By Katanga Johnson and Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to attend the annual March for Life in Washington on Friday, unleashing a fierce attack on his Democratic rivals during a rally in an election-year show of support for opponents of abortion rights.
“Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” the Republican president told thousands of cheering people at the rally, touting his anti-abortion policies and his appointments of conservatives to the federal judiciary including Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
Demonstrators from around the country converged on a cool, overcast day in the U.S. capital for the event held annually around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized the procedure nationwide. Many high school and college students joined in the rally.
Trump, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, addressed the event in the midst of his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate on charges passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives. While not mentioning impeachment, he assailed congressional Democrats on abortion policy. Trump drew loud applause from the crowd.
Among his most loyal political supporters are evangelical Christians, who strongly oppose abortion rights. The event took on aspects of a campaign rally, with Trump lashing out at his political opponents and some in the crowd chanting “Four More Years!”
“Sadly, the far left is actively working to erase our God-given rights, shut down faith-based charities, ban religious believers from the public square and silence Americans who believe in the sanctity of life,” Trump said. “They are coming after me because I am fighting for you. And we are fighting for those who have no voice, and we will win.”
“Democrats have embraced the most radical and extreme positions taken and seen in this country for years and decades and you could even say for centuries. Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now supports taxpayer-funded abortion all the way up until the moment of birth,” Trump said, eliciting boos and jeers from the crowd.
Trump, who years earlier had supported abortion rights, cast himself as a committed abortion opponent on religious grounds.
“We know that every human soul is divine and ever human life, born and unborn, is made in the holy image of almighty God,” Trump said.
Trump vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States. About 58% of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year.
Past U.S. presidents have opted to stay away from the march, though Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both previously delivered remarks to the rally remotely.
The Supreme Court on March 4 will hear arguments in a major case concerning the legality of abortion clinic regulations in Louisiana that could lead to new curbs on access to the procedure. The case will test the willingness of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes Trump’s two appointees, to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.
Some at the rally held signs with slogans including “Baby Holocaust,” “Most Pro-Life President Ever,” “Stop Killing Babies” and “I Am The Pro-Life Generation.” Many were from religious groups and conservative nonprofit organizations.
Among them was Anne Fitzgerald, 44, who said that at age 21 she gave up her daughter for adoption so she could finish college. She now runs Days of Tears, a Virginia nonprofit that advocates against abortion, and said she was marching to help women recognize “that in the moment of a decision between raising or aborting a child, adoption is a viable option.”
Fitzgerald said she was at first skeptical of Trump’s stance on abortion, but is proud he turned out to be “strong ally”.
Outside the Supreme Court, anti-abortion demonstrators in the march were met by abortion rights activists, some of whom held signs saying “Keep abortion safe and legal” and “Safe abortion is a human right.” There were also some activists backing Trump’s removal from office.
Emily Goodman, 33, who stood with several fellow supporters of abortion rights during the march, said the event “reeks of a form of religious fundamentalism.”
“What the pro-life advocates seem to be focused on is bussing in young people with signs to declare that their side of the argument is right and no other opinion matters,” said Goodman, who volunteers for a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “I wish there was a conversation today, involving two sides, focused on a woman’s ability to both hold her view on abortion yet not impose that view onto another.”
Trump delivered remarks by video at the 2019 march. Vice President Mike Pence attended the event in person last year.
(Reporting by Katanga Johnson, Diane Bartz, Lawrence Hurley and Jeff Mason in Washington, and Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Gabriella Borter and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Will Dunham)