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With Trump on their side, conservatives see hope in lengthy abortion fight

  • Author: Jeremy W. Peters, The New York Times
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 27, 2017

WASHINGTON — Sensing a political opportunity they have not had in more than a decade, social conservatives are preparing for a lengthy fight over abortion rights that promises to widen the culture war fissures that Republicans have tried for years to bridge.

Two fights loom in Washington that are galvanizing the right as it solidifies control of two branches of government and moves to dominate the third: an effort in Congress to eliminate Planned Parenthood's federal funding and President Donald Trump's forthcoming choice of a Supreme Court nominee.

The choice for the court is likely to meet conservatives' expectations. But fulfilling even a short-term goal of the anti-abortion movement, like defunding Planned Parenthood, will be a longer and more complicated process than it appears, setting up an early and potentially defining test for the new president.

Trump, an eager if improbable combatant in the cause, made bold promises about what he would do to restrict abortion if elected and, in turn, won overwhelming support from religious conservatives. Yet those promises are tangled in intraparty politics and, in some cases at least, will be blocked by Senate Democrats. They include laws that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and permanently prohibit all federal funding, including Medicaid, from paying for abortions.

Cutting off Planned Parenthood is part of the larger and messier debate over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans so far have been unable to do. Even if the law is scrapped, there is no guarantee a Planned Parenthood funding ban could easily move forward, given that left-leaning women's groups will bring intense pressure upon moderate Republicans to vote against it.

Pro-life activists gather for the National March for Life rally in Washington, DC, January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

On the other side of the spectrum among women's groups is the Susan B. Anthony List, which has been lobbying to gut Planned Parenthood's funding and is planning to target senators who may be wavering, especially in states where Trump won.

"The commitments in the House and the Senate and in the White House are so strong, and the desire to get it signed is so palpable," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group's president. "But like everything that's worthwhile, it's a crooked path. It gets more complicated as it gets more real."

Trump has committed in writing to choosing a Supreme Court nominee who opposes abortion. But a Democratic filibuster of Trump's choice seems likely, which would force Republicans to confront the difficult question of jettisoning the Senate filibuster for all presidential nominees, once and for all. Not too far removed from the minority themselves, Senate Republicans have enjoyed the filibuster's protections in the past. And many in the party are reluctant to move too hastily on it.

While the ease and speed with which Republicans can act is in doubt, the new president's commitment is not. Barely in office a week, Trump has taken steps to reassure his anti-abortion base. Earlier this week, he reinstituted a Reagan-era policy prohibiting foreign aid to health providers abroad that discuss abortion as a family planning option.

In a show of solidarity with the movement, Trump is sending Vice President Mike Pence to speak at an anti-abortion rally in Washington on Friday that is expected to draw thousands.

The president's appointments so far, both in his Cabinet and among other senior White House positions, include many committed and longtime opponents of abortion. The attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has called Roe. v. Wade "one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time."

Andrew Puzder, Trump's pick to be labor secretary, was an early advocate of legal efforts to define life at conception as a way of outlawing abortion. Tom Price, who is in line to become secretary of health and human services, has been a leading proponent of defunding Planned Parenthood in Congress.

FILE — Anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, March 2, 2016. (Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times)

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway spent her time as a pollster and messaging expert before 2016, advising anti-abortion groups and politicians on how to soften their approach when talking about the issue. Among her suggestions: telling a personal story about why they came to believe abortion is wrong. Trump adopted this approach during his campaign and spoke of two unnamed friends who ended up deciding against aborting a child he described now as "a total superstar."

Conway is also a featured speaker at Friday's rally in Washington, the annual March for Life.

How Trump — a former Democrat who once declared, "I'm very pro choice" — became an unbowed voice for the anti-abortion movement is a story of savvy political transformation and bald expedience. Women in the movement, like Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, once publicly declared themselves "disgusted" by him.

But as it became clear he would be the Republican nominee, many social conservatives swallowed their pride to get behind him. To shore up their support, Trump pledged to name an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice and largely turned the party platform over to social conservatives at July's Republican National Convention, which yielded new provisions like the endorsement of a nationwide ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Trump went even further, disregarding Conway's advice by talking about late-term abortion in the most graphic of terms, a move that endeared him to the movement's supporters. Today, conservatives see his line "rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth" as a turning point in his campaign.

In an interview, Conway marveled at how Trump had flipped the script. "I've been working on pro-life messaging for two decades in this town," she said. "And it took a billionaire man from Manhattan who had spent most of his life being pro-choice to deliver the most impassioned defense of life that many have ever heard."

Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, said that many conservatives felt Trump spoke to them with that line in a way that other Republican nominees, like Mitt Romney, had been too timid to pursue. Romney barely spoke about abortion at all in the 2012 general election and when he did, it was often in the context of how he did not support further restrictions.

"If you feel like your side is being pushed around and then someone comes around and says, 'I may not be one of you, but I'm going to defend your views,' they see that as loyalty," Domenech said. "It's a declaration of cultural war alliance."

One quandary that Trump will surely face is meeting the expectations of a group of supporters so hungry for a victory after setting the bar so high.

"The Trump administration presents us with a new opportunity: For the first time, really, we are able to interface with the federal government to achieve our goals," said Dean Nelson, national outreach director of the Human Coalition, an anti-abortion group. "We are cautiously optimistic."