As Washington D.C. filled with tens of thousands of abortion opponents last week, there was a jubilant feeling in the air. Though the annual March for Life was ostensibly a massive protest against the continued existence of legal abortion in America, movement leaders were also celebrating a year of victories, most of them due to President Donald Trump. It was impossible to miss the number of patriotic ski caps and and scarves—usually a rare sight at anti-abortion protests—as well as the occasional iconic red ball cap, and even a “Make Unborn Babies Great Again” sign meant as an homage to the new commander in chief.
It is undeniable that the anti-abortion movement has reached a new peak in political power. There are anti-abortion majorities in the House and Senate. And although almost every single anti-abortion rights political organization in the nation opposed Trump during the Republican primary, he has carried out their will with surprising efficacy in office. Not only has he kept his promise to oppose legal abortion if elected, he’s also eagerly embraced his new “pro-life” stance with the sort of fervor only a newly minted convert can project. In just his first full year in office, Trump has stacked his administration with key opponents to abortion rights and birth control, reversed a number of Obama-era orders on state funding of reproductive health clinics, cut funding to foreign family planning groups that even mention abortion, extended legal protections to medical staff that refuse to provide abortions or other sexual health services for religious reasons, and stacked the judiciary—including by appointing a far-right Supreme Court nominee—so thoroughly that the ramifications will be felt for decades.
It’s a positive—and very unexpected—turn of events for anti-abortion activists, who initially approached Trump's candidacy as simply saving themselves from a Clinton presidency. Little could they expect that the same man who once praised Planned Parenthood for helping low income and uninsured women access healthcare, who claimed to grab women “by the pussy,” and whose treatment of women has been so well-known and shockingly degrading that the public no longer bats an eye to hear he was allegedly spanked with copy of Forbes magazine during an affair that took place shortly after his wife gave birth, to suddenly materialize as the pro-life movement’s savior.
“Because of President Trump, we have had more pro-life legislation come out than any president since Reagan. He’s done even more than Reagan!” announced Brian Gibson of Pro-Life Action Ministries, an action group located in Minnesota and Florida. Gibson was addressing a crowd of roughly 150 people protesting the D.C. Planned Parenthood the morning before the actual march, an annual tradition arranged by Priests for Life.
It was a theme that was repeated throughout the D.C. events, from the protest to affiliated conferences. Introducing Trump, who addressed the march via live satellite feed, Vice President Mike Pence called him “the most pro-life president in American history… a tireless defender of life and conscience in America.”
Some anti-abortion leaders went as far as to suggest that he was the greatest gift the movement could have hoped for. “I was told during the campaign by some advisors of his that he would do what past pro-life presidents had done and more,” said Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. “He tries to push things further than before. Not just reinstating the Mexico City Policy [which punishes foreign NGOs for discussing abortion] but expanding it. Not just addressing the March for Life but doing a whole event. You see these steps that he’s trying to take to do extra. He’ll do some things in the future that will be creative and even surprising.”
One prominent activist, who asked not to be named, said that none of the other Republican candidates in 2016 would have gone as far as Trump: While they may very well have made the same executive decisions, Trump has appointed prominent anti-abortion leaders and consultants to key staff positions, creating a veritable pro-life All Star bench—one that no other conservative likely would have replicated. (Particularly important, the activist said, was the choice of the virulently anti-abortion Pence as VP.)
This very well may be true. The addition of anti-abortion activists in key positions all throughout the administration has created a body in which it has become increasingly difficult to see any difference between the White House and the movement itself. That became increasingly obvious during the events surrounding the March, where, for the first time in history, three of the highest ranking officials in the country—the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House—all addressed the Marchers live, and, in Speaker Paul Ryan’s case, in person.
In the day leading into the March, Students for Life president Kristan Hawkins and some of her chapter leaders visited the White House and had an exclusive roundtable meeting with Pence and his wife Karen, and afterward numerous movement leaders attended a “Pro-Life VIP” reception at the old executive office building. The rapport between the administration and the anti-abortion movement is the coziest it’s ever been, and only seems to be growing cozier.
But while many anti-abortion activists applauded the President and relished in the power that being so close to the administration offered, not every activist was so unconditionally excited by their new bedfellow.
Rev. Pat Mahoney, a former leader of the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and now director of the Christian Defense Coalition, finds himself divided over the movement’s growing ties with President Trump. Despite being close to the administration—Mahoney had actually been invited to attend while the President spoke in the Rose Garden—he remains uncomfortable with Trump’s rhetoric beyond “life issues” such as abortion or religious freedom.
“I’m glad any president will speak on ending the violence of abortion and standing for human rights injustice,” he told Broadly. “But I’ve been very vocal speaking out about his comments on ‘s-hole’ or ‘s-house.’” The language itself was far less offensive, he continued, than the fact that the President appeared to imply Americans prefer immigrants “from countries that are predominately white than we do from countries that are brown or black, which is deplorable.”
“I’ve said for years that perhaps the greatest problem with the pro-life movement is that we connect so closely to the Republican Party,” Mahoney added.
Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa, president of New Wave Feminists, a younger, often irreverent feminist anti-abortion group, was more blunt: “We stop looking like we support women when we support a guy who grabs pussies.” According to Herndon-de la Rosa, the pro-life movement’s leaders made a big mistake deciding to tie themselves so tightly to the administration and the GOP in general.
Promising to end abortion is the quickest, easiest way to engage a massive voter base, she explained, sounding slightly conspiratorial, and if abortion were finally made illegal, that tool would be lost. “Sure, they got [Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch appointed]—they got their 30 pieces of silver for getting Trump elected, he comes to speak at your pro-life march, but one of their big things was defunding Planned Parenthood, and he hasn’t done that,” she said. “I don’t think they are in a big rush to overturn Roe or any of these other things they claim to be doing. I don’t see that happening. So yeah, they have all the power, but they aren’t going to do jack shit about it.”
Is the GOP using the pro-life movement? Is the movement using the GOP? Either way, both of them have one thing in common: They threw their lot in with the flawed and now highly unpopular President Trump, and their opponents aren’t going to let disentangle themselves from that association.
“The anti-choice movement says time and time again that they are so proud to have Donald Trump—the same man who called women bimbos, pigs, dogs, slobs, said that he could grab us by the you-know-what—by their side. They own this president,” said Kaylee Hanson Long, the national communications director for NARAL Pro-choice America. “They own his policies, they own his rhetoric, and they made that decision back in 2016 when they stood right by him unapologetically even though they knew what kind of person he was. They are certainly tied together; they are one and the same.”
Now just a court case away from potentially overturning Roe v. Wade or, even more alarmingly, just one or two states from having enough Republican-controlled legislatures to pass a constitutional amendment banning abortion, the anti-abortion movement has massive political clout and the ability – if they wanted to – to push for the most extreme anti-abortion laws in history. But they got there by embracing the most divisive, problematic president in the country’s history, and they could pay the price of that alliance when the midterms come, as the political landscape very well may shift again.
Maybe that’s the true legacy of getting into bed with Donald Trump: You never know what will happen once you’re between the sheets.