Why Would Trump Back a 15-Week National Abortion Ban Now?

Anti-Abortion Activists Demonstrate In D.C. During Annual March For Life

Is he or isn’t he?
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One of the impressive things about Donald Trump’s quick and total victory over a large field of Republican rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination is that he pulled this off while deeply annoying one of his party’s most powerful constituencies, the anti-abortion movement. Early on, Trump began blaming anti-abortion extremism for the GOP’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections. Knowing several rivals (notably Mike Pence, Tim Scott, and Ron DeSantis) were staking out positions calling for more, not fewer, abortion restrictions, Trump rejected the national abortion-ban litmus test that many “right to life” groups were imposing on candidates for federal office. And he went out of his way to criticize some of the more restrictive state laws as a “terrible mistake.” Worse yet, from the point of view of anti-abortion absolutists, Trump cast himself as an honest broker between the contending sides on this issue, as he told Meet the Press last September:

Trump declined to say what time frame he thinks is appropriate for an abortion ban and instead insisted that he would “sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”

“Both sides are going to like me,” he added. “I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable.”

After hearing those remarks, my colleague Jonathan Chait argued persuasively that Trump’s counterintuitive positioning showed how confident he was about winning the nomination:

The Republican Party has a clear anti-abortion majority, and Trump is handing DeSantis an opportunity to wedge him away from the party’s base — especially in Iowa with its overconcentration of social conservatives. Trump would do this only if he believed the primary was effectively over and he could focus on the general election.

Chait also noted, quite accurately, Trump’s willingness to abandon unpopular Republican positions when it seemed prudent. As of 2024, Republicans are very definitely on the wrong side of public opinion on abortion policy.

So that makes his latest move on abortion surprising. With the nomination contest over and the GOP being more than ever Trump’s party to command as he wishes, he’s just now on the brink of announcing support for a 15-week national abortion ban, as the Associated Press reported:

Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that he’d support a national ban on abortions around 15 weeks of pregnancy, voicing for the first time support for a specific limit on the procedure.

The Republican former president has taken credit for striking down a federally guaranteed right to abortion by appointing three U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. As he seeks the White House a third time, Trump has refrained from embracing any specific limit on the procedure, warning it could backfire politically and instead suggesting he would “negotiate” a policy on abortion that would include exceptions for cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

But in a radio interview Tuesday, Trump criticized Democrats for not endorsing a ban that would limit abortions in states that still allow the procedure.

Unless there are details we don’t know about, it’s the very proposal anti-abortion groups tried unsuccessfully to get him to embrace during the run-up to the early caucuses and primaries. With the general election being a holy war with the now almost universally pro-choice Democrats, there seemed to be little reason for Trump to fear defections from the forced-birth crowd, particularly since these are people who revere him for keeping his promise to create a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Timing aside, the odd thing about the way Trump is talking is that he’s now combining support for a national abortion ban with continuing efforts to claim he’s somehow a compromising centrist on this issue, in AP’s account:

“We’re going to come up with a time — and maybe we could bring the country together on that issue,” Trump said while calling into the “Sid & Friends in the Morning” show on WABC.

Trump went on to say: “The number of weeks now, people are agreeing on 15. And I’m thinking in terms of that. And it’ll come out to something that’s very reasonable. But people are really, even hard-liners are agreeing, seems to be, 15 weeks seems to be a number that people are agreeing at.”

First of all, there’s actually not much “agreeing” on 15 weeks of pregnancy as the time to deny reproductive rights (Trump himself was hinting at a 16-week ban very recently). Pro-choice folk typically favor either the restoration of Roe’s fetal-viability threshold (with later abortions allowable under life-and-health exceptions) as a minimum demand, or support an unconditional right to abortion without government getting involved at all. And anti-abortion activists want abortions banned altogether, or at a minimum much earlier than 15 weeks. The “national ban at 15 weeks” idea should not be misunderstood as proposing a uniform national legal standard preempting the states. It’s a federal ceiling on legal abortion that lets states enact more restrictive laws and even a total ban. So there is absolutely no way its enactment would produce “peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years,” as Trump promised last year.

Perhaps Trump watched Nikki Haley deploy the soothing language of compromise and empathy without changing her underlying position and win an undeserved reputation for being a “moderate” on abortion. That would be great for him. But Haley was careful not to commit to specifics like a national abortion ban.

But possibly Trump hasn’t really made up his mind. Even as he talked up a national ban he seemed drawn back to the “states’ rights” position that the federal government should stay out of the issue altogether, as AP noted: “Everybody agrees — you’ve heard this for years — all the legal scholars on both sides agree: It’s a state issue. It shouldn’t be a federal issue, it’s a state issue.” Again, everybody does not agree, or the demise of Roe would not have created a national firestorm that threatens Trump and his party. But at least the states’-rights position doesn’t threaten blue-state self-determination on abortion laws, which makes it less of a presidential-campaign issue.

If Trump makes and then sticks to a firm commitment to a national abortion ban, it will definitely become a red-hot issue nationally, and particularly in the battleground states that currently have less restrictive laws than a 15-week ban, including Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and states like Arizona, which could be voting on pro-choice ballot initiatives this November. Clearly voters who favor the right to choose have no reason to trust the 45th president on this issue no matter what he says. But he seems to be inviting a fight his allies will never completely win.

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