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(LifeSiteNews) – Former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign angered leading pro-life voices this week by reportedly deemphasizing abortion in private comments, then appearing to disavow national action on abortion by leaving it for the states to decide.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Trump is privately “telling advisers that he believes [the abortion issue] is a difficult one for Republicans and not something he should focus his time on,” and that pro-life leaders were frustrated by Trump’s failure to raise the subject at all during a recent donor retreat.

“His silence spoke very loudly to the pro-life movement,” Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins told the Post. “We were pretty disappointed.”

In response, Trump 2024 spokesman Steven Cheung declined to answer whether the former president supports the 6-week abortion ban recently signed by his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, instead issuing a statement that “President Donald J. Trump believes that the Supreme Court, led by the three Justices which he supported, got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level.” The statement also took credit for Trump’s appointment of three of the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer.

“He will continue these policies when reelected to the White House,” Cheung added. “Like President Reagan before him, President Trump supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.” (In fact, Ronald Reagan, who backed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion nationwide, did not support rape or incest exceptions.)

The answer drew reactions from various pro-life leaders, groups, and figures. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser called Trump’s “states-only” position “morally indefensible” and vowed to “oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard.” Americans United for Life, without mentioning Trump, advocated “hold[ing] presidential hopefuls to the standard of supporting a national Pain Capable Abortion Ban.” Live Action president Lila Rose declared that Trump “has DISQUALIFIED himself from the nomination of our nation’s pro-life political party.”

The Post report also recounts a private event in New Hampshire where DeSantis reportedly answered a question about how to succeed as a pro-life candidate in more moderate states “by saying that abortion is an issue that is now in the purview of the states” while “acknowledg[ing] that what resonates in Iowa may not resonate in New Hampshire.” The account does not clarify whether this was a descriptive statement of the current political reality or an expression that abortion should be left to the states. However, while in Congress DeSantis had a 100% pro-life voting record, which suggests the former.

The conflict highlights the uncertain political waters Republicans are trying to navigate in the wake of Roe’s fall, which some, including Trump, have tried to blame for the party’s underperformance in last fall’s midterm elections, as well as the ongoing debate over Trump’s role as a once and (potentially) future leader of the GOP.

The 45th president entered GOP politics from an unlikely background as a “very pro-choice” New York liberal who claimed to have converted on life in 2011. To assuage doubts about his reliability on the issue in 2016, Trump pledged his support to a list of specific pro-life policies, turned to the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation for a list of Supreme Court nominees to choose from, and employed pro-life personnel such as Kellyanne Conway and Roger Severino to ensure pro-life executive actions.

As president, Trump delivered a generally pro-life record, including the aforementioned Roe reversal and numerous actions to cut off federal funds to the abortion industry. At the same time, his Justice Department never moved to prosecute Planned Parenthood over its organ-harvesting scandal first exposed in 2015, despite requesting documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee on the matter in late 2017.

It remains to be seen how his latest comments will affect Trump’s standing among evangelicals, who were considered vital to his 2016 victory, particularly when combined with discontent over his mixed record on LGBT issues, as inadvertently highlighted recently by his son Donald Jr.

Trump currently leads national polls for the Republican presidential nomination by a substantial margin, though DeSantis (who has not yet announced his candidacy but is expected to do so when Florida’s current legislative session concludes) remains competitive in state polls and fundraising.