortion group. “In the South Carolina and Iowa primaries, we said frankly that we did not think Trump should be the nominee,” Dannenfelser tells me. “He was untested and had never been elected before, and he didn’t really talk about the abortion issue very much.”

The primary season wore on and the Republican field thinned out after each contest, leaving pro-life leaders to consolidate behind the few remaining candidates; most settled on Texas senator Ted Cruz as their favorite. They viewed him as the most reliable candidate, and the one most capable of defeating presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Nance and Perkins endorsed him, along with Gary Bauer and James Dobson, each of whom heads an influential Christian conservative group. In a big win for Cruz, the board of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) — the oldest pro-life group in the country — voted to support him in early April, after what one source tells me was a fraught debate within the organization.

Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana, who had long been one of the pro-life movement’s foremost political champions, endorsed Cruz ahead of his own state’s crucial primary as well. But the combined efforts of these pro-life leaders came to naught. On May 3, Trump cruised to victory in Indiana, all but locking himself in as the party’s choice for the presidential nomination.

Pro-life advocates were then faced in the general election with what seemed like a nightmare: a contest between the unpredictable Trump and the predictably pro-abortion Hillary Clinton. Horrified by the prospect of what a Clinton presidency would mean for the pro-life cause, key figures who had so vocally opposed Trump became willing to give him a second look.

Even though their trepidation about Clinton was well founded — given her decades of supporting abortion on demand, along with the Democratic party’s rejection of the Hyde amendment, which prevents taxpayer money from funding abortion — most of these leaders felt that Trump’s team still had to earn their support by proving that he would be as good as his word.

“It was not going to be a choice for me between voting for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I would vote for Donald Trump,” Perkins tells me. “But I did not think I would endorse him. I did not think he would do the things that would be required for conservatives to get on board and fully endorse him, but he did.”

“We still didn’t know what he would do when the pressure was on, when perhaps there was political pushback, when it was difficult,” Nance says.

The Trump campaign’s ensuing effort to convince these hesitant leaders of Trump’s sincerity transformed them into some of the GOP nominee’s most vociferous defenders. In an uncharacteristically forgiving move, Trump did not spurn the advocacy groups that had rejected him in the primary. Instead, he came calling.

Shortly after prevailing in the Indiana primary, his campaign released a list from which Trump promised to select his Supreme Court nominee to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose originalist jurisprudence had made him crucial to the pro-life movement’s goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.

That was the biggest moment of the entire campaign in terms of his ability to lock down and own a significant and overwhelming social-conservative vote,” says Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who eventually became a pro-life adviser to Trump’s campaign. It “put flesh on the bones of the typical platitudes” of Republican nominees, according to one judicial expert, and capitalized on the fact that 2016 was the first time in decades that a Court vacancy had been such a significant issue in a presidential election.

When Santorum decided in late May to campaign on Trump’s behalf, his decision was based in large part on the list. “My support was mostly about judicial candidates, because that to me was the most important issue for pro-lifers,” he tells me. “I think everyone felt like if we could get good, strong commitments on judges from him, everything else was a bonus.”

“The power of the Supreme Court — which had never been an issue in a presidential campaign like that before — and the abortion issue, the intensity of both of those aligned,” Dannenfelser says.

Trump’s next move was to select the pro-life movement’s longtime ally Mike Pence to be his running mate. As a member of the U.S. House in the early 2000s, Pence won the loyalty of the movement when he became the first congressman to introduce a bill attempting to defund Planned Parenthood.

If Trump’s list of judges had been a promissory note to the religious and pro-life Right, the selection of Pence was a signal that the promise would be kept. Pence was one of the few men in America whose presence on the campaign trail could comfort even those social conservatives most unsettled by Trump’s character flaws and erratic record. Several pro-life leaders describe his selection as profoundly reassuring to them and their supporters; many conservatives regarded it as “deeply revealing of Trump’s values,” one source tells me.

But as the election season entered its last two months, the campaign still wanted to formalize the candidate’s pro-life bona fides. It was then that Trump reached out to Dannenfelser and asked her to serve as the national chairwoman of a pro-life coalition to advise him on the issue. “I said I’d be happy to do that, if we could get four main commitments from him, and in a letter,” Dannenfelser tells me.

In that letter to pro-life leaders, Trump promised to nominate pro-life justices to the Supreme Court; sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, based on scientific evidence that fetuses at that stage of development can feel pain; defund Planned Parenthood and reallocate the funding to federally qualified health-care centers; and make the Hyde amendment permanent law instead of a rider that needs to be passed with every new budget. Trump’s team promised much more than they could ever rightly expect to deliver, since three out of four of the items on the agenda would require Congress to do the heavy lifting.

Nonetheless, Dannenfelser says those goals were exactly what she needed to rally members to the coalition. She looks back on that letter as highly unusual. “Once a Republican gets to the end of the primary, they would never do anything like that,” she tells me. “He knew that he needed pro-life voters. He was truly coming into his own on this issue, and he had been before the primary ever started. But I did need those commitments. That letter he wrote contained the central organizing principles of our whole strategy for getting out the vote in the battleground states.”

With Dannenfelser as national chairwoman, the coalition added more than 30 advisers, including many who had withheld support from Trump during the primary, such as Perkins, Reed, Bauer, and Nance, along with Carol Tobias, president of the NRLC. Another key addition was Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, who was influential with pro-life Millennials. In unison with the campaign, these and other leaders turned their attention toward the last remaining obstacle — wary pro-life voters.

Today, most of Trump’s pro-life advocates identify his performance in the final presidential debate as the point when he won over the social-conservative base, a sizeable portion of which had remained unconvinced of the candidate’s sincerity on abortion. As Dannenfelser puts it, it was one thing for pro-life leaders to advocate Trump to their supporters; it was another for Trump to convince them himself.

At the October 19 debate in Las Vegas, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Clinton to explain her vote as a U.S. senator against a ban on partial-birth abortions, to which Clinton replied that such late-term procedures must remain legal to protect the life and health of mothers. Asked for his view, Trump threw down the gauntlet: “Well, I think it’s terrible,” he said, cutting off the end of Wallace’s follow-up question in his haste. “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” He enunciated each word with his signature tone of disgust. “Now, you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay. But it’s not okay with me, because based on what she’s saying, and based on where she’s going, and where she’s been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day. And that is not acceptable.”

In one electric moment, nearly 72 million viewers heard straight from the Republican nominee’s mouth the reality of late-term abortion procedures and watched the Democratic nominee twice defend it. As polls consistently illustrate, it was Trump and not Clinton who sided with the majority of Americans in his view of that gruesome reality.

Longtime pro-life activist Kellyanne Conway, who became Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016, tells me that when abortion came up during debate preparation, Trump responded viscerally. “Mr. Trump reacted just as he did during the debate itself. ‘How do they call us extreme?’ he said. ‘She would let them just rip the baby out of its mother’s womb!’”

“I had advised candidates for two decades to do that,” Conway adds. “But it took Donald Trump, a Manhattan, male billionaire — who for most of his life had been pro-choice — to deliver the most impassioned defense of life ever heard from a presidential-debate podium.”

“It wasn’t the way that a seasoned activist would talk about it, but when I saw what he said, I thought, ‘He’s absolutely seen a video or a diagram or something about what late-term abortion is,’” one pro-life activist tells me. “That was so key because he defined his opponent, he defined himself, and he presented real clarity between himself and her on an issue that is so motivating for millions of Americans.”

For Dannenfelser, that moment was proof she had made the correct decision in leading Trump’s pro-life coalition. “It was even more authentic because it was in his own words. It was not scripted,” she says. Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, tells me, “That was a game-changing moment for a lot of people.”

For the few minutes of this exchange with Clinton during the debate, abortion was the political issue most searched via Google. And in the days leading up to the election, “abortion” was one of the most common Google search terms regarding any political issue, second only to “immigration.”

“The GOP has for so long treated this issue as something to be feared,” Dannenfelser adds. “Trump treated this issue as a winning issue.”

While there are no exit polls tracking how the candidates’ abortion views influenced voters, Trump won majorities of nearly every major religious group in November, including a record 81 percent of Evangelicals. Two additional data provide helpful context: The 21 percent of respondents who said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their vote split for Trump, 56 to 41 percent; and Trump narrowly triumphed among the 70 percent of voters who considered Supreme Court appointments “important.”

The SBA List’s canvassing effort in four swing states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Missouri — yielded a 6 percent increase in turnout among targeted voters, including pro-lifers who don’t always vote in presidential elections and persuadable voters such as Hispanics and moderate Democrats. Trump won each of those states in November.

Santorum notes that pro-life voters turned out on Election Day even when there was doubt about whether Trump could pull off a victory. “They came out, turned out in big numbers, and supported him, even when the polls said he couldn’t win,” Santorum says. “I think that has had a big impact on him and his desire to follow through for them.”

Chief among the promises kept was, of course, the successful nomination to the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch. Already this term, Gorsuch has heard a pivotal pro-life case, NIFLA v. Becerra, concerning the free-speech rights of crisis-pregnancy-center operators. Trump’s track record on appellate and district appointments, too, has been largely beyond reproach.

Like every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, Trump reinstated the “Mexico City policy,” which denies U.S. family-planning funds to any foreign-aid group that funds or promotes abortion overseas. But his administration took the policy a step further, expanding it to cover all U.S. foreign-health-assistance funds that government agencies provide to aid groups. Before this change, the “Mexico City policy” applied only to about $600 million in aid programs operated by the State Department and USAID; the expanded policy applies to nearly $9 billion in U.S. foreign aid. Also terminated was funding for the United Nations Population Fund, because of its support of a government agency that carries out coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization in China.

“He’s not going to know the ins and outs of that policy himself,” Perkins says, “but he had good pro-life people on his team who did, and that obviously reflects on him, as well as in terms of his commitment to these issues.”

The president has signed legislation allowing states to remove Title X Medicaid funds, which are legally restricted to family-planning services, from abortion clinics, a practice that had been prohibited at the tail end of President Obama’s second term. Many pro-lifers were heartened by the Justice Department’s decision to formally investigate Planned Parenthood for its possible involvement in illegal fetal-tissue trafficking. The Health and Human Services Department expanded its conscience exemption to the Obamacare contraception mandate, allowing religious employers to avoid providing subsidized contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, in employee health-care plans.

In rhetoric, too, the White House has been outspokenly pro-life. One especially powerful example is Pence’s address to the 2017 March for Life, which made him the highest-ranking official ever to speak in person at this event. “It forced the media to pay attention,” says Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the March for Life. “The very next day, the Washington Post top-of-the-fold headline said, ‘Life Is Winning in America,’” a line from Pence’s speech. Trump himself spoke at this year’s March via video broadcast.

Despite this commendable progress, the administration has yet to deliver on three of the four promises Trump made to his coalition — the three that rely on Congress to pass legislation. The Republican party has proved unable to pass the Hyde amendment as stand-alone legislation, defund Planned Parenthood, or establish a 20-week abortion ban.

Trump has voiced support for these initiatives, of course. But he could easily exert more intense pressure against Democratic politicians who remain opposed to limiting abortion, especially given the growing bipartisan support for such restrictions. Ten Democratic senators are up for reelection this year in states Trump won in 2016, giving him leverage to push them on these issues.

Donald Trump standing at the helm of what many call the most pro-life administration in U.S. history is not an outcome any serious observer predicted when the businessman first threw his hat in the ring nearly three years ago. Some pro-life leaders even argue that, because he needed to atone for his previous pro-choice stance, Trump promised and delivered more for them than any other Republican would have. “Republican president after Republican president, in one way or another, has let down the pro-life community,” Santorum says. “This president, who going in was perhaps the most suspect on this issue, has been the best at delivering.”

Another source puts it more starkly: “He doesn’t just put up with us like the red-headed stepchild, as so many Republican politicians have done in the past.” This is to Trump’s credit, but the pro-life movement shouldn’t underestimate its own role. Over the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump felt he had to earn its trust, even after securing the Republican nomination. That is a testament to the pro-life movement’s growing importance and effectiveness.

So far, the Trump administration has fought to reward the loyalty that pro-life leaders and voters showed Trump during the election, and the coalition between the president and the movement has already left its mark. This partnership comes at a pivotal moment, as science and technology slowly push the needle of public opinion in a pro-life direction, creating an opening for the cause to make headway both in policy and among the American people.

“I don’t think you could find an issue where he has been better,” Dannenfelser says of the pro-life progress under this administration. “We went from the conviction that he sounded unpresidential to the conviction that he’s the best president on the life issue that we’ve had, and when I say that, the test is actions, in terms of following through on promises made.”

Most of these leaders are still hopeful that their unexpected alliance with the White House will bring about further changes on abortion policy during the Trump presidency. As so many pro-life Americans do, they view the story of the 2016 election as proof of their ability to shape national politics and — as Trump’s own conversion on abortion makes clear — change hearts and minds outside the political process as well.

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