It’s hard to blame pro-lifers for being excited: today, for the first time in its 45-year history, a sitting President attended the March For Life in person. Other Republican Presidents have addressed the March via video, but none have actually shown up until now. This is not an insignificant moment for a movement that has long fought an uphill battle against the popular conception—aided by (naturally) the media—that they are few in number and therefore ought to be discounted.
In truth, the nation remains nearly equally divided on the issue of abortion. Gallup found just this past June that 49% of Americans self-identify as pro-life, compared to 46% who self-identify as pro-choice. And momentum is on the side of the pro-lifers: in 1995 those percentages were 33-56.
“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life,” the President said in his speech. I can’t argue with that.
But I hope my fellow pro-lifers won’t blame me for being skeptical of his motives. Donald Trump was pro-choice for 64 years. He once co-hosted a pro-choice fundraiser. He gave an interview to Meet the Press in which he declared, “I am pro-choice in every respect.” He remained a supporter of abortion right up until 2011, when he was toying with the idea of a 2012 Presidential run. In other words, he started calling himself pro-life when it became politically expedient for him to do so.
He is hardly the first politician to pivot on a significant issue at the very instant it works in their favor. Socially conservative and liberal voters alike may be vexed to realize that Donald Trump was the first President ever to begin his term while openly supporting gay marriage. President Obama’s eventual public support for it was entirely driven by political considerations, and ultimately happened because Joe Biden forced his hand. Hillary was against same-sex marriage while that was the safe position to hold. In 2004 she believed that marriage was “a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” But every politician knows that nothing is as sacred as getting votes.
Trump’s late-in-life conversion to the cause, his pro-life rhetoric, his appearance at March For Life: these are all calculated moves. They’re transactional. He knows he needs those voters. He knows how to get them. “They are coming after me because I am fighting for you,” he told the crowd. (Yes, on the day commemorating 60 million dead babies, he was still the victim.)
I hear you, friends. “Who cares about his motives as long as his policies are helping curb abortion?” It’s a valid argument (though not one I’ve seen often; most seem to almost worshipfully believe that he truly cares about the unborn.)
And yes, I am glad whenever abortions decrease. We (and by “we” I mean the left) have come so far from “safe, legal, and rare.” Now it’s #ShoutYourAbortion and Michele Wolf dressed in red white and blue hosting her “Salute to Abortion” and actress Martha Plimpton posing in a “heart abortion” tunic. At least we’re not pretending anymore. And I understand why some in the pro-life movement believe any support is good, and why we would want a fighter on our side.
But the only thing that can ever truly change the realities of abortion in this country is its electorate. Changing the hearts and minds of fellow Americans, persuading them that science and ethics and morality and basic human decency are all on the side of life: that is how we turn the tide. Not through politics. Not through laws. Because politicians can be replaced. Laws can be changed.
That is why it’s a mistake for March For Life and the pro-life movement as a whole to unrestrainedly embrace the most divisive figure in modern American politics. Sure, the 25% or so of Americans who enthusiastically support him are thrilled about his connection to the movement. And I’m sure his involvement has helped solidify his support among those who may have been put off by his other antics.
What about the rest? What about the 51% who find his actions so abhorrent they believe he ought to be removed from office by the Senate? What about the ones who may have been warming to the idea that unborn babies deserve protection, but then they see the pro-life movement championing a man whose words and behavior utterly repel them? We are all susceptible to this sort of prejudice. I’d be willing to bet you know or are even related to someone who won’t even watch a movie starring an actor whose politics they fervently disagree with. Or perhaps one who started boycotting the NFL because of Colin Kaepernick. Personally, I would have my kid flipping burgers before sending them to Liberty University as long as any trace of Jerry Falwell, Jr’s influence remains there.
Short-term gains are good, but not at the expense of a long-term sea change in Americans’ views toward abortion. I fear that’s the myopic trade we’re making, when instead, we could be trying to find and elect leaders who will deliver on the pro-life reforms we want without all the baggage that drives away potential allies.
But who knows? I could be wrong. Maybe the stain will wash out sooner than I believe. Maybe people’s memories will be shorter than I fear. It’s good to hedge sometimes, to leave room in the future for reality to assert itself. Good politicians know this.
For example, during the primaries in 2016, Maureen Dowd asked Donald Trump if, back when he was a Manhattan bachelor, he was ever involved with a woman who’d ended up getting an abortion.
“Such an interesting question,” he said. “So what’s your next question?”