Analysis

Trump makes for an odd champion for abortion foes, but his latest moves give them reason for optimism

Abortion opponents met Friday for their 44th annual march in Washington with reasons for buoyant optimism: Republican control on Capitol Hill and a newly inaugurated president who appears intent on proving his later-in-life embrace of their cause.

On Monday, President Trump reinstated a ban on funding international organizations that provide abortion services or related counseling, reversing President Obama’s action eight years earlier. Next Thursday, he is expected to announce an anti-abortion jurist to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Members of Congress, meantime, are pushing several abortion-limiting measures that were blocked during the Obama years.

“I’m very optimistic that things are going to go well for the pro-life movement and unborn children,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. “I think this has been a fantastic first week for the administration.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who on Friday became the highest-ranking elected official ever to appear at the march, told tens of thousands gathered near the Washington Monument that the administration will push for a permanent ban on taxpayer money for organizations involved in abortion. Thousands of marchers carried signs demanding that Planned Parenthood be stripped of federal funds, although under current law it is not allowed to use federal money for abortion services.

“Life is winning in America, and today is a celebration of that progress,” Pence said. “The truth is being told, compassion is overcoming convenience and hope is defeating despair. In a word, life is winning in America because of all of you.”

As with many other issues, Trump’s election upended expectations, turning what anti-abortion advocates feared would have been another term in the wilderness under Hillary Clinton into a new opportunity.

It also paved the way for renewed attention to federal actions, after years of focusing their battles in states with more powerful allies.

“We’re living at the apex of a 40-year, state-by-state effort by the anti-choice people,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the prominent abortion rights organization. “They have been working on this day in and day out. ... We have to be prepared for the fact that they’ve got all the pieces in place to do real damage.”

Trump makes for an odd savior for abortion opponents, given that in 1999 he described himself in a television interview as “very pro-choice” despite hating abortion.

As late as 2000 he reiterated that position, but by 2011 was describing himself as opposing abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the woman. He favors the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

But his struggle to find the right balance with this new positioning was demonstrated in an interview last March with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, in which Trump broke with the position usually taken by anti-abortion organizations to say that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who receive abortions.

His campaign later issued a statement saying that only doctors who performed abortions should be punished.

Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood worker turned anti-abortion activist, said she hoped Trump would improve his ability to deliver the movement’s message.

“Some people in the movement are probably pretty confident,” Johnson said in an interview before the march. “I’m cautiously optimistic. He certainly needs to learn how to better articulate his message of being pro-life.”

“I think it’s fine to have concerns — I certainly have concerns and I think many of us do — and I think we have reasons to be hopeful.”

Trump’s supporting cast is cited by many as crucial to his credibility.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, pointed to the key roles played by Pence and counselor Kellyanne Conway.

“Pence has been a stalwart,” said Mancini, alluding to his strong anti-abortion record while in Congress and later as Indiana governor. Conway, who has been involved in past marches, promised the crowd Friday that Trump would follow through on his promises: “We hear you, we see you, we respect you, and we look forward to working with you.” 

In the past, support at the highest levels has not guaranteed progress as defined by abortion opponents. No recent Republican president — including Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes — was able to curb abortion rights or shift the country’s views on it.

“We’ve had other pro-life administrations,” Mancini said, “and they had other priorities along the way.”

The renewed focus comes at a notable time. A study released this month showed that in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, the rate of abortions fell to the lowest level since legalization in 1973 — 14.6 per every 1,000 women ages 15-44. That was 14% lower than the rate in 2011. In California, abortions fell by 15% over that period, according to the study by the Guttmacher Institute.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion divide give credit for the drop to the expanded availability of contraceptives and the closure of clinics. Cracking down on clinics, pressing legislatures to outlaw abortion earlier in pregnancy and requiring women to fulfill multiple requirements before they obtain the procedure have been hallmarks of the state-by-state strategy of the anti-abortion movement.

While those actions were disruptive, many of them were overturned or stalled by judges. Judicial appointments represent perhaps Trump’s most powerful tool in rewarding the anti-abortion community for its support in November.

Scalia died almost a year ago, but Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s proposed replacement, hoping to save the choice of nominee for a Republican president. Trump’s pick next week will not give anti-abortion justices the majority needed to reverse Roe vs. Wade, but any future slots well could.

“We have had for 30 to 40 years the ability to pass pro-life legislation in the states; our problem was that judges would always enjoin the laws,” said Tobias of the National Right to Life group. “So we do have to look at the Supreme Court as, long term, the longest-lasting effect that can really make a difference.”

Any changes by the court will come in defiance of public opinion, which is steadily in favor of abortion rights.

In a Pew Research Center poll published earlier this month, 69% of Americans backed Roe vs. Wade, while only 28% wanted it completely overturned. That marks even broader support than in 1992, when 60% supported it and 34% did not.

The sentiments are extremely partisan. Republican sentiment has stayed stable with just over half saying they support Roe. Democratic support has risen from 66% to 84%.

A Quinnipiac poll released Friday found that Americans oppose the defunding of Planned Parenthood by a 2-1 margin. When reminded taxpayer funds already cannot be used for abortion, even 65% of Republicans opposed cuts to Planned Parenthood. Overall, the poll found, 64% believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Among the throngs of abortion opponents who marched from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court on Friday, views were decidedly different.

Ann Grimes-Essay traveled to Washington from Pittsburgh, taking a day off from her job as a special education teacher to join the marchers. She attended her first Washington march at the age of 14; on Friday, at 56, she said she was thrilled at the vice president’s appearance and hoped the administration could work with Congress to ban funding for Planned Parenthood.

“We should not be paying for a crime,” she said of American taxpayers. “And murdering children is a crime.”

March organizers, meantime, were allowing themselves to hope for changes that none have imagined for years.

“Our most lofty goal is a culture where abortion is unthinkable,” said Mancini, the March president. “The political piece is an important part of it. But the culture is upstream of politics, and the much bigger and more important goal is changing hearts and minds.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from the march.

This article was originally published at 7:20 a.m.

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