After Donald Trump labelled Florida’s six-week abortion ban a “terrible mistake”, he opened himself to attack from powerful conservative activists who want to ban the procedure nationwide. But his comments also revealed the challenges for Republican messaging on one of the country’s most polarising issues.
On Monday afternoon, the president of Students for Life sent an open letter to former President Donald Trump, the definitive frontrunner for the Republican party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
The tone was displeased, and scolding.
Students for Life would pause its $5m (£4m) door-knocking campaign meant to rally anti-abortion voters in the 2024 race until Mr Trump “clarified” his comments in a recent interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, which had aired the day before.
Mr Trump attacked his chief Republican rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for his state’s six-week abortion ban. The six-week ban “is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake”, he said.
But when pressed by host Kristen Welker on his own position, Mr Trump ducked. Would he support a 15-week federal ban – widely considered the minimum standard by anti-abortion groups? “I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,” Mr Trump replied.
The backlash was swift.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the influential anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America, issued a statement saying anything later than a 15-week ban “makes no sense”. And Students for Life president Kristan Hawkins wrote her letter, threatening to pull her group’s 1,000 volunteers off the campaign trail.
“The pro-life vote is up for grabs,” Ms Hawkins said.
The tension between the anti-abortion lobby and Mr Trump is telling. More than one year after Mr Trump’s Supreme Court nominees helped deliver anti-abortion activists their long-sought victory – overturning Roe v Wade – Republicans are scrambling to find a position on abortion that placates their base without alienating the broader public.
For decades, popular opinion on abortion in the US has been relatively stable, with a majority of Americans supporting some legal access to the procedure, though many are open to restrictions later in pregnancy.
But among leading anti-abortion activists, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that after Roe v Wade fell, the public would slowly adjust to the new legal reality, becoming more open to abortion bans.
“The law is the teacher,” Ms Hawkins told the BBC earlier this year.
Since the fall of Roe v Wade in June 2022, the opposite has proven true, said Greer Donley, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. After years of stagnation, polls are now showing slight shifts – with more Americans expressing support for abortion access. And in all six states that have held abortion-related ballot measures in the last year, abortion has won every time.
“I don’t think they [Republicans] were prepared for the public’s reaction… They’ve had to do a complete 180,” Ms Donley said. “Republicans are really struggling to figure out what to say.”
So far, the various members of the Republican field have tried different approaches to the problem, to varying effect.
“Their base, still, is predominantly anti-abortion. But in a general election, that is an extremely unpopular opinion to have,” Ms Donley said.