Opinion | Trump and Alabama Have Laid Bare the Hypocrisy of the Pro-Life Movement


To understand the remarkable moral, political and intellectual collapse of the pro-life movement, look to the Alabama Supreme Court, not just to Donald Trump’s recent pledge not to sign a national abortion ban or Kari Lake’s flip-flop on Arizona’s reinstated 1864 anti-abortion law.

When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that I.V.F. embryos were subject to the state’s wrongful death statute, it forced the pro-life movement to fully examine the cultural and political implications of its position on unborn children, and pro-life Republicans blinked. They caved, almost instantly, on a core philosophical element of the movement — the incalculable value of every human life no matter how small — and the movement is now standing by or even applauding as Trump is turning the Republican Party into a pro-choice party, one more moderate than the Democrats, but pro-choice still.

The traditional pro-life argument comes from different religious and secular sources, but they all rest on a common belief: From the moment of conception, an unborn child is a separate human life. Yes, the baby is completely dependent on the mother, but it is still a separate human life. The baby’s life isn’t more important than the mother’s — which is why the best-drafted pro-life laws protect the life and physical health of the mother — but it possesses incalculable worth nonetheless. Absent extreme circumstances, the unborn child must not be intentionally killed.

And while pro-life Americans can disagree about how to protect unborn children — whether it’s primarily through legal restrictions, primarily through measures meant to reduce the demand for abortion, or primarily through a combination of abortion restrictions or financial assistance to mothers and families — there has long been agreement on that one core claim: From the moment of conception, an unborn child is a person worth protecting.

From that standpoint, the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision in February holding that the state’s wrongful death statute applied to embryos frozen and preserved as part of the in vitro fertilization process should not have been surprising at all. If state law can declare an unborn child to be a separate human life, then of course that would apply to all unborn children, including those conceived as part of fertility treatments. Even though the embryos are frozen and exist outside the womb, they are still human — no less human than those created through conventional means.

But I have many pro-choice friends who would read the paragraphs above and scoff. They have good-faith disagreements about when an embryo or fetus becomes a “person” entitled to legal protection, and they disagree about the intentions of the pro-life movement. They argue that the pro-life movement is about power and control. It’s about seeking to constrain the choices women can make, to keep women in the home, and to maintain male dominance. The rhetoric about the value of all life and the rhetoric of self-sacrifice is a ruse. At the end of the day, the pro-life argument is a weapon to be wielded against people Republicans don’t like.

While I always respected arguments about the personhood of the baby, I was often frustrated when critics would attribute malign motives to pro-life Americans. I’d been a part of the pro-life movement my entire adult life. I began my activism in college and represented pro-life students and pro-life groups in my legal career, and I’d never seen a desire for subjugation and control. While I don’t pretend that any political movement is perfect, I’ve seen with my own eyes pro-life activists and volunteers demonstrate immense love and compassion for women in distress, trying desperately to care for mother and child by offering financial, emotional and spiritual support.

But now I’m left wondering how much of the movement was truly real. How much was it really about protecting all human life? And were millions of ostensibly pro-life Americans happy with pro-life laws, only so long as they targeted “them” and imposed no burden at all on “us”?

Let’s review the events since the Alabama court’s decision. First, Alabama Republicans panicked. The Republican-dominated Legislature raced to pass a law that granted I.V.F. clinics sweeping immunity from the state’s wrongful death statute. Alabama also has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country. As my newsroom colleague Emily Cochrane politely put it, the vote “demonstrated the intense urgency among Republicans to protect I.V.F. treatments, even if that meant sidestepping the thorny contradictions between their pledge to protect unborn life and fertility treatment practices.” At the conclusion of I.V.F. treatments, unused embryos are often discarded and destroyed.

I’m grateful for I.V.F. I have very close friends who conceived their children that way, but the law should not treat I.V.F. embryos substantially differently and worse than embryos conceived through natural means. But that’s exactly what the Alabama Legislature chose to do.

On Wednesday, Trump reversed his previous position supporting a 20-week ban on abortion; he announced that he would not support a national abortion ban if he wins the presidency, and he said the policy should instead be left up to the states. This is a traditional pro-life position, but only if you also urge states to use their autonomy to pass pro-life bills. Instead, Trump’s advice to voters was to “follow your heart” and “do what’s right for your family, and do what’s right for yourself.” It’s “all about the will of the people,” he said.

This is the most pro-choice position a Republican presidential candidate has taken since at least Gerald Ford. And how did the pro-life establishment respond? With mild criticism, but also with immediate support. As Politico reported this week, “Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, Students for Life, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Family Research Council, National Right to Life and CatholicVote reiterated their commitment Monday morning to electing Trump.”

Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, one of the largest right-wing student and faith outreach organizations in the country, immediately posted his support, calling the statement “masterful” and said that the pro-life leaders he’d talked to were “very happy.”

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a statute from 1864 prohibiting virtually all abortions in the state. The Arizona Republican Kari Lake, who is running for her party’s nomination for Senate, immediately disagreed with the ruling, a reversal of her previous position supporting the state abortion ban. She also posted a statement promising that she would not support a federal abortion ban if elected senator. Instead, she promised to protect I.V.F. and proposed a laundry list of policies intended to ease the financial burden of child care, including “baby bonuses,” paid family leave and extending the child tax credit.

So where is the Republican pro-life consensus today? Philosophically, the movement is breaking. There is no coherent pro-life argument for why a state should prevent women who become pregnant through natural means from destroying an embryo while protecting the ability of families who create an embryo through I.V.F. to either destroy it or keep it frozen indefinitely.

At the same time, poorly drafted abortion regulations have placed a terrible spotlight on conservative states, with many examples of punitive laws placing women who are suffering miscarriages and other pregnancy complications in profound danger. This harsh approach undermines pro-life arguments that the movement does, in fact, love both mother and child.

It’s no wonder, then, that the pro-life cause is in a state of emergency so soon after its greatest legal triumph, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It has lost every referendum since the Supreme Court decided Dobbs, including ballot measures in red states like Kentucky, Kansas, Montana and Ohio. Early polling indicates that Florida’s proposed pro-choice referendum may well cross the 60 percent threshold needed to pass and overturn the state’s six-week abortion ban. In fact, a majority of Republican voters appear to support the referendum.

Even more ominously from a pro-life perspective, the abortion rate rose under Trump, and the total number of abortions has actually increased since the Dobbs decision.

As my colleague Ross Douthat argued on Wednesday, Trump is exactly the wrong person to right the pro-life ship. “With that kind of standard-bearer,” he writes, “the accusations of your opponents — that your cause is organized more around repression than protection, more around hypocrisy than high ideals — are going to carry more weight.” I also agree with Ross that it is probably no coincidence that public support for the pro-life position began a sharp decline after Trump’s election. It’s hard to argue you’re a movement rooted in love when you enthusiastically unite behind a fundamentally hateful man.

I still believe there are many deeply sincere pro-life Americans. I see their anger in response to Trump’s statements, even when they’ve previously supported him. They are people who genuinely believe that all human life is precious and should be protected from conception until natural death.

But I also recognize that many of the critics of the pro-life movement were right all along. When push came to shove, the pro-life position was either secondary to other values or it genuinely was punitively tribal — enthusiastically aimed straight at the supposedly licentious left but ready to be abandoned the instant the commitment to unborn children might endanger the larger MAGA political project. Abortion is the poison pill that Trump doesn’t want to swallow.

At its worst, the pro-life movement was also deeply cynical. Many of its members have spent the last eight years mocking and bullying pro-life conservatives who’ve refused to support Trump, even when we rightly said he was a terrible ambassador for a virtuous cause. I’ve been called a baby-killer or murderer or heretic more times than I can count. Commitment to Trump was the ultimate test of your pro-life convictions. Yet now he is taking the most pro-choice position of any Republican presidential nominee in two generations, and all the largest pro-life groups continue to bend the knee.

Even so, it’s not just about Trump. The Alabama court taught us that. It presented the pro-life movement with a decision squarely rooted in its own logic, and much of the Republican Party said no, and it said no as loudly and emphatically as it could. Is it any wonder that Trump followed suit? Is it any wonder that MAGA is following his lead?

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that we simply don’t know who we are — or what we truly believe — until our values carry a cost. For more than 40 years, the Republican Party has made the case that life begins at conception. Alabama’s Supreme Court agreed. Yet the Republican Party can’t live with its own philosophy. There is no truly pro-life party in the United States.

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