Anti-abortion activists are growing increasingly nervous about a potential Trump administration 2.0.
“It’s not a little concern for us in the pro-life community, we’re really concerned about his recent comments,” Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats told Semafor. “This is the Trump that we feared we would get in 2016.”
The worry has been quietly brewing for months as Trump has repeatedly dodged questions on the details of his abortion position while staying away from major groups’ demands on the issue, especially a national 15-week ban. But the floodgates burst open over the weekend, when he told NBC News’ Kristen Welker that Ron DeSantis’ six-week abortion restriction in Florida — shared by many other GOP-led states — was “a terrible thing.” His suggestion that he might negotiate an abortion law that pleases “both sides” also came as a shock, given the implausibility that any deal with Democratic buy-in would be acceptable to them.
Many anti-abortion activists quickly voiced their concerns: Lila Rose, president of Live Action, tweeted that his remarks were “pathetic and unacceptable” and declared that “Trump should not be the GOP nominee.” Kristen Hawkins warned in a letter to Trump that “the pro-life vote is up for grabs.” Tony Perkins described his comments as “disturbing.”
The comments fed a long-simmering belief that Trump was not one of them, despite appointing the Supreme Court judges who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade and pursuing other anti-abortion initiatives as president, like his Mexico City policy. He had to promise which judges he would appoint in advance in 2016 partly because so many social conservatives were afraid he might turn to liberal acquaintances, or even his own sister. Back then they had critical votes to offer; now multiple people in the movement say they’re worried about what might happen if he no longer sees their cause as useful to him.
“The worst thing about Trump in this 2024 election cycle is that he’s just kind of talking and acting like he’s done with pro-lifers — that we had somewhat of a transactional relationship and that transaction is now over,” one pro-life activist, who asked for anonymity to speak freely, told Semafor. “And that because he nominated the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, we should just be perpetually grateful to him and never expect anything else to kind of just keep our mouth shut. And I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Trump’s transactionalism presents a dilemma for anti-abortion leaders: Take him on directly, and he might respond by sidelining them even further.
While some in the movement have reacted harshly to his latest comments, others are offering up more diplomatic statements and gentle condemnation. SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser told Semafor that Trump is “criticizing a law and lawmaker that acted, following the will of the people, on what he made possible.” She suggested that both Trump and DeSantis “should focus on their concrete plans for the future and contrast those with Biden.” (On Tuesday, Dannenfelser added that Trump’s comment was “wrong.”)
The tamer brushbacks have sparked frustration within the movement from those who believe Trump should be held to the highest standard when speaking on the issue, and that the condemnation should be even stronger than it has been.
“I think that most people would rather be on the inside than the outside,” the pro-life activist said. Still, they added, the calm reaction was “incredibly embarrassing.”
Vander Plaats argued that if Trump ends up winning Iowa comfortably even after his remarks, it will be “very concerning” for the anti-abortion movement for one key reason: He’d “be revealing that we are bought, or sold out, to a personality.”
Trump’s comments come as Republicans grow increasingly concerned about their positioning on abortion, raising the prospect that a Trump pivot could encourage others to try out new positions that stray even further from anti-abortion group’s stance. Activists who talked to Semafor sounded less concerned about that possibility for now: Trump’s opponents were still relatively ordinary movement conservatives on the issue, even as some also have been reluctant to embrace a national ban.
Room for Disagreement
Trump isn’t known for micromanaging government policy, some activists noted, and another administration would likely include anti-abortion Republicans in key roles. It’s quite possible a second term could be similar to the first, with judges, cabinet secretaries, and key aides all drawn from the same pool of movement conservatives who have been largely supportive of his candidacy. (Trump hasn’t matched a promise from Mike Pence: To only appoint anti-abortion nominees to his cabinet.)
The View From Trump
Trump defended himself in two Truth Social posts on Tuesday, writing that Republicans should advocate for exceptions when discussing abortion bans. Trump also reminded voters of his efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade during his first term in office, declaring that because of him, “the Pro Life Community has TREMENDOUS NEGOTIATING POWER.”
The View From Democrats
To Democrats, the entire conversation is a farce, and gives them ammunition for a tough general election. Unclear as he is about a federal ban Trump is still celebrating the judicial appointments that got us here; every clip of him taking credit for Roe’s end, they say, feeds their 2024 attack ads. Trump goes after Democrats daily with lurid stories about abortion “after birth,” which social conservatives see as an effective way to turn the argument around, but Democrats think they can defuse it by invoking Roe and its limits.
“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is responsible for ending Roe v. Wade,” Joe Biden tweeted Tuesday. “And if you vote for him, he’ll go even further.”