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In 2017, Kellyanne Conway took the stage at the National March for Life in Washington, D.C., to tell the gathered crowd of thousands that she was “a mother, a Catholic, counselor to the president of the United States, and yes, I am pro-life!” The crowd roared. Conway continued: “It means to stand up, stand tall, and stand together against the indifference and the indefensible; and to stand up, stand tall, and stand together on behalf of babies in the womb.”

But during a recent interview on healthcare policy, Conway sang a different tune. Politico’s Ryan Lizza noted that the issue of IVF had rocked the GOP after the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that human embryos are human beings. “How do you advise a Republican candidate who says, you know what, Kellyanne? I believe an embryo is a human life,” Lizza asked. 

“I know a few people like that—I don’t know many,” Conway replied. “I know you [the press] always want them to be the rule, not the exception.” Lizza interrupted: “Wait a minute—you don’t know anyone who believes that life starts at conception?” Conway dithered. “I know many people who believe that, but you’re talking about embryos . . .” Lizza, who had accurately characterized the pro-life position, looked stunned as Conway went on to explain that pro-life and pro-choice people essentially believe in the same “exceptions” when it comes to abortion.

To summarize: Kellyanne Conway, an allegedly pro-life adviser to Donald Trump, claimed that the pro-life position is not that unique, whole, unrepeatable human beings must be protected from conception. Instead, she articulated what appears to be the emerging GOP position: that there is little difference between being “pro-life” and being “pro-choice,” and that protecting unborn children during the early stages of pregnancy—when most abortions occur—is an extremist position.

Indeed, on April 8 Donald Trump released a video claiming that the overturn of Roe v. Wade put “abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint,” and that it is now an issue for the states. “You must follow your heart on this issue but remember, you must also win elections to restore our culture and, in fact, to save our country, which is currently and very sadly a nation in decline,” he said. “Always go by your heart. But we must win.” When the unborn were politically convenient, Trump championed their rights. Now that they are not, he has abandoned them—and, as I noted earlier in First Things, he actively campaigns against laws that protect them from the gruesome death of abortion.

Even Trump’s federalist position on abortion lasted less than two days. On April 10, reporters asked Trump if the Arizona Supreme Court justices “went too far” in a recent ruling to uphold the state's pro-life law. Trump responded: “Yeah, they did. That’ll be straightened out . . .” He then stated that the governor of Arizona, a pro-abortion Democrat, and other governors “are going to bring it back into reason.” On April 24, three Republicans defected to the Democrats and voted for repeal. The senate will likely confirm this in May, leaving Arizona with a fifteen-week abortion law—something Trump opposes at the federal level (even though most European countries have significantly stricter laws limiting abortion).

It would be shortsighted to dismiss the pro-choice rhetoric of Donald Trump and other MAGA figures as mere electioneering. Trump was given the label “the most pro-life president in American history.” He is now using that credibility to fundamentally redefine what the term “pro-life” means in the minds of Americans—even those who identify as pro-life. What are voters to think when “the most pro-life president” tells them that “heartbeat” laws in states like Florida are “too harsh,” as he did last May? Will Trump campaign for the pro-life side in the upcoming Florida abortion referendum after saying this—or for the pro-choice side?

Polling and recent state-level abortion referendums have revealed that many people who identify as “pro-life” politically don't actually hold the view that every human life must be protected from conception. It is the task of both pro-life politicians and the pro-life movement to persuade the public of the sanctity of human life and, conversely, the grotesque barbarism of abortion. The entire country is talking about abortion; President Biden is campaigning on the issue, and Kamala Harris became the first vice-presidential candidate to visit an abortion clinic. This moment presents both a responsibility and an opportunity: The chance to define what abortion is in the minds of the public. Right now, we are failing to do so.

When Donald Trump bluntly described the horror of late-term abortion in a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, the pro-life movement cheered, recognizing the educational power of using the bully pulpit of a presidential campaign to tell the truth. Now, Trump claims that it is necessary to abandon the unborn to “win”—and he may be right, politically speaking. It is perhaps reasonable for pro-life politicians to try to get the best laws possible under bad circumstances. In practical politics, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. But honest observers must admit that Trump is going much further than that. He is condemning protections for unborn children as “unreasonable.” He is calling state pro-life laws “too harsh.” He is actively undermining the efforts of pro-life politicians and could very possibly suppress or turn votes in high-stakes state abortion referendums.

If Trump’s bully pulpit meant anything in 2016, surely it means even more now—and there are indications that the Trump campaign now sees pro-lifers as a political inconvenience. Steve Deace reported recently that “the Trump campaign is demanding delegates to the GOP Convention in several states need to be replaced for being too Christian” because they “don’t want delegate opposition to softening the party platform on cultural issues in Milwaukee.” Another source reported that pro-life delegates had been “purged” in Michigan. No wonder former Vice President Mike Pence took to the New York Times recently to bemoan the fact that “Donald Trump has betrayed the pro-life movement.”

Everyone agrees that Donald Trump has transformed—and is transforming—the Republican Party. Part of that transformation may be a functionally pro-choice party in which MAGA politicians share the Biden Administration’s position on “heartbeat bills” and other pro-life laws, claiming that they are too extreme. The pro-life movement needs to resist this kind of transformation. We must sustain our witness to the sanctity of life.

Jonathon Van Maren is the author of Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement

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