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Can the March for Life heal antiabortion activists’ divide over Trump?

Antiabortion activists participate in the 43rd annual March for Life on Jan. 22, 2016. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ahead of the election, leaders of the antiabortion movement faced a divide: Should they support Donald Trump, who would be more likely to push their policy proposals forward, but risk having Americans associate him with their movement?

The tension leaders faced threatened a movement that has long been unified over its common cause of fighting abortion rights. Some activists fought for anyone but Trump during the Republican primary, preferring other contenders for president whom they saw as better faces for the cause. But after Trump selected Mike Pence, a favorite within the movement, as his running mate, many antiabortion leaders endorsed Trump, despite his past support for abortion rights and comments on women deemed misogynist.

Aimee Murphy, a 28-year-old feminist who founded Life Matters Journal, said she was berated by those who wanted her to support Trump. She said the divide among activists seemed to be generational: Those over 35 were more willing to support Trump while younger activists were more afraid of his association with the movement.

As the Democratic Party has had fewer antiabortion leaders in its ranks, Murphy said she felt like the movement was beholden to a political party instead of a demographic to be won.

“Our movement was being dragged behind the Republican Party slavishly,” she said. “We were bowing at the feet at the Republican golden elephant, rather than a golden calf.”

Murphy said that she became an activist because when she was 16 years old her abusive boyfriend raped her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t get an abortion after she had a pregnancy scare. She says that moment turned her into an abortion rights opponent because she opposes all forms of violence. She founded the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Life Matters Journal, which opposes abortion, torture, the death penalty and “unjust war.”

“The reason I didn’t support Donald Trump is he does not respect human life,” she said. “Sure, I accept that he won the election. That doesn’t mean I have to accept his dehumanizing rhetoric.”

Antiabortion activists have tried to shift the language away from vilifying women, but Trump seemed to ignore language of the movement when he suggested during his campaign that women who have abortions should be punished, a position he later reversed.

Now activists are waiting for congressional moves to defund Planned Parenthood, and expect Trump to appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposes Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationally.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards pledged to the crowds at the Women's March on Washington that the organization would remain open. (Video: The Washington Post)

The March for Life stage will feature Kellyanne Conway, the highest-ranking woman in the White House. But not everyone on stage has favored Trump. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director who has since become a prominent antiabortion activist and will speak at the march, said she was very critical of Trump during the election. Now that he’s president, however, Johnson believes Americans should unify around him.

“We need to come together and do what we can to be supportive of his presidency while understanding he is a flawed person and he made a lot of promises in his campaign,” said Johnson, noting Trump’s pledges on paid maternity leave and health care. “We absolutely need to hold him accountable.”

Many antiabortion advocates were concerned that Trump’s image as a misogynist and racist could damage the credibility of the larger antiabortion movement. But Roland Warren, president of a network of 1,100 pregnancy centers called CareNet, believes there is no personality big enough to damage the larger antiabortion cause.

“This has been a 40-year battle from a legislative perspective,” said Warren, an African American who believes abortion is the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. “It transcends a person and should transcend a party.”

No one expects Trump, who called himself “very pro-choice” in 1999, will become the face of a movement that opposes abortion rights, said Paige Cunningham, the executive director of the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. “I don’t think we’re expecting him to be the cheerleader for this,” she said. “It’s never been his number one issue.”

Deirdre McQuade, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spokeswoman on abortion and similar issues, said the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception expects 20,000 Catholics, mostly young people, to join in a 14-hour prayer vigil that starts the night before the march.

McQuade expects high energy at the march because activists see opportunities for antiabortion laws to pass, but she says that most marchers are not necessarily thinking about policy.
“It’s not a pro-Trump rally, it’s not an anti-Trump rally,” she said. “We’ve done this year in and year out regardless of who’s in the White House.”

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.