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The captivity of the pro-life movement to the character of Donald Trump is a crucial aspect of contemporary abortion politics. But maybe not quite in the way suggested by Trump's recent decision to publicly distance himself from his pro-life supporters by refusing to endorse national restrictions on late-term abortions.

That refusal was a sign of the anti-abortion movement's political weakness but not necessarily a major blow to its cause. The contemplated legislation was unlikely to pass the Senate no matter what stance Trump took, and positioning the GOP as a defender of state-based regulation usefully focuses abortion opponents on their most important challenge: defending the abortion restrictions that are already on the books in conservative states, and finding ways to win over the voters who have turned against the pro-life side in every post-Dobbs referendum — with Arizona looming as the next battleground now that its Supreme Court has upheld an 1864 law that bans nearly all abortions.

The problem for pro-lifers is that these efforts at persuasion have become markedly less effective over a timeline that overlaps closely with Trump's takeover of the Republican Party. The captivity of abortion opponents, in this sense, isn't about the specific policy stances that Trump might choose and that they might then have to reluctantly accept. It's about the ways in which a Trumpist form of conservatism seems inherently to make Americans more pro-choice.

For most of my lifetime, public opinion on abortion was fairly stable, leaning pro-choice but with a strong pro-life minority and a lot of people in the middle expressing support for some restrictions but not others. But since the mid-2010s there has been a clear shift in favor of abortion rights: More Americans support abortion without restriction that at any point since Roe v. Wade was handed down.

You can tell various stories about these numbers that do not implicate Trump himself. For instance, America has become notably less Christian and less socially conservative, and maybe it stands to reason that as the country turned left on issues like same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization, it would swing left on abortion as well.

Or again, it was clear that Roe was threatened well before Dobbs was issued, so maybe it was the prospect of abortion being back in the political arena that focused the minds of abortion moderates and made them more solidly pro-choice.

Or yet again, the last eight years coincide with a trend toward disconnection and depression among younger Americans, a special increase in anxiety and unhappiness among teenage girls, and the seeming alienation of the sexes from each other. In such a social and psychological environment, maybe abortion access seems more necessary, as a form of protection in a harsher social world.

I believe in versions of all these explanations; the world is a complicated place. But I also think there is a reason that if you look at the trend toward pro-choice-without-exceptions sentiment, across several different polling sources, the shift seems to accelerate right around 2016.

Before 2016 Americans had already become more liberal on issues like same-sex marriage without abortion polling changing all that radically. Before that year, Americans had also already experienced a sustained challenge to Roe v. Wade, when President Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court appointees seemed poised to overturn it — and while that threat did create a spike in pro-choice sentiment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was smaller than the surge in the Trump era.

The trends in anxiety and alienation among young people, meanwhile, show their sharpest break earlier in the 2010s, several years before the bigger shift in abortion opinion seems to start.

So what does coincide with that bigger shift? Well, the rise of Trump. And one does not need to be a monocausalist to see how the identification of the anti-abortion cause with his particular persona, his personal history and public style, might have persuaded previously wavering and ambivalent Americans to see the pro-life movement differently than they did before.

If you set out to champion the rights of the most vulnerable human beings while promising protection and support for women in their most vulnerable state, and your leader is a man famous for his playboy lifestyle who exudes brash sexism and contempt for weakness, people are going to have some legitimate questions about whether they can trust you to make good on your promises of love and care.

With that kind of standard-bearer, the accusations of your opponents — that your cause is organized more around repression than protection, more around hypocrisy than high ideals — are going to carry more weight. And some people who might have been your allies, who share your general moral worldview, are going to find reasons to dissociate themselves from your political project.

Crucially, some people might even think less of the pro-life movement in this way, or trust it less with policymaking, while still casting a vote for Trump. For instance, certain voters might like his toughness toward their enemies, his un-PC assault on woke and feminist politesse, without wanting that harsh style to be applied toward abortion policies that might affect them or their families. They might prefer Trump over, say, Nikki Haley on foreign policy or immigration, while also tilting more pro-choice than they would under a Haley-led GOP — because you want the tough guy building the wall but not deciding on the trimester limit.

To this kind of analysis, Trump's staunchest supporters come back with two responses: How can you say he's been bad for the pro-life movement, when he's the one who actually delivered the end of Roe? How can you complain about his effect on pro-life political strategy, when he's now the one trying to find a more pragmatic and persuasive abortion stance, while activists alienate voters by championing the most absolute bans?

The answer is that many things can be true at once. Trump did deliver on his judicial promises to pro-lifers, and in his craft and cynicism he is more attuned to political reality than some anti-abortion activists and leaders. Indeed there are ways in which a pro-Trump but not pro-life conservative could reasonably complain that the pro-life movement can't be his captive, because he's the one who's hostage to unpopular anti-abortion ideas.

But he is also a cause of their increased unpopularity, an instigator for the country's pro-choice turn — because the form of conservatism that he embodies is entirely misaligned with the pro-life movement as it wants and needs to be perceived.

That's the price of the bargain abortion opponents made. The deal worked on its own terms: Roe is gone. But now they're trapped in a world where their image is defined more by the dealmaker's values than by their own.

Ross Douthat joined the New York Times as an Opinion columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger on its website. He is the author of several books and the film critic for National Review.