The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The antiabortion movement’s 2016 victory is nearly complete

Antiabortion demonstrators in Washington during January's March for Life. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There were a number of jarring and discordant scenes during the Republican presidential convention last year, from a White House draped in partisan political rhetoric to its cynical incorporation of a naturalization ceremony over which the candidate, President Donald Trump, presided. But there was perhaps no more unexpected moment than when a nun in full wimple stood behind a lectern bearing a “Trump 2020” placard and in front of a field of American flags.

Sister Deirdre Byrne offered her biography quickly: She had served for nearly 30 years in the military and earned a degree as a physician from Georgetown University. But it was her service in the church that undergirded her presentation on Trump’s behalf that night.

“Donald Trump is the most pro-life president this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages. His belief in the sanctity of life transcends politics,” Byrne insisted, before falsely characterizing the positions of Trump’s opponent. “… Because of his courage and conviction, President Trump has earned the support of America’s pro-life community.”

This would have been a very surprising thing to hear about Trump two decades ago. Just as his partisan identity evolved over time, so did his position on abortion. In 1999, he touted his position in support of abortion rights in an NBC News interview. By 2011, as he began dabbling in Republican politics, he told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his position had changed — as had his position on gun control, which he was now against.

It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s switch on these positions was a function of his ambition or a shift in his politics. It seems pretty clear, though, that it didn’t derive from a religious epiphany; while he would often describe the Bible as his favorite book, there were strong indications that perhaps it was not. But religious conservatives nonetheless rallied around him, seeing in him a champion and defender.

In large part, that was centered on his newfound (and in 2015, still-evolving) position on abortion. Trump promised repeatedly to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, occasionally finding himself unable to play the no-litmus-test game that presidential candidates often play. During the third presidential debate in 2016, he stated explicitly that he would appoint justices to the bench that opposed the practice.

“Do you want to see the court overturn it?” moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump then, referring to Roe v. Wade.

“If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that is really what will happen,” Trump replied. “That will happen automatically in my opinion. Because I am putting pro-life justices on the court. I will say this. It will go back to the states, and the states will then make a determination.”

This may have turned out to be precisely correct.

It was already certain that Trump would get at least one Supreme Court nomination, since then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had blocked a nomination from President Barack Obama to fill a then-open seat. Give Trump a couple more nominations, and the Roe v. Wade decision would be imperiled, by Trump’s own admission.

That November, more than a quarter of Trump’s voters told exit pollsters that Supreme Court nominations were the most important factor in their vote. Among all voters for whom the court was the most important issue, Trump won by a 15-point margin. That was enough to earn a trip to the White House, where he got his three nominees, waved through the Senate by McConnell.

This is a moment when it’s useful to remember that Trump lost the popular vote in that election. After all, most Americans don’t support overturning Roe v. Wade, as CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy illustrated this year. Trump was responding to a visible, vocal minority that was central to his base of support, not to the broad will of the public — a sentence that could describe any number of decisions that Trump made as president with an eye toward energizing his voters.

In this case, though, it probably hurt him. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — less than a year ago, as of writing — provided a late-campaign opportunity to solidify the conservative, antiabortion majority, which he did. The salience of Supreme Court appointments among his voters dropped, with just over half as many Trump voters identifying the Supreme Court as their most important issue in 2020 as in 2016. He still won that group of voters, but only barely, and the percentage of the electorate focused on the court dropped from a fifth in 2016 to an eighth in 2020.

This isn’t simply about abortion, of course. Conservatives wanted a conservative court for a number of reasons. But it was clearly to some extent about abortion. So, Sister Byrne’s appeal was noted, but the urgency was gone. Trump lost.

But the base of antiabortion voters who sent him to the White House in the first place is now on the brink of finally achieving the victory Trump’s 2016 win was only a part of. In May, the Texas legislature passed a law significantly constraining the ability of women in the state to obtain legal abortions, creating a process by which violations could be policed through private-sector lawsuits — an unusual system intended to protect the law from legal intervention. That law went into effect Wednesday, with the Supreme Court declining to intervene.

It still could. Its choosing not to do so before the law went into effect, though, indicates that predictions about how the Trump-appointee-heavy court would respond to abortion restrictions were generally accurate. During that stretch of the 2020 campaign when Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination was still unconfirmed, Trump claimed that he had never mentioned Roe to his appointees, in an apparent effort to defuse concerns that he was doing precisely what he’d promised — appointing justices who would overturn the decision. Such assertions, always dubious if not outright non-starters, may help explain why the court didn’t increase as an issue for Democrats from 2016 to 2020. But there was little reason then to think that Trump’s appointees wouldn’t have a clear position on the subject, and there’s less reason to think so now.

During the 2016 election, there was frequent analysis in which religious voters described Trump as something akin to an imperfect vehicle moving toward a shared goal. They propelled him as he propelled their agenda: 1 in 3 Trump voters in both elections were White evangelical Protestants, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center, and another fifth were Catholic. That’s more than half the votes he received each year.

The victory being sought by many of those voters was less about Trump than about what happened in Texas — or really, what didn’t happen in Washington. Trump’s 2016 win was Step 1 toward scaling back abortion access. His court nominations were Step 2. Now, it seems, we’re on the brink of the third and final step.