As with most policy issues he’s commented on, Donald Trump’s positions on abortion could best be described as “confused.” Over the past decade or so, he’s said so many contradictory things on the subject that a detailed timeline to sort it out may be handy.
Like most Republicans, Trump has called for defunding Planned Parenthood — but unlike most Republicans, he has also praised the organization for its women’s health services. When he got pushback for saying in March that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, he took five different stances on abortion in three days before settling on the standard (and dubious) pro-life talking point that only doctors, not women, would face criminal punishment if abortion were outlawed.
It’s tempting to read Trump’s contradictory statements on abortion as a sign that he might govern as a secretly pro-choice president. Leading anti-abortion advocates have been reluctant to endorse him, given that he called himself “very pro-choice” in 1999 — and only started unambiguously declaring his “pro-life” stance in early 2011, when he was seriously considering a run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
But lately, Trump seems to have finally figured out how to speak conservatives’ language on the issue of abortion. He’s winning enthusiastic endorsements from anti-abortion advocates and is even recruiting them to direct his campaign strategy.
And all signs indicate that an administration led by Trump and his vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, would, in fact, actively work to reverse Roe v. Wade and end legal abortion in America.
Trump is taking his cues from hard-line abortion opponents
The Hill reported Friday that Trump has tapped leading anti-abortion advocate Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, to lead his campaign’s “Pro-Life Coalition.”
Hiring Dannenfelser sends a strong signal that Trump is willing to go along with some seriously hard-line positions against abortion. Dannenfelser has said that making exceptions for rape victims in abortion bans is “abominable,” and has made clear that she thinks supporting bills that contain such exceptions is a distasteful “political” concession.
Dannenfelser, like many pro-life activists, is also deeply hostile to contraception. She has said that contraception increases the rate of abortion, which is exactly backward. And SBA List falsely claims that intrauterine devices and emergency contraception cause “early abortions.”
Trump has already proposed to make birth control more expensive for women — with a one-two punch of moving birth control over the counter without requiring that insurance cover it, and repealing the Affordable Care Act along with its no-copay birth control benefit. The fact that Trump has made Dannenfelser his point person on reproductive rights issues makes it seem even less likely that affordable, accessible contraception would be a priority in a Trump administration.
Trump already sent a pretty strong signal on his intentions for reproductive health when he nominated Pence as his running mate. Pence is one of America’s most dedicated anti-abortion governors, and even signed a bizarre law this year that would have mandated funerals for fetuses. (That law was later struck down as unconstitutional.)
On top of that, Trump was recently endorsed by radical anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. Newman is infamous for suggesting that killing abortion providers is justifiable, and was deported from Australia last year over concerns that he might incite anti-abortion violence.
Pro-choice advocates argue that an endorsement from Newman is just as deplorable as an endorsement from David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, and have demanded that Trump renounce Newman — but so far the campaign hasn’t commented on the endorsement.
What a Trump-Pence administration would actually do on abortion
Trump’s letter to pro-life groups makes several specific promises, all of which are major wish list items for the SBA List and the pro-life movement as a whole.
Some of these policies would make abortion and contraception less accessible. And others could actively outlaw abortion in America, especially if Trump presides over a Republican Congress:
- Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is the biggest deal when it comes to Trump’s actual personal power to influence reproductive rights policy if elected president. Whoever wins this election could end up appointing as many as four new Supreme Court justices as the current justices age or retire, which could shape the Court’s ideology for decades to come.
- Trump promised to sign a 20-week abortion ban — which could also help overturn Roe v. Wade. Congress has tried and failed to pass a national 20-week abortion ban in the past, but it could very easily become law if Trump is president and if Republicans have big enough majorities. Supporters of 20-week abortion bans make the scientifically unsupported claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks — but it’s no secret that Republicans and anti-abortion advocates also want to pass these bills because they contradict Roe v. Wade, and could form the basis of a direct Supreme Court challenge. (Roe protects a woman’s right to an abortion before a fetus is viable, which doesn’t happen until well after the 20-week mark.)
In other words: Trump wants to nominate Supreme Court justices who would be willing to overturn Roe, and then sign the bill that would give them the chance to do exactly that.
- Trump will pursue policies that would make abortion, and other reproductive health care like contraception, more expensive and harder to come by. Trump promises that he is committed to defunding Planned Parenthood and “re-allocating their funding to community health centers.” But as Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained, Planned Parenthood plays such a pivotal role in women’s reproductive health care that it’s just not realistic to expect community health centers to take over for it — and that means a lot of people would lose their access to affordable contraception and other basic health care if Planned Parenthood went away. And while Hillary Clinton has pledged to overturn the Hyde Amendment — which would mean helping low-income women afford abortion services by letting public programs like Medicaid pay for them — Trump promised in his letter to pro-life groups that he will do the opposite, and make the Hyde Amendment permanent.
The one thing Trump doesn’t talk about in this letter is whether abortion bans should include “exceptions” for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. The GOP platform currently calls for a “human life amendment” to the Constitution that would not only ban abortion without exception but also ban certain forms of contraception.
Trump has said before that he would liberalize the GOP’s abortion platform by adding exceptions — but he hasn’t really mentioned that again since picking Pence as his running mate. Adding exceptions to the Republican Party platform is sure to enrage pro-life activists like Dannenfelser, and it seems more likely that Trump wouldn’t bother trying to rock the boat on that issue.