Trump’s and Biden’s Sinuous Abortion Journey

In the abortion wars, moderation has proven to be the recipe for victory, especially on the national stage. Photo Credit: Joe Biden/X. 

There is no better source than Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at National Review Institute, who recently wrote about the shaky and uncertain commitment that former President Donald Trump has made to the pro-life movement. As McCarthy, former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, explains in his article of April 8, 2024, Trump’s journey to his position on abortion has all the markings of a political decision. 

After years of cozying up to the pro-lifers, Trump has abandoned his principles for political expediency. It may prove to be the best political move he has at his disposal, but it reveals his duplicitous and scheming character. 

Just look at his record on abortion going back to 1999. 

Interviewed on Meet the Press, Trump said: “I am very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. … I just believe in choice. Again, it may be a little bit of a New York background, because there is some different attitude in some different parts of the country. … I was raised in New York and grew up and worked and everything else in New York City. But I am strongly pro-choice.” He wouldn’t even agree to ban partial-birth abortions when asked. 

By 2011 Trump claimed to be pro-life in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference before mulling a run against Barack Obama in 2012. In 2015 he indicated ambivalence about Planned Parenthood, telling CNN “I would look at the good aspects of it, and I would also look because I’m sure they do some things properly and good, good for women, and I would look at that.” A few months later he began a series of interesting leaps, suggesting he would defund Planned Parenthood, but admitting they did do some good work for women. 

In March 2016, in a head-turning change of view, he told Chris Matthews of MSNBC that women who had abortions should be punished. Continuing his move into the pro-life camp, that fall he committed to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Once president, he backed up his promise when he nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017. 

Throughout his term in office, Trump backed abortion-limiting initiatives and took credit for victories the pro-life movement celebrated. But after the losses in the 2022 mid-terms, Trump began to evolve again, blaming the losses on the abortion issue, ignoring the fact that he had endorsed a lot of weak candidates in winnable races. Do Herschel Walker, Dr. Oz, or Kari Lake ring a bell? 

Facing some stiff primary opposition for the 2024 Republican nomination, Trump began to make vague promises about an abortion compromise in September 2023. In an interview on Meet the Press, Trump said: “Let me just tell you what I’d do. I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something acceptable.” Once he had sewn up the nomination he started to muse about supporting a 15-week ban on abortions, something most European nations legislatively champion. It may not satisfy most pro-life groups, but it does align with what most people deem acceptable and reasonable. While not scriptural, the general population finds it morally acceptable. 

Trump may have found a moderate position that reduces the sting of the more harsh rulings taking place in states like Arizona where an 1864 territorial law was upheld as the abortion standard for the state. The danger for both candidates is to get caught too far out on either side of the issue. Trump’s efforts to find a middle ground may gain him voters come November, especially among the suburban soccer moms who will be very important in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia.  

For all the outrage on both sides, statistics tell us a lot about the practice. For one thing, without legislation, only about seven per cent of abortions occur after the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy. That does not mean that abortion should be ignored as an inappropriate alternative. Even seven per cent of pregnancies amount to thousands every year in the United States. Dismissing a small percentage as meaningless may be a good quality control strategy in a manufacturing setting, but it can sound heartless when talking about human life. 

Finding a middle ground where most Americans, especially women, believe that sound medical practice meets their right to control their bodies and their futures remains the challenge in a political year with a very tight presidential race in play. Trump, for his part, seems determined to find a place where he can claim to be the person who best represents middle America and the women who live there. 

Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House shares a similar circuitous route to his present position on the vexing political hot potato. President Joe Biden once claimed to be pro-life as well. As the Washington Post’s Amy B. Wang and Blair Guild recently reported, Biden’s ideas about abortion have evolved over his time in office. 

First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden said in a 1974 profile in the Washingtonian “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” At the same time, he told a group of antiabortionist protestors that he opposed a constitutional ban against the procedure though as a Catholic he opposed it personally. 

In 1982 Biden voted with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass the Hatch Amendment, which would allow Congress and the states to bypass Roe v. Wade and restrict abortion. As the Post reported: “The amendment, proposed by then-Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would have declared ‘that the Constitution does not secure the right to an abortion.’” Even in April 1994 he still sounded skeptical of abortion as a right, declaring that “those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them.” In a letter replying to a Delaware constituent Biden wrote: “I will continue to abide by the same principle that has guided me throughout my 21 years in the Senate: those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them…As you may know, I have consistently — on no fewer than 50 occasions — voted against federal funding of abortions.” 

As late as 2006, the long-time senator would not acknowledge abortion as a constitutional right, saying in an interview with Texas Monthly: “I’m a little bit of an odd man out in my party … I do not view abortion as a choice and a right.” He went so far as to call abortion a tragedy: “I think [abortion is] always a tragedy, and I think that it should be rare and safe, and I think we should be focusing on how to limit the number of abortions,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is, I’ve never known of a woman having an abortion say, ‘By the way, I feel like having an abortion.’ It’s always a tragic decision made. Always a difficult decision. And I think we should focus on how to deal with women not wanting abortion.”

Then he decided to run for president, became Barack Obama’s choice as running mate and his soul’s struggle between faith and party ended. Biden reconciled Catholicism with the stance of the Democratic Party and became comfortable with the idea that women had the right to choose an abortion. 

First, Biden insisted on supporting late-term abortion bans, but he had changed his mind on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. In an attempt to explain his reasoning, Biden claimed that he accepted the Church’s teaching that life began at conception, he just did not want to force those beliefs on people not of the Catholic faith. In the 2012 Vice-Presidential debate with Paul Ryan, he claimed, “Life begins at conception. … I just refuse to impose that on others.” 

As much as his 2008 run changed him, by 2020 he felt he had no choice but to abandon his decades-long support of the Hyde Amendment (no federal funding for abortion) and get on board with the rest of his party. Biden told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in a video address during the 2020 campaign: “It’s a simple proposition: Health care is a right not dependent on race, gender, income or Zip code. As president, I’m going to do everything in my power to expand access to quality, affordable health care for women, especially women of color. We will protect women’s constitutional right to choose. I’m proud to stand with you in this fight.” 

Biden had moved almost 180 degrees away from his original position. The evolution complete, Biden could move to undo Trump’s restrictive practices. Assuming the presidency in 2021, Biden signed two executive orders expanding access to affordable health care and reversing the restrictions on abortion access that Trump’s administration had overseen. Responding to a leak that Roe v. Wade might get overturned in 2022, Biden released the following statement: “I believe that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental, Roe has been the law of the land for almost fifty years, and basic fairness and the stability of our law demand that it not be overturned.” 

After the ruling came down he called for abortion rights to be codified in law. In January of this year, he asserted that Roe v. Wade had it right and he made more executive orders expanding access to “contraception, abortion medication and emergency abortions at hospitals.” The long journey to a pro-choice position on abortion will culminate with Biden’s 2024 campaign advocating ideas Biden personally opposed, legislatively disputed and then slowly embraced. He has spent his career trying to catch up with his party on abortion and in his final crusade he hopes to secure the votes of women who demand reproductive rights that extend until a baby is born, some even suggesting beyond. 

Trump may disappoint the pro-life movement, but his efforts to protect life after 16 weeks is a more moderate position than the current president holds. In the abortion wars, moderation has proven to be the recipe for victory, especially on the national stage. The irony of Joe Biden’s extreme positions on defending a woman’s right to an abortion versus where he started on the issue will be worth watching throughout the fall campaign.

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