Calling on a fighter to fight
Most pro-lifers are enthusiastic about President Donald Trump’s record on abortion, but some say he could be—and should be—doing more
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Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” said President Donald Trump to thousands of pro-lifers filling the National Mall at the annual March for Life in January. To many listening, it didn’t seem like a bold claim. Pro-life leaders and other politicians had been saying the same thing for months, pointing to the pro-life successes of his presidency. Even his speech at the march was historic: He was the first president to speak at the event in person.
Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America is one of these supporters. “He’s done everything that he could possibly do to be a pro-life president,” she said. “I can’t think of anything that we’ve asked him to do that he hasn’t tried to do.” She and others note his pro-life makeover of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the establishment of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office of Civil Rights that protects pregnancy centers and pro-life medical professionals.
Compared with the long-term pro-life letdowns of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, mainly over disappointing nominations for the Supreme Court, Trump’s pro-life record seems impressive. But Trump also has critics in the pro-life movement. They say that, when compared with his own pro-life campaign promises and his willingness to fight on other issues, Trump’s pro-life track record contains notable absences. Concerns about his character have also kept some pro-lifers from supporting him fully.
Many in the pro-Trump camp emphasize Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. This summer they both supported Louisiana’s pro-life law in the first abortion-related case to come before the court. Trump has also nominated 200 federal judges: Pro-lifers believe most of them will rule in favor of pro-life laws.
But that’s the only one of the four pro-life commitments he made in a letter to pro-lifers during the 2016 campaign that he has fulfilled. The other three were to sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, defund Planned Parenthood, and make the Hyde Amendment permanent law to prevent taxpayer-funded abortions.
Many pro-life leaders I talked with said that three-fourth’s failure is not Trump’s fault. The Defund Planned Parenthood Act, which would have withheld federal funds from Planned Parenthood for a year, never received a vote in the Republican-controlled House during the 115th Congress. The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act would have made the Hyde Amendment permanent. It passed the House four days after Trump’s inauguration but never received a vote in the Senate. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, also introduced in January 2017, passed in the House nine months later. That next January, the Senate version of the bill fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster. Each bill failed again during the following congressional term, after Republicans lost the House.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and the national co-chair of the Pro-Life Voices for Trump coalition, defends Trump, noting that in each Congress he’s issued a statement in support of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Trump has also issued three statements in support of the Pain-Capable bill. Dannenfelser said Trump used his presidency to promote the legislation to the public at rallies, through tweets, and “even putting it in the State of the Union message.”
Trump’s use of Twitter in his administration is certainly unprecedented. He’s fired officials, started foreign disputes, and proposed policy through the platform. His tweets have become a window into his mind—especially into his political goals. In the 22 months between Trump’s inauguration and the day the Republicans lost the House, Trump tweeted more than 5,500 times, averaging about eight per day. But during that time, Trump tweeted about “life” in the context of abortion fewer than 10 times, mostly in reference to a candidate’s political stance or the annual March for Life. He used the word “abortion” once, and “unborn” never appeared.
Trump mentioned “Planned Parenthood” only twice in those 22 months, in complaints about Republican opposition to the repeal-and-replace Obamacare plan, which would have defunded the abortion giant. (Some pro-life leaders today say that repealing Obamacare through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process was the administration’s best chance of defunding Planned Parenthood.) He did not mention other pro-life legislation. Meanwhile, in that timespan Trump tweeted about “immigration” more than 100 times. He mentioned the southern border wall more than 70 times. On Twitter, pro-life policies were clearly not his priority.
What about his speeches? The annual State of the Union address is the president’s opportunity to state his legislative goals for the year. On Feb. 28, 2017, President Trump stood for the first time before hundreds of politicians and VIPs in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol. His hourlong address before both houses of Congress touched on some pet campaign topics: lowering taxes, creating jobs, repealing Obamacare, and securing the border. He spoke of his plans for a southern border wall. All three pieces of pro-life legislation sat in Congress at the time, and yet he made no mention of them.
A year later, Trump addressed the joint houses of Congress for a second time. The day before, the Senate fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster and bring the Pain-Capable bill to a vote. In his speech, Trump called on Congress to give government agencies the ability to fire federal employees. He called on Congress to revamp the country’s infrastructure. He told the story of an Albuquerque police officer agreeing to adopt a homeless woman’s unborn child.
Trump, though, made no mention of his pro-life promises or of his disappointment in the Pain-Capable bill’s failure. Still, Ryan Bomberger of the pro-life Radiance Foundation says the president was not the problem in 2017 and 2018: “I was very publicly frustrated with the Republican Party. Republicans had control of both houses, and they were spineless.”
In 2019, when Republicans were in the minority in the House of Representatives, Trump did include in his 2019 State of the Union address a call to action on pro-life policies: “I am asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in a mother’s womb. Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.” In his 2020 State of the Union speech, Trump again called on Congress to pass the legislation.
The only explicitly pro-life legislation Trump has signed into law during his presidency was a Congressional Review Act in 2017. It revoked an Obama-era rule requiring states to give Title X funds to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. The filibuster-proof bill passed both the House and the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tiebreaking vote. Unlike the other rule changes to HHS programs Trump made during his presidency, this one came with a level of permanence: Congressional Review Act resolutions prohibit the federal agency in question from reissuing any future rule that is “substantially the same” as the nullified rule.
With this Congressional Review Act and the subsequent Title X rule change in 2019, Trump explored two avenues for partially fulfilling his promise to defund Planned Parenthood. The 2019 change was successful, but it only cut around $60 million (about 10 percent) of the abortion giant’s government funding. Trump had other avenues to cut larger portions of the funding. In September 2018, five pro-life leaders sent him a letter suggesting one of them.
Nance, Peggy Hartshorn of Heartbeat International, Tom McClusky of March for Life, Lila Rose of Live Action, and Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life referenced Trump’s campaign promise to defund Planned Parenthood: “Due to congressional inaction, getting taxpayers out of the abortion business remains one of your key promises that remains unfulfilled. Since Congress will not lead, we are asking you to do so. … We ask that you send this bill back to Congress without your signature and continue to do so until it stops funding abortion providers with our taxpayer dollars.”
Trump signed the bill anyway. Nance said she was disappointed with Trump’s decision: “I wouldn’t have signed the letter if I didn’t want him to do it.” But she has since praised Trump’s other crackdowns on Planned Parenthood—mainly through the Title X grants: “To be fair, he found other ways to reach the same conclusion by going after Title X.”
It wasn’t exactly the same conclusion, though. Defunding Planned Parenthood completely at the federal level would have meant a loss nine times the size of the Title X change, leaving only the estimated 10 percent that comes from state coffers. The bottom line: Planned Parenthood’s overall government funding during 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, was $554.6 million. Last year, before losing Title X money, it took in $616.8 million.
Hawkins said continued funding of the abortion giant was not inevitable, even after Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives. She said the administration could divert taxpayer dollars from Planned Parenthood, without going through Congress, through the process of “debarment.” That means disqualifying the organization from participating in the Medicaid program since it has shown itself to be a bad agent by participating in the trafficking of baby body parts.
The Department of Justice investigation into Planned Parenthood’s alleged misconduct—launched in response to activist David Daleiden’s undercover videos in 2015—has continued for nearly three years. Hawkins said concluding that investigation could speed up Planned Parenthood’s reckoning and that Trump should hasten the conclusion by pressing the attorney general to wrap it up.
“Here we are years later and they have not announced the findings of that investigation,” said Terrisa Bukovinac from Democrats for Life. “In the meantime, the Trump administration has allowed Native Americans to be prosecuted for selling eagle body parts.”
Trump’s apparent unwillingness to use his political capital to meet his pro-life legislative goals suggests his promises about abortion aren’t a priority to him. On other issues Trump has repeatedly proven himself capable of pushing the limits. In 2018 Trump was willing to let the federal government go into the longest shutdown in the nation’s history over the issue of immigration. He spent Christmas Eve tweeting demands for border wall funding from the Oval Office.
Similar action on Planned Parenthood would have shown a definitive commitment to his campaign promises. “I think the Trump supporter base expects to see bold and decisive action,” said Lila Rose. She was one of the leaders I spoke with who was most vocal about Trump’s missed opportunities. “Refusing to sign a spending bill that funds the abortion industry would be bold and decisive action, and we haven’t seen that. … Ultimately the hard work is doing what can cost you politically, and that’s where we want to see actual creative leadership.”
Rose added that Trump’s public persona contributes to her lack of Trump enthusiasm. She said the “dehumanizing tone” that colors some of his statements “goes against what we’re fighting for as a movement.” This concern is typical, even among pro-lifers who express strong support for his policies. But it’s often not enough to overshadow what they see as a staunchly pro-life presidency.
I spoke with more than a dozen grassroots pro-lifers across multiple generations to get their perspective on Trump. Some are political activists; most work at pregnancy centers. Most who talked to me expressed discomfort with Trump’s public persona but said he has overall helped build a culture of life by protecting unborn babies through his policies and emboldening pro-lifers through his support of the movement.
One pregnancy center staff member, Weeseetsa Maeding at Alternatives Pregnancy Center in Sacramento, Calif., said having Trump as a spokesperson for the pro-life cause has not helped the movement: “We get lumped in with Donald Trump, and I don’t know if that is going to have a positive, long-lasting effect for people who are going to outlast Donald Trump for fighting for the pro-life movement.”
Longtime pro-life activist John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe criticized Trump’s lack of repentance for his past and his contribution to current divisiveness: “If you’re going to end abortion in the United States and around the world, you do need to build a national consensus.” In June, Stephanie Ranade Krider resigned as executive director of Ohio Right to Life, citing similar concerns. She told Christianity Today, “All … people matter to God. My greatest fear is that in the pro-life movement and the evangelical church, we’ve become so tied to the Republican Party and President Trump, they don’t all matter to us.”
The administration in August released Trump’s second-term agenda. The original version made no mention of abortion-related goals. The promise to “protect unborn life through every means available” didn’t appear on the 54-point list until five days later, after complaints from some pro-lifers. Trump’s September campaign letter to pro-lifers made the same commitments as in his 2016 campaign letter and added the goal of signing the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has made its plans clear. In July, it released “The Biden Agenda for Women,” a 23-page document that includes a section on Biden’s “Reproductive Health” promises. Pledges include: Require states to fund Planned Parenthood through Medicaid. Reverse the Title X rule that pushed the abortion giant out of the program. Rescind the Mexico City policy.
It’s that agenda that has most pro-lifers solidly behind Trump, even though a second Trump term doesn’t guarantee more pro-life victories. Said Hawkins: “I know with 100 percent certainty what will happen if Donald Trump doesn’t get reelected.”
WORLD has updated this story to correct the spelling of Kristan Hawkins, and to reflect that President Trump’s judicial appointments are all federal judges.
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