- By Holly Honderich
- in Washington
After Donald Trump called Florida’s six-week abortion ban a “terrible mistake,” he opened himself to attacks from powerful conservative activists who want to ban the procedure nationwide. But his comments also revealed challenges to Republican messaging on one of the country’s most polarizing issues.
On Monday afternoon, the president of Students for Life — one of the nation’s leading anti-abortion groups — sent an open letter to former President Donald Trump, the definitive front-runner for the Republican Party nomination in the election. presidential election of 2024.
The tone was displeased and scolding.
Students for Life is reportedly suspending its $5m (£4m) door-to-door campaign aimed at rallying anti-abortion voters in the 2024 race until Mr Trump “clarifies” his comments in a recent interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, which aired the same day. Before.
Mr Trump attacked his main Republican rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, over his state’s six-week abortion ban. The six-week ban “is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” he said.
But when host Kristen Welker pressed him on his own position, Mr. Trump dodged. Would he support a 15-week federal ban — widely considered the minimum standard by anti-abortion groups? “I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,” Mr. Trump responded.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the influential anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America, issued a statement saying a ban beyond 15 weeks “makes no sense.” And Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins wrote his letter, threatening to pull his group’s 1,000 volunteers from the campaign trail.
“The pro-life vote is up for grabs,” Ms. Hawkins said.
The tension between the anti-abortion lobby and Mr. Trump is telling. More than a year after Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominees helped give anti-abortion activists their long-sought victory — overturning Roe v. Wade — Republicans are scrambling to find a position on abortion that soothes their base without alienating the general public.
But among leading anti-abortion activists, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that after Roe v Wade fell, the public would slowly adapt to the new legal reality, becoming more open to abortion bans.
“The law is the teacher,” Ms Hawkins told the BBC earlier this year.
Since Roe v. Wade fell in June 2022, the opposite has been true, said Greer Donley, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. After years of stagnation, polls now show slight changes – with more Americans expressing support for abortion access. And in the six states that have held abortion-related ballot measures in the last year, abortion has won every time.
“I don’t think they [Republicans] were prepared for the public reaction… They had to do a complete 180,” Ms. Donley said. “Republicans are really struggling to know what to say.”
So far, different members of the Republican camp have tried different approaches to the problem, with varying effects.
“Their base remains overwhelmingly anti-abortion. But in a general election, it’s an extremely unpopular view,” Ms Donley said.
Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN who calls herself “resolutely pro-life”, has tried to show moderation, to straddle these two camps. During the Republican debate in August, Ms Haley said Republicans needed to “find consensus”, saying a federal ban was unlikely to pass the US Congress.
“She was trying to be the voice of reason,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis and a leading expert on the U.S. abortion debate. But that type of appeal might be of limited use for Ms. Haley, who votes in the single digits nationally.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, arguably the strongest defender of abortion in the current Republican primary, has taken the opposite path. During that same debate, Mr. Pence criticized Ms. Haley for failing to show “leadership” on abortion.
He pledged to support a 15-week federal ban.
“Mike Pence is trying to be the most anti-abortion candidate,” Ms. Ziegler said.
But from the perspective of an anti-abortion activist, even Mr. Pence’s position may be little comfort.
And now, even with his dominant Republican stance, Mr. Trump appears to be caught between his Republican base and the broader electorate, which he plans to capture in next year’s general election.
I will “sit down with both sides,” Mr. Trump said on Meet the Press, promising — improbably — to find “peace on this issue for the first time in 52 years.”
“The general thesis for Trump seems to be that he will win the Republican nomination no matter what he says or does,” Ms. Ziegler said. And this protection against abortion “is clearly a general election message, not a primary message.”
The next question, Ms. Ziegler said, is what Mr. Trump will actually do if he returns to the White House and no longer needs to court the general public. “Because, of course, he won’t be able to get re-elected…and that might lead him to do something more extreme.”