The GOP’s “Softened” Abortion Platform Is a Ruse

Republicans’ nod to enshrining “fetal personhood” paves the way for a national abortion ban.

Former President Trump has said he'd leave abortion rights "to the states" if re-elected—but the new draft Republican Party platform says the quiet part out loud. Gerald Herbert/AP

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If you read coverage of the Republican Party platform in major news outlets lately—the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Fox News, for example—you may come away with the impression that the GOP has “softened” its stance on abortion.

That is, in fact, exactly what Republicans would like you to think. It’s also wrong.

The new platform doesn’t explicitly spell out the party’s desire to enact a national abortion ban, which many major news outlets took as evidence of the alleged “softening.” It’s also shorter—only four sentences long—and far less detailed than the anti-abortion platforms of the party’s past, which opposed public funding for organizations that perform abortions and promoted the appointment of anti-abortion judges, among other measures.

But according to legal experts, the new platform does pose an insidious threat to abortion rights by hinting at enshrining the concept of “fetal personhood” in the law—a long-running goal for the right—which would amount to a de facto national abortion ban. It also peddles contradictory promises, such as seeming to promote fetal personhood while also pledging support for IVF, which involves the disposal of embryos and would therefore be functionally impossible alongside fetal personhood.

Read it for yourself:

We proudly stand for families and Life. We believe that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that no person can be denied Life or Liberty without Due Process, and that the States are, therefore, free to pass Laws protecting those Rights. After 51 years, because of us, that power has been given to the States and to a vote of the People. We will oppose Late Term Abortion, while supporting mothers and policies that advance Prenatal Care, access to Birth Control, and IVF (fertility treatments).

The Fourteenth Amendment, which addresses the rights of citizens, is what the Republican platform has cited as the key to fetal personhood since 1984, when the party first articulated its support for “legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.” And, lest you forget, just last month, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have protected contraception access at the federal level and blocked another bill that would have protected IVF.

So if you’re confounded by the GOP’s promises to leave abortion rights to the states and suddenly support access to contraception and IVF, you’re not alone. “I think the strategy is to be confusing,” Mary Ziegler, a leading abortion historian and law professor at the University of California, Davis, told me, adding, “I think that Trump’s hope is that he can be confusing enough that everyone, regardless of their views on abortion, can vote for him.”

Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law whose scholarly work has focused on reproductive rights, told me she sees the new platform as “100 percent, a commitment to fetal personhood,” adding that she believes it also relies on “constitutional ignorance” over how the Fourteenth Amendment could be marshaled to enact a federal abortion ban.  

Confusion over what to make of the platform also appeared to be present on the right, where some anti-abortion advocates praised the platform, while others lambasted it for not going far enough for their liking.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement Monday in response to the platform, “It is important that the GOP reaffirmed its commitment to protect unborn life today through the 14th Amendment.” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, celebrated the platform’s reference to the Fourteenth Amendment as “an open door to passing strong pro-life federal legislation”; she also noted that she and others advocating for the passage of the Life at Conception Act are “using the Fourteenth Amendment to justify why abortion, all abortion, should be ended throughout our country.” But Hawkins also said the updated RNC platform was “disappointing” in casting abortion as a state issue.

Also in the critical camp were Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who called the new platform “a profound disappointment to the millions of pro-life Republicans” and urged delegates to “restore language to our party’s platform recognizing the sanctity of human life and affirming that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” and Lila Rose, president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, who characterized the latest anti-abortion platform as “downgraded” from those of years past—and blamed Trump for approving it and trying to walk back his anti-abortion stances.

The Biden campaign also blasted attempts to characterize Trump as easing up on abortion: “Donald Trump has made it clear with his own words and actions what he will do if he regains power—rip away women’s freedoms, punish women, and ban abortion nationwide,” campaign spokesperson Sarafina Chitika said in a statement. (As I’ve reported, Trump could also enact a nationwide abortion ban via the Comstock Act, which his acolytes at Project 2025 have urged him to marshal to ban mail delivery of medication abortion.)

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, praised the new Republican National Committee platform. Trump campaign national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said in a statement, “President Trump has long been consistent in supporting the rights of states to make decisions on abortion.”

But spokespeople for the Trump campaign and the RNC did not immediately respond to Mother Jones’ questions on whether Trump and the GOP more broadly support fetal personhood in law, how they square their claim to back expanding contraception and IVF access with Senate Republicans blocking votes on those issues last month, and how they respond to Republican critics like Pence.

As Ziegler sees it, evading questions about the platform’s details is likely a strategic move. “Being vague is technically a ‘softening’ over being clear and pro-personhood—but primarily, it’s a question mark,” she said. “If we don’t know what it means, it might not be a ‘softening’ at all.”

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