RESEARCH: The Four Most Likely Ways Trump Will Talk About Abortion During the Presidential Debates
To: Interested Parties
From: NARAL Pro-Choice America
Date: September 28, 2020
Even if there isn’t get a direct question about abortion in the upcoming debate, Trump is likely to bring up the topic. Here’s what to know about his strategy and how to see through his disingenuous tactics.
SOME BACKGROUND: Since 2016, Trump has deliberately weaponized the issue of abortion as a distraction from his many failures. Trump and anti-choice leaders openly admit to having a fundamentally transactional relationship, and as NARAL has documented, Trump has learned to pivot to attacks on abortion to rile up his most extreme supporters or create chaos in the media whenever he feels most threatened.
Ever since Republicans lost big in the 2018 election, Trump has increasingly leaned into extreme anti-choice rhetoric, making abortion disinformation a staple at his rallies. Though he mentioned abortion in just one campaign rally in 2017 and in eight rallies in 2018, last year he attacked reproductive freedom 31 times. He has already matched that number in the few rallies he has hosted in 2020. And that pace is picking up. It’s fair to expect him to continue to emphasize aggressive anti-choice rhetoric throughout the campaign, and particularly, at the debates.
HIS STRATEGY: Trump does not talk about abortion because it’s a political winner for him. Instead, Trump leverages these attacks because he believes they will go unanswered and is relying on that. He sees abortion as an issue where he can stop playing defense on his many scandals and leadership failures, and instead be perpetually on offense. This tactic only works if he can convince Democrats not to push back.
DEMOCRATS’ ADVANTAGE: The reality is that Democrats have public opinion firmly on their side. 77% of Americans support Roe v. Wade, and even those people who say they wouldn’t personally choose abortion for themselves still strongly oppose the GOP’s one-size-fits-all restrictions—recognizing that bans and restrictions on abortion hurt real people making the best decision for their circumstances.
Vice President Biden is well-positioned to speak authentically to voters on this issue. Trump and other Republicans’ arguments about abortion are designed to block listeners from thinking about the people impacted by the issue. But voters are compelled by candidates who approach this conversation with empathy. Our research has shown that encouraging people to think about how reproductive freedom matters to real people’s lives can have a powerfully positive impact on these conversations, re-centering the conversation on the people who are affected by anti-choice laws and de-escalating the tension that Trump and Republicans are deliberately working to create.
This works because it undermines Trump’s tactics on two levels: combatting the fear-mongering that he relies on as a distraction from his other failures while exposing the cruelty of his anti-choice agenda. It can also be an avenue to connect to other key issues where Trump’s many failures, especially when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, are on full display.
BE AWARE: As mentioned above, extreme anti-choice disinformation has become a staple at Trump rallies, so even if he’s not asked about abortion at the debate, he’s likely to find a way to weave it in. Trump is likely to deploy outlandish rhetoric about Democrats supporting abortion in the “ninth month,” “after-term” abortion, or “execution.” Remember, these characterizations have no basis in fact, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by the media. They are a shock-and-awe tactic designed to discourage Biden and other reproductive freedom advocates from engaging on this issue where they have a natural advantage.
BOTTOM LINE: Trump’s incessant fearmongering about abortion is meant to distract all of us from the fact that reproductive freedom is overwhelmingly popular, and so he’s not called to account for his own failures as a leader on critical issues like COVID-19 or for his own unpopular stance against reproductive freedom. It’s important for the press to be able to call his bluff and ensure that the stories of real people who should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their families remain part of the conversation.
For more detailed information on how his attacks may play out and the powerful ways you can respond, see below.
MORE DETAIL: Trump’s Standard Attacks on Reproductive Freedom
We’ve conducted extensive research into all the ways Trump talks about the issue of abortion. Though he’s likely to throw out some extreme language and outrageous attacks, his attacks will generally center around a few key themes. Here are most likely ways that conversation will play out:
TACTIC 1: Attacking Biden’s stance on Roe v. Wade as “extreme”
TRUMP’S TACTIC: Trump knows people already see him as an extremist, so his only hope is to drag Biden down to his level. In order to manipulate people into believing that Biden and other Democrats are “extreme,” he will point to Biden’s support for reproductive freedom and his belief that Roe v. Wade should stand—despite the fact that 77% of Americans (including much of the Republican party) support Biden’s position, not Trump’s.
WHAT HE SAYS:
- “Democrats have declared their unlimited support for extreme late-term abortion.”
- “Democrats are now the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, socialism, and blatant corruption.”
- [Referring to New York’s move to codify Roe at the state level] “I don’t know if you saw, it was so horrible and so extreme what the Democrats in New York, you saw what was happening, they’re all applauding. It was so horrible, so horrible, that you gained 11 points in the poll.”
THE REALITY: Biden, like the vast majority of Americans, cares about protecting reproductive freedom for every body.
The vast majority of Americans support reproductive freedom and trust women and pregnant people to make decisions about if, when, and how to raise a family. Women and families know that their ability to get ahead depends on their ability to plan their own families and control their own futures. To millions of Americans, this isn’t an abstract fight about social issues—these are bread and butter issues that affect their ability to continue their education, hold down jobs, and plan for their futures.
TACTIC 2: Using Graphic Terms to Talk About Abortion Later in Pregnancy
TRUMP’S TACTIC: Expect Trump to attack Biden’s support for reproductive freedom in the most disingenuous and dramatic terms possible, most likely using graphic language and inaccurate hypotheticals that focus on abortion later in pregnancy.
Note that these attacks typically conflate two separate issues: 1) demonizing people who need access to abortion later in pregnancy while hiding the fact that such cases often involve serious health complications or serious fetal diagnoses and require empathy, not judgement, or 2) the Republicans’ recent attempts to block parents from choosing palliative care in cases where infants will not live for long. He may also push the disinformation that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam supports “infanticide,” though of course that is wildly inaccurate, and will likely go so far as to claim that Democrats support actual murder of infants and children, using phrases like “after-birth execution.”
REMEMBER: Whatever Trump says, these claims are inaccurate and are a sign of desperation on his part. He uses this tactic when he feels vulnerable and wants to try to turn the focus in a different direction.
WHAT HE SAYS:
- “require taxpayers to fund extreme late-term abortion.”
- Democrats will “allow and fully allow infants to be ripped out of their mother’s wombs.”
- “this is far beyond late-term abortion.”
- “we’re not even talking about during term, we’re talking about after-term abortion.”
- “He supports taxpayer-funded, extreme late-term abortion.”
- “And I mean, ninth month.”
- “Democrats have declared their unlimited support for extreme late-term abortion, ripping babies straight from the mother’s womb right up until the very moment of birth.”
- “Late-term and even after term, if you think, if you look at the Governor of Virginia, he said, ‘The baby is born.’ And then really, I guess you call that an execution because we’re not even talking about during term, we’re talking about after-term abortion.”
THE REALITY: Refusing to let Trump erase pregnant people and the realities they experience from the conversation puts Biden and other Democrats firmly in line with what most voters believe—that when people are making complicated, personal decisions, one-size-fits-all restrictions don’t work.
It is downright cruel and a slap in the face to the American public that President Trump is deploying dangerous disinformation as part of a blatant power grab. Trump is once again eager to interfere with difficult, complicated family decisions that we all hope to never find ourselves facing while exploiting disinformation about these devastating circumstances in order to score cheap political points.
ON LATER ABORTION: Trump’s comments do not reflect how medical care works. He’s talking about a fake situation in order to mislead voters about what’s true and real. Don’t help him do that. Abortion later in pregnancy is extremely rare (<2% of all cases) and almost always because something in the pregnancy has gone seriously wrong. When it comes to abortion or pregnancy loss, politicians can’t know what every woman and her family is going through. One-size-fits-all restrictions only hurt real people in devastating situations.
ON SO-CALLED “BORN ALIVE”: The term ‘born alive’ is not a term rooted in science or reality. Not only does Trump’s reasoning completely mischaracterize abortion care, his disinformation opens the door to allowing politicians to interfere with family decisions about palliative care for an infant who tragically won’t survive for long. These families are making the best decision they can in heartbreaking circumstances. The myth that Trump peddles is cruel to families facing deeply difficult situations and reveals a desire to tie families’ hands and curb their ability to decide what care or path forward is best. Parents facing these situations often want to spend this very limited time with their infant comforting them. Politicians shouldn’t force medical intervention when families are trying to peacefully say goodbye to a child who cannot survive. The disinformation vilifies families and the doctors who care for them and wildly misleads the public about these rare and complicated scenarios.
TACTIC 3: Attacking Biden for being “anti-Catholic” or perpetuating “religious bigotry”
TRUMP’S TACTIC: Trump may attempt to drive a wedge between Biden and religious voters, while simultaneously making the case that any objections that Biden or Democrats may raise to his Supreme Court nominee are illegitimate.
REMEMBER: For decades, the Radical Right has worked to disingenuously paint Democrats as being anti-religion. This tactic has historically been used to justify Christian conservatives’ right to discriminate against others on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. In fact, Republican politicians’ frequent claim that “religious freedom” is under attack has roots in the Republican Party’s efforts to maintain school segregation in the 1960s.
WHAT HE SAYS:
- “[Biden has] pledged to wage attacks on Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor.”
- “He’s pledged to wage attacks on Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor. You saw that. We support them and we support the Little Sisters of the Poor and we’re doing very well in that support.”
- “He’s pledged to wage attacks on Catholic organizations, like the Little Sisters of the Poor that we’re helping and we’re winning with them.”
- “Today I am identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues, and mosques as essential places that provide essential services.”
- “They want to crush religious liberty. They don’t want religion.”
THE REALITY: People of all faiths embrace reproductive freedom, and often tie their religion to their ability to have empathy with other people’s complex situations and the thoughtful decisions they make with the support of people they love and trust.
Pro-choice Catholics and other people of faith know that empathy and kindness are at the heart of their faith tradition and believe in ensuring women can make the best decisions for their lives, and treating them with empathy. The bottom line is that, however someone may feel about abortion, it is not others’ place to decide for someone else whether or when they should become a parent. Everyone should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their families according to their own religious or moral beliefs and conscience.
TACTIC 4: Disingenuous Claims That Republicans are the Party That Cares About People Because they’re “Pro-Life” (& Ignoring Attacks on Racial Justice, Immigration, Healthcare, COVID, Family Separation…)
TRUMP’S TACTIC: Because Trump knows that accusations of immorality, indecency, and lawlessness are a liability for him, he may attempt to unfairly undermine Biden’s own credentials. He’s likely to attempt to use Biden’s support of reproductive freedom as “evidence” of his moral superiority.
REMEMBER: Trump believes he can use attacks on abortion as a way to deflect legitimate criticisms of the harms of his administration is doing. In reality, this tactic erases the people he has harmed through his cruelty, negligence and failed leadership WHILE ALSO erasing the needs and experiences of pregnant people (especially Black women who seek abortion care) from any conversations about their own healthcare and lives.
WHAT HE SAYS:
- “Democrat leaders talk about moral decency, but they have no problem with stopping a baby’s beating heart in the ninth month of pregnancy.”
- “And we will always protect patients with preexisting conditions. Healthcare is a big, big part of what we’re doing.”
- Recently, prominent Republicans have deflected from meaningful conversations about racial justice by claiming abortion is the “real” racism—it’s possible Trump will make this pivot too. This sounds like: “Black Preborn Lives Matter” or “Confront the systemic racism of America’s abortion practices”
THE REALITY: Trump’s record makes clear his lack of concern or empathy; he has relentlessly attacked or abandoned millions of Americans, especially those on the front lines of this health crisis, who are disproportionately BIPOC. That’s why it’s important to raise the necessary questions about Trump’s record and his plans to attack reproductive freedom.
Don’t forget to ask about what the end of Roe would look like for real people: If abortion bans are upheld by the Supreme Court, how will they be enforced? Will people be thrown in jail for having an abortion or miscarriage? What kind of interrogation would somebody be subjected to in order to investigate how a pregnancy ended? Would somebody who had an abortion or who experienced a pregnancy loss serve jail time for it?”