opinion | The pro-life movement must break with Trumpism

The midterms were tough for pro-life Americans. In every state where abortion referendums were put to the vote, the pro-choice side prevailed, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana and one swing state, Michigan. The fall of Roe v. Wade helped keep the Senate blue. It nearly stopped the GOP from taking the house. Exit polls show that abortion was the second most important issue for voters – just behind inflation – and 76 percent of those voters voted for the Democrats.

The election was further evidence of a stubborn reality that pro-life Americans like me need to accept, understand, and respond to with reason, intelligence, and compassion: Pro-life views are less popular than arguments for choices. The same exit polls that showed abortion was a priority for voters showed that 59 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Only 36 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

The most pro-life position (illegal in all cases) was the least popular of all. Only 10 percent of Americans agreed. I’ve been a pro-life activist and advocate all my life, and even I don’t agree with the 10 percent. I believe in abortion bans with exceptions for the life and physical health of the mother and carefully crafted exceptions for rape and incest.

Those election losses don’t mean members of the pro-life movement should regret the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling. Those of us who fought in the trenches to overthrow Roe believed it was both unconstitutional and fundamentally unjust. The Constitution was never intended to prohibit the state from protecting unborn life.

But technical-legal arguments against Roe are not the same as moral arguments against abortion. Reversing Roe did not ban abortion, but instead greatly expanded the ability of elected branches of government to regulate and restrict it. But the bargain the pro-life movement made with Trumpism to end Roe is costing them a heavy price now as the dispute moves from the courtroom into the hearts and minds of everyday voters.

The ethos of the Trumpist-dominated GOP is fundamentally incompatible with the ethos of a sane pro-life movement. The reason is simple: Trumpism is about hostility. The pro-life movement must be about love, including love for its most bitter political opponents.

From the beginning of the MAGA movement, its culture was clear. It was combative. It was vengeful. And as it swept the GOP, it left thoughtful and compassionate pro-life Americans with a terrible dilemma: If you dislike Donald Trump, you’re denying a chance to appoint and confirm judges who could topple Roe. Embrace him and you empower a hateful man, and hateful men can do great harm.

Faced with this dilemma, I chose to reject Mr. Trump — and not because I deviated an inch from my pro-life beliefs. I rejected him because these beliefs. I turned him down because a Catholic taught this lifelong Protestant what a culture of life really means.

I was 26 years old when I read Pope John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae”. It doesn’t take long, and you don’t even have to read it in its entirety to get the gist of it. It can be summed up in a single sentence: “the incomparable and inviolable value of every human life”. That’s it. That is the essence of the pro-life position. Every person is of incomparable worth and should be treated from conception to natural death as if they were of incomparable worth.

This basic moral truth has profound implications for law and politics. It also has profound implications for how we treat each other. It excludes hate. It excludes hostility. It calls for love, compassion and care.

I’m a fallen, flawed person and I don’t live up to that high standard. But I’m trying, and there’s no way I would ever support a man or a movement that rejects such values, that scoffs at kindness as a weakness.

Donald Trump deserves credit for nominating the judges who helped reverse Roe. But something else happened during his presidency. For the first time since the Carter administration, abortion rates in the United States actually rose. The number of abortions rose for the first time in 30 years.

The abortion rate fell during the pro-life presidencies of Reagan, Bush and Bush. It fell during the pro-choice Clinton and Obama presidencies. However, it increased under Donald Trump.

Under Mr. Trump, the culture of life lost ground. It is wrong to impose monocausal explanations on complex social phenomena. It is wrong, therefore, to hold Mr. Trump solely responsible for this change. But it’s worth asking why now? After 30 years of decline, why has abortion become increasingly common? Why did the pro-life movement suffer such significant electoral defeats immediately after Mr. Trump?

I think at least part of the answer to the political question is that the pro-life movement has committed itself to a Trumpist political movement and Trumpist leaders who often exude incompetence and malice. No, not everywhere. Go to a crisis pregnancy center and you will often meet some of the best people you will ever know. These are the people who walk scared young women through some of the most difficult days of their lives. These are the people who love mother and child, and show what it really means to understand the “priceless worth” of each person.

In politics, too, if the pro-life movement binds itself to decency and competence instead of argument and hatred, it can celebrate electoral success. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Brian Kemp of Georgia both signed Heartbeat bills and both easily won re-election. We don’t know how pro-life referendums would fare in these states, but we do know that when a politician combines strong support for life with other obvious qualities, then the pro-life politician (and his or her pro -Life positions) can prevail.

As the pro-life movement absorbs the harsh lessons of the 2022 election (including the surprise defeat of Kansas’ abortion referendum in August), it should comprehensively refocus on the heart of the Gospel Vitae. This means she cannot confine her compassion and concern to the abortion alone. She cannot make common cause with rancor and hate.

Yes, that means preserving life in the womb. It also means offering help and comfort to mothers in need. But that’s just the beginning. If you are considerate of your born and unborn neighbors, don’t you owe them honesty and kindness? If you’re a political figure, don’t you also owe them a basic competency? Shouldn’t your entire ethos reflect concern for the weak and vulnerable in our midst?

Besides, how many people will believe your claims about nurturing and caring if you are a liar and a hypocrite, or support a liar and a hypocrite? Will people feel valued when they are personally attacked and publicly despised?

The sheer force of the law cannot end abortion. Even where it is forbidden, mothers can find ways to terminate a pregnancy. Not even the best (or most draconian) policy can replace the need for millions of Americans to show—by word and deed—friend and foe alike that every pregnancy is a blessing and that every single person is priceless. That has to be the message, because that’s the moral. There is no other way to a culture of life.

David French is senior editor at The Dispatch and contributing writer for The Atlantic.

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