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Pro-lifers who support Donald Trump are kidding themselves — and hurting the movement

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For months now, pro-life leaders have been lining up behind the least likely pro-life hero our country has ever seen. Donald Trump may not have been their first choice. But as we draw near to the end of this long and sordid campaign, they are standing behind and beside the Republican nominee for president, explaining away his misogyny and racism for the promise of Supreme Court justices.

But the truth is there has never been a pro-life case for voting for Donald Trump. And his comments on abortion at the final debate last week demonstrated that Trump doesn’t care much about pro-life issues — and that he doesn’t know much about them, either.

Still, pro-life movement leaders stood behind Trump after the debate. Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, said that Trump’s answers on abortion gave evangelicals “permission” to vote for him.

That movement leaders have been so susceptible to affirming Trump indicates that a truncated vision of the movement’s political ends has taken hold of our imaginations and witness. It is not just the Supreme Court that hangs in the balance this election: The soul of the pro-life movement does as well.

Trump and Clinton discussing abortion at the debate was five minutes of bitter misery

The paradox of Donald Trump is that the meaning of his incomprehensible word salads can only be found through careful, attentive scrutiny. Trump long ago gave up on trying to match his words to the truth, and his speech has degenerated accordingly. “Words, words, words,” Hamlet laments: That is all Donald Trump can sound out, with only the barest ability to arrange them into coherent sentences. The best we can say of him is that he knows which words his supporters want to hear, and delivers accordingly. Which makes what Trump does not say as important as what he does.

While Chris Wallace was widely and justly praised for his moderating, the first few questions of the debate felt as though he were handing Trump the bandages he needed to stanch the bleeding of social conservatives from his campaign. Besides immigration, there are few more passionate constituencies for conservatives than the Second Amendment and pro-life crowds, the very subjects Wallace pursued in questioning the candidates about what sort of justices they would appoint. To switch the metaphor, Wallace put the ball on the tee for Donald Trump. All Trump had to do was say the words he has learned to say, and everything would go fine.

But he couldn’t even manage that. When asked repeatedly if he wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump declined to answer. “That will happen automatically in my opinion,” he said. And then, as though signaling where his real affections lie, he emphatically repeated that the issue would go “back to the states and the states will then make a determination.” To anyone not desperately wanting to believe Trump already, he was entirely unbelievable.

He then rightly critiqued Hillary Clinton’s support of partial-birth abortion, which normally would have scored serious points. But he overreached, choosing a wildly implausible scenario to focus on: a baby being aborted a day before its due date.

Were the candidate named Mitt Romney, pro-lifers would have spent the post-debate recap fretting about whether he really had the courage of his convictions.

Pool/Getty Images

Yet pro-lifers have an easy out for their rationalizations: Clinton’s performance did far more to solidify the pro-life contingent behind Trump than Trump’s. In contrast to Trump’s blustery unwillingness to say how he felt about Roe, Clinton was unambiguous and unhesitating: “I will defend Planned Parenthood, I will defend Roe v. Wade, I will defend women’s rights.” She was unreserved about the extent to which such defenses would go, confidently defending partial-birth abortion, a position that is well outside the mainstream of American society. She left no doubt about “what kind of country we will be” during her presidency.

The net effect of Clinton’s answer was that she would make no concessions and offer no quarter to the millions of Americans for whom abortion is gravely wrong. Despite skyrocketing poll numbers, a collapsing opponent, and her proud pronouncement that she is “reaching out to all Americans,” Clinton moved not an inch toward the many pro-lifers who are alienated from Trump’s campaign.

She did not acknowledge her running mate’s pro-life views, nor articulate her respect for them despite their differences. She could have mentioned family leave or poverty reduction policies to signal her aim to reduce abortions, but she didn’t. None of these would have moved pro-lifers to agree with her, but they would have demonstrated that on such an issue, Clinton really is interested in being the president of all Americans.

Watching these two candidates discuss such a grave issue was five minutes of bitter misery. Like my fellow pro-lifers, the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency fills me with an irrepressible and almost boundless despair; for anyone who shares the conviction that fetuses deserve respect, considering the prospect of abortion being further enshrined in American society is almost unspeakably deflating. I too have tasted the dismay that tempts the pro-life voter to begrudgingly vote for Donald Trump.

But my pain was worse than my pro-life peers, my sense of despair even deeper. Watching their exchange brought the cup of sorrow to my lips, and I drank to the dregs. For unlike the pro-life movement’s leaders, I cannot believe the wishful fantasy that Donald Trump would save any more infant lives than Hillary Clinton will allow to be aborted. The Trump candidacy is a long con, a trap that will destroy the pro-life movement by permanently associating it with his racism and misogyny. It has always been such a con. There is no pro-life case for voting for him, and there never has been. And there is no despair like that of those who are able to see it.

Pro-lifers who support Trump will pay a price

Pro-lifers are walking willingly and with their eyes wide open into the trap that has been laid, but there is no reason they should. There is no necessity that compels us to support one unacceptable candidate because we are faced with another. It is only the narrow imaginations of movement leaders that have moved pro-lifers to wed themselves in this election to the Republican Party. The public wing of the pro-life movement has been focused on judges and legislation for so long that its political imagination has atrophied. There are far more interesting paths a vibrant movement could have charted through this sordid election than they have chosen.

The sticking point is, of course, the judges. Donald Trump might give us to them! So you’re telling me there’s a chance! Let’s just grant that there is. There is also a chance of winning the jackpot every time one pulls the slots lever, yet how often does that go well?

The casino analogy is apt, I think, since owning them is one of Donald Trump’s signature accomplishments. In many ways, the metaphor distills his whole career: Donald Trump smells desperation better than a bloodhound, and then exploits it mercilessly. The house always wins — and in buying pro-life votes with empty promises, Trump set himself up to win.

Sure, his promise to pack the court with pro-lifers is not the equivalent of a slot machine. There may be political pressures that would keep him to his word. But I am skeptical: He clearly has no natural interest in the pro-life effort, and would subsequently be highly unlikely to pay the political cost required to get such a judge through.

Trump covets the approval and respect of elites, who will not look favorably upon him if he helps overturn Roe v. Wade. And the day after his (imaginary) first term is over, that is the social set he will retreat to Mar-a-Lago with — not the earnest, good-hearted pro-lifers who would have helped put him in office. The house always wins, and Donald will have his way.

This consumptive vision of judicial appointments has also crowded out other less tangible, but equally important, dimensions of the pro-life movement. Judges and legislation are the body of the pro-life movement’s efforts: They give concrete shape to its aims, and establish clear and definable metrics of success and failure. But the pro-life movement has a soul as well. Or it did, anyway, before it sold it for Donald Trump.

The cost of supporting Trump to the soul of the movement has been incalculably high. Pro-lifers have overtly set aside their concern for morals now that political goals are at stake. They have wed their own fate to the embodiment of the pornographic and sexually permissive culture they decry. They have admitted the misogyny of Donald Trump into an ecosystem suffused with the care and respect for women.

When pro-life surrogates mitigate the badness of Trump’s sexual exploits and assaults, their claims to support women alongside the fetus become nothing more than clanging gongs and crashing cymbals. They reduce their own public efforts to the same strategy that marks their presidential candidate: words, words, words.

The harms of losing the Court are obvious and palpable; the harms of sacrificing our witness to win it cannot be measured. We will not know the real cost of the Trump dalliance until 2020 or beyond. But it is vanity to think that pro-lifers will not pay one.

Matthew Lee Anderson is the founder of the Christian website Mere Orthodoxy, and author of The End of Our Exploring. Anderson is currently pursuing a DPhil in Christian ethics from Oxford University. He invites you to email him at or find him on Twitter.

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Watch: Trump’s abortion comments during debate