“She’s one of us.” That’s what Kristan Hawkins, president of anti-choice group Students for Life of America, said of news that Kellyanne Conway would speak at the annual “March for Life” event in Washington, D.C. the week after inauguration.
Conway, who will serve as White House counselor to Republican President-elect Donald Trump, has spent nearly two decades as a conservative talking head pushing her anti-choice claims under the guise of credibility offered by her work as a pollster. She founded The Polling Company, Inc./Woman Trend in 1995, working on behalf of anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the Heritage Foundation, and Focus on the Family.
Since then, the firm has also advised a long list of stringently anti-choice politicians and groups, including incoming Vice President-elect Mike Pence, failed Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, and former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MI).
Conway’s Role in the 2016 Presidential Race
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Conway initially acted as president of Keep the Promise I, a super PAC supporting Republican contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), one of the 2016 presidential primary’s most outspoken anti-choice advocates. Part of a network of connected super PACs, Keep the Promise I was funded in part by an $11 million donation from anti-choice mega-donor Robert Mercer. The network partnered with the leaders of anti-choice group Online for Life in September 2015; it also released several ads during the primaries, including one attempting to discredit Trump’s anti-choice stance using old footage of the business mogul calling himself “pro-choice.”
After Trump notoriously said that women should be punished for receiving abortion care should it become illegal, Conway joined the chorus of anti-choice Republicans falsely claiming this is not a standard position for them. Appearing on CNN, Conway told host Don Lemon that “the pro-life community is one mind on this. You do not punish the woman. She is looked upon as a victim.”
Rewire’s Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson explained at the time, “The anti-choice movement seeks to punish women through a web of entrapment that, spun just a little bit at a time, harms women in ways that are less noticeable to the rest of us because they don’t make headlines until women start ending up in jail.” As Jacobson pointed out, some women have already faced charges for abortions.
While working with the pro-Cruz super PAC, Conway criticized Trump for waffling on the issue of whether women should be punished for having abortions. In April 2016 while on CNN’s At This Hour, she said that Trump having “four different portions [sic] on abortion, which I didn’t even know was possible, within 24 hours” was an example of how he had yet to think through many of his positions.
Conway eventually embraced Trump’s opposition to abortion, joining his campaign and gaining a reputation as the New York Times-dubbed “Trump whisperer” for the way she was able to manage the candidate. She spoke at length about Trump’s position on the issue while on the campaign trail, praising his extreme position on abortion and perpetuating the misinformation and outright lies he pushed during debates.
“I was so excited that Donald Trump, for the first time in the 20-some years I’ve been working on pro-life messaging, actually in front of tens of millions of people worldwide, gave the most impassioned defense of life that I’ve ever heard from a Republican presidential candidate,” Conway told Fox News’ Chris Wallace after Trump mischaracterized later abortion care during an October debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “It was amazing to hear him say.”
That same month during an appearance on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Conway said that congressional Republicans’ medically and scientifically discredited fetal pain bill, a 20-week abortion ban that relies on the myth that a fetus feels pain at that point in a pregnancy, is supported by “non-partisan scientists and doctors.” Many medical experts, however, opposed the legislation. Among them was the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has said laws of this nature “are not based on sound science.”
Conway has an extensive background working with anti-choice groups and activists, consulting for them and speaking at their events. She was included among a list of “prominent pro-life leaders” in a 2013 letter. She penned an article with Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser in 2009 for the Washington Examiner sounding alarms about expanded access to abortion care under the Obama administration. These groups later lauded Trump’s decision to bring her on board.
Before Trump, Akin (and Others)
In August 2012, Conway appeared on CNN to discuss then-Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin’s notorious comments that exceptions to abortion bans were not needed because in cases of “legitimate rape,” the “female body has a way of shutting [pregnancy] down.” Conway glossed over the candidate’s comments, instead pushing falsehoods about abortion, including claims that sex-selective abortion is a common issue in the United States—a myth she would continue to perpetuate in 2016 while on the campaign trail.
The next month, Conway mentioned Akin was her client when she appeared on Washington Watch Weekly, a radio program hosted by hate-group leader Tony Perkins, and defended the Senate hopeful—this time comparing the incident to cult leader David Koresh’s standoff with federal agents in Waco, Texas. She later clarified that she meant the GOP were acting like the federal agents in the situation, not that Akin was like Koresh.
During a 2003 appearance on CNN’s Talkback Live, after first asserting her support for later abortion bans, Conway noted that she supported exceptions to such bans to save the life of a pregnant person. However, when she was asked to discuss whether she would allow exceptions for cases of rape and incest, Conway would not give a direct answer.
“These instances are so rare,” said Conway at the time. “But unfortunately, it so poisons the debate, because those shock-the-conscience anecdotes make everyone in this country believe that this is why abortion is legal.”
Conway reportedly advised Republicans in 2013 to simply stop discussing sexual assault all together. According to Politico, during a presentation, “Conway said rape is a ‘four-letter word,’ and Republicans simply need to stop talking about it in their races for office.”
The World According to Conway
Conway has long used her work as a pollster to downplay the importance of reproductive rights to women and in electoral politics at large. During a 1996 appearance hosted by anti-choice group Concerned Women for America, Conway—who was then Kellyanne Fitzpatrick—told the crowd that when asked to rank the issues they cared about, women consistently put abortion at the back of the pack after health care, education, and the economy.
She made the argument again in 1997 during a discussion of women voters hosted by Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, but this time she stressed that the polling “does not mean the issue is unimportant.”
During the appearance, she also noted that young women are now used to “seeing sonograms in a nonconfrontational way.”
“I think where religion and morality has been unable to convince many people on either side of the issue to convert on the issue, that science and medicine now have the upper hand” in shifting opinions on abortion rights, she suggested, seemingly arguing that anti-choice groups could use fetus imagery to support their case.
She further described her views on how “nonconfrontational” images of fetuses had transformed the abortion debate to Peter Robinson in his 2000 book It’s My Party: A Republican’s Messy Love Affair with the GOP. “People will find a sonogram on the bulletin board of a colleague while she is expecting, or their father will fax them a sonogram with a note that says, ‘Here’s your newest cousin!’ It’s nonconfrontational …. People just see the sonogram and get used to the idea that the fetus is already a part of somebody’s family.” Conway again returned to this line of argument during an online discussion in 2005 hosted by the Washington Post.
According to the New York Times, Conway has advised not only GOP politicians and anti-choice groups, but also the Republican Party itself “to describe their recollections of seeing ultrasound images for the first time because it can be disarming” when discussing abortion rights.
She has, meanwhile, ignored factual evidence in attempting to push her position on abortion and contraception.
While giving testimony before a House subcommittee panel on the “Scope and Myths of Roe v. Wade” in March 2006, Conway was called out by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). After Conway spoke about biases in abortion polling, she asserted that abortion at “any time for any reason during a woman’s pregnancy” was currently “the law now.” But as Nadler pointed out, while abortion is legal nationwide, states are able to regulate abortion and have done so:
Mr. NADLER. That’s not the existing law.
Ms. CONWAY. Well, Roe left open the door for that.
Mr. NADLER. No. The existing law, basically, as I understand it, is abortion is legal for any States. States can’t regulate it in the first three months. States have certain regulatory authority in the next three months, and the final three months they can be prohibited except to save the life or health of the mother. The States can prohibit abortion in the last three months if they want to, or the Federal Government could, for that matter, except when the life or health of the mother is at risk.
Speaking at National Journal’s “Women 2020 Conference” in 2012, Conway said that contraceptives should be considered an economic issue, “but I also know you can get the pill at Target for nine dollars, and so if we’re going to … say that there is a ‘war on women’ nationwide being foisted by one political party because it seems expedient to do so” then that is “unfair to women” because it makes it seem like contraceptives and abortion are the only issues that matter to them.
She claimed that “nobody is suggesting” limiting contraceptives (which was and remains demonstrably false—as is her other suggestion that contraceptives are cheap and easy to access), and that the conservative arguments against contraceptive access were really about conscience objections. She made similar points to Politico that year.
Conway again disregarded facts while speaking on a panel with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards during the annual 2012 New Yorker Festival, instead accusing liberals of trying to change the definition of women’s health care.
“When women talk about women’s health, they really don’t restrict it to abortion and contraception,” Conway said. “And part of the hijacking of a lexicon this year has been, instead of talking about abortion, then it was ‘choice,’ now it’s ‘women’s health.’ It’s kind of insulting women who also look at health as cancer and access to health care.”
Richards pointed out that Planned Parenthood does include cancer as part of their work. The organization provides cervical cancer screenings, HPV vaccinations, and breast exam services to their patients. Conway, however, disregarded this and claimed she “didn’t hear” Richards mention it that day, adding “your group is called Planned Parenthood, it’s not called planning … to be an octogenarian.”