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Trump, seeking support, headlines anti-abortion rally in Washington

Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump speaks during the annual "March for Life" rally on the National Mall, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Washington.
Image Credit: (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
January 24, 2020 - 9:00 PM

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump threw his arms around America's formidable anti-abortion movement Friday, making history as the first sitting president to ever address the annual March for Life rally in person and starkly illustrating a fundamental political distinction between Canada and the United States.

Trump, anxious to buttress his bona fides with the evangelical Christian voters so pivotal to his 2016 election win, ascended a stage in the shadow of the Washington Monument and within sight of Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were taking part in the president's ongoing impeachment trial.

"They are coming after me because I am fighting for you, and we are fighting for those who have no voice," Trump said to lusty, sustained cheers, giving the gathering the flavour of one of his famous "Make America Great Again" rallies.

"We will win, because — we all know how to win, we all know how to win. We've been winning for a long time."

The notion of a leader using abortion of all things for cover from the tumult of a partisan firestorm would surely make Canadian heads spin — particularly just three months removed from a federal election where the mere whiff of the issue cost Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer a shot at forming government, and ultimately his job.

"That is a question we ask ourselves all the time — why is it almost like a right to be able to speak about abortion (in the United States)?" said Jeff Gunnarson, the national president of the Toronto-based anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition.

"It's expected to be a part of any election platform down here, and in Canada it's far from that."

That's not to say that public attitudes towards abortion are all that different north of the border, said Gunnarson, who led a contingent of about 40 Canadian activists down from Toronto to attend Friday's rally, many of them wearing red ball caps emblazoned with the slogan, "Make Canada Pro-Life Again."

The fact that it makes some in Canada — and, by association, many members of Parliament — politically queasy does not necessarily reflect the way Canadians feel about it, he added.

"So it's never going to go away — the fact is that there's no peace on this issue. It's certainly not settled in Canada, and in the States for that matter."

Like so many things with Trump, the president's own position on abortion has been a moving target since he got into politics. Despite having described himself as "pro-choice in every respect" in a 1999 interview, he won the support of social conservatives in 2016 by declaring he now opposed abortion except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life was in danger.

There were signs of a break in that alliance late last year, when the newly impeached president lost the support of the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today, which published an explosive editorial accusing Trump of "profoundly immoral" conduct and called for his ouster.

But there was little outward evidence on the National Mall of any shaken faith Friday. Pro-Trump flags, placards reading "Most Pro-Life President Ever" and those familiar red hats were out in force, rivalled only by anti-abortion sentiments and Bible passages. Trump campaign operatives could be seen gathering signatures and handing out signs that urged others to join mailing lists.

At first, attendance for Trump's speech appeared relatively scant —maybe a few thousand. But on the other side of the security gauntlet of metal detectors and Secret Service agents, several thousand more were jammed together, cheek-by-jowl, in what by then was a futile attempt to see the president speak.

"We must protect, cherish and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life," Trump declared from the stage, reading from his TelePrompTer. "Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House."

Kyle Etzel, a 28-year-old seminary student from St. Paul, Minn., made the trip to attend Friday's rally for the first time. Before Trump arrived, he acknowledged the controversies that seem to constantly surround the president as he suggested that for many American voters, the fight against abortion is the ultimate priority.

"An imperfect co-operation with God's will is still some co-operation," Etzel said. "I don't think you have to buy into something whole-cloth to be able to be here and to support life. I'm glad we're getting the extra press."

Just last week, he noted, Pope Francis told a group of bishops at the Vatican that "the right to life is the pre-eminent issue of our time, especially here (in the U.S.)," Etzel said.

As for what he was expecting Trump to say, Etzel smiled ruefully.

"You never know what you're going to hear," he said. "Hopefully it's focused on the reason we're here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2020.

—Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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