President Donald Trump on Wednesday became the first president in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives twice.
The vote came a week after supporters of the president breached the U.S. Capitol, delaying the formal certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election by several hours and instigating a deadly riot.
Both the violent scenes from the riot and the second impeachment vote—which followed unproven claims from Trump that the election was stolen from him—are likely to loom large in Trump’s legacy.
And the pro-life movement that largely embraced Trump will have to grapple with this legacy, even as it braces for an incoming presidential administration that ran on a heavily pro-abortion platform.
Catholic theologian Charles Camosy told Catholic News Agency that as he watched coverage of the riot at the Capitol, “Like so many of us, including the overwhelmingly large number of pro-lifers I know, I was disgusted and horrified.”
“Especially with respect to the loss of human life that happened and, due to the now clear plans of many who put the Capitol under siege that day, the even greater loss of life that could have taken place,” Camosy said.
Camosy is a former Democrats for Life of America board member, who resigned from the position in 2020, saying the party’s embrace of extreme positions on abortion left him no choice but to abandon the party and join the American Solidarity Party.
Asked if the pro-life movement should sever its ties with Trump, Camosy said, “I’ve been warning against this relationship from the very beginning.”
“Significantly, many of the pro-life leaders and organizations who have been in some kind of friendly relationship with him over the past four years, themselves warned about Trump during the 2016 GOP primaries,” Camosy said. “Something changed. Proximity to power in order to do genuine good in the short run is a huge temptation, and those of us who never supported Trump should acknowledge the good things that were gone, but we are now seeing what many of us warned about.”
Camosy added that he thinks “it would have been difficult enough to try to undo the damage that having the pro-life movement associated with Trump even without the assault on the Capitol.”
“But now the task is absolutely gargantuan,” he said. “It is far too late to sever ties now.”
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, told Catholic News Agency she watched in horror, but not surprise, as the riot at the Capitol unfolded last week.
“I think for a lot of us who were opposed to Trump four years ago, we saw this coming,” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “This was an inevitability and I think for the pro-life movement to have attached itself to him so strongly—really any political candidate is always a dangerous thing—but especially has volatile as he is. He has shown us his true colors all along.”
Trump won the 2016 election after campaigning heavily on pro-life promises, including a pledge to appoint only pro-life Supreme Court justices. But his candidacy and election posed a dilemma for the pro-life movement, with some arguing that his record–particularly his treatment of women–made him a poor choice to represent a cause claiming to be pro-woman.
But despite these misgivings from some, Trump became a de facto face of the pro-life movement. In 2018, Trump became the first president to address the national March for Life in Washington, D.C., via satellite from the White House, although previous Republican presidents had done so by phone. Two years later, Trump became the first president to attend the March in person.
While these high-profile appearances drew attention to the annual D.C. event, not everyone in the pro-life movement was happy with the president’s attendance. Then-Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), among the most prominent pro-life Democrats, backed out of the 2018 March for Life, where he was scheduled to be a featured speaker, after Trump’s satellite address was announced. Lipinski said at the time he could not put himself in the “potentially morally compromised situation” of sharing a stage with a president whose words were unpredictable and often offensive.
Lipinski, who recently left Congress after a primary defeat last year, called the Jan. 6 riot “unbelievable.”
“The U.S. Capitol is the symbol and the real seat of our democratic republic and to see it attacked was just very concerning,” he told CNA. “It’s still something that’s hard to comprehend.”
Lipinski said he had expressed concern about tying Trump too closely to the pro-life movement from the beginning. He acknowledged some positive policy accomplishments on pro-life goals by the administration, but said “we have to win the hearts and minds of people.”
“He’s hurting us in terms of recruiting more people over to our side,” Lipinski said. “We need more people who are with us, and one way that you get people with you is to have a good image of what it means to be pro-life, what type of person is pro-life. And so it’s good to have people who are viewed positively, who are good role models, to be seen as pro-life leaders. And in that respect I think Donald Trump was harmful over the last for years and in the long run.”
As Trump’s presidency ends with a second impeachment–and polls showing a majority of Americans saying he should be removed from office–some pro-lifers worry that the president’s legacy could continue haunting the pro-life movement for years to come.
While some tout legislative and judiciary victories on pro-life goals, other pro-lifers worry that the president’s reputation could drive people away from the pro-life cause–or portray the pro-life movement as oppressive to women. While polls consistently show voters favoring substantial limits on abortion, support for Roe v. Wade hit an all-time high during Trump’s presidency.
Herndon-De La Rosa offered a biblical analogy to the pro-life movement’s association with Trump.
“The Supreme Court nominees that Trump promised, those were the twenty pieces of silver, and so we were willing to overlook these grievous offenses and problems with his character, because those Supreme Court seats were so vital and now we’re suffering the repercussions of that,” she said.
Trump’s legacy, Herndon-De La Rosa said, would still have been difficult to come to terms with prior to the riot, pointing to remarks Trump made about women revealed during his presidential campaign.
“We spent decades trying to show people how we are pro-woman,” she said. “The second we aligned ourselves with a man who made such degrading comments about women, we lost credibility. This was always a dangerous alliance, and now we’re seeing that it was more of a suicide pact.”
As for Trump’s association with the pro-life movement, Herndon-De La Rosa argued, “I don’t know that there’s recovering from it.”
“This is going to have to be a phoenix rising from the ashes moment where we really do some introspective soul-searching,” she said.
Herndon-De La Rosa said she and some of her allies have adopted terminology like “consistent life ethicist” to differentiate themselves from some other facets of the pro-life movement.
“And that’s either going to go nowhere, or it’s going to be something that is ultimately a bigger tent,” she commented.
Camosy offered a more hopeful view of the future. While he thinks the pro-life movement will be “tarnished” by its association with Trump “for at least a generation – maybe longer,” he also thinks there are things pro-life advocates can do to promote healing.
Looking forward, he said, pro-lifers must “pursue our goals in a very non-partisan way.”
“[We should] work, especially at the state level, for prenatal justice–which is most likely to come from alliances with Republicans,” he said, but “we should also work to save babies’ lives–and support their mothers–by working on the ‘demand side’ of abortion,” pointing to steps to address poverty and intimate partner violence.
“We must work to resist the social-structural problems which push so many women to have abortions and this likely will mean alliances with Democrats,” he said.
“Though perhaps, as the GOP figures out what it wants to be, we can help push Republicans to join us in this approach as well,” he added. “Political idolatry is poison more generally–just to human nature–but it is particularly poisonous to the pro-life movement. We must be more politically nimble and non-partisan in our pursuit.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and a vocal supporter of President Trump, did not immediately respond to an interview request through a spokesperson. But during the riot, she condemned the violence, writing in a tweet that it is “not reflective of pro-life Americans and Trump supporters who align with his call to support police today.”