I hate to say anything flattering about a lying, racist, misogynist authoritarian credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults. But Donald Trump occasionally has decent political instincts (as apart from moral ones). From the start of his first campaign, for instance, he promised not to cut Social Security and Medicare, seeing it as crucial to much of his elderly white base. And though during that campaign he recanted his earlier pro-choice stance, and even went so far as to say women should face “punishment” for having abortions, in this election cycle he’s warning Republicans that their growing extremism on the topic is a political loser.
Having publicly questioned the political viability of a national abortion ban, he’s being trashed by the powerful Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which in 2021 called Trump “the most pro-life president in the nation’s history.” Now, they say his apparent opposition to a federal abortion ban, and his repeated calls to leave the decision to the states, is a “morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate.” The group says it won’t support any GOP presidential candidate who does not, at a very minimum, support a 15-week national abortion ban.
Bring it on! My maxim here is not exactly “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since they’re both my enemies. But this will be an interesting battle within the Republican Party. Do Trump’s likely rivals for the nomination jump to the Susan B. stance, to hurt Trump and shore up their positions with the anti-abortion base? Could it hurt Trump? Or will Trump embolden others in the GOP to put the brakes on the party’s push for ever-crueler abortion restrictions and bans? And what about the party base? Will it turn out that they love Trump more than they hate abortion?
We’ll find out. It is mind-blowing the extent to which, even as polls show Americans’ support for abortion rights has risen steadily since last year’s Supreme Court Dobbs decision (and never forget, you can thank Trump’s three extremist judges for that). Floundering Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an undeclared 2024 candidate, last week signed a six-week abortion ban, though he did it at 11 pm under cover of darkness. DeSantis has lost support over the move. One of his largest donors said this week that his plans for big donations are “on hold” because of DeSantis’s extremism on abortion, as well as his obsession with book banning. But DeSantis signed the bill and will have to live with the consequences, as will Florida women.
The declared candidates have so far stopped short of endorsing a national 15-week abortion ban. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who seemed flummoxed by the issue at a recent campaign stop, has said he supports a federal abortion ban after 20 weeks. But that’s not gonna fly with the Susan B. folks. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley does not seem to support a national abortion ban, telling NBC’s Craig Melvin, “We need consensus on this because I want to save as many babies as possible and I want to support as many moms as possible. Is that consensus 15 weeks? Is it ten weeks? Is it six weeks? I don’t know what that is.” I don’t know what Haley’s position is, but the Susan B. Anthony fund is not looking for “consensus.”
It’s remarkable how much the leading anti-abortion groups are ignoring the polling showing that their own extremism is shoring up support for abortion rights. The same week as the Susan B. statement about Trump, The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey profiled the leader of Students for Life, a remarkably self-assured zealot named Kristan Hawkins, who blithely told Godfrey the group’s goal is an abortion-free America, and soon. The group has been calling itself “the post-Roe generation” since 2019, which is now technically true, since the Supreme Court took away their abortion rights.
But younger women, the cohort Hawkins purports to represent, are the most pro-choice of all Americans. More than 70 percent oppose a ban on the medication abortion drug mifepristone, for instance, which the group stridently supports (as I write, we wait for the Supreme Court to rule on a federal district judge’s mifepristone ban). “Hawkins envisions a future, 20 years from now,” Godfrey writes, “in which university students will discover with abject horror that other states allow the murder of babies in the womb—culturally, she believes, ‘that’s gonna be massive.’”
That’s not gonna happen. I’m torn between perversely admiring Hawkins’s chutzpah, and worrying that she’s dangerously delusional. (I should note that, at 37, she’s outside the cohort she is trying to represent.) Her group would also seem to be at odds with the older leaders of Susan B. Anthony—Hawkins thinks 15-week abortion bans are useless. “We’re not going to spend a significant amount of resources to pass legislation that’s going to save only 6 percent of children,” she says—unwittingly confirming the evidence-based contention of pro-choice groups that 93 percent of abortions occur before 13 weeks.
We’ll see how this plays out. Will Trump stick to his contention that anti-abortion extremism is costing his party? He apparently points to 2022 midterm losses as evidence, but he himself is partly to blame for the GOP’s failure to take the Senate—he backed extremists like Blake Masters in Arizona, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, and New Jersey resident Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. Still, polling shows he’s right about the role abortion played in keeping the Senate in Democratic hands and confining Democrats’ losses to a handful of seats in the House.
The Trump vs. Susan B. Anthony battle could herald some damaging fractures for Republicans. Of course, Trump could flip-flop—when it comes to abortion, he’s done it many times before. Whatever happens, I can’t wait to watch.