“I don’t think evangelicals are united on every position [President Trump] takes or says,” Franklin Graham said in a recent interview, “but they do recognize he is the most pro-life-friendly president in modern history.”
This remarkable claim has also been made by Vice President Mike Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Aza, and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has also said Trump is the “most pro-life president in history,” as has Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center and Fr. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
The assertion has become one of the most unexamined talking points in pro-life activism. But is it true? And, more importantly, does it matter?
To judge the veracity of the claim we must first establish some relevant criteria. In 2016, I wrote “Why It Is Imperative that Presidents Be Pro-Life” and outlined six ways U.S. presidents have a limited, but substantial and broad-based, role in protecting life and defending the most vulnerable in society. (For the purposes of this post, I’ll use the term “pro-life” as it is most often used—as a synonym for anti-abortion.)
1. Preserving the Pro-Life Riders
Each year pro-life provisions or “riders” are attached to the annual appropriations bills, preventing public funds from supporting abortions, abortion providers, or abortion promoters. Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump have all supported such riders.
Category winner: Four-way tie
2. Filing of Amicus Briefs in Cases Before the Judiciary
Where a case may have broader implications, amicus curiae briefs are a way to introduce those concerns, so that the possibly broad legal effects of court decisions will not depend solely on the parties directly involved in the case. Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump have all filed amicus briefs in abortion cases before the courts.
Category winner: Four-way tie (though Reagan may have a slight advantage since his administration called in a brief for Roe to be reversed).
3. Defending Pro-Life Laws in Federal Courts
The president selects the U.S. attorney general, the head of the Department of Justice and the chief lawyer of the United States government. Those offices are responsible for defending or advocating for pro-life laws before the courts. The administrations of Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump have each defended pro-life laws before the courts.
Category winner: Four-way tie
4. Issuance of Executive Orders
Executive orders help direct the operation of officers within the executive branch. They also have the force of law when made in pursuance of certain acts of Congress, when those acts give the president discretionary powers. For example, Reagan used an executive order to introduce the Mexico City Policy, which makes “neither performing nor actively promoting abortion as a method of family planning in other nations” conditions of receiving federal funding for any NGO. George W. Bush reinstated the policy when it was rescinded by Clinton, and Trump reinstated it when it was rescinded by Obama.
Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump all issued executive orders relating to abortion.
Category winner: Three-way tie
5. Using the ‘Bully Pulpit’
President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit,” meaning a wonderful platform (Roosevelt often used the word “bully” as an adjective meaning superb) from which to persuasively advocate an agenda. The use of this pulpit to preach against abortion is the one area where there has been some distinction between modern Republican presidents.
For example, Nixon made no public statement when the Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, but privately supported some abortions. (In a taped recording he said, ‘There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape.’” Nixon also refused to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning abortion, as did Ford. (Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush all supported such an amendment; it is unclear whether Trump does.)
Three of these presidents also spoke at the March for Life (Reagan and George W. Bush by phone, and Trump by satellite) and opposed abortion in a State of the Union Address (Reagan in 1988, George W. Bush in 2014, and Trump in 2019). While in office, George W. Bush also declared January 18 “National Sanctity of Human Life Day,” stating that the “the most basic duty of government is to protect the life of the innocent.”
Additionally, Reagan also gave several significant speeches during his time in office in which he publicly spoke out against abortion. In 1983, he also published Abortion & the Conscience of the Nation, the only book to be published by a U.S. president while in office.
Category winner: Reagan
Meaningless Metric for ‘Most’
Based on these criteria, Reagan would be the victor, with Trump and George W. Bush vying for second. Does this mean Reagan was the most “pro life president ever”? Not really, for the claim is so subjective as to be meaningless.
For instance, some may complain that my list of criteria doesn’t include appointment of federal judges or Supreme Court justices. But the last four Republican presidents have appointed as many pro-life judges as they could, and the question of which justices will overturn Roe remains to be seen. Similarly, we could come up with other criteria to ensure our preferred candidate won the title. But does it really matter?
In one sense, the claim is unimportant to anyone but activists seeking to curry favor with the latest political regime. It’s not even clear that the activists making the claim believe it’s true. When George W. Bush was still in power, Fr. Pavone claimed Bush was the “most pro-life president that we have ever had.” I suspect Pavone will make the same claim about the next Republican president. But that is, ironically, why the claim is significant: any generic Republican president is the “most pro-life” when compared to Democratic presidents. While the distinction between the pro-life records of Republican presidents is rather minimal, the divergence between the pro-life achievements of Republican and Democratic presidents is enormous.
It’s not necessarily because Republicans are more pro-life by conviction. Every modern Republican president only became pro-life in middle age, at a time they were seeking higher office. George W. Bush became pro-life at the age of 48, while Reagan and George H. W. Bush changed their minds about abortion while in their 50s. Trump, who supported partial-birth abortion as late as 1999, only became pro-life in 2012—at the age of 66.
Most Pro-Life or Only Pro-Life Option?
This is not to say their conversions to the pro-life cause weren’t sincere. But it doesn’t really matter what they personally believe, since their electability is constricted by their party’s platforms and preferences. Similarly, some Democratic politicians—such as Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden—have claimed for most of their lives to be personally opposed to abortion, and yet still support their party’s pro-abortion agenda.
Each of the two main political parties have made the issue of abortion a partisan litmus test. But this wasn’t always the case. In 1976, President Ford and his challenger, Jimmy Carter, held somewhat similar positions on abortion. By the 1980s, though, pro-life activists had pushed the Republican Party to oppose abortion, while pro-abortion activists had pushed the Democratic Party to an opposite and extreme position.
Today, about one-third of Democratic voters (34 percent) identify as pro-life, and nearly half (48 percent) oppose elective abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy. But no Democrat presidential candidate can get elected in the current political climate if they support any restrictions on abortion. None is even willing to try.
This is why many Christian voters who consider abortion to be a primary issue of justice continue to support whatever candidate runs on the GOP ticket. It’s not that they are necessarily looking for the “most pro-life president in history,” they just feel they have no other viable choice. And if the current trend of the Democratic Party is any indication, they won’t be given a pro-life alternative anytime soon.