Why the Pro-Life Movement Wasn’t Ready for a Post-Roe World

People attend the 50th annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on January 20, 2023 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump made a deal with pro-life groups during his 2016 campaign: He’d appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and the pro-life groups would offer him political support. His recent comments on Meet the Press suggest he sees himself as having held up his end of the bargain and is ready to move on. 

In describing Florida’s six-week abortion ban as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump showed his lack of commitment to the pro-life cause. But his statement also reflects a calculation that spurning the pro-life movement will not cause serious political consequences. And for many social conservatives, the uncomfortable truth in the president’s remarks is that the pro-life cause is struggling when placed in front of voters. 

For half a century, the pro-life movement was forced to rely primarily on a legal strategy to protect the unborn child. The conservative legal scholar Ed Whelan, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called the Dobbs decision the “crowning achievement of the conservative legal movement.” But that legal victory, while necessary, only put the pro- and anti-abortion forces on a level political playing field. It didn’t win the contest. And since then, the scoreboard is telling an ugly story.

Kansas voters rejected a pro-life ballot amendment by 18 points in August 2022. Three months later in Kentucky, which voted for Trump by 26 points in 2020, a similar measure failed by 5 points. Montana, another red state, voted down an amendment that would have required medical care to be provided to infants who survived an abortion attempt. Two-thirds of voters in California, and three-quarters of voters in Vermont, approved broadly worded amendments guaranteeing an individual’s right to “reproductive freedom.” A similarly sweeping abortion referendum in Michigan passed by 13 points. And most recently, voters in Ohio turned down a constitutional amendment largely seen as a proxy fight over abortion rights by 14 points. 

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