Why Donald Trump is repeating a smear about Democrats wanting to ‘execute’ babies

Former President Donald Trump finally responded to criticism of his murky stance on reproductive rights on Monday and issued a video statement outlining abortion policy under a Trump second term.

The four-minute address was posted to his Truth Social media platform and proclaimed that the GOP would remain fundamentally opposed to abortion rights under his leadership.

“My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint, the states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” said Mr Trump.

He added: “Many states will be different, many will have a different number of weeks, or some will have more conservative than others and that’s what they will be. At the end of the day, this is all about the will of the people.”

In short: the former president would encourage states to set their own policies determining the extent of a woman’s right to an abortion — if it is recognised at all. Notably, Mr Trump did not say that he would reject legislation banning the practice after a certain point in the pregnancy at the national level, a key carve-out that lays the groundwork for a future rightward shift.

And Mr Trump also repeated one of his favourite smears: the claim that Democrats want abortion to be legal up until the point of childbirth, and even after a baby is born — murder of a living person, as it’s more commonly known. It’s an egregious accusation that is not based in any real policy supported by a single elected Democrat in the country, and one that seems particularly alarmist given the fact that the incumbent Democratic president appears personally uncomfortable with even using the term “abortion” and has only pledged to go as far as passing legislation to restore the federal standard under Roe v Wade, which prohibited abortion bans from taking effect before the second month of pregnancy has ended.

“It must be remembered that the Democrats are the radical ones on this position because they support abortion up to and even beyond the ninth month. The concept of having an abortion in the later months and even execution after birth. And that's exactly what it is. The baby is born, the baby is executed after birth is unacceptable. And almost everyone agrees with that,” he said in his address Monday.

Nevertheless, it’s a smear that Mr Trump and his allies on the far right, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have repeated ad nauseum over the past several years. The goal appears to be to blunt the clear headwinds Democrats have enjoyed on the issue, where the party enjoys a clear advantage over Republicans. The GOP has suffered a series of embarrassing defeats waged over abortion-related ballot measures and in races where reproductive freedoms were made into a key election issue — Tudor Dixon’s defeat in key swing-state Michigan, for example. The 2023 sweep by Democrats in Virginia’s state legislature elections solidified the feeling that the right was facing a backlash from suburban women in particular.

Mr Trump first began spreading the lie in 2019, at the time still in the third year of his presidency and reeling from his loss of control in the House of Representatives in the midterms a year earlier. At the time, the former president pursued the line of attack against Ralph Northam, then the Democratic governor of Virginia. It appeared, in 2019, to have originated with the testimony of a Democratic member of the state legislature before a committee in January of that year; Kathy Tran told her colleagues that legislation she was proposing would allow a woman to have an abortion if deemed medically necessary to save her life while she was showing signs of labour. She later said that she misspoke, as an abortion would not be pursued in that circumstance.

But the damage was done, and five years later the GOP is still attempting to convince voters that their political rivals want to murder children.

Another crucial point in his address was a full-throated endorsement of the “availability” of fertility services including IVF; the Republican Party faced a political backlash recently when the practice was temporarily banned in Alabama.

It was his latest stop on the long, winding trail of anti-abortion sentiment he has embraced since becoming the champion of America’s Maga movement, the possible culmination of a political alliance with evangelical Christians that began nearly 10 years ago. Having once referred to himself as “very pro-choice” in 1999, his positions shifted upon his entrance into national politics as he became the far-right’s champion in 2016. The alliances he forged necessitated the embrace of a conservative stance on abortion and never looking back. He would go on to be the first incumbent president to address the annual anti-abortion “March for Life” in Washington DC, even as he has never explicitly endorsed a national abortion ban or even said that he would sign one (though he almost certainly would, were a GOP Congress to pass it).

He has also infuriated some on the anti-abortion right by acknowledging the clear political challenges that Republicans face surrounding reproductive rights; his opposition to the Alabama IVF ban just the latest example. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Mr Trump privately supported a 16-week national abortion ban, though a spokesperson denied this.

“As President Trump has stated, he would sit down with both sides and negotiate a deal that everyone will be happy with,” Trump 2024 national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said in February.

For that reason Monday’s news was at once a moment of pause for both pro-choice Americans as well as the anti-abortion right, the latter of which reacted to his pledge with a mixture of disappointment and resigned acknowledgment that America’s 45th president, hardly a “true believer”, remains the president with the strongest track record of rolling back abortion rights in modern history. His contributions to a far-right conservative majority on the Supreme Court remain a point of pride for many evangelicals, even if they do not in all cases appreciate his bombastic and often-times acidic rhetoric.

The Republican Party is facing a political reckoning. Mr Trump is running for the presidency for a third time, now a more damaged candidate than ever and facing resentment from members of both parties resulting from his failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The larger GOP is seeking to retake control of the Senate after failing to do so in 2022, while facing the prospect of protecting one of the thinnest House majorities in history.

And on top of all of that is the issue of abortion, and the greater realm of reproductive freedoms. 2024 will be the first presidential election to take place since the ending of federal protections established by Roe v Wade, and the Republican candidate is on tape bragging about killing them. With the rights of patients to seek abortion care services set to be on the ballot in several states including Florida and Arizona (two major battlegrounds), the issue is set to reach a national level of importance which it has rarely enjoyed.

With Donald Trump’s announcement, it seems certain that Democrats will go on the offensive and try to tie their opponents to his words in key swing races up and down the ballot. The questions for Mr Biden are therefore simple: can his party effectively deliver that message and use it to make real gains in places like Florida, where the party saw a complete political collapse over the Trump era? And will that messaging be enough to convince voters to vote for a man who won’t even say the word?