President Donald Trump has been silent on the recent wave of restrictive abortion laws adopted by several states. His most fervent anti-abortion allies couldn’t be happier.
When Ohio last month enacted a so-called heartbeat bill, prohibiting doctors from terminating a woman’s pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected (usually around six weeks), Trump didn’t comment. When Georgia followed suit several weeks later, no Trump tweets came. Then Alabama made the issue a prominent national story this week when it passed a law restricting abortion at any stage except when the mother’s health is at risk.
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And still, the president stayed quiet.
Aides and anti-abortion advocates have been advising the president to stay out of the fray, wary that his comments and tweets could bolster the expected lawsuits challenging the new laws. And White House advisers are worried that Trump wading into the controversial debate would derail negotiations with Democrats over a potential infrastructure spending package.
It’s a striking change for a president who just months ago raised the issue of late-term abortion during his State of the Union address, criticizing efforts in Virginia and New York to allow women to terminate nonviable pregnancies after 24 weeks. And Trump has also regularly trumpeted his extensive record judicial appointees with anti-abortion track records. But this time, conservative activists say it’s best for him to focus his attention elsewhere.
“If he came out and said something now, it would make it more likely that some federal judge would strike down what some of these states have done,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who spoke with Trump by phone last week and has long been a staunch opponent of abortion.
“If I was in his place,” Falwell added, “I would keep my mouth shut because with these judges, if they find out he’s for something, they’re against it.”
So for now, Trump appears to have retreated from the renewed public debate over the latest legislative actions involving abortion.
A senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Trump has been advised not to wade into the latest clash over abortion so long as he wants to continue working with Democrats on issues like an infrastructure spending package.
The president is expected to hold a second round of infrastructure talks at the White House next week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who described the Alabama abortion bill on Thursday as a “heartbreaking and unconstitutional assault on basic reproductive freedoms.” Some of Trump’s advisers worry that endorsing the controversial state legislation would force Democrats, who are under pressure to thwart additional efforts to restrict abortion access, to walk away from the current bipartisan endeavor.
But Trump’s stance on abortion is far from the only thing dividing the president from leading Democrats. And Democratic leaders have shown a willingness to set aside Trump commentary they find offensive to work with him on some specific issues, such as a bipartisan bill that reshaped prison and sentencing laws.
Though the White House declined to comment on the Alabama bill specifically, a spokesman for the president criticized Democrats in a broad statement on Thursday that hailed Trump’s anti-abortion record.
“Unlike radical Democrats who have cheered legislation allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments after birth, President Trump is protecting our most innocent and vulnerable, defending the dignity of life, and called on Congress to prohibit late-term abortions,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told POLITICO.
Historically, though, Trump has veered from stance to stance on abortion. In 1999, the future president described himself as “very pro-choice.” As a presidential candidate years later, Trump swung to the extreme opposite, saying women seeking abortions should face “some form of punishment” if the procedure were made illegal in the U.S. He later walked back those comments after bipartisan criticism.
One prominent Trump official has commented on the surge in anti-abortion laws.
In his commencement address to Liberty University on Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence lamented that “a bevy of Hollywood liberals said they would boycott” Georgia when state officials were first debating “legal protections for the unborn.”
Ronna McDaniel, who chairs the Republican National Committee, did specifically address the Alabama bill on Friday, telling CNN that she “personally” would have included exceptions in the law for cases of rape or incest.
“That’s my personal belief,” she said. “But we are a party that is a broad tent. If you agree with us 80 percent of the time, I want you to be a Republican.”
Sixteen states have so far passed or are working to enact “heartbeat bills” that mirror those recently enacted in Georgia and Ohio. And in addition to the Alabama law, there’s an effort underway in Missouri to ban abortion after eight weeks. Anti-abortion allies are hoping the bevy of legislative initiatives will boost the chance that the Supreme Court will take up one of the inevitable court challenges, testing Roe v. Wade more than 40 years after the landmark decision affirmed access to safe and legal abortion.
Some anti-abortion conservatives who support the Alabama abortion ban, quietly acknowledge that the laws are meant to attract legal challenges. During the Trump administration, the Supreme Court has gained two new justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who some activists believe will be more receptive to their arguments.
“Now that President Donald Trump has supercharged the effort to remake the federal court system by appointing conservative jurists who will strictly interpret the Constitution, I feel confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe and finally correct its 46-year-old mistake,” Will Ainsworth, the Republican lieutenant governor of Alabama, said in a statement last week.
Falwell, however, said he is skeptical the current Supreme Court is prepared to undo four decades of abortion jurisprudence.
“I don’t think Kavanaugh or [Chief Justice John Roberts] can be relied on to overturn Roe v. Wade. I don’t think the court has shifted to a conservative court as much as people think it has,” he said.
The high court could decide as soon as Monday whether it will hear challenges to a three-year-old Indiana abortion law that Pence enacted as governor. At least four justices must decide to take up a case for it to be granted a full review.