Not all policy views are equal.
When we determine monetary policy, it’s probably a good idea to put higher stock in an economic analyst’s view explained in a reference-filled and well-structured 15-page article than in the incoherent ramblings of a self-styled Facebook/Youtube expert.
It is reasonable to expect that people who make policy, such as the President, fall closer to the former category and hold at least somewhat sophisticated views in most policy areas.
Abortion has been one of the hot-button issues of American politics for more than four decades. According to a Gallup poll conducted between May 1–13, 2020, 24% of Americans said the candidate they may consider must share their views on abortion. A further 47% said it was ‘one of many important factors’. It makes sense, therefore, to look into how good the sitting President’s view is in this important policy area.
Before we get to that, however, let me emphasize that we’re about to judge President Trump’s abortion view, not evaluate his person or his performance as president in general. This is a specific analysis, not a propaganda piece.
Let’s start by clarifying exactly what it is we’re judging.
What is President Trump’s view on abortion?
On January 24, 2020, Donald J. Trump became the first sitting president to speak at the March for Life; a major pro-life event.
That wasn’t the only time he talked about abortion. The issue was part of his speech to the Council for National Policy, as well as two of his State of the Union addresses. The abortion-related content of these appearances was, however, mostly limited to one or two talking points.
His March for Life speech (transcript here) is the only one I’m aware of where he had the opportunity to express his full view on abortion. In the rest of this article I will this speech as my primary source and proceed to analyze it from a strictly policy-focused perspective.
This means that I will ignore everything that’s cannot be used to serve as the foundation for actual real-life abortion policy. This includes
- empty rhetoric like “ raise the conscience of our nation and uphold the rights of our citizens”;
- references to other issues like pro-life students’ right to free speech;
- somewhat related but non-actionable statements like “making America the pro-family, pro-life nation…”;
- attacks on opponents along the lines of “Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, all the way up until the moment of birth.”
Thus, our job becomes assessing the quality of what’s left over after we remove these elements from President Trump’s speech.
(If you’re only interested in the President’s final score, feel free to skip the next section).
How to judge policy view quality?
I dedicated a series of articles (ending with this one) to the construction of a model that contains every relevant component of the abortion debate.
One benefit of the resulting model is that we can turn it into a measuring tool with little extra work. All we have to do is assign scores to each element.
Let’s start with the final, big-picture version.
The line down the middle divides Figure 1 into two parts: three big-picture elements at the bottom and four that make up the top. Let’s start with the former, for which I propose the following scoring system.
- Ideal & Priority: 3 points if completely developed and openly disclosed; 2 if somewhat developed; 1 if mentioned; 0 if not mentioned.
- Process: 2 points if the view contains at least two separate points about how it was arrived at; 1 if mentioned without details; 0 if not mentioned at all.
Thus, Ideal, Priority, and Process can net the holder of a policy view a maximum of 8 points.
For the four remaining components we need a more sophisticated breakdown.
I propose a simple scoring system that awards 1 point for each group of Impacted People identified; 1 for each specific Solution; 1 for each variable in the Circumstances category; and also 1 point for each simple fact within Knowledge.
Complex facts such as the relationship between abortion and crime require a much deeper understanding and should therefore be worth more. I propose 2 points, 1 of which may be awarded if the view holder demonstrates some knowledge in that area.
Similarly to complex facts, identifying exactly how each group of people is impacted is no easy task. There are often multiple angles to consider, so a detailed understanding is surely worth 1 extra point per group.
In our case of abortion, the 8 groups of People Impacted, 11 specific Solutions, 9 variables dictating Circumstances, and 16 pieces of Knowledge (10 of which are complex facts) yield a potential total sub-score of (8*1+8*1) + (11*1) + (9*1) + (6*1+10*2) = 62 points.
This brings the highest achievable score on abortion to 62+8=70 points.
So how good is President Trump’s view?
I found no reference to what President Trump’s ideal is regarding abortion. I also saw no indication of how high priority he thinks abortion should be when compared to other policy issues. Furthermore, I noticed zero mention of how he arrived at his view and what biases he encountered along the way (not to mention an explanation for the shift from his earlier pro-choice stance).
So out of the total 8 points allocated to big-picture components, the POTUS gets 0.
At the same time, there is evidence of his awareness of abortion’s impact on some people.
- The fetus’s right to life seems to be a central piece of President Trump’s view. This mostly manifests in religious references such as “Every child is a precious and sacred gift from God. Together, we must protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life.” He does not, however, refer to the fetus’s quality of life or anything that would signal a sophisticated understanding. His score on this sub-component is 1 point.
- President Trump also made a passing reference to people looking to adopt: “We are preserving faith-based adoption”. Let’s be generous and reward that with 1 point.
With respect to solutions, the only one he demonstrated awareness of is funding: “I reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy, and we issued a landmark pro-life rule to govern the use of Title X taxpayer funding.” This will net him 1 more point.
Regarding circumstances, he does make a passing reference to “prohibiting late-term abortion”. As he provides no further detail on the the trimester framework or on how gestation period affects the conversation, let’s settle for a somewhat generous 1 point.
President Trump does not display much in the way of policy-specific knowledge beyond one reference to the fetus’s ability to feel pain. He doesn’t even indicate any awareness of the frequency of late-term abortions (estimated at around 1% past 21 weeks) he himself found important enough to mention. Still, let’s award him 1 point for knowledge.
And that’s about it for a combined total of 5 points out of 70. Mathematically speaking, President Trump’s view on abortion is low quality.
If you scroll up to Figure 2, you’ll see just how much is missing from it. To single out a few points, he does not mention the mother at all, makes no explicit references to policy solutions, and shows no indication that he’s aware of the vast amount of knowledge available.
In the President’s ‘defense’
At the same time, President Trump is not a policy expert. He is a politician. And as a politician, he is not in the business of promoting highly sophisticated policy views. His main goal is to retain power, for which he needs votes.
And let’s be honest here: the vast majority of the voting public is not interested in hearing a boring speech full of specific elements of a highly complex and sophisticated view.
On the other hand, we’re very much interested in emotionally appealing rhetoric devoid of specifics; personal stories; and tribalism-fueled references to a righteous side (us) and the dark side full of bad or at least misguided people (them).
(In case you need additional evidence for this, just check where the crowd booed or applauded during the very speech we analyzed.)
Consequently, the POTUS is hardly responsible for his underdeveloped view on abortion. We are.
Politicians, just like companies, will give people what they want. The moment highly sophisticated opinions on policy issues will get them elected, they will shift how they speak and think. Or, at very least, they will try.
Personally, I believe that this shift would be a great development. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your arguments. If you agree, let’s start getting there by holding politicians accountable for the quality of their policy views.