The first time Donald Trump dipped his toe into presidential politics, his relatively moderate tone on abortion was cast as an advantage. Fifteen years later, it’s a major liability. Despite an apparent change of heart on the issue a few years ago, many in the anti-abortion movement don’t buy that the billionaire who once described himself as having “pro-choice instincts” will do everything he can to end abortion.
“There are a lot of folks that distrust where Trump stands on life because of his track record and even his recent vacillations on Planned Parenthood,” Lila Rose, a prominent anti-abortion activist, told TPM.
With Trump’s past public comments on abortion, simply labeling himself as “pro-life” now is not enough for the anti-abortion community. It’s not just the typical jockeying in the White House race that is riling abortion foes, but a potential government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding comes this fall with a push for a national 20-week abortion ban to follow.
“Absolutely there is a demand for concrete promises,” Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, told TPM. “People want to see a road map.”
Back in 1999 when Trump was floating a potential presidential run from within the Reform Party, he described himself as pro-choice with reservations.
His support of abortion rights was framed as an appeal to conservatives who wanted to put social issues aside to focus on an economic message. Trump’s supporters painted his chief political rival Pat Buchanan an “an anti-abortion extremist,” while Trump himself called Buchanan’s social conservative views “prehistoric.”
Trump said then that he hated “the concept of abortion,” yet he still opposed the partial birth abortion ban, which later became law and was upheld by the Supreme Court.
“I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people discuss the subject,” he told Meet The Press in 1999. “But you still — I just believe in choice.”
Trump’s switch on the issue came in 2011, when he was flirting with running for president in 2012. He declared his anti-abortion stance at CPAC, the annual DC confab of conservative political activists, and later elaborated that his change of heart was motivated by a friend whose wife thought about an abortion but later went through with the pregnancy.
“They ended up for some reason, amazingly, through luck because they didn’t have the right timing, he ends up having the baby, and the baby is the apple of his eye. He said, it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him,” Trump said on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“And you know, here’s a baby that wasn’t going to be let into life. And I heard this, and some other stories, and I am pro-life.”
The evolution nonetheless has been looked upon with suspicion by the anti-abortion movement. In an 2011 MSNBC interview, Trump struggled with a question about the constitutional rationale behind abortion rights and could not see the connection privacy rights had to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
His confusion prompted alarm among those in the anti-abortion community.
“Trump’s response to the question makes it appear he needs to study up on the abortion debate if he wants his pro-life conversion to be taken seriously as the creation of the fictitious right to privacy is the hallmark of the Roe decision and one of the chief objections pro-life advocates have to it,” LifeNews.com, an anti-abortion website, said.
The debate over abortion has taken a new turn with an anti-abortion campaign against Planned Parenthood over videos that purport to show the reproductive health organization is profiting from the harvesting of tissue from aborted fetuses.
When he was asked whether Planned Parenthood funding should be blocked over the videos, Trump told CNN he would look at “the good aspects” of the organization because he was “sure they do some things properly and good and that are good for women.”
The comment earned swift condemnation from the top anti-abortion organizations as well as from other GOP 2016 contenders.
Carly Fiorina accused Trump of “taking the Democrat Party’s talking points” on Planned Parenthood.
Trump took a harder line on Planned Parenthood in a Meet the Press interview Sunday — saying that clinics needed to stop offering abortions — but stopped short of endorsing a possible government shutdown over Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, a campaign for which GOP 2016ers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are leading the charge.
“Moving forward, there can’t be any room for ambiguity,” Quigley said.
Additionally, Trump has said he supported exemptions to abortion bans in the cases of rape, incest and life the mother. Here, too, lies trouble ahead for Trump.
“It just portrays a lack of deep thoughtfulness on the matter,” Rose said, with other GOP 2016ers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) taking a hard line on exemptions.
Abortion foes stress that Trump’s not the nominee yet, and that they’re paying attention to all the major GOP candidates. And as Trump explains it, it’s not so much that he has changed his mind on this issue but he is only now beginning to truly articulate his views.
“As a real estate developer and as what turned out to be a world class businessman based on what I’ve done, you don’t ask questions about, ‘Gee, are you pro-choice? Are you pro-life?’ Trump told Meet The Press. “It’s just something that is not really discussed. As a politician, they discuss it all the time.”
That excuse alone is not going to be good enough.
“He really prides on himself on being frank and being a straight talker,” Quigley said. “But this is an issue where he has not been very clear and his position is still very cloudy.”