Will the Pro-Life Movement Split With Trump on Issues Other Than Abortion?

The president has quickly moved to restrict abortion. He has also curtailed access for refugees and jeopardized health care for millions of Americans.

Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, and Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's political arm, at a conference for pro-life evangelicals ahead of the 2017 March for Life (Josh Shank / Rocket Republic)

The Trump administration is all about the March for Life. The president highlighted the 43-year-old event in an interview on Wednesday, promising large crowds—even daring to say they might be larger than those at the Inauguration. Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, was invited to join the line-up before she had even accepted an administration position, organizers say, and the “surprise VIP guest” who has been promised for weeks turned out to be Vice President Mike Pence—the first vice president or president in history to speak at the March, organizers say.

The real question is: Will the March for Life be all about Trump?

In just the first week of his administration, Trump has moved quickly to restrict abortion. He reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, prohibiting U.S. aid money from going to foreign groups that offer abortion counseling. Next week, he will nominate a new Supreme Court justice, who, he has said, will be pro-life. And during his campaign, he promised to support legislation that would prevent Medicaid reimbursements from going to Planned Parenthood and permanently establish the Hyde Amendment, a policy that bans the use of federal money to pay for most abortions.

Trump has also introduced plans to reduce the number of refugees coming to the United States, temporarily banning entry to people from a handful of war-torn countries. He has promised to deport an even greater number of immigrants than President Obama and support the repeal of his predecessor’s signature health-care bill. These might not seem like “pro-life” issues. But for many in the movement, Trump’s actions present a fundamental tension: While they celebrate his apparent seriousness about limiting abortion, they don’t necessarily support his other policies that threaten life after birth.

On Thursday evening, thousands gathered at a pro-life prayer vigil at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the towering Roman Catholic basilica in Northeast Washington, D.C.* New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave the homily, speaking on the connection between immigrants and abortion.  “Today, refugees and immigrants continue to believe that this nation is still a sanctuary, as they arrive with relief and thanksgiving,” he said. “We pray they are never let down!” Their struggle, he said, is the same struggle as that of children in the womb. “We come together this evening ... to reclaim the belief of nature and super-nature that a mother’s womb is the primal sanctuary,” he said.

When asked what obligation pro-life people have to speak out for the lives of immigrants and refugees, Dolan said, “A lot. And they do.” But at the same time, “they’re also very practical, and they’re very strategic,” he said. “We want to protect all human life: the immigrant, our grandmothers who are dying, people who are starving. ... What is the greatest danger today? When you look at the numbers of the babies whose lives are terminated in the womb, you’ll say, “‘Uh oh. There’s our priority.’”

“We’ve gone from a defensive approach … to a moment where we are truly advancing the ball.”

Other groups seem to share this sense that abortion trumps other issues. Focus on the Family, an advocacy group founded by the conservative Christian leader James Dobson, “helps condition the environment for what people in public policy view as the most important issues to evangelical Christians,” said Tim Goeglein, the former Bush administration official who serves as the organization’s vice president of external relations. While the group co-sponsored an event called Evangelicals for Life in Washington on Thursday before the March, they haven’t held similar events or rallies to support robust health care for families, expansion of family medical leave or maternity and paternity leave, or government support for poor mothers.

“We tend to look to the private sector more than government to engage with that, although helping families in need is important for government to do,” said Jim Daly, Focus on the Family’s president. “We’re more comfortable in [the] arena” on issues directly related to abortion, he said, but “there’s not quite the same energy and openness” on issues like government support for needy families. While the group has prioritized public advocacy against abortion, Daly claimed it hasn’t taken up other issues because of frustrations with bureaucracy. “You can push and push on the government side, but oftentimes, little change occurs,” he said. But now, change is happening—at least on abortion. “We’ve been encouraged by what the administration has done thus far in the first week … because of the things we care about,” he said.

For groups that care exclusively about abortion, Trump has given them a lot to look forward to—and they’re feeling that excitement as they head into the March for Life. “We’ve gone from a defensive approach … to a moment where we are truly advancing the ball,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List. She said she’s worked personally with a number of White House staffers on their abortion agenda, and she’s very optimistic. “They’ll be marching in unity rather than bickering about whether to handle the issue or not,” she said. “And you’ll see at the top Mike Pence and Kellyanne.”

“Right now, the biggest voice for the pro-life movement is Donald Trump. And I don’t feel like he stands for pretty much anything.”

Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life, said she “was pretty impressed with how the [president] addressed these issues.” On the campaign trail, “he went farther than any other candidate has ever gone in talking about [Supreme Court] justices and talking about late-term abortion and the reality of it,” she said. “I’m very happy with what he’s promised to enact while he’s in the White House.”

For most Americans, though, the Trump administration won’t be judged on a single issue. As the leaders of the pro-life movement cheer on the new president at the March for Life, they risk associating the movement with all of his policies—including the exclusion of refugees, immigration restrictions, and a newly undermined health-care system. They also risk alienating the people who have often been their most enthusiastic marchers: the young women and men who turn out by the thousands to march against abortion every year. But unlike their older peers in the movement, who voted for Trump en masse, only 37 percent of Millennial voters chose Trump in this election.

“Politically right now, the biggest voice for the pro-life movement is Donald Trump,” said Jeanne Marie Hathway, a 19-year-old student at the Catholic University of America who plans to attend the march. “I don’t feel like he stands for pretty much anything. He’s clearly not for women’s health care, and he’s not for the dignity of human life.”

She wouldn’t identify as conservative or liberal or anything in particular—to her, the most important thing is following a “consistent life ethic,” which means caring about women just as much as unborn children, she said. Republicans like Trump “have the biggest voice for the pro-life movement right now,” she added. But “a lot of times, I think they’re Republicans before they’re pro-life activists.”

* This article originally misstated the day that a pro-life event occurred. We regret the error.