(RNS) — Is Donald Trump the most pro-life president in modern history? Only a year after his election, some traditional pro-life leaders are answering in the affirmative.
In interrogating this claim, let’s put aside the somewhat obvious point that being pro-life is about more than being anti-abortion. Whether one includes euthanasia, the death penalty, sexual violence or other related issues, nearly everyone who claims the name has pro-life concerns that go beyond abortion.
And if we go beyond abortion, Trump’s pro-life record falls apart pretty quickly. From nuclear escalations, to refusals to welcome the refugee and immigrant stranger, to proposals that cut health care for the most vulnerable, the current occupant of the White House refuses to respect human dignity in the broad and consistent way Pope John Paul II urged in his great encyclical on the Gospel of Life.
But because not all pro-lifers take similar approaches to issues that go beyond abortion, let’s interrogate the claim that Trump is “the most pro-life president in modern history” with a focus on that one issue.
A few weeks before the election I wrote a piece in The Washington Post trying to sound the pro-life alarm with regard to Trump. Like several pro-life convert Republican presidential candidates before him (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, etc.), Trump was pro-choice almost all of his adult life. Indeed, he was pro-choice “in every respect,” even for partial-birth abortion. He refused to say he wanted to overturn Roe and suggested his pro-choice sister as a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Simply put, I didn’t think he would follow through with his pro-life promises.
About this aspect of my argument, I must say, I was wrong. It appears the pro-life advisers he took on (Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway and others) have convinced him to do political things that are anti-abortion, regardless of what may be in his heart. His Supreme Court and federal appeals court appointments have been good in this regard, as have his appointments and policies with respect to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But, as we’ve seen in the careers of Supreme Court justices such as Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, confirmed Republican nominees don’t always turn out to rule as expected on abortion, and therefore don’t justify the huge weight so many pro-lifers put on them. And while Trump’s HHS appointments and policies have been admirably anti-abortion, they are fleeting decisions that could be changed by the next president.
So what Trump has done so far, while good from an anti-abortion perspective, is anything but a fundamental shift. At a minimum, we need to wait and see what his judicial appointments do before we can make a judgment.
Trump has said he will sign a 20-week abortion ban (the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act), but that is easy when there is no way it can currently pass Congress. He has also said he would defund Planned Parenthood, a much-more achievable goal as this could be done with a simple Republican majority via budget rules. Trump has done nothing to advocate for this important anti-abortion agenda item. On the contrary, the defunding of Planned Parenthood (for one year only) was cynically put into a health care reform plan to garner pro-life support for the bill.
Tellingly, the current budget plan being pushed by Trump funds Planned Parenthood.
Furthermore, while anti-abortion pro-lifers must be concerned with abortion “supply,” we also must be concerned with “demand.” And the demand for abortion is strong often because vulnerable women lack resources and structural supports.
Budget proposals that would cut health care by $1.8 trillion and health care reform bills that would cut $800 billion for the poor would lead to more abortions. Repealing provisions of the Pregnant Women Support Act in the Affordable Care Act, and turning pregnancy back into a “pre-existing condition,” would lead to more abortions. Appointing Supreme Court and federal judges who are unfriendly to social supports for women — from health care to paid family leave — would lead to more abortions.
So, even if we take a short-term view (say, five to 10 years down the road), it just isn’t clear what the net effect of Trump and his policies is going to be. Though he has clearly done some good things, the overall result may be more prenatal children killed via abortion. We just don’t know.
But we can be more confident about the medium- and longer-term effect of this presidency. With Trump’s face as the face of the movement, pro-lifers jeopardize the gains we were making among young people. Trump has a bottom-of-the-barrel 21 percent approval rating among millennials, with even worse numbers among young women and people of color.
If the pro-life movement continues to be closely associated with the repugnant views, causes and ramblings of our current president — particularly when they are anti-woman (a largely unjust charge that pro-lifers must nevertheless resist) — we will grasp defeat from the jaws of victory and lose the next generation to an abortion-rights agenda.
Even before Trump came along, pro-lifers were forced to spend the majority of our time trying to dissociate ourselves from caricatures and stereotypes. With few exceptions, this was the only way to get to a place where people with different views would even bother to listen. The cultural baggage associated with the movement was just that substantial.
But post-Trump, the baggage is on the verge of becoming overwhelming. Pro-life views are now deeply tied to a man who is associated with sexism, racism and narcissism, and this will be how today’s young people will think of pro-lifers for decades to come.
No, Donald Trump is not the most pro-life president in modern history. On the contrary, the damage he has done to the movement is incalculable.
(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and author of "Beyond the Abortion Wars." The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)