News Religion

‘Pro-Life’ Groups Praise Trump But Are Silent on Charlottesville (Updated)

Amy Littlefield

The lack of public comment by leading anti-choice groups tracks with their insistence on remaining staunchly single issue—a position that may become increasingly untenable under President Donald Trump.

UPDATE, August 18, 6:27 p.m.: Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, posted a series of statements on Twitter condemning violence and racism. “Many have spoken out condemning the violence and the hatred. Not all have spoken out, and not all have spoken strongly enough,” she wrote, in part. There has been no official statement posted on the organization’s website.

They have thrown their lot in with President Donald Trump over his record on abortion, but the nation’s leading anti-choice groups have largely remained silent over Trump’s widely criticized response to the fatal white supremacist violence this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Nor have many of these groups condemned the violence itself, which claimed the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer over the weekend and injured dozens of others. Two police officers also died in a helicopter crash.

Americans United for Life, whose former president, Charmaine Yoest, backed Trump during the campaign and was later tapped for a top position at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), posted nothing about Charlottesville on its website or social media.

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Similarly silent was Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, whose leader, Marjorie Dannenfelser, gave Trump an “A+” in April for his anti-choice record, and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), whose president, Carol Tobias, recently told Rewire that Trump is “doing an amazing job.”

These groups declined to respond to Rewire’s requests for comment by deadline.

Their silence contrasts with the approach of pro-choice and reproductive justice groups, many of whom see issues like police violence and racism as integrally connected to the struggle for reproductive freedom. Fighting white supremacy has long been central to the work of reproductive justice activists who note that anti-choice policies, such as the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion, disproportionately hurt women of color. A number of leading pro-choice and reproductive justice groups, including SisterSongPlanned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, All* Above All, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, have used their social media accounts in recent days to denounce white supremacy.

Trump drew national condemnation when he initially refused to specifically denounce the white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville this weekend with torches. They chanted “Jews will not replace us”; beat 20-year-old aspiring hip-hop artist Deandre Harris with poles; punched a photographer; and ran a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing Heyer. On Saturday, which CNN’s Chris Cillizza called Trump’s worst day as president, Trump denounced violence “on many sides.” On Monday, amid a national outcry, Trump specifically rejected “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.” He did not respond to reporters’ questions about why it took him so long to do so.

Not everyone in the anti-choice movement has remained silent.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, took to Facebook.

“I hate the fact that these despicable people in Charlottesville are called ‘alt-right,’” Hawkins wrote on Saturday. “They aren’t conservatives or politically right. They aren’t pro-life. They are racists, anti-semites, and bigots. They are nationalists who advocate for a new land just for those with white skin. It’s fundamentally un-American. It’s not Christian. It’s disgusting.”

Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, denounced the violence and rhetoric in Charlottesville as “appalling and contrary to everything #jesus taught.” Nance and Hawkins sat alongside Dannenfelser, Perkins, Yoest, evangelist Alveda King, and others on the Trump campaign’s “pro-life” advisory council

The anti-choice Radiance Foundation responded by criticizing both white supremacy and Planned Parenthood’s denunciation of white supremacy.

“Which is worse? White nationalists or liberal feminists? Both want the same end-result,” the organization posted on Twitter Monday, appearing to equate white supremacist violence with abortion. 

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition and pastor with Church on the Hill, traveled to Charlottesville Sunday with a group of other clergy members, including Rob Schenck, head of Faith and Action. Mahoney told Rewire the goal was to “stand as a strong public witness against hatred and bigotry and white supremacy.”

In an interview Monday, Mahoney criticized Trump’s “many sides” comment as “terrible and extremely disappointing.” A longtime anti-choice activist, Mahoney has spoken out against Trump before, criticizing his sexist attack on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, for example. Mahoney told Rewire he had turned down a faith-related advisory board position with the Trump administration out of concern it would threaten his work with Black and Muslim communities.

“We can’t be so committed to the president in hopes of moving a pro-life agenda forward that we turn a blind eye to other issues,” Mahoney told Rewire.

But Mahoney said he understands the silence of other anti-choice groups.

“I can totally see where SBA and National Right to Life wouldn’t respond, I mean it really is not part of—maybe like a Family Research Council, that I could see, they’re more broad-based,” he said.

Indeed, Family Research Council, whose former employees, Teresa Manning and Shannon Royce, have joined the ranks of anti-choice stalwarts at Trump’s HHS, released a statement from its president, Tony Perkins.

“I condemn this act of terror that is meant to intimidate and silence,” Perkins posted on Sunday. “When it comes to supremacy, Christians in America have room for only One. His supremacy leaves no room for rivals.”

Michael Farris, head of the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ legal behemoth Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), posted a statement Monday condemning both the white nationalists and “ideological intolerance.”

“We have to ask ourselves, why is our country splintering into factions with so many prone to violence?” Farris wrote.

Former ADF attorney Matt Bowman has also joined Trump’s HHS.

Reached by phone on Monday, Troy Newman, head of Operation Rescue, who endorsed Trump, said he was on vacation, hiking, and tuned out of the news cycle.

King, director of Civil Rights for the Unborn, part of Priests for Life, defended Trump’s remarks. As Rewire and Right Wing Watch have reported, King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr., is part of POTUS Shield, a group of Pentecostal leaders who believe Trump was anointed by God “to usher in a new era.”

“I did not take any issue, because it was true,” King said of Trump’s “many sides” remarks, in an interview with Rewire. “If the emotions are running high, many people are involved.”

King told Fox and Friends Weekend Sunday that Trump has to “speak to the hearts of everyone.”

Asked by Rewire if that applied to white supremacists, King said it did.

“I truly believe that when you speak to the human heart, period, you can get a George Wallace, who was a terrible racist, who changed and became a genuine born-again Christian and repented publicly for his sins of racism,” King said.

King said it is up to individual anti-choice activists if they take a stance on racism.

“It just depends on the person,” King said. “With me, I’m an evangelist. You will hear me address many issues.”

The lack of public comment by a number of King’s colleagues in the anti-choice movement tracks with the insistence by many of these groups on remaining staunchly single issue—a position that may become increasingly untenable under Trump.

At the National Right to Life Convention, for example, which coincided with the backlash over Trump’s Twitter tirade against Brzezinski, Carol Tobias refused to weigh in on those remarks, or on Trump’s Muslim ban.

This single-issue stance can waver in times of national crisis. At the convention last year, NRLC outreach director Ernest Ohlhoff asked attendees to pray for the five police officers murdered in Dallas, Texas, but overlooked the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, even as protests surrounding their deaths erupted on the national scene.

“We try to be careful, in terms of, we’re very single issue,” NRLC legislative director Jennifer Popik said to Rewire at this year’s convention, referring to the group’s decision to focus on anti-choice provisions in the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, while overlooking potential loss of health care for millions.

After this reporter wrote a dispatch from the convention about the anti-choice movement’s embrace of Trump, National Right to Life News Today’s Dave Andrusko ridiculed the idea that anti-choice groups should comment on issues “that are not our province.”

“Wouldn’t you think that single-issue pro-lifers would ‘embrace’ President Trump?” Andrusko wrote.

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