Not that long ago, the ultramilitant anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America looked certain to play an aggressive role in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. The group had made it known months ago that it would push candidates to support a national abortion ban, as opposed to a strategy of gradually snuffing out abortion rights throughout the states, suggesting that would be a litmus test for candidates who wanted SBA’s support. Now, the anti-abortion movement’s involvement in the presidential primaries is becoming a debatable proposition.
Fiery SBA founder and CEO Marjorie Dannenfelser made it clear her initial hard line wasn’t a bluff by blasting Donald Trump for refusing to support a national abortion ban. (Trump had earlier displeased the forced-birth crowd by blaming its extremism for the underwhelming GOP performance in the 2022 midterms.) Dannenfelser said in a statement released on April 20:
President Trump’s assertion that the Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion solely to the states is a completely inaccurate reading of the Dobbs decision and is a morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate to hold. Life is a matter of human rights, not states’ rights. Saying that the issue should only be decided at the states is an endorsement of abortion up until the moment of birth, even brutal late-term abortions in states like California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey. The only way to save these children is through federal protections, such as a 15-week federal minimum standard when the unborn child can feel excruciating pain.
We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections.
Similar stern criticisms of Trump and other politicians who didn’t back a national ban emanated from another hard-core anti-abortion group: Students for Life Action.
Just a few days later, a curious thing happened at SBA’s own Virginia headquarters. Dannenfelser introduced Nikki Haley, long a close associate, for a heavily advertised big speech on abortion policy. But Haley failed to endorse SBA’s alleged litmus test of a national abortion ban (apparently to the organization’s surprise, since right after the speech, it put out a statement congratulating her for backing a 15-week ban, which she actually didn’t). Haley also encouraged a focus on very late-term abortions as part of a search for “consensus” on the subject. It’s still unclear if Haley stabbed Dannenfelser in the back and might face consequences.
Then, this past week, Dannenfelser met with none other than Donald Trump along with 15-week national-ban sponsor (and Trump backer) Lindsey Graham and Christian-right warhorse Tony Perkins. Following the meeting, Dannenfelser came out with a sunny statement that is hard to square with her earlier criticism of the 45th president:
During the meeting, President Trump reiterated his opposition to the extreme Democratic position of abortion on demand, up until the moment of birth, paid for by taxpayers — and even in some cases after the child is born. President Trump believes such a position is unworthy of a great nation and believes the American people will rebel against such a radical position that aligns us with China and North Korea.
President Trump knows the vast majority of Americans oppose brutal late-term abortions when the child can feel pain and suck their thumbs. President Trump reiterated that any federal legislation protecting these children would need to include the exceptions for life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest. Protecting unborn children capable of feeling pain would align America with the civilized world and with 47 out of 50 European nations.
It’s clear Trump hasn’t changed his mind about the supposedly obligatory national ban and, like Haley, wants to focus on rare, very late-term abortions that were the bread and butter of anti-abortion groups in the days before Roe v. Wade was reversed, paving the way for pre-viability bans. So what’s going on here? My colleague Jonathan Chait observed that Trump was getting away with a watery position while his top rival, Ron DeSantis, had been “suckered” by all the tough litmus-test talk into signing an unpopular and draconian six-week ban in Florida.
There would appear to be several possible explanations of the apparent SBA flip-flop. Perhaps Dannenfelser decided not to get directly involved in the 2024 presidential primaries in light of Trump’s growing domination of the GOP field; the huge debt owed to him for making the reversal of Roe possible; and the growing evidence of a pro-choice majority in public opinion, even in many red states. It’s beginning to sound as if she prefers accentuating the sharp divide between the two parties on abortion and will relax her litmus test. It’s also possible that she is trying to maintain a united front with less militant anti-abortion groups that don’t want to encourage divisions within the GOP.
But another possibility is that Haley, Trump, and other Republican candidates, looking ahead to the general election, simply want to keep their more controversial commitments to the anti-abortion movement private. Perhaps Dannenfelser and her allies have become convinced that demanding this or that position from would-be presidents is both unnecessary and politically divisive. After all, every announced and semi-announced Republican presidential candidate is opposed to the very idea of reproductive rights, has hailed the reversal of Roe, and favors making most abortions illegal wherever that is possible. Better to wait until one of them is safely in the White House — preferably with a Republican Congress — before testing the limits of what terrible things can be accomplished.
What is almost certainly not happening is that the anti-abortion movement and the GOP are genuinely moderating their positions. It may just take longer to find that out in the worst possible way.
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