Joshua Roberts / Reuters

President Donald Trump condemned abortion in stark, graphic language in the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, eager to join in the backlash over recent Democratic legislation expanding access to late-term abortions.  

Referring to a New York law passed last month, Trump slammed lawmakers who “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth.” He called recent state-level proposals on abortion “chilling,” and used explicitly religious language to call for “a culture that cherishes innocent life”: “Let us reaffirm a fundamental truth,” he said. “All children—born and unborn—are made in the holy image of God.”

Trump and other Republicans are using divisions over late-term abortion to their political advantage. They have seized on the Democratic legislation to argue that Democrats are extreme and out of touch with American public opinion on this issue. Trump’s comments on abortion in the State of the Union received loud applause from Republican members of Congress. Ultimately, this may signal how the party will approach abortion in the long windup to the 2020 election: by using extreme cases as a powerful wedge issue.

This legislative term, Democrats in a number of statehouses have proposed legislation to expand abortion access. New York passed the Reproductive Health Act, which affirms every individual’s “fundamental right … to have an abortion,” gives licensed professionals other than doctors the right to perform the procedures, and allows for abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy if it “is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

Trump condemned Democrats on Tuesday for passing this bill. “These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and their dreams with the world,” he said.

Another recent bill in Virginia would have eased restrictions on third-trimester pregnancies in cases of potential harm to a woman’s mental or physical health. When a Republican lawmaker asked the sponsor of the bill, Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran, whether a woman could request an abortion as she was dilating and about to give birth, Tran cringed, and said yes. Meanwhile, Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, explained in a radio interview that, under this bill, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

A spokesperson for the governor later told Vox that the governor had “absolutely not” been referring to the euthanasia of a baby born after an unsuccessful abortion. “The governor’s comments focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor,” the spokesperson said.

Despite this clarification, some critics, including Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, accused him of supporting infanticide. The bill failed.

[Alexandra DeSanctis: Democrats overplay their hand on abortion]

Trump condemned Northam in his State of the Union address. “We had the case of the governor of Virginia, where he stated he would execute a baby after birth,” the president said.

“I think [the Virginia legislation] shocked the conscience of a lot of people,” said Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America. “I think it’s going to serve as a wake-up call for a lot of people who have been on the fence.” Trump, who tweeted last week that “Democrats are becoming the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders, and Crime!,” seems eager to use the backlash to Democratic legislation to his advantage. “Republicans have a golden opportunity to make this a golden issue,” said Charlie Camosy, an associate professor at Fordham University who studies the ethics of abortion.

Trump’s focus on late-term abortions is strategic: It’s one of the most fraught areas of abortion policy, and public opinion about the procedure is mixed. While roughly two-thirds of Americans said in a Gallup poll this summer that they oppose overturning the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which established basic abortion rights, public opinion varies on abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy, depending on the reason for the procedure. Roughly 1 percent of abortions take place after 21 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet these kinds of procedures have dominated recent policy fights at the state and federal level. “It’s purposeful,” said Melissa Murray, a law professor at NYU. Abortion opponents “know it will have a chilling effect on those who want to take a reasonable position that acknowledges women’s right to control their reproductive capacity … No one talks about the fact that this is such a small minority of cases.”

[Read: Science is giving the pro-life movement a boost]

Throughout his time in office, Trump has worked closely with anti-abortion groups to tailor his message. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the influential activist group Susan B. Anthony List, met with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on Monday night, before the State of the Union. In his address, the president pledged to take up one of the group’s policy priorities, a federal limit on abortions at 20 weeks based on the claim that fetuses can feel pain at that stage in development. In January, Pence addressed the annual March for Life, while Trump shared a greeting by video. Activists within the anti-abortion movement have come to see Trump as a staunch ally: “He may go down as the most pro-life president we’ve ever had in terms of what has actually been accomplished during his administration,” Hawkins said.

This tight relationship is partly built on Trump’s professed opposition to late-term abortions. During the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, in his third debate against Hillary Clinton, Trump described the procedure as “[ripping] the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth.” This seems to have won him votes. “I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but pro-lifers rightly point out that he was willing to talk about it in pretty graphic language in the debates in 2016,” Camosy said. “A certain kind of pro-lifer just rejoiced at Trump’s statements.” Identical language showed up again in Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.

Democrats and Republicans alike are moving on abortion policies at the state level. In recent years, Republican-held legislatures around the country have enacted hundreds of restrictions on abortions. State-level Democratic legislators have begun pushing back with efforts to expand abortion rights and access. “They see that this actually is the time to step up and be aggressive and be proactive,” said Dana Singiser, the senior vice president of policy, campaigns, and advocacy for Planned Parenthood. “We are not seeing a shrinking-away.”

Following the high-profile debates in New York and Virginia, states including Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Mexico will all consider proposals along these lines in the coming months. “That is the lesson of the 2018 election,” Singiser said. “Elected officials have a mandate from women, from abortion-rights supporters more broadly, from every consumer of health care … They’re anxious to have access to more health care, not less.”

[Read: The coming battle to overturn Roe v. Wade]

Yet Trump’s State of the Union showed that he has an opportunity on abortion as well. “It is red meat to [his] base,” Murray said. Some in the anti-abortion movement have been skeptical of Trump and his policies. “I can’t tell you,” Camosy said, “how many people have dismissed what Republicans are doing now by saying, ‘Well, we might be able to take you seriously if you had not been supporting child separation at the border.’” But in a political environment where late-term abortions are up for debate, abortion is a winning issue for this president. Whether they’re fans of Trump or not, Murray said, for pro-life voters, “this is something he can talk about that they can get on board with.”

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