Donald Trump became the first United States president to attend the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, on Friday, unleashing a fierce attack on his Democratic rivals during a rally in an election-year show of support for opponents of abortion rights.
“Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” the Republican president, who once said he was was “pro-choice in every respect”, told thousands of cheering people at the rally, touting his anti-abortion rights policies and his appointments of conservatives to the federal judiciary including Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
Demonstrators from around the country converged on a cool, overcast day in the US capital for the event held annually around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that recognised a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalised the procedure nationwide. Many high school and college students joined in the rally.
Trump, seeking re-election on November 3, addressed the event in the midst of his impeachment trial in the US Senate on charges passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives. While not mentioning impeachment, he assailed congressional Democrats on abortion policy. Trump drew loud applause from the crowd.
Among his most loyal political supporters are evangelical Christians, who strongly oppose abortion rights. The event took on aspects of a campaign rally, with Trump lashing out at his political opponents and some in the crowd chanting “Four more years!”
Trump, who years earlier had supported abortion rights, cast himself as a committed abortion opponent on religious grounds.
“We know that every human soul is divine and ever human life, born and unborn, is made in the holy image of almighty God,” Trump said.
Trump pledged during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v Wade.
Abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the US. About 58 percent of US adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year.
Past US presidents have opted to stay away from the march, though Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W Bush both previously delivered remarks to the rally remotely.
The Supreme Court on March 4 will hear arguments in a major case concerning the legality of abortion clinic regulations in Louisiana that could lead to new curbs on access to the procedure.
The case will test the willingness of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes Trump’s two appointees, to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organisation, more than 55 abortion restrictions were passed in state legislatures last year. Many of these restrictions were blocked by the courts. Anti-abortion rights activists and politicians say their goal is to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the Roe v Wade decision.
More than 140 measures were implemented in 2019 that improve sexual and reproductive health.
Some at the rally on Friday held signs with slogans including “Most Pro-Life President Ever,” “Stop Killing Babies” and “I Am The Pro-Life Generation.”
Many were from religious groups and conservative nonprofit organisations.
Among them was Anne Fitzgerald, 44, who said that at age 21 she gave up her daughter for adoption so she could finish college. She now runs Days of Tears, a Virginia nonprofit that advocates against abortion, and said she was marching to help women recognise “that in the moment of a decision between raising or aborting a child, adoption is a viable option.”
Fitzgerald said she was at first sceptical of Trump’s stance on abortion, but is proud he turned out to be “strong ally”.
Trump delivered remarks by video at the 2019 march. Vice President Mike Pence attended the event in person last year.
Outside the Supreme Court, anti-abortion rights demonstrators in the march were met by abortion rights activists, some of whom held signs saying “Keep abortion safe and legal” and “Safe abortion is a human right.” There were also some activists backing Trump’s removal from office.
Emily Goodman, 33, who stood with several fellow supporters of abortion rights during the march, said the event “reeks of a form of religious fundamentalism”.
“What the pro-life advocates seem to be focused on is bussing in young people with signs to declare that their side of the argument is right and no other opinion matters,” said Goodman, who volunteers for a Washington-based nonprofit organisation. “I wish there was a conversation today, involving two sides, focused on a woman’s ability to both hold her view on abortion yet not impose that view onto another.”
Rights groups have accused the Trump administration of waging a war against women’s rights and reproductive health by reinstating and expanding the global gag rule, appointing anti-abortion rights activists to key posts in federal departments dealing with women’s health and seeking to cut Title X funding to health providers that perform abortions or make abortion referrals.
Earlier this week, his administration announced new visa restrictions on pregnant women to combat “birth tourism”.
It is unclear how the rule will be enforced as immigration officials cannot ask during visa interviews whether a woman is pregnant or intends to become so.
Many supported the rule, but critics slammed it, saying targeting pregnant women was “a new low”.