How Will Abortion Factor in the Presidential Election?

After pro-life message takes center state at the Republican National Convention, political analysts weigh the GOP’s emphasis on the sanctity of life.

Pro-life and pro-choice activists await the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion access in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 27, 2016.
Pro-life and pro-choice activists await the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion access in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 27, 2016. (photo: Rena Schild / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — At a Republican National Convention with perhaps the most vocal pro-life message ever, speakers discussed the medical realities of abortion and spoke out against late-term abortion.  

And according to political analysts, the Republicans’ decision to highlight the life issue so prominently — in contrast to the absence of any reference to abortion during the Democratic National Convention — reflects a GOP belief that emphasizing the issue will both mobilize its own political base of religious voters and draw in other voters who disagree with the Democratic Party’s unqualified support for abortion rights. 

The RNC prominently featured the message that life begins at conception and that abortion is the taking of that innocent human life in the womb, culminating in a pro-life declaration from President Donald Trump during his speech on Thursday evening accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency. “Tonight,” he said, “we proudly declare that all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.”  

The president also called out the Democrats’ embrace of late-term, taxpayer-funded abortion. He said that Democratic nominee Joe Biden “claims he has empathy for the vulnerable — yet the party he leads supports the extreme late-term abortion of defenseless babies right up to the moment of birth. They have no problem with stopping a baby’s beating heart in the ninth month of pregnancy." 

In fact, focusing on the support for late-term abortion from Biden and the Democrats was a theme throughout the convention and was mentioned by Vice President Mike Pence, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and others.  

Whereas the RNC speakers described abortion, expressed concerns about late-term abortion extremism, and the problem of unborn babies with disabilities being targeted for abortion, the abortion issue was not directly mentioned by the speakers at the DNC. Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., did reference “injustice” in reproductive care and Jesuit Father James Martin prayed for “the unborn child in the womb” in his invocation, but the word “abortion” was never used, something that bothered abortion activists.  

However, the DNC platform prompted protests from pro-lifers due to its backing of taxpayer-funded abortion without restrictions. 

For its part, the RNC opted against devising a 2020 platform, instead renewing their 2016 platform that stated “we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” opposed “the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion,” and called on Congress to “ban sex-selection abortions and abortions based on disabilities — discrimination in its most lethal form.” 

In addition to renewing the platform, the RNC backed President Trump’s 50-point second-term agenda, which featured “core priorities” for the administration but did not initially contain any mention of abortion. The Trump campaign did not directly address why abortion was omitted from the agenda. However, Sarah Hasse, the Trump campaign’s assistant press secretary, told the Register that “while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris hope to mandate taxpayer-funded abortions, President Trump is standing up for the lives of the unborn.”  

RNC Deputy Communications Director Cassie Smedile told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly that she couldn’t speak to the “policy decisions” regarding the omission of abortion in the agenda, but that “the president was outlining what he thought he could do that was attainable right in the moment with the circumstances that we have because, with House Democrats in the majority, we’re no longer talking about people who are just left of center on an issue; these people are all the way far left … so we’ve got to make sure that we are getting the right people in Congress to help propel the administration’s priorities.”  

Following the RNC, the Trump campaign quietly added a section to the second-term agenda that included as a priority “protect unborn life through every means available.” 


Messaging Behind the Conventions 

The prominence of the abortion issue at the RNC compared to the silence on it at the DNC had to do with the groups of voters each party is trying to appeal to, Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told the Register. 

The strategy of downplaying abortion at the DNC, he said, is partly due to the Democratic Party realizing “it can peel off some moderate voters on abortion if it downplays its more liberal inclinations and what the activists want and actually try to tack towards the center.” The party is aware that “there are many people in the party who sort of stand in the middle, who aren’t really comfortable with abortion in a lot of scenarios but also don’t think it should be illegal.” 

As for the RNC, Burge said that “the Republicans can talk about abortion more because their party is 75% white Christians,” while “the Democrats are only 38% white Christians and are an amalgam of atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Hindus … so they’re trying to appease multiple constituencies on every issue, including abortion.” He saw the RNC as “a careful calibration of the Republicans trying to play to their base.”  

Michael Wear, the former director of faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, told the Register, “Trump’s reelection depends on maximizing the way that religion works for him, and part of what that means is making pretty explicit appeals on the issue of abortion.”  

He called the DNC’s decision to avoid the issue “smart politically” because “Joe Biden was presented as someone who sought to bring people together, which I think is backed up by much of his record; and so it makes sense that you wouldn’t put at the fore an issue that has been so divisive.”  

“The platform is clear, and for those of us who consider themselves to be pro-life, the Democratic platform is wrong on this issue,” Wear added. “Not talking about it as much as the platform doesn’t change the position; what it does suggest is that the Biden campaign is not motivated by antagonism or a desire to declare moral rightness on the pro-choice position.”  

He said that the effect the abortion issue will have when religious voters go to the polls is “going to come down to a moment” where “the Democratic nominee is going to be asked for his position on this issue. That was a critical moment in 2016: Hillary Clinton gave a debate answer that was frankly out of line with much of what she had said earlier in her career and I think from a pro-life perspective rightly turned off quite a few voters that could’ve decided that election.”  

“The question will be: Does Biden respond with the impulse towards graciousness and doing his best to unite people even though he’s very clear he supports Roe v. Wade?” Wear said. 


Polling Data 

As for the polling of how important this issue could be to religious voters, Burge believes that other issues like immigration matter more to white Republican Christian voters than abortion.  

In an analysis he did of 2016 polling data, he found that in a range of 15 issues, abortion ranked low, only 14th out of 15 by white Republican evangelicals, but among those evangelicals who went to church more than once a week, it ranked a bit higher, seventh out of 15.  

A recent Pew poll found that abortion ranked last out of 12 issues, at 40%, among “very important” issues to voters generally, while the economy topped that list, at 79%. Among Trump supporters, however, it ranked higher, at 46% —above climate change, the coronavirus outbreak, economic inequality and race and ethnic inequality. 

But another factor to consider is the extent to which support for abortion rights outweighs all other factors that might otherwise incline Catholics and other religious voters to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. 

Recent EWTN and RealClear Politics polling found that for Catholics who attended Mass at least weekly and accept “all” of the Church’s teachings, the “deal breaker” issue is late-term abortion (58%), followed by gun control (50%) and then abortion (49%). The three “deal breaker” issues for Catholics overall were gun control — 47% called it a deal breaker if there was disagreement on it — followed by health care and immigration (tied at 46%) and then late-term abortion (45%).  


The RNC’s Pro-Life Voices 

The RNC appealed to religious voters throughout the week, with speakers like Sister Deirdre Byrne, a surgeon, retired army officer and missionary who is now a religious sister with the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. 

“The truth is the largest marginalized group can be found here in the United States,” Sister Deirdre said on Aug. 26. “They are the unborn. As Christians, we first met Jesus as a stirring embryo in the womb of an unwed mother and saw him born nine months later in the poverty of the cave.” She added that, “as a physician, I can say without hesitation: Life begins at conception.” 

While Sister Deirdre referenced both the scene of the Visitation in Scripture and the science of life at conception, a day earlier Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood business director-turned-pro-life speaker, described her conversion to the pro-life movement after witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion. 

She said that people don’t realize the “barbarity” of abortion and “don’t know about the products-of-conception room in abortion clinics, where infant corpses are pieced back together to ensure nothing remains in the mothers’ wombs or that we joked and called it ‘the pieces-of-children room.’” 

The convention also featured a mother’s perspective. Tera Myers, a school-choice advocate, spoke passionately Aug. 26 about her son Samuel, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb.  

“Before Samuel was even born,” she said, “I was told his life wouldn’t be worth living. When early tests revealed he had Down syndrome, our doctor encouraged me to terminate the pregnancy. He said, ‘If you do not, you will be burdening your life, your family and your community.’ I knew my baby was a human being created by God and that made him worthy of life. I am thankful that President Trump values the life of the unborn.”  

Pro-life leaders praised the way the issue was highlighted at the RNC and criticized the DNC for not discussing the issue. 

Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who also serves as national co-chair of Pro-Life Voices for Trump, commented that in “stark contrast to the Democrats, who were too afraid to even utter the word ‘abortion’ during four days of national television coverage,” Republicans “are using their platform to promote a multitude of diverse pro-life voices.” 

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said in a statement that the RNC’s pro-life speakers “showed once again that the Democratic Party’s platform of abortion on demand, at anytime, anywhere and for any reason appalls everyday Americans.” 

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.