In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent promulgation of an executive order extending to the United States the “Mexico City Rules” — which have long banned international agencies receiving U.S. planning family funds (and since Trump expanded it in 2017, any health funds) from performing or even promoting abortion services — the 45th president is again receiving plaudits from the anti-abortion movement:
“President Trump is governing as the most pro-life president in our nation’s history. He has diligently and successfully gone about fulfilling his promises to the pro-life voters who worked so hard to elect him, and it has been a privilege to stand with him to defend the innocent unborn,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser president of the Susan B. Anthony List, the interest group which organized the 11th annual Campaign for Life Gala.
Trump is delivering the keynote address for the Tuesday-night event, sponsored by the most hard-core of the big right-to-life groups.
The kind of rhetoric Dannensfelser is throwing around is becoming common in RTL circles, but you get the sense much of the mainstream media doesn’t quite buy it. A new piece in Politico about the movement’s relationship with Trump has the air of someone trying to understand a phenomenon while explaining it to others:
“This is an organization that chose to tolerate Trump because it got them Pence in exchange,” said Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, a group that supports abortion rights.
Mallory Quigley, the SBA List spokeswoman, said the group has been transparent about its evolving views on Trump. She noted that the close relationship to the Trump White House followed eight years of President Barack Obama, whose administration’s positions “were a nonstarter.”
The piece goes on to speculate that Trump’s relationship with these people is strictly transactional, and is heavily influenced by high-ranking administration figures like Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway. That take may be true. But it misses an important point: The anti-abortion movement thinks of itself as perpetually betrayed by past Republican presidents who may have talked a good game, but when the chips were down did not always give the RTLers what they really, really really wanted: a judiciary, and especially a Supreme Court, ready to overturn the great (from their point of view) disaster of Roe v. Wade.
The opinion in Roe itself was written by Nixon appointee Harry Blackmun, and the majority striking down every state abortion ban was formed with the help of two other Nixon appointees, Chief Justice Warren Burger and Lewis Powell, along with Eisenhower appointees William Brennan and Potter Stewart. So there were five pro-choice Republican appointees on the Court right from the beginning.
President Gerald Ford favored the reversal of Roe (though not the Human Life Amendment converting the federal constitutional right to choose with a federal constitutional ban on the right to choose, which later GOP presidents routinely endorsed). But his one SCOTUS appointee, John Paul Stevens, was another Roe defender, who stayed on the Court for 34 years. Ronald Reagan was the first full-on RTL president, and talked a good talk for the cause regularly. But he also appointed two very durable Justices who opposed overturning abortion rights: Sandra Day O’Conner and Anthony Kennedy.
George H.W. Bush was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood (as was his father, Senator Prescott Bush) until he ran for president in 1980 and then joined Ronald Reagan’s ticket; he flip-flopped on abortion and became a loyal RTLer (otherwise he would almost certainly have not been nominated for president in 1988). But as president, Poppy Bush famously placed the mysterious David Souter on the Supreme Court, a Justice who turned out to be yet another pro-choicer.
Bush tried to make amends with his second SCOTUS choice, the constitutional radical Clarence Thomas. But the damage of cumulative GOP presidential betrayals of the anti-abortion cause was too complete. When the big opportunity to reverse Roe came along in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, all five Justices voting to maintain a constitutional right to an abortion were Republican appointees.
Trump’s one rival for the mantle of “most pro-life president in our nation’s history” was George W. Bush. His two SCOTUS appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, dutifully voted with the minority in the 2016 case of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which stopped states from making abortion rights a dead letter by radically restricting abortion providers via bogus “health” requirements. W.’s appointees are presumed sure votes to overturn Roe or at least restrict its scope. Bush 43 also showed his loyalty to the Cause in the bizarre Terri Schiavo case, in which a state judge’s decision in an end-of-life situation was temporarily overridden by RTLers claiming it involved euthanasia. But W. never gave the anti-abortion lobby control over judicial appointments, and worse yet, he squandered control of the judge-confirming Senate in 2006 after botching the Iraq War and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Compared to his predecessors, Trump, so far at least, has a perfect RTL record, regardless of what he actually believes. The Gorsuch nomination, taken directly from a Federalist Society/Heritage Foundation list, was a definite “Promise made, promise kept” moment for the new president and his new friends. But more importantly, Trump is continuing his practice of outsourcing his judicial appointments to intensely trustworthy people, under the watchful eye of chief adviser Leonard Leo, executive vice-president of the Federalist Society, who also had a hand in the Roberts and Alito appointments. Here’s what legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin says about Leo and the abortion issue:
In the light of Leo’s perspective, the possibility that he would put forward a Supreme Court nominee who would turn out to support abortion rights seems nonexistent. Roberts and Alito have voted against reproductive rights; so, in all likelihood, will Gorsuch. As Edward Whelan, a prominent conservative legal activist and blogger, wrote recently, “No one has been more dedicated to the enterprise of building a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade than the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo.”
And so these are the best of times for the anti-abortion lobby, at least so long as Republicans hang onto the Senate in November, and either Anthony Kennedy (age 81) or Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 85) leaves SCOTUS while Trump is still in office. Reagan was an inspirational leader for the RTL movement, and George W. Bush was a true believer. But Trump delivers. As president he has done many things to damage his self-proclaimed reputation as a great deal-maker. But the deal he struck with those who desperately want to deny women reproductive rights is going strong.