Donald Trump’s priorities never fail to perplex. Currently on his plate, there’s the possibility of an interview with special investigator Robert Mueller in the Russia probe; the looming probability of a government shutdown and, relatedly, demand that he strike an immigration deal that salvages the protections for DACA participants (which he himself destroyed). With many crises facing the White House, the president chose to make time for the anti-abortion cause on Friday, when he became the first sitting president to appear at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
That the president would want to snare this non-honor isn’t shocking. Trump has championed an anti-abortion hardline since he first set up shop in the Oval Office, despite growing support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing the procedure until viability. In early January 2017, a Pew Research Center poll found that 69% of Americans opposed overturning Roe; in January 2018, a poll from the research group PerryUndem put that number at 72%. And accompanying this increasing interest in maintaining Roe, we’ve seen a rise in physical and threatened violence against abortion providers — which picked up noticeably after Trump’s election.
That’s not to say that the platform espoused at the March for Life is intended to incite such attacks, but rather, to say that actions have consequences. In this case, one consequence of Trump’s many anti-abortion actions has been the emboldening of a destructive fringe for political gain.
Since its 1974 inception, the March for Life — largely a religiously motivated undertaking — has never enjoyed such active endorsement from a presidential administration. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence became the highest-ranking government official to take the stage at the March, declaring before cheering crowds that Trump’s inauguration meant “life is winning in America.” Trump’s name on the marquee, after his administration’s year-long onslaught against reproductive health care, only underscores that idea.
Granted, 45 is not the first president to address marchers — George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both offered audio statements — but he is the first to put his face on the event, beaming in via satellite from the Rose Garden to deliver his message: “love saves lives,” in keeping with the day’s theme.
“We know that life is the greatest miracle of all, we see it in the eyes of every new mother who cradles that wonderful innocent, that glorious newborn child, in her loving arms,” he said, adding: “As you all know, Roe v. Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, the United States is one of 7 countries to allow elective late term abortions, along with China and North Korea and others.”
While comparing the U.S. to countries Trump views as our enemies serves a clear rhetorical purpose, the figure he’s citing — beloved of Republicans — isn’t particularly reliable: Women in many countries where abortion is legal within a particular gestational period will allow later abortions as the need arises. In the U.S., late term abortions are vanishingly rare: the Guttmacher Institute estimates that just over 1% of procedures happen after 21 weeks, which is itself within the legal terms Roe established. But Trump didn’t drop the lies there.
“Right now, in a number of states, the laws allow the baby to be torn from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month,” he said, reiterating an idea he expressed more violently during his campaign: That abortion providers can “rip the baby out of the womb” in the final days before birth, which is patently false. If natal complications arise so close to a due date, doctors induce labor and the patient gives birth. Still, Trump continued, “In my administration, we will always defend the very first right in the declaration of independence, and that is the right to life.”
In a word, Trump’s address was pandering, part of an effort to supplicate the evangelical element of his base for support even if his own commitment to the cause — “to build a society where life is celebrated, protected, and cherished,” as he put it on Friday — amounts to empty conviction.
Even if the president disavows the fringe (which he often seems loath to do), the fringe doesn’t disavow him.
There’s ample reason to suspect that it does: Asked in a scarily prescient 1999 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press whether or not he would ban late trimester abortions if elected president, Trump responded, “I’m very pro-choice.” Explaining that he detests the concept of abortion on a personal level, but he defended the right to choose. “I am pro-choice in every respect and as far as it goes,” he said.
Flash forward to 2016, when presidential candidate Trump suggested “some kind of punishment” should exist for women seeking abortions (a statement on which he later back-peddled). Of course, people change their minds, but Trump’s about-face here looks more like political opportunism: He needed the religious right to win the White House, and without any sense of irony, presented himself as the only choice to defend traditional Christian values, the “right to life” chief among them.
As one of his very first acts in office, Trump tightly constricted abortion access around the world with the signing of an extra extreme iteration of the Global Gag Rule, which banned nonprofits that perform abortions or even associate with abortion providers from receiving U.S. aid. He then made good on his promise to appoint an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court, drawing ringing praise from March for Life president Jeanne Mancini. He took aim at Planned Parenthood with a measure cutting off federal funding to abortion providers. He rolled back the Obama-era mandate on birth control coverage under the guise of protecting religious freedoms. These are just a few of the blows Trump dealt women’s health in the past 12 months, with an anti-abortion “A Team” working on his newly adopted cause at every level of the administration. Just yesterday, his Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of a Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom within its ranks, which would allow medical professionals to pass on providing services they feel challenge their faith.
Each and every one of these varied attacks on reproductive rights has the effect of demonizing a legal procedure and the people who perform it; each attack would have the same damaging implications for the same groups of people. When abortion access is narrowed, when legislation shutters health care clinics that previously provided basics like birth control and pap smears, we know who loses: women in rural communities with few doctors; women earning low-incomes or living at the poverty line; women of color; immigrant women; teens; and LGBTQ people. We also know how they lose: According to a 2017 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, states with aggressive abortion restrictions — 10 or more, for the study’s purposes — had higher maternal, infant, and child mortality rates than their more lenient counterparts.
This makes sense: When you close doctors’ doors to patients who rely on government aid to secure medical care, you will have more babies born to people who aren’t necessarily able to support them. You will have pregnancies carried to term without physicians’ help. You will have women skipping preventive services like cancer screenings because they simply can’t afford them.
Trump’s concerted efforts to go farther than any administration before his in limiting women’s access to reproductive health care will hurt the country’s most vulnerable demographics, and they’ve been hurting the doctors themselves. According to the 2016 National Clinic Violence Survey, conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation, just over 34% of abortion providers experienced severe violence or threats of severe violence in the first half of 2016 alone, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the 19.7% that said the same in 2014. Most often, this meant bomb threats; people breaking into clinics; stalking of clinic employees and their families; and death threats.
Violence against abortion providers isn’t unique to this regressive conservative moment — rates were highest in the early-to-mid nineties, which saw several high-profile cases of extremists murdering doctors — but writing in 2016, researchers attributed the recent trend to the rise “incendiary rhetoric” from anti-choice politicians, and to Trump’s election. This, too, makes sense: When a candidate purposefully inflames his followers with stories about murderous doctors tearing fully formed babies from their mothers’ bodies; when he suggests that those doctors, and maybe those women, deserve to be punished for their sins, what do we expect will happen? The kind of love championed by anti-abortion crusaders doesn’t save lives; too often, it has the opposite effect.
In his speech at the March for Life, Trump didn’t evoke violent images or tacitly endorse vigilante justice, and it merits mention that the more mainstream anti-choice activists condemn their violent peers. He did, however, tout the many reproductive rights-limiting accomplishments that make him, in Pence’s words, “the most pro-life president in American history.” We already know that Trump’s unequivocal support, his endorsement of far right ideology, is enough to embolden the extremists his base: recall the virulent racism on display at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, which former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke painted as the fulfillment of Trump’s nationalist promises.
Even if the president disavows the fringe (which he often seems loath to do), the fringe doesn’t disavow him. When his administration declares that “life is winning in America,” it’s worth considering whose lives they mean, and at what cost.