Anti-abortion groups grit teeth and brace for Trump

Anti-abortion groups grit teeth and brace for Trump
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Long-time leaders of the anti-abortion movement are gritting their teeth after Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat O'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms MORE’s comments about women being punished for abortions.

Many conservatives are fuming over the GOP frontrunner’s remarks, which he later walked back. The comments ignored decades of conservative doctrine on abortion, while creating a sound bite that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate Progressive Democrats' turnout plans simply don't add up MORE is already using to attack the GOP. 

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Despite what they see as a blunder, anti-abortion leaders overwhelmingly say they will unequivocally support Trump if faced with what they describe as a nightmarish choice between him and Clinton this November.

“If it’s between those two, I can’t trust Mr. Trump to do the right thing, I can trust Hillary Clinton to do the wrong thing,” said Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.), who has spent 30 years in public office. “The bottom line is, protecting innocent human life is not a small part of the Republican Party platform.”

Leaders of the movement have for months cringed at the thought of Trump, who has called himself “very pro-choice,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer this fall.

This week, it became more painful for anti-abortion leaders to consider Trump’s path to the GOP convention, even as their hopes grew that his troublesome slip-up on a key social issue could deny him the win.

Trump’s comments, which were made during a tense back-and-forth with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, sparked a swift and sharp backlash. After repeatedly being pressed by Matthews whether women should face “some sort of punishment” for having abortions, Trump said yes, he believed they should.

It was a strong insult to the anti-abortion movement, which has a political message on the issue meant to avoid targeting women.

Condemnations came from groups like Susan B. Anthony’s List and the Concerned Women for America, as well as former 2016 contenders Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, who area allies of Trump. Most said Trump hadn’t thought enough about the issue, or was caught unprepared.

“The thing that’s maddening about it, it’s the abortion lobby that says crap like that,” said one member of an anti-abortion advocacy group.

Many of the same groups are now warning that Trump has created a weak point for the GOP in the general elections.

Trump already faces a large gender gap. A poll by CNN last week found that 73 percent of registered female voters had an unfavorable view of the frontrunner.

Almost immediately after his exchange with Matthews, conservatives said they knew it would become an easy attack for Clinton.

Less than 24 hours later, the Democratic frontrunner had arranged a press call with the presidents of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“What he’s saying is not that different from every other Republican candidate,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told reporters. “In many ways, Donald Trump has now opened a Pandora’s box.”

Several people familiar with the issue say it’s unlikely to cost Trump support from anyone who already identities as “pro-life.”  They said they were disappointed with the “counterproductive” conversation Trump started. But they say his answer didn’t suggest he supported abortion, just that he was uninformed.

One prominent anti-abortion leader said Trump staked out a position that is “hard to attack from an actual pro-life standpoint.”

“He took a harder-lined pro-life stance than the pro-life movement is,” the person said, asking not to be named to speak candidly. If anything, the person said, Trump is trying too hard to prove he backs the anti-abortion movement.

The GOP frontrunner has officially revised his position to oppose abortion during his campaign, though many conservatives have said they’ve remained skeptical.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who once met with Trump, said he left the meeting feeling unconvinced.

“He was more focused on convincing me he was going to win,” Perkins said of the conversation. Perkins said he is still waiting to hear that Trump is willing to pick a vice president and a Supreme Court justice who will hold his same views.

Trump is far from the first Republican candidate on the national stage to reverse course on abortion.

But many conservatives argue Trump’s story is different. As recently as 1999, he said he supported “partial-birth” abortion, though he walked back those comments in a memoir the following year. In recent weeks, he has defended Planned Parenthood as “wonderful” and says he may have donated to the group in the past.

The hard truth, those same conservatives say, is that they can’t stake out a hard-line position against the man who could carry the GOP mantle this fall.

Trump’s stance on abortion is proving to be one of the most uncomfortable topics for conservatives to talk about this election cycle. Even before his comments this week, several anti-abortion leaders have been quiet on the issue, declining to return phone calls and emails to discuss it.

For months, Trump’s position has quietly been splicing the pro-life movement, creating a new divide that the candidate’s critics fear will alienate some of the GOP’s most reliable voters.  

Some anti-abortion leaders say they fully support Trump, believing that he has had a “come-to-Jesus” moment.

“We have researched and reviewed Mr. Trump's statements on abortion and have concluded that he has had a change of heart and is now Pro-Life candidate,” said Darrin Mitchell, president of the American Christian Lobbyists Association, a grassroots group based in Minnesota.

Mitchell also said this week the “majority of the feedback” he hears from conservative Christians is in favor of Trump. While his group hasn't an official position on Trump’s recent remarks, he said it doesn't believe it will cause lasting damage to the cause.

Mitchell, and others, have compared Trump’s evolution on abortion to that of Ronald Reagan’s, a comparison that Trump has himself made.

But critics of Trump take issue with that argument. Reagan may have changed his mind, but he later wrote the book on being pro-life, literally. It is called “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.”

- This post was updated April 4 at 11:56 a.m.