Former President Donald Trump, left, speaks April 2 at a...

Former President Donald Trump, left, speaks April 2 at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a post by Trump about abortion on his Truth Social platform. Credit: The Washington Post/Joshua Lott

With abortion rights emerging as a major issue in November's presidential election, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, is scrambling to carve out a centrist position with majority appeal. It’s an ambitious gambit that should be fatally undercut by his lack of consistency and credibility but Trump has a way of defying predictions.

In a video posted to his Truth Social platform on Monday, Trump tried to straddle the anti-abortion and abortion rights divide by claiming credit for the fall of Roe v. Wade, which had enshrined a constitutional right to abortion, while insisting that leaving abortion regulation to the states is a “perfect system.” He also strongly endorsed exceptions for rape, incest, and life-threatening conditions, which are not always protected by state law, as Arizona is now confronting.  And he pointedly reminded fellow Republicans that whatever their beliefs on the issue, it was also important to “win elections.”

So far, Trump’s comments have disappointed a number of his Republican supporters, particularly anti-abortion activists who are hoping for some form of a national abortion ban, without winning him any support on the abortion-rights side. But will Trump’s attempt at abortion centrism reassure still-wavering independent or moderate Republican voters — particularly women— for whom abortion access is an important issue?

Anyone who has followed Trump’s career over the years knows that his “pro-life position” is purely opportunistic. He supported abortion rights until he got serious about getting the Republican nomination and started courting evangelicals. He came through for anti-abortion voters by putting three justices on the Supreme Court who provided crucial votes in the 2022  Dobbs v. Jackson which overturned Roe. 

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

However, Trump also quickly saw that Dobbs was hurting Republicans at the polls and wanted to neutralize that effect. He has no emotional commitment to the anti-abortion position, he often still uses abortion-rights language and talks about doing “what’s right for your family and … for yourself.” He has repeatedly warned Republicans against overly restrictive state bans.

But, in keeping with his opportunism, his own proposals for how to handle abortion have been all over the place. Not long ago, he talked about endorsing a national ban on abortion after 15 or 16 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest, or severe health risks — a proposal that would probably be acceptable to many Americans who support abortion rights, except that it would also allow for harsher state-level restrictions.

Now, Trump has backed away from that idea and committed himself to a states’ rights stance.

But many questions remain. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump would have to take a stand on state abortion laws — such as the six-week ban in Florida, where he is a legal resident. His comment so far: it’s “probably maybe going to change.” Or other controversial laws that seek to restrict women’s ability to travel out of state for an abortion, or outlaw the abortion pill. Trump would also have to answer a simple question: if a Republican Congress did pass a national abortion ban, would he sign it? So far, his reply has been to shake his head no. Eventually, he’ll have to get more explicit. And there’s an added complication, which is that no one can trust a word he says.

If Trump does win, his cynical pragmatism may persuade him to block his anti-abortion base's extreme agenda, in order, for example, to avoid Republican midterm defeats that would leave him facing a Democratic Congress. But no one who cares about abortion rights should entrust them to Trump.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME