Trump has sparked a shift in how some conservatives talk and think about abortion

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·9 min read

A political cartoon that’s been widely shared on Facebook shows a horse labeled “Christian Voters” pulling a buggy with an elephant — the GOP — holding the reins, while the horse tramples over three individuals who represent “the Widow,” “the Orphan” and “the Stranger.”

The Republican elephant dangles a giant carrot — labeled “Overturn Roe v. Wade” — in front of the horse, while driving a cart labeled “Corporate Interests” that carries bags of money bearing the words “Tax Cuts for 1%.”

It’s a critique of conservative evangelicals that is picking up steam — including among evangelicals. There is a more robust argument being made, not only by prominent public figures but also among everyday Americans, that the white evangelical movement has made a Faustian bargain by supporting the GOP, and President Trump, in exchange for promises to eliminate abortion.

“One of the things that I think has been different and has surprised me are the number of Christians, particularly Christian women, who are talking about abortion in a different way,” said Amy Sullivan, a journalist who has covered the intersection of politics and faith for the past 20 years.

Sullivan said she has noticed an “awakening” among Christian women who feel they have been “manipulated” by male leaders in their community.

“They knew we were sincerely concerned about life issues, and they used that to strong-arm us into voting because it would further their agendas that we don’t actually agree with,” said Sullivan, who worked for Yahoo News from 2015 to 2017 and is now working in advocacy through a group she founded called This Is My Story. The group is focused on giving Christian women a platform to express independence from conservative politics.

Too often, Sullivan said, the abortion issue has been “a trap that makes them feel like they have to vote Republican.”

Some anti-abortion conservatives are deciding they don’t want to be trapped. They cite data that suggests the abortion rate has declined under Democratic presidents just as much as it has under Republicans, and is now lower than it was before the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, that made abortion legal.

And they argue that the broader set of Democratic policies — greater access to health care, and to birth control, comprehensive sex education, funding for foster care systems and a strong social safety net — reduces unwanted pregnancies more effectively than the GOP’s efforts do.

Joe Biden speaks during an event about affordable healthcare at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
Joe Biden at an event about affordable health care on June 25 in Lancaster, Pa. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Opposition to legal abortion remains one of the GOP’s central tenets and remains a unifying issue for the party. In May, the New York Times profiled a number of young Republicans who, despite having major qualms about supporting Trump, said they were still likely to vote for him because of his anti-abortion stance. At the same time, polling indicates that Americans ages 18 to 29 are less likely to support abortion restrictions than older groups.

Charles Camosy, a professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, has mixed feelings about this debate. He has written several books on the issue of abortion. He was on the board of Democrats for Life until this past February, when he resigned and left the Democratic Party, citing “extremism” by the Democrats on abortion.

Camosy said his “broader values” prevent him from voting Republican, and he has joined the American Solidarity Party, a tiny Christian democratic party that advocates for a mix of social conservatism with a more robust welfare state. He told Yahoo News that the conversation about abortion among religious conservatives might be changing, but thinks there might be only a limited number of anti-abortion voters who move to the Democratic Party.

Trump, Camosy said, is “awful, horrific — an embarrassment in every way possible.” And conservatives have been disappointed with a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down abortion restrictions in Louisiana. Camosy said he thinks the ruling in that case sent a clear signal that even with a 6-3 conservative majority once Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas is the only current justice who openly favors overturning Roe.

Demonstrators with Students for Life call for the confirmation of Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett during a protest at the Court on third day of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Demonstrators with Students for Life call for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett during a protest at the court on Oct. 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“However, if Barrett is confirmed, there will be a strong argument from people with a different point of view that says, ‘While you whiners were over there complaining, we got three pro-life justices on the Supreme Court,’” he said.

Camosy was unequivocal on one point, however: An alliance with Trump has done deep damage to the anti-abortion movement’s credibility, he said. “It’s going to take generations for us to come back from the damage that has been done to the pro-life movement,” he said. “We have decades of work ahead of us trying to undo this.”

In a move that might go unnoticed by those outside the conservative evangelical world, one of the most influential Christian authors and preachers for the last few decades, John Piper of Minneapolis, on Thursday issued an unusual and scathing denunciation of Trumpism, and went to some length to deconstruct the argument that to be pro-life means one must vote Republican.

Piper is about as aggressive an anti-abortion voice as there is. He wrote that “Planned Parenthood is a code name for baby-killing and (historically at least) ethnic cleansing.” But he also said that “it is baffling and presumptuous to assume that pro-abortion policies kill more people than a culture-saturating, pro-self pride.”

“When a leader models self-absorbed, self-exalting boastfulness, he models the most deadly behavior in the world. He points his nation to destruction,” Piper said, in one of several implicit references to Trump. “It is naive to think that a man can be effectively pro-life and manifest consistently the character traits that lead to death — temporal and eternal.”

It may be hard to pinpoint how many anti-abortion voters might switch from Republican to Democrat, or to a third party, but it’s clear there has been a surge of arguments from anti-abortion conservatives who say they’re no longer going to vote Republican simply because of abortion. And the way these conservatives talk about abortion and the Democrats is shifting.

“While I would prefer to vote for someone who upholds the right to life, I’ve never believed that electing presidents who agree with me will lead to dramatic changes in abortion law, nor is the law itself the only way to discourage abortion,” wrote Mona Charen, a conservative columnist, in August.

“The number of abortions has been declining steadily since 1981,” she said. “It dropped during Republican presidencies and during Democratic presidencies, and now stands below the rate in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided and when abortion was illegal in 44 states.”

Charen noted that “being pro-life is part of an overall approach to ethical questions” and that those who vote solely based on abortion avoid “the work of analyzing how one good thing weighs in the balance against other considerations.” Single-issue voting, Charen wrote, “permits the brain to snap shut, the conscience to put its feet up.”

Stephanie Ranade Krider, a former vice president and executive director of Ohio Right to Life, wrote an op-ed earlier this month saying that “the chance to overturn Roe is something I’ve hoped for and worked toward for more than a decade. Yet I feel deep unease at how we arrived at this moment.”

Krider started at Ohio Right to Life in 2009, but quit last June after she reached a breaking point over the movement’s support of Trump.

“As the cause became increasingly tied to Trump, it transformed into something with which I could no longer identify,” Krider wrote. “Protecting innocent life is a cause that’s deeply steeped in morality, but with this political choice, the movement has shown itself to be too willing to trade moral character for power.”

“To many of us, being pro-life means abiding by an ethic that goes well beyond opposition to abortion. It’s an ethic committed to protecting the vulnerable, and grounded in the idea that every human deserves dignity, because every human is created in the image of God, including the unborn, Black people, immigrants, the incarcerated and the poor,” she wrote. “The Trump administration showed few signs of recognizing that ethic.”

Pro-life demonstrators listen to US President Donald Trump as he speaks at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-life demonstrators listen to US President Donald Trump as he speaks at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

David French, a conservative author and lawyer, has written a number of pieces lately analyzing claims made by anti-abortion backers of Trump and the GOP. One column in August was headlined, “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on Their Hands’?”

French argued that “decades of data and decades of legal, political, and cultural developments” show that “presidents have been irrelevant to the abortion rate” and that “state legislatures have had more influence on abortion than Congress.”

As for Supreme Court justices, French wrote, they are unlikely to overturn Roe. “Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will be mostly unchanged in the U.S.,” he wrote, in large part because states are already wildly divergent when it comes to laws affecting abortion access. He cited a Middlebury College study indicating that the abortion rate in the U.S. would fall only 12.8 percent if the high court overturns Roe.

French followed that up with a piece in Time magazine with the provocative title “Donald Trump Is Not Pro-Life.” He pointed to record levels of government funding for Planned Parenthood in 2019, as well as Trump’s failure to lead the country effectively through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Is his presidency characterized by words and deeds that affirm the ‘incomparable worth of the human person’?” French asked, quoting from Pope John Paul II.

“Has he treated ‘life on earth’ as a ‘sacred reality’ entrusted to him? The answer is clearly no. His selfish and reckless actions have cost lives. They’re still costing lives.”

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