Oswald Clark and Paul Tuns, Analysis:

Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the 2022 Dobbs decision, U.S. pro-life organizations have fought a multifront effort to protect the preborn: they sought full or partial legal protection in predominantly Republican states, fought against efforts to expand abortion in Democrat-controlled states, and differed amongst themselves on how to best address the issue at the federal level, with some supporting a 15-week ban and others sticking to their principles calling for an outright ban. The case for the 15-week ban is that it would override state laws that permit abortion-on-demand for all nine months of pregnancy. The Republican Party – members of Congress, state legislators, and those running for the party’s presidential nomination – struggled to find its collective footing on the issue and some Republican candidates seem to have lost winnable elections because of the abortion issue. All eyes were on Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican flag-bearer in the 2024 presidential election, to see what he would do.

In early 2023, former president Trump said that the issue should be decided by the states. He took credit for appointing three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe, which returned the issue to both federal and state legislatures to decide. Most pro-life groups criticized Trump’s position as unprincipled, most notably Lila Rose of Live Action and Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. Dannenfelser called kicking the issue back to the stats “morally indefensible.” Others, such as Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, continued supporting Trump and parroted Trump’s focus on the pro-abortion extremism of Democrats who support abortion to the moment of birth (and sometimes after).

It became clear that Trump was not going to endorse a total federal ban, but he also criticized states such as Florida that banned abortion at 15 weeks or other states with heartbeat laws that prohibited abortion after six weeks. Trump came out for rape and incest exceptions.

On Sept. 17, 2023, Trump told Meet the Press he would come up with a “compromise” and that “both sides are going to like me … we’re going to have something that’s acceptable (to everyone).” Trump said he would “sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”

It was stunningly naïve for a candidate who doesn’t get credit for his political acuity: there is no compromise that will satisfy both pro-life and pro-abortion activists.

During the primaries in January this year, Trump said that the Republicans had to come up with a position on abortion that could “win elections.” In March, there were reports in the New York Times and Politico that Trump would endorse a 16-week ban, presumably similar to the 15-week ban proposed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) in 2022.

On April 9, Trump released a statement on his social media platform, Truth Social, reminding supporters that he appointed the justices who voted to overturn Roe; the thrice-married former president called life and family “the ultimate joy in life.” While he called himself pro-life, he insisted states and not the federal government should deal with the abortion issue. “Many states will be different,” he said, “many will have a different number of weeks or some will have more conservative than others, and that’s what they will be.” Trump said, “it’s all about the will of the people.” Trump said he would not sign a federal ban on abortion and reiterated his support for rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions regardless of gestational age. He also praised in vitro fertilization treatment as being pro-life because it enables couples to have children.

Pro-life reaction was mixed. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, called his former boss’s position a “retreat from the pro-life cause” and “a slap in the face of millions of pro-life Americans who voted for him in 2016 and 2020.” Pence said, “what should concern us far more than the politics of abortion is the immorality of ending an unborn life.” Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s Marjorie Dannefelser said her organization was “deeply disappointed” because “unborn children and their mothers deserve national protections and national advocacy.” Trump’s position, she said, “cedes the national debate to the Democrats.” She vowed her group would work to defeat President Joe Biden and pro-abortion Democrats running for Congress. Live Action’s Lila Rose reiterated the pro-life position that all abortions are wrong and should be illegal. Senator Graham expressed disappointment that Trump committed to not signing any federal ban.

The former president shot back: “Senator Lindsey Graham is doing a great disservice to the Republican Party and our Country” because his, Graham’s, pro-life position, Trump believes, is “handing Democrats their dream of the House, Senate, and perhaps even the Presidency.”

Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition who now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, praised Trump as “the most pro-life president in American history” and vowed his group’s continued support. Jim Bopp Jr., general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, said his organization also supported Trump because “there is no national consensus that would justify the national government taking a position.” Contrary to Dannefelser’s argument that babies and women deserve pro-life advocates in their presidential candidates, Frank Pavone said, “I thank the President for his statement” because “I don’t expect him to do my job.”

Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life said Trump’s statement was “a step in the right direction” but admitted “We clearly have some work to do to educate the Trump Administration to come on the many ways that abortion has been made federal.”

Since Trump’s announcement, pro-life Republicans at the federal level have been struggling to articulate their position on abortion while other formerly pro-life stalwarts at the state-level have publicly repudiated their pro-life position and accepted some sort of compromise at 12- or 15- weeks. Kari Lake, who ran for governor of Arizona in 2022 and lost, said two years ago she supported a total ban on abortion, calling prenatal homicide “the ultimate sin.” But as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2024, she vows not to support any federal ban and has called upon state legislators to overturn the existing Arizona law which prohibits all abortion except to save the life of the mother. In a video stating her new abortion position, Lake says, “I chose life, but I’m not every woman.” She did, however, commit to defunding abortion federally. (Lake would later reverse herself again and oppose efforts to liberalize Arizona’s abortion law.)

Most pro-life groups are working to elect pro-life Republicans at all levels of government to, at the very least, stop the Democrats from enacting laws that would further liberalize abortion. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are in line with the party’s congressional leaders in seeking to codify Roe in law through a bill that would allow abortion through all nine months, with abortion being fully paid for by taxpayers.

The politics of abortion is far from clear. Certainly, Republicans have lost several close midterm elections both nationally and locally because Democrats attacked them on abortion in 2022 and 2023. Republicans often seem to run from the issue, or at the very least are (as Trump says) “inarticulate” about their pro-life position. It is also true that where abortion is on the ballot, the pro-abortion side has had a financial and sympathetic media advantage. At the same time, no pro-life incumbent governor or senator lost their office in the midterm elections, although several pro-life Republican challengers to vulnerable Democrats lost elections they were expected to win.

But in a general election, abortion might play out differently. Polls show the majority of Americans want abortion legal, at least some of the time, yet the same polls show the majority do not support the Democrats’ position of abortion-without-limits. Think about it this way: roughly one-third of American voters wants a total ban or substantial limits on abortion, one-third wants complete abortion-on-demand, and the last third is somewhere in the middle. Trump has stumbled upon a position that tries to reach the middle third of voters who want abortion legal but limited. Democrats will attack Trump’s position as permitting Republican-led states such as Texas and Indiana to ban all abortion and scaremonger that it is just a matter of time until those bans become federal. A Wall Street Journal poll showed that abortion was the only major issue on which Biden was more trusted than Trump.

As the Journal’s Kimberly A. Strassel wrote, “even if abortion favors Democrats, that is all they have.” The Democrats have “leaned in” on their support for abortion, with the Washington Post reporting that, “The Biden campaign plans to spend every day until Nov. 5 reminding voters of Trump’s record on abortion, hoping the issue will mobilize their core voters, bring disaffected voters back into the fold and make inroads with voters whom Democrats have often struggled to win.” In other words, the Democrats are running primarily on abortion. In the week after Trump’s statement, both Biden and Harris made pro-abortion speeches; prior to the announcement Harris visited an abortuary for a photo-op, the first time a president or vice president has done so. In March during the State of the Union address, Biden, putatively the second Catholic president of the U.S., highlighted his support for abortion and he has repeatedly attacked state limits on abortion, blaming Trump for enabling them by appointing three anti-Roe judicial appointments. Democratic strategists see abortion as the party’s “silver bullet” that may supersede the electorate’s concerns about Biden’s handling of the economy, foreign policy, and border control, and increasingly his age-related decline.

It could work.

There has been a backlash against abortion restrictions. Gallup has found a ten-point swing in favour of the self-identified “pro-choice” label, which is now chosen by 59 per cent of respondents, whereas pre-Dobbs it was an even split between pro-life and pro-choice. The swing has been most pronounced among female suburban voters – precisely the voters that Trump will need to narrow the gap with Biden in closely contested states such Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona. But as New York Times columnist David Leonhardt has pointed out, “Democrats may have a harder time focusing attention on abortion in a presidential election.” Maybe. As many as ten states, including Florida, could have “abortion access” on the ballot through citizen-initiated referenda; several of those states will have Senate races that are being targeted by the Republican Party and if the pro-abortion position is as popular as polling suggests and Democrats hope, they could increase the Democrat turnout on election day, swinging close states to the Democratic column. It seems unlikely that abortion won’t be top-of-mind for a significant number of voters. Recent polls show abortion is an issue of increased saliency, with the (pro-abortion) Kaiser Family Foundation finding 16 per cent of women 19-49 naming it the most important issue in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 5.

National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in the Washington Post, said that Democrats downplay the “full extent” of their extreme pro-abortion position, while “Republicans would rather not talk about it” at all. Trump’s position looks like another attempt to avoid talking about abortion.

In January, Senator Marco Rubio (R, Florida) issued a memorandum, “A winning pro-life strategy,” that focused on three priorities: developing a pro-life agenda that “makes life easier for mothers and their children,” highlighting the Democrats’ “pro-abortion extremism,” and telling “the truth abortion what abortion is – the taking of innocent life – and advocate limits to the practice.”

According to Rubio, the Republican Party – and the United States – must “refocus and remember who we are,” a party and people who believe “in the dignity of the human person … and inalienable right to life.” By this measure, the Republican presidential standard-bearer comes up short.