Opinion: Trump gave evangelicals Dobbs. They don’t seem satisfied.

An attendee at the Conservative Action Political Committee convention in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 24, 2024. Donald Trump is the reason in vitro fertilization is now a contested issue, and his stated support for IVF is less important than what key parts of the Republican coalition want, Jamelle Bouie writes. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

It is very clear that Republicans were caught off guard this month by a decision the Alabama Supreme Court issued that has jeopardized access to in vitro fertilization treatments in the state, because of its conclusion that frozen embryos are “extrauterine children” and that IVF clinics can be held liable for their destruction.

When asked for his thoughts, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, one of the state’s two Republican senators, struggled to give a coherent answer. “We need to have more kids. We need to have an opportunity to do that, and I thought this was the right thing to do,” he said, seemingly unaware of how the decision might limit access to fertility treatments. “People need to have — we need more kids, we need the people to have the opportunity to have kids,” he went on.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador now running for the Republican presidential nomination, made several attempts to answer questions about the ruling. When asked about the decision last Wednesday, she said that she believed that “an embryo is considered an unborn baby,” affirming the court’s conclusion. When asked again the next day, however, Haley said that she disagreed with the ruling. “I think that the court was doing it based on the law, and I think Alabama needs to go back and look at the law,” she said.

Facing the questions of IVF and fetal personhood Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas told CNN that it was a “complex” issue. “I’m not sure everybody has really thought about what all the potential problems are, and as a result no one really knows what the potential answers are,” he said.

One Republican who was not caught flat-footed was Donald Trump, who quickly declared his support for IVF in a post on Truth Social. “Like the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Americans, including the VAST MAJORITY of Republicans, Conservatives, Christians, and Pro-Life Americans, I strongly support the availability of IVF for couples who are trying to have a precious baby,” he said.

Later, during a rally in South Carolina, Trump called on the Alabama Legislature to find an “immediate solution to preserve the availability of IVF” in the state.

One way to understand this move is that Trump wants to pivot to the center and distance himself from the most vocally anti-abortion Republicans. The question of in vitro fertilization gives him a chance to do so. But as he attempts to moderate his message, it is important to remember two facts. The first is that Trump is the reason IVF is now a contested issue. The second is that what Trump says is less important than what key parts of the Republican coalition want. And what key parts of the Republican coalition want is fetal personhood.

There’s no question that the Alabama decision would not have been possible without the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which revoked the constitutional right to an abortion. In doing so, the court gave states and state courts wide leeway to restrict the bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom of Americans, in the name of protecting life.

That the Dobbs decision would threaten IVF was obvious from the moment the Supreme Court released its opinion in June 2022. That’s why, toward the end of 2022, Senate Democrats introduced a bill to protect the right to use in vitro fertilization. It did not come up for a vote.

If there is no Alabama decision without Dobbs, then there was no Dobbs without Trump. He nominated the three justices who formed the Dobbs majority along with three other Republican appointees. That is why Trump’s attempt to paint himself as a defender of IVF rings hollow. He is essentially trying to position himself against his own record.

This raises a question. Why was Trump such an anti-abortion hard-liner? The answer is easy: because he was a Republican president specifically indebted to conservative evangelicals and anti-abortion activists for his victory in the 2016 presidential election. In particular, Trump’s promise to stack the federal judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular, with anti-abortion jurists helped him consolidate conservative evangelical voters in the midst of scandal and controversy. And as he makes his third run for the White House, conservative evangelicals remain the most pivotal group in the coalition that is fighting to win him another term in the White House.

When asked in December who they would support in the 2024 Republican primaries, 55% of white evangelical Republicans said Trump. Fifty-three percent of white evangelicals backed Trump in this year’s Iowa caucuses; 70% of white evangelicals backed him in the New Hampshire primary; and 71% backed him in the South Carolina Republican primary on Saturday.

What’s important, for thinking about a second Trump presidency, is that fetal personhood is the next battlefield in the anti-abortion movement’s war on reproductive rights, and conservative evangelicals are among those groups waving the standard. As one such activist, Jason Rapert of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, told The New York Times regarding the Alabama court decision, “It further affirms that life begins at conception.”

At least 11 states, The Washington Post notes, have “broadly defined personhood as beginning at fertilization in their state laws.”

It does not matter whether Trump rhetorically supports access to IVF treatments. What matters is whether he would buck the priorities of his most steadfast supporters and veto a bill establishing fetal personhood across the United States. Given his record — he’ll sign pretty much anything his Republican allies send to the White House — we can be relatively sure that he wouldn’t.

Presidents are shaped as much by their political parties as they shape them. Trump’s enormous influence on the direction of the Republican Party should not occlude the extent to which he will act on behalf of his coalition if given another term of office. And when it comes to actually making laws, what a coalition wants is often more important than what a president says.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.