Donald Trump’s remark that women getting abortions were they to be banned should be punished drew swift, unified condemnation from the anti-abortion movement – evidence of the distinctive role it plays at a time when many right-of-center constituencies are struggling with their responses to the Republican presidential front-runner.
Trump soon backtracked from Wednesday’s comments, but not before anti-abortion leaders forcefully repudiated him.
“There was no time to get on the phone and compare talking points, but all the comments were consistent,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life. “The foundational premise of the pro-life movement is to protect both the mother and the unborn child. We don’t leave one of them behind.”
The anti-abortion movement is by no means monolithic – there are sometimes sharp splits over political tactics and the question of whether abortion bans should make exceptions for rape and incest. But there is common ground around the belief that life begins at conception, and a consensus that this belief takes precedence over short-term political calculations.
“The pro-life movement has a more than 40-year history of working together,” said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for Americans United for Life. “There’s a tremendous consensus.”
Once Trump’s remarks were reported, said Hamrick, “There was no need to ask each other, ‘What do you think of this?’ It’s wrong.”
Alesha Doan, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, has studied the anti-abortion movement. She said Trump’s remarks undercut its long-evolving strategy of voicing empathy with women considering abortion.
“It’s been a very successful message, portraying women as victims,” Doan said. “Trump’s remark really conflicts with that strategy.”
For some anti-abortion activists, Trump’s remark brought back bad memories from 2012, when Republican candidates in Indiana and Missouri blew winnable Senate races after provocative comments on rape and abortion. In Missouri, Todd Akin declared the female anatomy capable of preventing pregnancy in the case of “a legitimate rape,” while Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock said pregnancies that result from “that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen.”
“A lot of pro-life leaders would not want an Akin or Mourdock situation playing out on the national stage,” said Professor Michael New, an abortion opponent who teaches economics at Ave Maria University in Florida.
He noted that over the past four decades, Republican presidential nominees have been staunch and articulate supporters of the anti-abortion cause.
“The concern with Trump is that you’d get a person who doesn’t articulate the positions well and says things that could be damaging,” New said.
Earlier in the presidential campaign, anti-abortion leaders expressed satisfaction that virtually every candidate in the large GOP field held a firm position against abortion. Their praise extended to Trump, who said he had abandoned his former views in favor of abortion rights.
Now, with just Trump and two other candidates remaining, there’s some uncertainty within the movement about what course to follow.
Among those monitoring the race is Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion legislation and candidates.
Dannenfelser contends that the anti-abortion movement has been able to take the offensive this year, after being more defensive over the past few years. She suggested that Trump, at least momentarily, had disrupted that momentum and she faulted him for lack of preparation on abortion issues.
“It’s dismaying to see that,” she said. “None of the other candidates would have made that mistake.”
However, Dannenfelser did not rule out supporting Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee and faces a Democrat who supports abortion rights.
“The question is, will he be able to get to the point of confidently communicating his position to contrast with Hillary Clinton in way that helps,” Dannenfelser said. “I think it’s possible.”
In contrast, Mike Gonidakis said Trump’s remarks demonstrate the he is an unqualified candidate who is “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement.”
Gonidakis is backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the race; he said some other anti-abortion leaders would gravitate toward Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
On the Democratic side, there were vigorous efforts to lump all three GOP candidates together as opposing women’s right to choose in regard to abortion.
“All the Republican candidates want to make abortion illegal,” Hillary Clinton said on Thursday. “If you make abortion a crime, then you make women and doctors criminals.”
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