Donald Trump issued a “Dear Pro-Life Leader” letter in September. “As we head into the final stretch of the campaign, the help of leaders like you is essential to ensure that pro-life voters know where I stand,” he said. And he was specific about what “I am committed to.”
It consists of four things. He promised to nominate “pro-life justices” to the Supreme Court. He will sign a law ending “painful late-term abortions nationwide.” He will stop federal funding of Planned Parenthood “as long as they continue to perform abortions.” He intends to make permanent the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions.
The letter was important for two reasons. It helped Trump win the votes of social conservatives, including Catholics and evangelical Protestants. And it marked the emergence of Trump as a full-throated advocate of the antiabortion cause. He had stumbled before in talking about abortion, once saying women who have abortions should be punished. He backtracked on that.
Then came another step in Trump’s evolution on abortion. At the third presidential debate on October 19, Trump took on Hillary Clinton on the issue of late-term, partial-birth abortions. She offered excuses why such abortions should be allowed.
“Well, I think it’s terrible,” he answered. “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now you can say that is okay and Hillary can say that that is okay, but it’s not okay with me.”
This was a historic moment, though the media didn’t notice it. Never before had a presidential nominee described for a national audience what happens in a late-term abortion.
Clinton was unnerved. She accused Trump of using “scare rhetoric.” She invoked her travels around the world as secretary of state. “And I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make” regarding abortion. “And I will stand up for that right.”
Trump was undeterred. “Honestly, nobody has business doing what I just said. Doing that as late as one or two or three or four days prior to birth, nobody has that.”
That the letter and the debate helped elect Trump is indisputable. Without them, he might have lost. In particular, he needed the votes of white, Mass-attending Catholics in swing states. They have been increasingly voting Republican, a trend Trump was eager to spur.
The biggest issue in moving anti-Trump voters, especially Catholics, was the Supreme Court. Late in the primaries, he issued a list of possible conservative nominees “as a guide.” But in July, his lead among white Catholics was only 50 percent to 46 percent. In September, he expanded the list and said he “will only choose from it.” On November 8, he won among white Catholics by 60 percent to 37 percent.
Was Trump’s conversion genuine or merely for political purposes in a close election? At the moment, that is unknowable. As far as I can determine, Trump hasn’t made a pro-abortion statement since 1999, when he was interrogated by Tim Russert on Meet the Press.
“I’m very pro-choice,” Trump said then. “I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But you still believe in choice. . . . I’m pro-choice in every respect.” Asked directly by Russert if he would ban partial-birth abortion, Trump said no.
By 2011, his position had changed. While he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, he told the New York Times he was pro-life. His statement was a preview of where he stands on abortion today.
“There are certain things that I don’t think can ever be negotiated,” Trump said. “I am pro-life, and pro-life people will find out that I will be very loyal to them, just as I am loyal to other people. I would be appointing judges that feel the way I feel.”
His loyalty wasn’t tested in 2012 since he didn’t run. As president, it will be. And it won’t matter if he is sincerely opposed to abortion. He’s committed to a pro-life program, and he’ll be judged by how he handles it.
The key player in fostering that agenda was Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. She not only arranged for the letter, but also persuaded the campaign to stress Trump’s position. Trump himself insisted the letter spell out the “extremism” of Hillary’s positions.
The SBA List contacted 1.6 million voters, including 1.1 million at their doors in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—all won by Trump. “Planned Parenthood expended $30 million to counter our messaging and activity, and it failed just about everywhere,” said Mallory Quigley, the SBA List’s communications director.
The 2016 election produced “the strongest moment since Roe v. Wade” for the pro-life movement, Dannenfelser says. “We have a brand new beginning and much stronger muscle” with Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the House and Senate.
She believes Hillary Clinton, by hardening her support for abortion, created a split among Democrats. Clinton called for repeal of the ban on taxpayer-funded abortions. And she made it clear she would nominate pro-choice justices to the Supreme Court.
“Now could be the moment when that [Democratic] realignment could occur,” Dannenfelser told me. To pass the ban on abortions once the unborn child can experience pain—the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act—the votes of Democratic senators will be needed. They’ll be needed to make the Hyde Amendment permanent too.
But the biggest test will be over Trump’s first nominee for the High Court. He is expected to name a successor to the late Antonin Scalia around the time of his inauguration on January 20.
Trump made “nominating pro-life justices” his number-one commitment. He can’t escape it even if he wanted to. To overcome a Democratic filibuster, the votes of dissenting Democrats will be required. Recruiting them will be the second-hardest thing Trump has ever done, next to winning the presidency in the first place.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard