A year ago, throngs of abortion opponents gathered in Washington for the March for Life on the Mall and to celebrate the promises of a newly sworn-in President Trump. They hoped he could deliver wins they’d been seeking for decades: defunding Planned Parenthood, permanently banning federal money for abortion and overturning Roe v. Wade, something he said would happen “automatically” if he got to pick judges he wanted.
On Friday, Trump will address the march from the White House Rose Garden via satellite, according to organizers. But as marchers return for the major annual antiabortion gathering, almost none of the core vows the president made has been fulfilled and there’s no clear sign they’ll be attained soon. Even so, movement leaders don’t blame the president — they fault Congress — and seem relatively hopeful they’ll advance their movement in 2018 by limiting later-term abortions and expanding exemptions for businesses or people who don’t want to be connected to abortion. At minimum, they agree, Trump welcomed their movement back into the White House and treats them with respect.
But that may be where the agreement about Trump’s impact on the antiabortion movement ends.
Some antiabortion leaders describe him as a “pro-life hero” and pose grinning with him and their children. Others say the vulgarity of the president is poisoning the future of the movement, which has worked to change its anti-woman caricature by advocating for things such as paid family leave and maternal health care. Still others say that Trump’s changes are more about tone and that he reminds them of other GOP presidents who said the right things but never prioritized fighting abortion on a large scale.
“As someone who loathes the administration, the short-term report card — [it] has to be said — is not bad. . . . Those of us who said, ‘He’s just playing you,’ we were wrong about that — in the short term,” said Charles Camosy, an ethics and theology professor at Fordham University who writes books and articles about abortion. “But when we said that, we meant we’re not fighting for the next five years but for the next 50. And what will our children think of the pro-life movement when it’s headed by the ‘Grab ’em by the p—y’ guy?”
The annual March for Life brings many thousands of people to the Mall, with buses from high schools and colleges and caravans from churches. It marks Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that said the constitutional right to privacy covers a woman’s choice to end a pregnancy.
American views have remained quite steady for decades — since the mid-1990s, about half, give or take a few percentage points, have said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 40-odd percent have said it should be illegal in all or most cases. But the march draws a passionate, largely religious crowd that tends to highlight the political climate and take cues from whoever sits in the nearby White House and which party leads Congress.
During the 2016 election campaign, abortion advocates on both sides studied Trump’s past as a supporter of abortion rights and Planned Parenthood for clues about how reliable, true or deep his conversion to the other side has been. At this point, the analysis of Trump seems to have stopped, and the focus has shifted to the fact that he has surrounded himself with leaders well known in the antiabortion movement, including Vice President Pence (who spoke at last year’s march) and Charmaine Yoest, longtime leader of Americans United for Life and now a top communications executive at the Department of Health and Human Services.
For abortion opponents, this felt like night and day after the previous eight years, during which both parties became inhospitable to minority views (Democrats who oppose abortion access, Republicans who believe in protecting it) and the Democratic Party platform for the first time in 2016 called access to abortion “core to women’s, men’s and young people’s health and well-being.”
Upon Trump’s election, many antiabortion groups circulated his list of four key pledges, goals he’d worked out with movement leaders: nominating antiabortion Supreme Court justices, signing a law ending late-term abortions, stripping funding from Planned Parenthood and making permanent a ban on taxpayer money going to abortions.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, before he became Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, had not been called on to consider — or rule on — abortion as a federal judge. However, he has written about bioethics and human life with language that makes abortion opponents believe he will side with them on the topic.
The other three pledges don’t appear to be going anywhere.
The House a year ago passed a bill to make the prohibition on federal funding for abortions — usually contained in a legislative provision called the Hyde Amendment — permanent, but the Senate did not, and it’s not on the agenda. The House also last year passed a bill banning abortions in most cases after 20 weeks (considered a “late term” abortion, one of Trump’s pledges), but a similar measure in the Senate is seen as unlikely to pass.
When it comes to Planned Parenthood, the House and Senate health-care bills contained provisions to block the organization from getting federal reimbursements, but those efforts died with the legislation. Under President Barack Obama, states were prevented from withholding federal money from Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics; Trump last spring signed a resolution reversing that rule.
Marjorie Jones Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which advocates for abortion opponents in politics, said that was “not the federal piece” abortion opponents were going after, but it is a type of defunding of Planned Parenthood. “Everything is still in progress,” she said.
“I don’t know if I have any data on how pro-lifers feel about Trump in general,” Dannenfelser said. “But ‘Never Trumpers’ and others all acknowledge that he has followed through on his pro-life commitment, and they’re happy about that.” Trump is a “pro-life hero,” she said.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere than four years ago,” she said. “We are encouraged, hopeful. The issue isn’t buried. Candidates speak about it. It’s not a movement in the ghetto. After eight years in the wilderness, eight years of having no ability to influence the president and then walking into the White House at the start of the administration — I felt like I was the pro-life movement walking in, after all those years.”
While Dannenfelser called late-term abortion “the most effective piece of our ground game in moving voters,” some say the issue is mostly symbolic. About 1 percent of abortions are performed in the third trimester (or after 21 weeks), according to the Guttmacher Institute, which provides research on reproductive health and was founded by Planned Parenthood.
Kristan Hawkins, leader of Students for Life, blamed Congress for the stalled agenda. Before the election, Hawkins had been skeptical of Trump’s history and commitment, but after he won, she has regularly raved about him in Breitbart, posted photos of herself with him and her baby and said she’ll urge activists at the march to press harder.
“We’re pretty disappointed that the GOP Senate and House have still failed to fully defund Planned Parenthood — that was and continues to be our No. 1 legislative priority. This is something the president has promised to sign into law,” she said. “I think that one of my charges this year is making sure pro-lifers don’t get complacent and say: ‘We’ve elected them. They’ll do what they say.’ No, they’re not doing what they said. You need to push them.”
March organizers announced Wednesday that Trump would address the event via satellite. They noted that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had addressed the march by telephone, Reagan in 1987 and Bush in 2008.
Abortion rights supporters said they were surprised more hasn’t gotten done.
“It seemed a year ago that Trump, with the leadership of the GOP in Congress, had the momentum to repeal and replace Obamacare, and certainly that also included the abortion provisions,” said Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at Guttmacher. “That also included the defunding of Planned Parenthood. This was a very real item and real concern for us. I think it goes to show how the Republicans just didn’t have a plan, in many ways.”
“We do feel like this is an arc of a story that hasn’t reached its final chapter, that these fights are ongoing,” Boonstra said.
The core goals aside, antiabortion advocates had a list of things they were happy about.
Among them was the administration’s expansion of the “Mexico City policy,” which withholds U.S. funding from foreign organizations that provide or promote abortion. The policy flips on and off when a new political party takes the White House, but Trump applied the policy to almost all global health assistance, some $8.8 billion. Past GOP presidents had limited it to the money the United States gives annually in family planning, about $600 million.
Also mentioned was a recent rule change enacted by the Department of Health and Human Services exempting religious employers who objected to an Obama-era requirement that they cover employees’ contraceptives. That is being challenged by several states.
Antiabortion advocates have been pleased with the Trump administration’s high-profile efforts for their cause, including attempting to block four undocumented minors from receiving abortions.
But some longtime antiabortion figures say this all feels familiar: GOP leaders making promises about abortion but not following through in a dramatic way.
“It feels like it was with Bush,” said Bart Stupak, a former Michigan congressman and a Democrat who opposes abortion and worked to keep federal funding out of the Affordable Care Act. “It’s all political posturing.” The only thing that seemed newly energized, he said, was the House’s attempt at the 20-week ban.
Jayd Henricks, who just stepped down as the longtime lobbyist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the main action both for and against abortion rights is in the states because “Congress is generally broken, outside this whole issue.”
At the federal level, one of the bishops’ top issues, Henricks said, is getting the omnibus spending act to include a provision called the Conscience Protection Act, which would allow institutions, companies and people who oppose abortion to not have to pay for it (in employee health plans) or be involved in providing it if they are health-care providers.
Henricks said he didn’t notice Trump making a big difference in the movement, except for the impact of how controversial he is. “I think [the Trump era is] changing clearly the character of the Republican Party,” he said. “Some pro-life folks are just as pro-life, but they are less Republican.”
Some activists said the national divisiveness over Trump is changing the direction they thought the movement was headed, one that looked at fighting abortion by providing paid family leave, chasing deadbeat dads and subsidizing child care and maternal health. That fuller approach, with a pro-woman and pro-child outlook, aimed to draw in more young people and even more abortion rights advocates.
“I certainly understand the perspective of those pro-life advocates who support him,” said Kelsey Hazzard, president of Secular Pro-Life, who noted that things would be worse for the antiabortion movement under a Hillary Clinton presidency. “President Trump has also sparked a tremendous backlash. His boorish comments give ammunition to the abortion lobby, which has long worked to caricature the antiabortion cause.”
Paige Winfield Cunningham and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.