Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” said President Donald Trump to thousands of pro-lifers filling the National Mall at the annual March for Life in January. To many listening, it didn’t seem like a bold claim. Pro-life leaders and other politicians had been saying the same thing for months, pointing to the pro-life successes of his presidency. Even his speech at the march was historic: He was the first president to speak at the event in person.
Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America is one of these supporters. “He’s done everything that he could possibly do to be a pro-life president,” she said. “I can’t think of anything that we’ve asked him to do that he hasn’t tried to do.” She and others note his pro-life makeover of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the establishment of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the Office of Civil Rights that protects pregnancy centers and pro-life medical professionals.
Compared with the long-term pro-life letdowns of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, mainly over disappointing nominations for the Supreme Court, Trump’s pro-life record seems impressive. But Trump also has critics in the pro-life movement. They say that, when compared with his own pro-life campaign promises and his willingness to fight on other issues, Trump’s pro-life track record contains notable absences. Concerns about his character have also kept some pro-lifers from supporting him fully.
Many in the pro-Trump camp emphasize Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. This summer they both supported Louisiana’s pro-life law in the first abortion-related case to come before the court. Trump has also nominated 200 state and federal judges: Pro-lifers believe most of them will rule in favor of pro-life laws.
But that’s the only one of the four pro-life commitments he made in a letter to pro-lifers during the 2016 campaign that he has fulfilled. The other three were to sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, defund Planned Parenthood, and make the Hyde Amendment permanent law to prevent taxpayer-funded abortions.
Many pro-life leaders I talked with said that three-fourth’s failure is not Trump’s fault. The Defund Planned Parenthood Act, which would have withheld federal funds from Planned Parenthood for a year, never received a vote in the Republican-controlled House during the 115th Congress. The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act would have made the Hyde Amendment permanent. It passed the House four days after Trump’s inauguration but never received a vote in the Senate. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, also introduced in January 2017, passed in the House nine months later. That next January, the Senate version of the bill fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster. Each bill failed again during the following congressional term, after Republicans lost the House.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and the national co-chair of the Pro-Life Voices for Trump coalition, defends Trump, noting that in each Congress he’s issued a statement in support of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Trump has also issued three statements in support of the Pain-Capable bill. Dannenfelser said Trump used his presidency to promote the legislation to the public at rallies, through tweets, and “even putting it in the State of the Union message.”
Trump’s use of Twitter in his administration is certainly unprecedented. He’s fired officials, started foreign disputes, and proposed policy through the platform. His tweets have become a window into his mind—especially into his political goals. In the 22 months between Trump’s inauguration and the day the Republicans lost the House, Trump tweeted more than 5,500 times, averaging about eight per day. But during that time, Trump tweeted about “life” in the context of abortion fewer than 10 times, mostly in reference to a candidate’s political stance or the annual March for Life. He used the word “abortion” once, and “unborn” never appeared.
Trump mentioned “Planned Parenthood” only twice in those 22 months, in complaints about Republican opposition to the repeal-and-replace Obamacare plan, which would have defunded the abortion giant. (Some pro-life leaders today say that repealing Obamacare through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process was the administration’s best chance of defunding Planned Parenthood.) He did not mention other pro-life legislation. Meanwhile, in that timespan Trump tweeted about “immigration” more than 100 times. He mentioned the southern border wall more than 70 times. On Twitter, pro-life policies were clearly not his priority.
What about his speeches? The annual State of the Union address is the president’s opportunity to state his legislative goals for the year. On Feb. 28, 2017, President Trump stood for the first time before hundreds of politicians and VIPs in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol. His hourlong address before both houses of Congress touched on some pet campaign topics: lowering taxes, creating jobs, repealing Obamacare, and securing the border. He spoke of his plans for a southern border wall. All three pieces of pro-life legislation sat in Congress at the time, and yet he made no mention of them.
A year later, Trump addressed the joint houses of Congress for a second time. The day before, the Senate fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster and bring the Pain-Capable bill to a vote. In his speech, Trump called on Congress to give government agencies the ability to fire federal employees. He called on Congress to revamp the country’s infrastructure. He told the story of an Albuquerque police officer agreeing to adopt a homeless woman’s unborn child.
Trump, though, made no mention of his pro-life promises or of his disappointment in the Pain-Capable bill’s failure. Still, Ryan Bomberger of the pro-life Radiance Foundation says the president was not the problem in 2017 and 2018: “I was very publicly frustrated with the Republican Party. Republicans had control of both houses, and they were spineless.”
In 2019, when Republicans were in the minority in the House of Representatives, Trump did include in his 2019 State of the Union address a call to action on pro-life policies: “I am asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in a mother’s womb. Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.” In his 2020 State of the Union speech, Trump again called on Congress to pass the legislation.