WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump – who once described himself as “very pro-choice” – burnished his anti-abortion credentials during his State of the Union address Tuesday night with harsh attacks on recent state actions.
Trump charged lawmakers in New York with having "cheered with delight" after recently passing legislation to "allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth."
He accused Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam of "basically" stating that "he would execute a baby after birth."
"There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days," Trump said. "Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life. And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: all children – born and unborn – are made in the holy image of God."
It was the first time that Trump mentioned abortion in any of his three joint addresses to Congress since becoming president.
Republicans see abortion as an issue that will help fire up Trump’s base for his 2020 re-election. That's despite the fact that the new-Democratic majority in the House will prevent any anti-abortion legislation from getting to his desk. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's guests for the speech included the president of Planned Parenthood.)
But if little is likely to happen in Congress over the next two years, there’s already plenty of action in the states.
“The Democratic Party has become so extreme they are now openly supporting the murder of newborn babies,” Camille Gallo, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said last week after Democrats in Virginia pushed to loosen restrictions on abortions later in pregnancy.
And the Supreme Court could decide this week whether Louisiana can enforce a law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The newly reconfigured high court that now includes two conservative justices appointed by Trump will also decide soon whether to review the constitutionality of Indiana's attempt under then-Gov. Mike Pence to ban abortions sought because of race, sex or disability.
On the other side, the National Abortion Rights Action League last month launched a 50-state campaign to expand access to abortion in states where Democrats made gains last fall and to fight new restrictions in states where the GOP dominates.
“The same forces that helped us elect record gains in pro-choice legislators a few short months ago stand ready to fight back with all we have,” NARAL president Ilyse Hogue said in January.
States where abortion-rights groups were hoping for early action include New Mexico, Nevada, Massachusetts, New York and California.
The likelihood that women will receive the type of abortion services that best meet their needs already varies considerably depending on where they live, according to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The report also said that the abortion rate in the U.S. fell by more than half between 1980 and 2014. While the reasons for the drop are not fully understood, experts cited the increasing use of contraceptives, historic declines in the rate of unintended pregnancy and the growth in state regulations that limit the availability of otherwise legal abortion services.
Hundreds of actions have been taken in states in the past eight years to either restrict abortion services or support abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights think tank. Last year was the first time in recent years that steps protecting reproductive rights outnumbered abortion restrictions.
That could continue because of the gains Democrats made in state capitals in November. But the elections also accelerated a trend toward one-party rule in states, which will affect both sides of the policy debate.
Two months after Democrats took control of the New York state Senate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law three reproductive health bills on the January anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The changes, among other things, protect abortion access if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 decision guaranteeing a nationwide right to abortion. That includes allowing abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy it the fetus isn't viable or the women's health is threatened.
Decline in abortions
Only 1.3 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the issue blew up after New York changed its laws and lawmakers in Virginia began debating loosening restrictions on abortions later in pregnancy.
Video of Democratic Del. Kathy Tran answering questions about her legislation went viral after Republicans circulated a clip in which Tran acknowledged that her bill would allow abortions up until moments before birth. State law already allows abortions up to the point of delivery if the life or health of the woman is at serious risk. Tran’s legislation – which failed to make it out of committee last week – would have reduced the number of doctors required to certify late-term abortions from three to one and would have deleted the words “substantially and irremediably” when describing the risk that must be posed to the woman’s health.
Northam, the governor, came under fire when asked about the bill in a radio interview. Republicans accused him of supporting infanticide.
Trump jumped on the issue in an interview with the Daily Caller.
"I thought it was terrible," Trump said of Tran’s remarks. "Do you remember when I said Hillary Clinton was willing to rip the baby out of the womb? That's what it is. That's what they're doing. It's terrible."
Trump was referring to accusations he made during the 2016 campaign about Hillary Clinton’s opposition to a ban on late-term abortions.
A rallying cry for 2020
Anti-abortion activists credited Trump with being the first modern presidential candidate to “boldly describe the brutal reality” of late-term abortions. His comments helped cement support for him among Christian conservatives nervous about his commitment to the issue. (Trump called himself “very pro-choice” in 1999.)
Trump’s recent comments on abortion could again help rally conservative voters around his re-election.
"President Trump has not only been the most passionate president in talking about the humanity of the unborn, he has been the most persistent in protecting them," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said after the speech.
Democrats are becoming the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders and Crime!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 31, 2019
Republicans also appear to be trying to appeal to moderate voters by painting the abortion-rights bills in New York and Virginia as extreme. Conservative activists said any Democrat running for president in 2020 should be asked whether they support the New York and Virginia legislation.
"(Trump's) electoral winning coalition was razor-thin to being with, and he has done nothing to reach out to new constituencies," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "The danger is that many moderate Republicans who were not Trump ‘base’ voters, but who gave him a chance in 2016, have been alienated and will either stay home or defect in 2020.”
For their part, Democrats will continue to argue that it’s Republicans who are out of the mainstream on abortion. They pounced last month when newly inaugurated Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced he would sign into law a bill vetoed by his Republican predecessor to ban abortions as soon as six weeks after gestation. Calling the bill unconstitutional and a “disgrace and a danger to women across Ohio,” the DNC’s Elizabeth Renda said Democrats will keep fighting against Republicans' “ceaseless attacks" against women.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Here's why Donald Trump attacked abortion in his State of the Union address