How the Anti-Abortion Movement Gave us Donald Trump — and Why It Could Bring Worse

2018 March for Life in Washington DC. Image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I grew up in the white evangelical community, surrounded by individuals who became Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. Although numerous factors motivated support in this community, one bears more responsibility, from my vantage point, than any other: the anti-abortion movement. To avoid another further corrosion of our democracy, and another Trump-like figure in the future, we must look squarely at how this movement rationalizes authoritarianism and enabled Trump’s rise.

As Bradley Onishi has illustrated here on RD, anti-abortion organizations have spent decades declaiming that abortion is the mass killing of children and insisting that single-issue support for politicians who identify as “pro-life” can end or dramatically reduce it. If one believes these things, it’s unthinkable to not support the pro-life candidate in any political race.

“You could sum up in one word why many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump: abortion,” wrote evangelical pundit Michael Brown, who’s written two books defending his community’s support for the former president.

Donald Trump consolidated evangelical support by promising to appoint anti-abortion judges (and following through); characterizing his opponents’ positions on abortion in graphic, violent terms; and becoming the first president to speak at the March for Life, among other things.

The movement repaid him with unwavering allegiance. He was deemed “the most pro-life president in American history.” The National Right to Life Committee endorsed his re-election. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, despite having voiced concerns about Trump’s character in 2016, announced he would support him in 2020, in large part, because of abortion.

Great moral movements of the past have embraced peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and persuasion as the primary means to achieve social change. Although the anti-abortion movement has included elements of all of these, it has now distinguished itself from these movements through its wholesale embrace of ethically dubious means to achieve its goals.

Many have asked how evangelicals could brush aside lying, bullying, adultery, and racism to support Trump. But when you consider how most evangelicals think about abortion, it’s not hard to understand. When you believe the other candidate supports the gruesome killing of hundreds of thousands of children per year, every other concern pales in comparison.

In remarking to me on Trump’s botched response to Covid-19, one evangelical Trump voter made this logic clear: “[Democrats] support the killing of defenseless unborn babiesover 14,135,400 so far this year world-wide…. By comparison, Covid-19 has killed 234,000 this year worldwide.” Covid-19 is not a top concern, in this evangelical’s mind, because it has a lower body count than abortion.

It’s also easy to understand how the movement could fuel authoritarianism. Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, note a central feature in the transition to autocracy: “Parties come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies… If we believe our opponents are dangerous, should we not use any means necessary to stop them?” The anti-abortion movement has delegitimized its opponents and cast them as moral monsters who support the violent killing of children.

If one wonders, Just how much could the movement tolerate in the name of advancing the pro-life cause? just ask, What is the moral equivalent to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands children per year? Ignoring a pandemic? Putting children in cages? Overturning an election? Violence against political opponents? Even these actions can be excused as paling in comparison to what the anti-abortion movement believes its opponents support. The atrocities that can be justified by the movement’s rigid logic are nearly limitless. Many politicians are keenly aware of this.

On what basis can Christian leaders committed to the anti-abortion movement criticize their community’s political behavior over the past four years? With few exceptions, most evangelical critics of Trump give weak answers to that question or avoid it entirely. Mark Galli, former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, urged the removal of Trump from office based on his poor character. But before that, Galli referred to abortion as “the wholesale slaughter of millions.” If that’s really what abortion is, raising concerns about “character” seem trivial. As evangelical author Eric Metaxas put it, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Christian Case for Trump”: “It’s myopic to focus on his personal behavior when important moral issues like abortion are at stake.”

If Christians are to coherently criticize their community’s support for Trump, they must make clear that central assumptions of the pro-life movement are wrong. They must either reject the position that abortion is equivalent to killing children or reject the position that supporting anti-abortion candidates can end or significantly reduce abortion.

It may not be intuitive but the first option is easier than it seems. Evangelicals simply need to remember their own history. When the National Right to Life Committee was founded by Catholic Bishops in 1968, evangelical leaders widely disagreed with the organization’s hardline approach to the issue. In a special issue of Christianity Today, the leading evangelical magazine, and in a joint statement representing “the conservative or evangelical position,” evangelical leaders characterized abortion as usually wrong but not the same as killing another person.

This was not an historic aberration. Although Christian theologians have generally rejected abortion, they haven’t always embraced the idea that it’s the same as killing a person at every stage of pregnancy. Thomas Aquinas, on some readings, held that abortion reaches that moral level only after the brain is developed. Calvin College, one of the nation’s leading evangelical colleges, sponsored a major study in 1989 concluding that “personhood should be morally and legally granted to the fetus at the end of the second trimester.” Many other evangelical scholars voiced similar positions at the time, though they were silenced by efforts of anti-abortion activists to suppress their scholarship and ban their books.

Some evangelicals eschew biblical argument and insist that abortion kills an innocent human being. But the moral significance of that statement is not as self-evident as they assume. The majority of organ transplants in the United States rely on organs surgically removed from permanently brain dead but still living human beings, who are killed by the procedure. Yet the procedure has been accepted across the political and religious spectrum for decades.

Still, denying that abortion is the same as killing another person may be a tougher sell for many evangelicals than highlighting limitations of the anti-abortion movement’s political strategy. That is: unwavering support for anti-abortion politicians will not end, or even significantly reduce, abortion. A 2016 study in Lancet, one of the leading medical journals, failed to find any correlation between the legal status of abortion and the abortion rate in countries across the globe. 

In countries where abortion is illegal, women simply obtain pills that allow them to self-administer a relatively safe abortion in their own home. If Roe were overturned, another study projected that it would be expected to reduce the abortion rate in the U.S. by a mere 13%. Expanding access to long-acting, reversible contraception, by contrast, a policy opposed by much of the anti-abortion movement, would reduce the abortion rate by 77% in one major study. Some policies supported by the anti-abortion movement, then, actually increase the abortion rate by shutting down access to contraception.

Whatever option they choose, evangelical leaders who criticize their community’s support for Trump must be clear why that support was not an entirely logical reaction to their own stated beliefs about abortion. Otherwise, the main legacy of their movement will not be changing the cultural consensus on abortion or reducing the rate of abortion, but instead, further corroding American democracy by promoting uncritical support among white evangelicals for politicians like Donald Trump.