Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Donald Trump’s Pro-Life Presidency

President Trump addresses the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
A look at his record, and the state of the movement

Addressing the March for Life in January, President Donald Trump said, “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.” Kellyanne Conway, his high-ranking aide, tweeted that Trump was “the most #prolife President in history.” That assessment was echoed by many pro-life activists, including Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect pro-life political candidates.

A sense of relief may explain some of the superlatives. Many pro-lifers expressed doubts about Trump during the 2016 campaign, with Dannenfelser describing him as her least preferred option. When he was considering running for president in 1999, Trump had called himself “very pro-choice” and said he favored keeping partial-birth abortion legal (although he also said, “I hate the concept of abortion”). Trump’s marital history — he once called a tabloid to brag about his adultery during his first marriage — made him seem like an unlikely ally for opponents of abortion. 

Trump allayed some of these doubts by promising to nominate pro-life judges and picking a pro-life running mate, Mike Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana. Pro-lifers also took into account the fact that his principal opponent in the general election, Hillary Clinton, had long been an opponent of theirs. Debating her, Trump expressed horror about abortions late in pregnancy while Clinton suggested they should be legal. In the end, pro-lifers largely voted for Trump. Exit polls showed that voters who prioritized Supreme Court appointments — a rough proxy, in our politics, for abortion — broke strongly for him.

Since becoming president, Trump has done nearly everything that the pro-life movement has asked of him. Early in his term, he issued an executive order that blocked federal funds for family planning abroad from going to groups that advocate or perform abortion. Later, he issued another one blocking domestic family-planning money from going to such groups, which cut off a funding stream for Planned Parenthood. Other executive orders have imposed restrictions on funding for fetal-tissue research and attempted to protect the rights of pro-lifers in the medical field.

What wins Trump the most praise from pro-lifers is his judicial appointments. His appeals-court nominees have mostly been well-credentialed conservatives, and more uniformly conservative than his Republican predecessors’ nominees. He got Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, the latter after a bitter fight. While we cannot say for sure how these two, or some of their colleagues, would vote in an abortion case, it appears that a majority of the justices are more willing to let legislatures protect unborn human beings than at any point since Roe v. Wade came down in 1973. The Court may even be willing to overturn Roe, perhaps in stages.

Conservatives often defend Trump by saying that what he does is better than what he says. But pro-lifers appreciate what he has said, too. Trump’s speech at the march was a milestone: None of his predecessors had appeared there in person. When New York passed and other states considered legislation to ensure that abortion remained legal throughout pregnancy, Trump vigorously and vividly condemned the idea. Trump did distance himself from an Alabama law that attempts to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest, exceptions that he supports. But pro-lifers have by and large not held that against him, since many of them considered the law a tactical mistake and most pro-life politicians have favored those exceptions.

It is a record that justifies most of the praise from pro-lifers. It is in some respects superior to his predecessors’ records, just as Trump says. He spoke at the march whereas other pro-life Republican presidents phoned it in. His executive order on international family planning went further than any previous president’s. His judicial appointees are probably more inclined to roll back Roe than previous picks have been, although, again, we have yet to find out how they will rule.

The claim that Trump is “the most pro-life president ever” is nonetheless a stretch. Ronald Reagan, as president, wrote “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” George H. W. Bush vetoed seven bills on pro-life grounds, at a time when the movement was at a low point politically. George W. Bush signed a bill banning partial-birth abortion, another recognizing unborn children as victims of federal crimes against pregnant women, and another clarifying legal protections for infants who survive attempted abortions. He put two justices on the Supreme Court who have voted, in the cases that have come before them, to allow limits on abortion.

The younger Bush also stood against a bipartisan push to provide federal funding for research on stem cells derived from human embryos in a process that destroyed them. In August 2001, Bush announced that he would allow funding for research only on stem-cell lines that had already been derived before that date. The point was to prevent federal money from encouraging embryo destruction.

At the time, the press was selling embryonic-stem-cell research as the path to cure everything from Alzheimer’s disease to type 1 diabetes. Even some opponents of abortion, such as Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch, favored more-expansive funding for this research. Most of the polling found that the public did as well. President Bush held the line throughout his presidency, vetoing bills on the subject twice — including his only veto of legislation passed by a Republican Congress. President Obama reversed the policy upon taking office, but by then research had largely moved on to sources of stem cells that did not require embryo destruction.

Trump has not had to withstand a political-pressure campaign nearly as intense as the one that Bush did. Worse, he has kept the Obama stem-cell policy. Funding for 36 additional stem-cell lines has been approved during this administration. In his defense, however, it may be that pro-life groups have not demanded that he act on this issue; they have certainly not kept up a drumbeat in public.

As noted, these presidents have operated in different political environments. Over time, Republican presidents have found the political cost of pro-life action falling and the cost of inaction rising — which is another way of saying that the pro-life movement has enjoyed political success.

Some of that success has taken the form of increasing dominance within the Republican party. The faction of Republicans who support unrestricted abortion had already shrunk considerably by the first decade of this century, and it has shrunk more since then. Republican voters and politicians have become much less supportive of Planned Parenthood, too, as pro-lifers have publicized that it is the nation’s top abortionist.

Other long-running changes in the Republican party have helped Trump compile a pro-life record. The conservative legal network has expanded and matured, making it possible for a president to find qualified nominees for the bench and, within limits, to vet their conservatism. Since the 1970s, each Republican president has had a higher proportion of conservative Supreme Court nominees than the one before.

Pro-lifers could not have taken such thorough control of the Republican party if opposition to abortion had been a losing proposition with the public. But public opinion, too, has changed in a way that aids pro-lifers.

Polls about the circumstances in which abortion should be legal have shown great stability since Roe. But other poll questions, notably whether people describe themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” have fluctuated. In the mid 1990s, Gallup found the pro-choicers ahead by double digits. Since then, the difference has usually been in the single digits, and pro-lifers have sometimes been on top. This shift is often attributed to the development of ultrasound technology and the debate over partial-birth abortion.

Whatever the causes, pro-lifers have gotten used to thinking that their fortunes are on the rise. The young adults of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the most pro-choice age group in the General Social Survey. By the middle of the George W. Bush years, young adults were the least pro-choice group.

President Trump’s pro-life critics — there are some — worry that he will change the political environment again, this time to pro-lifers’ detriment. They fear that he makes it easier to portray the basis of the pro-life cause as misogyny (stated as the desire to “control women’s bodies”) rather than human rights and that he will discredit it particularly among young people.

There is some evidence that pro-lifers have begun to lose ground in public opinion. In the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who say a woman should be able to have an abortion if she wants it for any reason has been climbing, and it climbed especially between 2016 and 2018. It is now at a record 49 percent. Young adults are once again the most pro-choice group, with 54 percent in support.

The Knights of Columbus commissions a poll on abortion every January, and it shows a similar trend. Most respondents still favor a ban on abortion after the 20th week, but support has dropped six points over the last five years. Opposition to taxpayer funding has also slipped. The data do not tell us whether these declines have something to do with Trump, the decline of religious practice, or something else entirely.

There are some contrary indications, too: The Gallup polls have shown more people calling themselves “pro-life” since 2015. Abortion polling is always mixed. But the evidence that public opinion has recently been shifting toward the pro-choice side is strong enough that it ought to end any pro-life complacency. 

Having a president on its side is a great asset to the pro-life movement. Ending Roe would be a great, if partial, victory. Neither would make up for losing the public.

This article appears as “The Pro-Life President” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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