Donald Trump has become the first sitting US president to directly address the March for Life anti-abortion rally in Washington DC as his administration continues to roll back more Obama-era abortion protections.
Mr Trump said he was “honoured” and “proud” to be addressing the march. “The March for Life,” he said, “is a movement born out of love ... you love every child born and unborn because you believe every life is sacred, that every child is a precious gift from God.”
When introducing the President, Vice President Mike Pence called Mr Trump “the most pro-life president in American history”.
“My friends, life is winning in America,” Mr Pence said. The Vice President was the highest-ranking official to address the rally last year. Former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush spoke to the marchers by phone.
Carrying signs with phrases such as “Pray to end abortion”, more than 100,000 anti-abortion activists descended on the National Mall in the nation’s capital for the March for Life. The event has taken place each January since 1974 – a year after the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade that affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion at most stages of a pregnancy.
“As you all know, Roe v Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world,” the President said as he criticised the ruling. Mr Trump has promised to nominate more federal judges who oppose abortion with the hope that the ruling will eventually be overturned.
Mr Trump’s speech also contained a blunder: “Right now in a number of states the laws allow a baby to be born from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month. It is wrong; it has to change,” he said.
Mr Trump has become an unlikely champion of the pro-life movement. He has a history of expressing support for abortion rights, but he changed his tune during the presidential campaign, ostensibly to gain the support of social conservatives and abortion opponents.
In an interview in 1999, when he was still a real estate magnate in New York City, Mr Trump said that while he “hated the concept of abortion”, he was “very pro-choice”.
The March for Life coincided with new moves by the Trump administration to roll back abortion protections.
On Thursday, it announced it was expanding religious freedom protections for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who object to performing procedures like abortion and gender reassignment surgery. The new protections are aimed at addressing long-held concerns that religious people could be forced to comply with laws and regulations that violate their religious beliefs.
The move also included the creation of an oversight entity within the Department of Health and Human Services called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
The department said it would create the division within its civil rights office to give it “the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom”.
“The federal government has hounded religious hospitals ... forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences,” Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said. “Medical students, too, have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences.”
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate health committee, said the administration was using the civil rights office as “a tool to restrict access to health care for people who are transgender and women”.
Additionally, the Trump administration has rescinded legal guidance by the administration of his predecessor Barack Obama that had sought to discourage states from defunding organisations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood condemned Mr Trump’s participation in the rally, noting in a statement that abortion has been legal for more than 40 years.
Mr Trump and his administration have been “laser-focused on using their power to control women’s bodies,” the organisation said.
The March for Life rally came a day before Mr Trump’s one-year anniversary as president, an event that will be marked by women’s marches in cities across the US, including Washington DC. The first women’s marches were held last year on the day following Mr Trump’s inauguration. Millions of people showed up to the events to protest Mr Trump, who they viewed to be an opponent of women’s rights and reproductive freedom.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies