Despite His Controversial Exit, Trump’s Presidency Strongly Aided the Pro-Life Cause
The list of accomplishments on the pro-life file include bans on federal funding for abortion both domestically and overseas and the appointment of nearly 200 federal judges who are constitutional originalists.
President Donald Trump’s tumultuous term in office was marked by a series of positive steps for the pro-life cause, including the transformation of the federal judiciary with constitutional originalists and reinstituting bans on federal funding for abortion both domestically and overseas.
In fact, his commitment to advancing the pro-life cause remained evident right up to the time he left office last week, when, among his last executive actions as president, he proclaimed Jan. 22, the date that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationally in 1973 via its Roe v. Wade decision, as “National Sanctity of Human Life Day.”
“This has been, without a doubt, the most pro-life administration in our nation’s history,” said Mallory Quigley, the vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List.
Trump both extended and expanded the pro-life policies of past presidential administrations. For example, within days of taking office in 2017, the president reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which bars recipients of foreign aid for family planning from doing abortions or advocating for them. President Ronald Reagan first instituted the policy in 1984. Successive presidential administrations have taken turns reversing it and restoring it. Trump not only brought it back, but broadened it so that it encompassed all health-care-related foreign aid — impacting almost $9 billion in funding. (President Joe Biden intends to repeal the Mexico City Policy this week, as part of his initial round of executive actions.)
Trump has taken a similar tack domestically. Although most federal funding for abortion is already prohibited due to the Hyde Amendment, the administration passed the “Protect Life Rule” that effectively excluded Planned Parenthood from $60 million in Title X funding.
The most significant and lasting of those accomplishments may lie in the federal judiciary. In filling nearly 200 judicial vacancies, Trump kept to his campaign promise to appoint constitutional originalists to the bench, giving hope to pro-lifers who believe Roe. v. Wade was poor constitutional law, according to Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee.
Legal constitutional originalists are opposed to finding new rights in the U.S. Constitution, such as the right to abortion, that were never articulated or intended by the Constitution’s framers.
“The biggest success of the Trump administration and the one that will have the most lasting impact will be the appointment of judges to the federal bench,” Tobias said.
Critically, of those federal appointments, three were to the Supreme Court — the most of any president since Reagan, who chose four justices over the course of his two terms. All three of Trump’s appointees — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — are pro-lifers in their private lives and may potentially decide a challenge to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton or Casey v. Planned Parenthood.
“That’s where you have a president who makes a lasting mark on the history and direction of our country,” said Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center.
Assessing Trump’s Legacy
Trump’s achievements on the pro-life front come in the context of a presidency that some have criticized for failing to live up to Church teaching on other matters, like immigration and the death penalty. Further, Trump’s overall legacy has also been marred by his response to the 2020 election, which culminated in a riot at the Capitol Building, for which many lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle hold the president partially responsible.
“In my view, the question of how to assess Donald Trump’s pro-life record versus his record or actions or statements on other things that Catholics don’t like is actually pretty straightforward: You judge the pro-life record on one hand and then the other things on the other hand,” said Paul Kengor, a Grove City College political scientist and presidential biographer.
“As a lifetime scholar of the presidency, I’ve always looked at presidents as I do people, given that presidents are just that — they are people. They’re sinners, too. They’re flawed, too,” Kengor added. “As Catholics, we must always try to honestly assess the good and the bad for any president and his record. I’ve found myself bewildered in recent weeks and months by people who feel they must either denounce every aspect of President Trump and what he did or by those who feel the urge to praise everything. It’s never that simple. Life isn’t that simple.”
In terms of his pro-life record, Kengor said Trump was “surprisingly excellent.”
“In 2015-16, I could not have imagined Trump having been so impressive on pro-life issues,” Kengor said. “Nonetheless, he was outstanding on pro-life. Those who argue to the contrary are plainly not looking at the record or so revile the man that they can’t concede what’s obvious. Donald Trump’s excellent pro-life record is undeniable — period. You say that, you judge that, and then you judge other elements of the Trump record.”
Changing the Courts
During his first campaign, Trump built trust with social conservatives by publishing a list of pro-life justices that he would appoint if elected — amid doubts over his past statements on the issue and perception as a New York City moderate. “Once he became president, he fulfilled that promise,” Thompson said.
And Trump’s Supreme Court appointments are just the tip of the iceberg. As of July 7 last year, Trump had made a total of 194 appointments to the federal judiciary, with more for the appeals courts than any other president at that point in his administration, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, Obama made 312 appointments over two terms. George W. Bush had 166.
“We hopefully now have a couple hundred new judges in the federal court system that will look at abortion decisions or abortion laws that come before them in the light of the Constitution and not just Roe v. Wade or what somebody wrote almost 50 years ago trying to make up law,” Tobias said.
Out of approximately 8,000 cases that are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court each year, less than 1% — about 100 of them, on average — are accepted, making the lower courts, especially the appeals courts, the places where most federal case law is made.
“So when you have … a huge amount of judges that have been selected by President Trump at the court-of-appeals level, it’s going to make a tremendous difference how these cases end up,” Thompson said.
Pro-lifers can now count on a high court that interprets the Constitution as originally written, which raises the question of a possible overturning of Roe v. Wade. But just how much of Roe is rolled back depends partly on what cases the Supreme Court decides to take in the future.
At the state level, the Susan B. Anthony List is backing two kinds of state laws that could end up at the high court. One is the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which outlaws abortion after 20 weeks. Heartbeat bills would move the threshold much earlier. One, signed into law in Georgia in May 2019, would prevent abortions after six weeks. A federal district court judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional last July, a decision the state’s attorney general has vowed to appeal.
The pro-life majority of the court could now be at risk, however, since the Democrats have taken the Senate, according to Quigley. A Democratic majority could potentially enable President Biden to pursue the tendentious “court-packing” plan of adding four additional liberal justices to the bench, as advocated by some Democratic leaders. But the party’s razor-thin Senate majority, which it holds only due to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, could make such an effort politically impractical.
In terms of legislation, Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, credits Trump for resisting attempts by the Democratic-run House of Representative to push funding for abortion.
“Just that strong stance as the executive branch to say, ‘Don’t even send the bill to me; that’s going to try to put more money into the abortion industry,’ has been a significant accomplishment,” said Father Pavone, whose organization campaigned openly on behalf of Trump during the 2020 election and afterward supported Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that he lost only due to widespread voter fraud.
Trump has also made progress on the related issue of conscience rights, which is also a religious-freedom issue.
Most notable is the establishment of a new division under the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department focused on conscience and religious freedom.
“The creation of that office has enabled hundreds of citizens to make complaints,” Father Pavone said. Previously, he said those filing complaints would not have known where to go. Under the Obama administration, in the absence of that division, he said there had been about 10 complaints.
The Trump administration took action on those complaints. One was against the state of California, for mandating abortion coverage in health-insurance plans, and the other was against the University of Vermont Medical Center, which coerced a nurse who was opposed to abortion into participating in one.
“The president has led efforts unlike any previous president, both at home and abroad, in favor of religious freedom,” Father Pavone said about Trump, adding, “To the extent that we have more religious freedom, we have more of an ability to fight abortion.”
The Trump presidency has backed the pro-life cause in symbolic ways, as well. Last year, he became the first sitting president to speak in person at the March for Life, Quigley noted. (Reagan spoke by phone, and George W. Bush also delivered remarks remotely.)
“The Trump administration did more to protect unborn children, conscience rights, and the whole sanctity-of-life area of issues,” Tobias said. “They did more to protect and promote and advance the cause of life than anyone could have ever expected or hoped for.”