Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.The day before the 2016 US presidential election, Father Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest based in Washington, D.C., took an aborted fetus and performed a ritual with it on a Catholic altar, which he broadcast over Facebook Live.
“Today I am showing you a child who was killed by abortion,” Pavone said. “Today I am showing him to you because in this election we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not.”
Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, intended for this gruesome scene – and improper use of a Catholic altar – to shock viewers into voting for Donald J. Trump. “Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform says yes, let the child-killing continue (and you pay for it); Donald Trump and the Republican platform says no, the child should be protected.”
For many people, who have only encountered images of US pro-lifers as right-wing, anti-women activists who bomb abortion clinics and assault staff, Pavone’s actions may seem unsurprising – perhaps even to be expected from pro-life advocates. Indeed it is aggressive, borderline violent pro-lifers like Pavone who Trump himself has appeared to align himself with. This was particularly true when he stated in March of 2016, that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. (He later recanted this statement, which is largely out of step with the pro-life movement.)
Contrary to these expectations of the US pro-life movement as brutal and punitive, however, many members of the pro-life movement in the United States have responded fearfully – and not triumphantly – to Trump’s election.
This has been the case for Anna Slater, of Students for Life of Illinois. “This election has been so divisive,” she told me. Slater described mentoring students who are all united in their pro-life beliefs, but who approach their advocacy from such different angles, “[so they] understand Donald Trump’s pro-life movement in a very different light.”
Slater works full time in pro-life advocacy, mentoring young pro-life advocates to become leaders in their communities. She describes her work as an attempt to provide women “with so many resources, so much love, that they choose life – not because they’re forced to but because they have all the support they need to do so.”
For Slater and the people she works with, being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion, and includes opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia and police brutality. “Many people like myself, who consider themselves pro-life in all situations that affect human life,” Slater told me, “cannot really call [Donald Trump] a pro-life candidate.” This is not only because of Trump’s endorsement of torture and the death penalty, but extends to his social and economic policies, which some in the movement consider to be anti-life.
Whereas many right-leaning pro-lifers like Pavone tend to be focused on restricting abortions by US law, moderate or “left-leaning” activists like Slater are more concerned with cultivating a “culture of life” that encourages and enables women to carry pregnancies to term. “A big part of what I do is educate [students] on life issues,” said Slater. “But I also teach them how to have this dialogue…When we change the culture that all people respect life at all stages, that’s when the legislation will fall into place and there’s no need to protest abortion clinics because they’ll close from lack of demand. That’s my dream.”
This holistic understanding of what it means to be pro-life, along with a desire for cultural change before legal change, is clearly at odds with pro-lifers such as Pavone, and apparently Trump, too. “Not speaking as a representative of [Students for Life of Illinois],” said Slater, “I personally thought [Frank Pavone’s stunt] was terrible and an awful use of that child’s body...incredibly sad and graphic. Those approaches really come out in election cycle, the extremes of trying to reach people.”
While the president-elect may call himself pro-life, Slater told me that Trump’s election has actually made her job more difficult. There is now much division within the movement, and fear that Trump will be understood as the pro-life movement’s representative. The disparate reactions to Trump were made very clear to Slater at a university in Illinois, when she visited to host a meeting for the pro-life campus group on the day after the election. At this particular university, Slater noted that there are very clearly two camps: students who are members of the Republican student group and students who are not.
Regardless of whether it was intentional, on this day Slater showed up to facilitate the meeting, only to find that on one side of the room there were the Republican pro-life students “who were all wearing their Donald Trump gear,” and on the other side of the room there were a group of students who “who were in tears, they were so upset Donald Trump had been elected….They thought the Donald Trump election was such a backward thing.”’
One such student is Justine Carlson, president of DePaul University’s Students for Life, who explained to me that, like her mentor Anna Slater, making abortion illegal was not a priority for her. “Even if abortion was illegal...it's still going to happen. I feel like you have to change hearts and minds first in order to change the reality.” Carlson described her own political standing as left-leaning, but she emphasised that because she understands what it means to be pro-life broadly, she can’t support the pro-choice platform of the Democrats, nor the unwillingness to provide social support to families and mothers on the Republican platform. “I can’t really say I'm a Democrat,” she said, “but I definitely cannot say I'm a Republican either.”
In the course of the election, Republican pro-lifers on Carlson’s campus were compelled to offer their own moral arguments for voting for Trump, which clashed with many other pro-life student’s values. “I've actually been personally attacked by one of the [Republican] groups here at DePaul that I don't identify with,” Carlson explained to me. “They’re like, ‘you're not pro-life enough, you’re not in politics.’ But I'm trying to lead [the pro-life group] in a way that we can work together and not become even more polarised.”
Carlson told me that Republican pro-lifers set themselves apart from the rest of the pro-life group members on campus. One such example occurred when the Republican group recently attempted to broadcast a message on campus that “unborn lives matter.” This message, though obviously pro-life, alienated many members of the pro-life group who saw this as inflammatory and insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement, which they support alongside pro-life causes.
The divided response of Anna Slater’s students to Trump is reflective of a greater suspicion held toward him by many members of the pro-life movement, including by conservatives who consider themselves “single-issue voters,” whose ultimate goal is to legally restrict abortions. J.P. Prichard, a father who does pro-life work after hours in California, described himself to me in this way. But even though Trump publicly proclaimed that he was pro-life, it was not enough to convince him to vote for him. “The one-issue people, kind of like me, didn't really see him as a viable candidate,” Prichard told me, because they couldn't trust him.
The effects of Trump’s upcoming presidency had legal ramifications as early as December 2016, when Republicans in Ohio passed what has been called a “heartbeat bill”. This bill is named as such because it outlaws abortions after 6 weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Pro-choice advocates were appalled by the bill because it does not make any allowances for circumstances such as rape or incest.
The so-called “heartbeat bill” likely passed because these Republicans were hopeful that, when Trump takes office, he will appoint pro-life Supreme Court Justices who can protect the bill. These Supreme Court Justices will be in a position to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protects women’s right to have an abortion across the United States, and is the main hurdle for those seeking to legally restrict abortions.
While many in the pro-life movement celebrated at the passing of the “heartbeat bill”, not all pro-lifers responded this way. The governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who has described himself as pro-life, vetoed the bill because he said he suspected it would ultimately fail anyway, since Roe v. Wade is still in place. (It’s worth noting, however, that Kasich did pass a 20-week abortion ban, which will likely hold up in courts and is centred on the fetus’ ability to feel pain.)
The Communications Director for the Libertarian Party of Colorado, Caryn Ann Harlos, expressed opposition to this rush to outlaw abortion, which has unfolded since Trump was elected. “If abortion were outlawed tomorrow,” said Harlos, “I think it would be the worse possible thing that could ever happen to the pro-life movement because the culture is not ready.”
More than ever, there has been a call for the pro-life movement to band together and support Trump, if for no other reason than that he is the next US president. Kristan Hawkins, who heads up Students for Life, is perhaps representative of this effort. When I asked her to comment on the current state of the pro-life movement, she released the following statement: “It is imperative that president-elect Trump continue to keep trusted pro-lifers by his side and appoint those who hold strong pro-life views to powerful positions in our government…Right now, pro-lifers need to unify and present this new administration with an enormous grassroots army of passionate pro-lifers.”
Resistance to this call for unification has already begun. As The Atlantic has reported, pro-life feminists are planning to join the Women's March on Washington – a march that many are using to protest Trump's election. Harlos explained her personal fears for the pro-life movement under Trump, especially given his now-retracted comments about punishing women who have had abortions. “If [abortion] were made illegal by tomorrow, is every miscarriage then to be investigated as a murder investigation? And what would that do to women?” she asked. “There aren’t just unborn lives at stake here, we do have to also be concerned with the rights and lives of living women.”