The Coming Battle Over the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Future

OOn a clear, cold weekend in January, thousands of anti-abortion activists gathered in Washington for the March for Life, their annual gathering. This was an uplifting mood. It is expected that the U.S. Supreme Court will reduce or even overturn the situation in the coming months. Roe v. WadeThe 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave birth to the Constitutional right of abortion. For nearly half a century, anti-abortion activists have been fighting to achieve this day. Three days later, the protestors danced and prayed in the streets.

The weekend had tension beneath the surface. Since its inception, this well-organised, mostly grassroots movement has sought to unify diverse sections of American society around their cause. They have been able to do so for many decades: Catholics and Black protestants, Hispanics and some conservative Democrats. The movement’s goal is now in sight. However, there are many ideas among the various factions about the future of this movement.RoeHow the world may look and what it could be like.

Anti-abortion activists are promoting messages of female empowerment and civil rights. They call for stronger social security nets that support mothers and their babies. Others, however, are more concerned with banning abortion. They believe passing legislation that criminalizes it and disincentives providers will be more effective in achieving their goal to eliminate the practice nationally. There’s a fracture between anti-abortion absolutists, who want to outlaw all abortions as soon as possible even if their laws are not upheld, and incrementalists, who see more limited bans as ways to appeal to public or judicial opinion while moving toward the end goal of eliminating abortion nationwide.

At the same time, a bevy of right-wing groups—Christian nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and white-power extremists—already flourishing in a Republican Party shaped by Trump, see a political opportunity in recruiting and proselytizing among the movement’s splintering ranks, says Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist who has been critical of the party’s rightward lurch in the Trump era. The GOP uses the power and influence of local and state governments to resist abortion and cultural changes like teaching LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, and teaching LGBTQ about people all over the country.

Expect the Supreme Court to make a ruling on Roe by this summer—just months before the 2022 midterms. Legal experts believe that almost any decision the court makes will allow states to have more control over access questions. State and local anti-abortion organizations are pushing for laws to ban abortions and penalize those who assist patients in obtaining them. At this critical political moment, it’s hard to predict the impact of a Court ruling on the upcoming elections: the effort could galvanize Republican voters, energize Democrats, or both.

For all the anticipation of the court’s decision, advocates and scholars alike say it’s also difficult to predict where the energy of the movement will go if Roeis struck down. “Overturning Roe v. Wade will not be the end of the pro-life movement,” said Michael Knowles, a conservative commentator and final keynote speaker at the National Pro-Life Summit in January. “It will only be the beginning.”

There have been many strange and wonderful bedfellows in the past

It isn’t new for the anti-abortion community to feel tension. Early opposition to abortion in the 19th century was driven in part by concerns that it would curtail the births of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, while allowing others—at the time, Catholic immigrants—to replace them demographically. Well into the 1980s and ’90s, anti-abortion terrorists had ties to white, antisemitic groups and borrowed tactics from the Ku Klux Klan.

The problem of keeping extremists out of mainstream anti-abortion groups has been a challenge for many years. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, anti-abortion groups sought to used language designed to have broad, moral appeal—invoking comparisons to the Civil Rights movement and the Holocaust, says Jennifer Holland, an associate history professor at the University of Oklahoma, who studies the anti-abortion movement. “For a lot of conservative white people, a civil-rights movement for fetuses was this compelling way to re-narrate white conservatives not as segregationists, but as abolitionists,” Holland says. “Unlike other socially conservative movements, they really have co-opted the language of the left.”

After RoeThe rhetoric used by the antiabortion movement to promote a Constitutional amendment that bans abortion completely. They were then forced to regroup after that failure. Republicans used abortion to rally voters. The movement then turned its attention to a shorter-term goal: to push GOP legislators for incremental laws to restrict abortion access. In the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, states passed hundreds of restrictions mandating waiting periods, excluding abortion from insurance coverage, and adding onerous requirements for abortion clinics that caused them to close. A second longer-term objective was for Republican presidents to nominate antiabortion conservatives onto federal and appellate benches and, especially, to the Supreme Court with the goal of ultimately overturning Roe.

Anti-abortion violence brought negative attention to the movement in the 1990s. Activists adopted language that focused on women’s rights. In 2020, March for Life selected the slogan “Life empowers: pro-life is pro-woman.” Mississippi’s Attorney General Lynn Fitch last year used a similar phrase—“empower women, promote life”—to embody her approach to defending her state’s anti-abortion law that is at the center of the case before the Supreme Court.

“We’re all equal in dignity regardless of skin color, disability status, socioeconomic background or stage of life—including the earliest stages in life,” March for Life President Jeanne Mancini said at this year’s January gathering, looking out at a sea of signs brandishing quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., declaring that keeping a baby is empowering, and comparing abortion to slavery.

Mancini and her staff carefully chose this year’s theme, “equality begins in the womb,” to relate to recent national conversations around racial injustice. Several speakers at the March likened the movement to Black Lives Matter and the fight for gender equality; Mancini herself decried abortion as the “single most critical human rights abuse of our time.”

This message strategy is particularly effective among youth. Students for Life of America was founded in 2006, and has over 1,200 chapters across all 50 states. The group partnered with conservative and powerful groups in order to organize its first National Pro-Life Summit. In January 2020, more than 2000 youth activists signed up for the training. While the majority of Americans ages 18-29 support the right to abortion, the issue often isn’t a priority; in contrast, young people who oppose abortion are often passionate about the issue.

Bailey Travis, a white student from Ball State University in Indiana who says she’s concerned about both racism and abortion, attended a a panel at the January summit called “Black Lives Matter from Womb to Tomb.” She was pleased to hear the message that abortion was harmful for Black people specifically. “I was really happy to see it because I grew up in a multicultural family and so being able to find a relationship between the two [movements] is really promising for the future,” she says.

Lauren Marlowe is a Social-Media Coordinator at Students for Life. She frames her objection to abortion as a commitment to equality and feminism. It bothers her, she says, when women say they wouldn’t have been able to have their careers if they hadn’t had an abortion. “There’s no way that equality can come from taking the rights away from an entire people group like that,” she says.

The Supreme Court has made a fundamental change

It is all about the rush to bring down Roe Three conservative Supreme Court justices were added during Trump’s presidency, which caused panic. Republican-led legislatures competed to become the state that would overturn Trump’s presidency. Roe,New, ambitious anti-abortion legislation was introduced that could have been dropped just a few decades ago. Georgia, Kentucky (Louisiana), Mississippi, Ohio, and Mississippi passed laws in 2019 banning abortions once fetal cardio activity can be detected. That is approximately six weeks after the start of a pregnancy. Alabama passed laws banning nearly all abortions without any exceptions for rape and incest. Missouri also provided no rape or incest exceptions in a law banning abortion after eight weeks—and expecting that its law would be blocked, it included bans on abortion at 14 weeks, 18 weeks and 20 weeks in the same bill.

The apotheosis of this change was the Supreme Court’s announcement last May that it would consider the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. The Court’s decision to take up the case was extraordinary on its own: the Mississippi law is so clearly unconstitutional under current precedent that every lower court, including the famously conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, had rejected it. This seemed to indicate that the Court was ready to reconsider. Roe.

Again, state lawmakers followed their lead. In the past year, Texas banned abortion after about six weeks, using a new private-enforcement mechanism that has so far made the law impossible to block, even though it contradicts the court’s decision in Roe. The Texas Supreme Court shut down the final avenue for abortion providers to challenge this law. Idaho also passed a six-week ban. Florida and Arizona recently passed 15-week bans modeled on Mississippi’s law. Oklahoma is moving a host of abortion restrictions, including two different bills that would use the Texas-style enforcement and one that would ban abortion after 30 days from a woman’s last menstrual period, effectively banning all abortions. Kentucky legislators are currently considering legislation that would ban abortion providers from the state and completely close them off. And in Missouri, lawmakers have introduced bills that would treat the delivery or shipment of abortion pills as drug trafficking, ban abortions for people with ectopic pregnancies—putting their lives at risk in the process—and employ Texas’s private enforcement mechanism that allows individuals to sue each other, to prevent residents from leaving the state to obtain an abortion even where it is legal. After public protest, the lawmakers removed the provision on ectopic pregnancies.

“States are really pushing up to the edge of what’s possible in anticipation and expectation of what may happen with Dobbs,” says Sue Liebel, state policy director at anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, referring to the Supreme Court case over Mississippi’s abortion law.

If the Supreme Court reverses RoeTwelve states already have abortion laws that could be implemented almost immediately. Nine other states, however, have written laws that prohibit the practice that they can implement in a matter of months. Thirteen states already have abortion access laws, and those remaining could face a more difficult battle. “For the past 15 years at Students for Life, we’ve been building towards a strategy of getting this pro-life generation built up, getting them trained and experienced on the ground, to be ready on that day the Roe decision comes down,” says Kristan Hawkins, the group’s president and founder.

Many leaders in the movement say they want to make abortion not just illegal but “unthinkable” in the future. If they don’t, then there will be more unplanned pregnancies. RoeThey have launched public awareness campaigns to raise funds for crisis pregnancy centres, pushed colleges to provide better services to pregnant and parenting students and promised to lobby the states for policies to support families and mothers. “We’ve got to expand our thinking about what we can and should do through law and policy to foster a stronger and more life-giving America,” says Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL).

Preparing for a ‘post-Roe world’

As the Supreme Court decision draws near, many of these thoughts are being drowned in by extreme anti-abortion policies that are being promoted in states. “It’s not just that there’s sort of an insurgency in the anti-abortion movement, it’s that folks who have that point of view have the ear of legislators in a lot of places, and sometimes are actually legislators in places,” says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who specializes in the history of abortion law. “You have less of an ability for the national movement to control what’s coming out of states.” Despite many anti-abortion advocates’ rhetoric about increasing support for families, Republican-led states have so far passed limited legislation to do so, opting mostly to fund abortion alternatives programs that give money to largely faith-based crisis pregnancy centers. Last year saw 108 restrictions on abortion passed by states, which is the most since 1973.

The past saw anti-abortion groups being able to distinguish themselves from other fringe supporters through alliances with Republican politicians. They tended to adopt a more genteel tone with respect to gender and race. Trump created a narrower space. Dog whistles became direct insults. Threats escalated. While the GOP used to represent several major ideologically aligned groups—fiscal conservatives, national defense hawks, and anti-abortion advocates—that’s no longer the case. The current Republican Party platform is not built on pro-actively creating a socially conservative society so much as as wielding the power of government to stop cultural changes, like access to medical care for transgender kids and educating children about “divisive concepts.” Empowering private citizens to sue abortion providers has become empowering parents to sue their child’s school for teaching about LGBTQ people.

The National Abortion Federation reports that abortion clinics saw an increase of vandalism in 2020. Anti-abortion activists were present at Capitol. In January’s March for Life, Marjorie Taylor Greene (far-right) stood beside other Republican legislators on the mainstage as the crowd cheered. Numerous white nationalist groups were present at the march.

Some abortion opponents are alarmed by the presence of extremists within the anti-abortion movement’s big tent. Destiny Herndon De La Rosa (leader of the New Wave Feminists) confronted Patriot Front, a white-nationalist group. The March for Life’s Mancini issued a statement condemning “any organization that seeks to exclude a person or group of people based on the color of their skin or any other characteristic” and saying “such exclusion runs counter to our mission which recognizes that all human lives are equal from the moment of conception.”

But Herndon-De La Rosa says she has been disappointed by the movement’s embrace of Trump, and notes the D.C. rally was hardly a one-off. Patriot Front, along with other groups, have been at various anti-abortion protests. “If we are marching and we are saying that all lives have dignity and value, and we are welcoming people that don’t believe that,” says Cherilyn Holloway, founder of Pro-Black Pro-Life, “then I think that you’re doing a disservice to the overall cause.”

Although the presence of extremists may make some anti-abortion leaders feel uncomfortable, they show no sign of dissociating from the Republican Party and its Trump-inspired alliance anytime soon. Although state laws might be most important right now, anti-abortion leaders still want abortion to be legal in all 50 states. They will also need a new national strategy. RoeThis is a long-term goal. “Probably the easiest way you get to abortion being illegal everywhere is if the Supreme Court says that abortion is unconstitutional. And again then you need a partner that will confirm and nominate the right kinds of people to get to that outcome,” says Ziegler.

Democrats almost unanimously support abortion rights and the antiabortion movement has stood firm with Republicans for many years. The post-Trump era will continue as long as Trump continues to be the GOP’s favorite.RoeThe future will likely follow.

“The pro-life movement is now essentially operating in service of the MAGA movement, because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go,” says Sarah Longwell, a GOP political strategist who founded the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project. “If that’s their only issue that matters to them, they likely will accommodate—they clearly have accommodated—lots of other bad behavior.”

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