Donald Trump seemed perfectly comfortable sticking it to the pro-life movement as he stood at the podium on the evening of Super Tuesday.
His press conference comments seemed intended to make pro-lifers squirm:
“Look, Planned Parenthood has done very good work for many, many—for millions of women,” he told reporters assembled at his Mar-a-Lago resort as the results rolled in. “And I’ll say it, and I know a lot of the so-called conservatives, they say that’s really—’cause I’m a conservative, but I’m a common-sense conservative.”
And for pro-lifers, his timing couldn’t have been worse.
The day after Super Tuesday, pro-life activists (as well as supporters of abortion rights) descended on the Supreme Court to demonstrate during oral arguments over a case regarding abortion.
In question was whether Texas had the right to implement regulations which resulted in the closure of many of its abortion clinics. Meanwhile, across the street, House Republicans convened the first hearing of their committee dedicated to investigating Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
It was kind of a big day! But their would-be standard bearer didn’t give a hoot.
Instead, he praised Planned Parenthood—Enemy No. 1 in pro-life circles.
It’s indicative of a shift that has some pro-life activists agitated: While they’ve had enormous success on the state level in limiting abortion access, their federal efforts are consistently frustrated.
And the ascent of a presidential candidate who shows zero deference to pro-life expectations could suggest their clout is being compromised.
That said, Trump is no ally of the abortion-rights movement; he says he wants to stop federal funding for the group as long as it performs abortions.
He also says he favors a ban on abortion after five months and has promised to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices. But his rhetoric couldn’t be more out-of-step with how the pro-life movement talks about Planned Parenthood.
“I’ve had thousands of letters from women—that have been helped,” he said at the Super Tuesday press conference. “And this wasn’t a set-up. This was women writing letters. But I’m going to be really good for women, I’m going to be good for women’s health issues, it’s very important to me. Very important to me.”
For many pro-lifers, comments like this one are a deal-breaker. In their estimation, any defense of the group is a defense of the indefensible. Trump, obviously, doesn’t think that way.
“I think he is an unpredictably dangerous candidate,” said Colin Hanna, who heads the conservative group Let Freedom Ring. “And at some point the electorate’s going to wake up to that. I just can’t believe that this deceptive bluster is going to carry the day.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find pro-lifers enthusiastically setting their beliefs aside and voting for Mr. Trump,” he added.
Thus far, pro-lifers’ efforts to slow Trump have had precious little success. In the lead-up to the South Carolina primary, a host of prominent pro-life women issued a letter to Palmetto State voters urging them to back anyone but Trump.
“On the issue of defending unborn children and protecting women from the violence of abortion, Mr. Trump cannot be trusted,” they wrote.
Despite that vocal and organized opposition, Trump went on to win South Carolina by 10 percentage points—thanks in large part to support from evangelical voters.
Presidential politics aren’t the only thing testing the pro-life movement’s clout.
Abortion opponents have seen setbacks on Capitol Hill for years. In 2014, a group of Republican women in Congress blocked a vote on a symbolic measure that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. The vote was supposed to coincide with the annual March for Life. Instead, it got canned—and tempers flared. Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican who said the bill would hurt her party with millennials, immediately faced threats of a primary challenger.
“‘Unforgivable’: Renee Ellmers should lose primary challenge for killing pro-life bill, say leaders,” blared a headline on LifeSiteNews.
But it didn’t materialize. Instead, Roll Call reported last month that the Republicans who moved to scuttle that particular vote have gone unpunished.
“Nearly every one of the country’s most prominent anti-abortion groups have stayed out of Ellmers’ primary, not even offering so much as an endorsement to her opponents—much less the financial and grassroots support vital to defeating an incumbent member of Congress,” the site reported.
Thus, some congressional Republicans see little political risk in defying the pro-life movement.
“Social-issue groups across the board need to recognize that if there are no consequences to people disagreeing with you, you’re not going to get taken seriously,” Frank Cannon of the pro-life American Principles Project told Roll Call. “We spend virtually nothing in directly engaging in elections. And the absence on that is one of the big dramatic flaws … for the social conservative movement.”
Their latest congressional defeat, though, came late last year when Republicans refused to insert language into a must-pass funding bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood. The move angered many conservative activists, including evangelical leader Franklin Graham. And it has some on the right questioning the power of the pro-life movement.
“The failure of the Republican Party and its leadership to act to defund Planned Parenthood since the videos came out represents one of the greatest failures in policy and politics of my lifetime,” said Ed Martin of Eagle Forum, referring to videos from the Center for Medical Progress on Planned Parenthood fetal tissue donation program.
“That pro-life groups are not up in arms and pressuring change in course is surprising to me,” Martin continued. “So before we start getting into what the next president will do on Planned Parenthood, I would turn the focus right back to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and say, ‘Why haven’t you led on that issue?’”
Ryan and McConnell aren’t the only Republican leaders to frustrate pro-life activists. When RNC chairman Reince Priebus gave a major address in the lead-up to the 2014 midterms detailing Republican legislative priorities, he conspicuously omitted any reference to laws regarding abortion. And the party generously funnels money into the campaign coffers of pro-choice Republican candidates (including Massachusetts and Illinois’ governors, Bruce Rauner and Charlie Baker). So pro-life orthodoxy often goes surprisingly unenforced.
“We still have a lot of work to do on the federal level,” said Penny Nance, who heads Concerned Women for America.
She noted that state-level bills regulating abortion clinics have given pro-lifers much to celebrate: Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota are each down to just one abortion clinic.
But the Supreme Court is currently deciding on a case that could jeopardize those wins. So pro-life activists currently face a divided Supreme Court and an often-uncooperative Congress.
And now, it’s likely they’ll get a Republican presidential nominee who sings the praises of their sworn enemy.