Donald Trump tracks left on abortion. Will GOP primary voters follow?

Donald Trump says his position on abortion is the same as Ronald Reagan’s – OK in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. But that ignores Reagan’s history on abortion, which led the former president to become an ardent foe.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greats the crowd at the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Des Moines.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Chuck Todd asked this of Donald Trump: “Should some form of abortion always be legal?”
 
 “Well, to me, I have exceptions. Rape, incest, if the mother is going to die,” Mr. Trump replied. “And Ronald Reagan had those same exceptions. And many Republicans have those same exceptions.”

Other GOP presidential candidates have said pretty much the same thing (Chris Christie, for one), although the more typical response these days – going into the primary elections and caucuses, where socially conservative activists play an important role – is a firmer antiabortion declaration, especially given the recent hoo-hah over Planned Parenthood.

On CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said officials in Paraguay were right to deny an abortion to an 11-year-old girl who’d been raped by her stepfather.

But if what Trump said on “Meet the Press” is going to be the billionaire developer and reality TV star’s standard response to one of the most important issues to social conservatives (gay marriage is the other), then he needs to brush up on the former president and Republican icon’s history on abortion.

In 1967, just months into his first term as governor of California (and six years before the US Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade), Mr. Reagan signed the “Therapeutic Abortion Act,” which allowed for abortion in cases involving rape, incest, or where the pregnancy would threaten the physical or mental health of the woman.

The number of abortions quickly jumped in California, particularly as abortion-rights advocates and like-minded doctors zeroed in on the “mental health” provision as a now-legal reason to perform abortions. How could that be specifically defined under law?

“From a total of 518 legal abortions in California in 1967, the number of abortions would soar to an annual average of 100,000 in the remaining years of Reagan’s two terms – more abortions than in any US state prior to the advent of Roe v. Wade,” the conservative National Review reported in a 2008 piece titled “Reagan’s Darkest Hour.”

As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has written, Reagan was torn by his decision to sign the “Therapeutic Abortion Act” – he got conflicting advice from his top aides, and Nancy Reagan is believed to have had a more liberal view. And when he saw the instances of abortion soar in his state (and other states follow suit in liberalizing abortion law), he became ardently antiabortion.

In 1984, the Human Life Foundation published Reagan’s book “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” a collection of essays by prominent abortion foes with an introduction by then-president Reagan in which he writes, “We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life—the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life.”

For Trump, Sunday’s comments on abortion likely is part of his effort to get beyond the “war on women” charge tied to what were perceived as his crude, misogynistic comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly when she aggressively questioned him during the recent GOP presidential debate.
 
On “Meet the Press,” he also said: “I understand the importance of women. I have such respect for women. I have many executives in my organization that are women that, frankly, get paid more than many of my men executives. They’ve done great with me.”
 
On abortion, Trump’s position in fact seems more in line with the American public than the rhetoric preferred by social conservatives.

By 75-22 percent, a large majority of those polled by Gallup say abortion tied to rape or incest should be legal. A CNN/ORC poll finds an even wider margin (83-14), including 76 percent of Republicans approving legal abortion in cases of rape or incest.

But when Trump invokes the name of Ronald Reagan as a way of justifying his position here, he’s wrong.

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