The reviews were in before President Trump even finished his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night: “Once again, President Trump has proved he is our nation’s most pro-life president ever,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement issued during the speech.
Trump’s address included only a few lines about abortion politics, but it was enough to please his base in the pro-life movement. Trump used vivid language to condemn recent bills in Virginia and New York designed to expand access to later-term abortions. “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” he said, and went on to accuse Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam of being willing to “execute a baby after birth.” He also called on Congress to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill first introduced in 2013 that would criminalize abortion after 20 weeks. The section drew one of night’s most enthusiastic standing ovations from the Republican side of the House chamber, who were joined by pro-life Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
The speech echoed weeks of escalating rhetoric from pro-life activists over the two state bills expanding women’s access to later-term abortions. In Virginia, a bill that would have expanded access to second- and third-trimester abortions failed in the statehouse after Northam awkwardly defended it in a radio interview that went viral in conservative circles (and apparently led to the revelation of racist yearbook photos that have since imperiled his governorship). In New York, meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in January making abortion legal after 24 weeks if a doctor deems it necessary to “protect the patient’s life or health.” Opponents argue the law “allows for an abortion right up to the moment of birth” and will lead to infanticide.
Laws similar to the New York and Virginia bills have been on the books in other states for years. But Republicans clearly see this as a winning issue. Even before the speech, Trump seized on the bills as an opportunity to frame Democrats as “the party of late-term abortion,” as he tweeted last week. He has discussed the issue privately with prominent conservative Christians and in the press. “Do you remember when I said Hillary Clinton was willing to rip the baby out of the womb?” he said in a recent interview with the Daily Caller. “That’s what it is; that’s what they’re doing. It’s terrible.”
The bills in New York and Virginia have energized anti-abortion activists across the country, and Tuesday’s State of the Union underlined their conviction that President Trump is “the most passionate president in talking about the humanity of the unborn,” as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins tweeted during the speech. The speech was quickly praised by pro-life organizations including the March for Life, Americans United for Life, and National Right to Life. “I applaud him for using the bully pulpit to celebrate life,” Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins said in a statement. Several organizations pointed out that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen to the speech as a guest.
Few pro-life activists are under the illusion that Trump is personally enthusiastic about the abortion question. The president publicly described himself as “very pro-choice” as recently as 1999. In office, however, he has delivered concrete advances to their cause. Within days of his inauguration, he reinstated and expanded the “global gag rule,” preventing foreign organizations from receiving any U.S. funding if they provide abortions, information about abortions, or advocate for legalization. Last year, he proposed a similar restriction on domestic organizations, which is expected to affect tens of millions of Planned Parenthood’s funding. As president, he has also spoken to pro-life audiences at the March for Life and at the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual gala.
He has also appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court, and many others to lower courts across the country. As TV cameras scanned the audience at the Capitol early on Tuesday night, several activists tweeted triumphantly at the appearance of Brett Kavanaugh on-screen. “Hello JUSTICE Kavanaugh,” Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance wrote. The anti-abortion site LifeNews put it more succinctly, summing up the message of the evening: “Take that liberals.”
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