Embracing Trump has doomed the pro-life movement to failure

The pro-life movement went all in on Donald Trump and permanently damaged its moral and political prospects
March for Life participants carrying a banner
Photo credit: American Life League on flickr

There was no March for Life this year. The pro-life movement’s annual show of power didn’t happen, but it wasn’t entirely due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

On January 24th, 2020, Donald Trump became the first sitting president to address the March for Life. Other Republican presidents had sent phone calls or prerecorded messages to the rally, so it was a big deal this time to have their champion present. Standing onstage, facing the crowd with their signs festooned with his image and the words “Most Pro-Life President. Ever,” Trump declared that “unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”

One year later, the streets of DC were empty. The “most pro-life president” had given a halfhearted-to-neglectful national response to a deadly pandemic as well as incited violence just days before to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power following his electoral defeat. This one-two punch of terror — an unchecked disease that made large crowds an impossibility and a city full of  makeshift riot walls and fences — caused the March for Life committee to decide to cancel for the first time in history. Although they’ll never admit it, the pussy-grabbing president they had praised as their greatest champion was directly responsible for the movement’s absence from the public square.

As the pro-life movement enters its 49th year of failure, its leaders stand in an uncertain place, having gleefully traded away dignity for momentary gains. Their only hope is that the judges Trump installed will take on Roe v. Wade and make abortion a matter for each state to decide. If that doesn’t happen and their advantage in the courts begins to fade, what then? Was embracing the oafish Trump worth it? Will they continue to associate with the man or will they begin distancing themselves from him? And what does the near future of the pro-life movement look like?

These are pressing questions precisely because Trump has left so much damage in his wake. As an insincere newcomer to the cause of opposing abortion, he broke with orthodox messaging in early 2016 in an interview with Chris Matthews where he called for criminal punishment of women who procure abortions. This outraged pro-lifers who had long maintained a position of punishing abortionists only. Trump quickly backtracked and the matter was smoothed over with the promise of pro-life judges, but the damage was done. Along with conservative writer Kevin Williamson’s proclamation that women who have abortions should be hung, the taboo of punishing women for abortions has been permanently weakened. Many up-and-coming Trumpian style politicians are eager to push this new harsher pro-life approach to its logical conclusion, capital punishment for women who terminate their pregnancies. 


Trump’s influence in the pro-life movement was felt seemingly overnight. Organizations and individuals who were denouncing Trump as dangerous to women and children one day, all of a sudden started praising him as their greatest hero. You can see the Trumpian slide in pro-life filmmaking for instance. When pro-Trump pro-lifer Abby Johnson’s biography film Unplanned was released in 2019, it was a moderate success, especially compared to other overtly pro-life movies which are almost always relegated to niche film markets. It had high production values and was unassuming enough to float under the radar and make back its $6 million budget over three times over (though Johnson herself couldn’t help marketing the film to the Q-Anon crowd by using its hashtags in tweets promoting the movie).

Johnson’s understated success was a direct contrast to “Roe vs Wade,” a bloated mess which was released in March, replete with appearances from Trump-loving C-list celebrities and a guest appearance by alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. The film has been critically panned and hasn’t created enough buzz to make any sort of impact. Its ultimate fate is up in the air, but thus far it seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the Trumpian pro-life style of bombast and gaudy spectacle.

The most serious fracture in the pro-life movement that Trump exposed is the racism of its acolytes. Once a relative non-issue, it has become harder and harder for pro-lifers to ignore the swelling racist element in their ranks, as best exemplified by former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose white nationalist sentiments were evident long before he ranted against “other people’s babies” in 2017.

One of the few truly anti-Trump pro-life groups is New Wave Feminists. The group was one of many pro-life groups (including Abby Johnson’s organization And Then There Were None) to register to take part in the Women’s March in early 2017 before being removed due to tension with pro-choice groups. Its founder, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, penned an article for the Dallas Morning News entitled “Donald Trump is making us pro-life activists look like fools” in the wake of Trump’s appearance at the 2020 March for Life. 

Back in 2016, Herndon-De La Rosa was one of the last people to resist the temptations that Trump was dangling in front of her pro-life compatriots. She was often flanked by her vice president, Kristen Walker Hatten. The pair of young women offered a youthful and hip alternative to Trump’s lumbering and sexist pro-life views.

Then something happened. In 2018, it was revealed that Hatten was sharing overtly racist messages and images on social media, declaring herself an “ethnonationalist” and calling for immigration to be tightly controlled to keep America a majority white country. Rightly horrified by this turn, Herndon-De La Rosa ended the friendship and expelled her lieutenant from the organization, claiming that Hatten had “basically pulled a complete 180 from anything we had ever seen.”

However, the signs of trouble were there, as much as Herndon-De La Rosa refused to admit it. In the wake of Trump’s shocking 2016 win, Hatten wrote an essay entitled “ I’m a feminist and I’m glad Trump won”, in which she looked with newfound optimism at the man she had spent the previous months trying to defeat. After describing illegal immigration as a national security threat, Hatten concluded: “Hillary Clinton was not the best candidate. Donald Trump was.” 

Now it’s too late to turn back. Today, the fates of Donald Trump and the pro-life movement are so intertwined that there is no way to detangle the matted mass of knots. They made a deal with the devil and they have only begun to reckon with the consequences of that bargain. Even if their dreams come true and the Supreme Court they helped build strikes down Roe vs. Wade, they would have to fight 50+ individual battles to ban abortion in each and every US state and territory.

Pro-lifers could win some of these campaigns, but they would lose more, especially since public opinion surveys are indicating that younger Americans are more likely to favor keeping abortion legal than their elders. This trend has likely accelerated because of Trump, whose crass sexism and stoking of racial resentment has been off-putting to Generation Z. 

“The people who have become of political age during Trump’s presidency, I think, will be forever more Democratic throughout their lives,” libertarian pollster Emily Ekins has observed. She’s almost certainly correct.

In its early years, the pro-life cause was something that attracted people of all faiths and political persuasions. Not any more. Anti-abortion elites will not be able to escape the stain of allying themselves with Donald Trump. But at this point, they are not even trying.