At noon on Jan. 20, Donald Trump will take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States.
 
The oath is a solemn pledge to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The presidential oath is the most important one that Trump will ever take, but he has made other pledges that mean a great deal to the very people who elected him to the presidency. Oaths are not to be given lightly, as Scripture reminds us, and ones that Trump made during the election campaign are particularly noteworthy for their immense importance to the cause of life and to America’s 70 million Catholics. All politicians make promises, but the pledge that Trump made to the pro-life movement during the 2016 campaign was unprecedented, both in its level of commitment to the cause of human dignity and its specificity.
 
In a September letter to the then newly formed Pro-Life Coalition, Trump made four specific promises:
 

• He will nominate pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

• He will sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to end painful late-term abortions nationwide.

• He will defund Planned Parenthood as long as it continues to perform abortions, and he will reallocate its funding to community health centers that provide comprehensive health care for women.

• He will make the Hyde Amendment permanent law to protect taxpayers from having to pay for abortions.

Similarly, candidates in the past have spoken to different constituencies, but they almost never make specific pledges to religious groups such as Trump made to pro-life Catholics. In October, he sent to the Catholic Leadership Conference a letter that was widely disseminated in Catholic media. He wrote:

“On life, I am, and will remain, pro-life. I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions. I will make absolutely certain religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor are not bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs. I will protect and work to expand educational choice, the rights of home-schooling families, and end Common Core. I will repeal and replace Obamacare so you can have better and more affordable health care. I will keep our country and communities safe, while respecting the dignity of each human being. I will help Catholic families and workers, and all families and workers, by bringing jobs back to our country, where they belong. And I will appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench, like Justice Clarence Thomas and the late and beloved great Catholic thinker and jurist Justice Antonin Scalia.”

It is an impressive agenda both on the pro-life front and for Catholics concerned about religious liberty and the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, and it has created a sense of both anticipation and hope in the nearly 50-year-old pro-life movement that has not been felt for many years.

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Register, “We are very optimistic about the future for unborn children under a Trump administration. In order to fully and completely protect unborn children from abortion, we need to see changes in our court system. Pro-lifers work extremely hard to pass pro-life laws, only to have them enjoined or overturned by pro-abortion judges. President-elect Trump has stated repeatedly that his appointments to the Supreme Court will be pro-life. I fully expect that to carry through to lower federal appointments, as well. In addition, President-elect Trump has appointed pro-life persons to critical positions of authority in the executive branch, which will, in turn, lead to more pro-life policies coming through the administration.”

The political stars have seemingly aligned for a grand conjunction in which a pro-life culture might be advanced substantially across the country. Pro-life Republican leadership now controls the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as the White House. On the state level, pro-life majorities in 19 state legislatures in 2016 passed more than 60 pro-life bills, with more to come in 2017.

The excitement and hope, of course, must be tempered by an understanding of the bitter political divide in the nation and that the pro-abortion rights, pro-assisted suicide/euthanasia and secularizing forces will not be quiet in the face of recent electoral setbacks. As seen in the recent initial moves to defund Planned Parenthood, the window for achieving success can be narrow, with only a few political defections able to derail carefully laid plans and dash expectations of positive change.

Veterans of the pro-life cause can also remember well other years and other administrations that brought high hopes of change, only to be disappointed by political failure and a lack of confidence. Will this time be any different? What does make this moment unique is the power of the oath. For the first time, there are pledges that can be placed before the new president as a reminder.

Donald Trump made a pledge to the pro-life community and to Catholics. Breaking those pledges would bring not merely disappointment and anger, but would manifestly threaten the loss of voters and supporters who will be essential to advancing his wider agenda for the country and his own re-election in 2020, should he choose to run again.

In an interview with the Register, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, gives an important admonition to the pro-life movement, of which her organization is a key component. “Complacency is certainly a risk,” she says. “We’re at an historic, but fragile, moment. The pro-life voters who were critical to Trump’s victory cannot now sit back. Now is the time to get more engaged than ever before.”

But it is also crucial to remember that the success or failure of the cause is not dependent solely on one elected leader. It depends on our commitment to life, our fidelity to the dignity of the human person and our fortitude in knowing that, by prayer, the sacraments and our Christlike love, we will transform hearts and minds and truly build a culture of life.