Hugh Brown has just ducked off the showroom floor at the March for Life Expo inside in a downtown D.C. Marriott. The executive vice president of the American Life League has been glad-handing all day — his feet hurt, but he’s upbeat. “It seems very busy,” he says. “It’s good energy.”
And why wouldn’t it be? For the first time in 50 years, attendees of the March for Life — the anti-abortion gathering held every year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade — finally have something to celebrate. Brown, a high school football coach in his mid-fifties, welcomed the end of Roe but remains circumspect about the implications. “You could outlaw it tomorrow — it’s not going to stop abortion,” he explains. “There are still people that are going to seek abortions.”
In his view, and the view of the American Life League, abortion is a problem that won’t be solved with bans and restrictions. “There is a spiritual war going on,” Brown says. “When you have the blood sacrifice of children, you’re dealing with demonic influences, and that has to be warded against spiritually.”
Brown’s view may or may not be the consensus among anti-abortion activists, but that’s the thing: there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus at the moment about where the movement goes next.
For the last five decades, the movement had been united behind a singular goal: forcing the end of Roe and the federal right to abortion. The March for Life was a chance, every year, for tens of thousands of true believers to renew and reaffirm their commitment to achieving that goal. Then, last year, they finally did. Now, the messaging is muddled, the coalition is messy, and the path forward is less clear. For Brown’s American Life League, prayer and education are the only answers. Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, says his group is focusing its energy on the “state-by-state battles.”
The route for this year’s march was mapped with an eye toward rallying folks around a new overarching objective. Instead of trudging straight to the Supreme Court as they have in years past, marchers will take a detour past the U.S. Capitol in a symbolic gesture of their intention to bring the fight to the House and Senate — and codify a national abortion ban.
That ban won’t pass both chambers of Congress anytime soon, but they know how to wait. It took decades of lobbying state legislatures, drafting laws, filing lawsuits and protesting outside clinics and the Supreme Court before Roe was overturned. Now, activists intend to remind the elected politicians who chased their endorsements and banked their votes who, exactly, they work for. For those elected officials, the stakes of calling yourself “pro-life” have gotten much higher, with an emboldened segment of the movement pushing for ever more aggressive federal action, even as support for abortion rights grows among a strong majority of the general public.
The closest thing to a national consensus that has emerged post-Roe is a letter, signed by more than 40 anti-abortion groups, including the March for Life, Americans United for Life, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and the Heritage Foundation, with a list of disparate demands, ranging from pipe dreams (a national six-week abortion ban), to relatively minor asks (a bill that would largely replicate existing measures intended to prevent taxpayer money from supporting abortion). These measures, they wrote, “are the floor, not the ceiling, of what we expect from a pro-life majority in the House of Representatives.”
In a nod to some of their most stalwart supporters, GOP House members passed two of those on the first day of voting. (Neither is expected to be taken up by the Senate where they would have a chance of becoming law.) The first was a bill that purports to affirm the rights of infants “born alive” after a botched abortion, but which doctors say would criminalize them for offering palliative care for infants with fatal conditions. (For a sense of how popular a measure like that is with the general public, look to deep-red Montana, where a similar amendment was rejected by a majority of voters just a few months ago.) The second was a nonbinding resolution condemning violence against anti-abortion organizations.
Almost as revealing as what the new House majority passed, is what they skipped, including an anticipated vote on more stringent measures, like legislation that would prohibit abortions on federal land.
Certain members of the GOP House, meanwhile, think their colleagues’ early legislation already went too far. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) cautioned her colleagues before last week’s votes. “We learned nothing from the midterms if this is how we’re going to operate in the first week,” she told reporters. “Millions of women across the board were angry over overturning Roe v. Wade.” (Mace nevertheless voted for the measures.)
As for the movement’s new big goal? There doesn’t seem to be much appetite in the GOP House for even a symbolic vote on a federal ban. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) plans to reintroduce a bill that would ban abortion in all 50 states after 15 weeks of pregnancy, but he hasn’t gotten confirmation that Republican leadership would actually bring it to a vote. “They haven’t said yes or no,” Smith admitted to The Washington Post last week.
Even if the party united around the idea of putting that bill to a vote in the House, a 15-week ban is not enough to satisfy many of the loudest activist groups. “When I go to our 1,400 campus chapters and say, ‘We’re gonna fight for a 15-week bill’ — a weak, European type of limit — that’s not going to fly with them,” says Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life. As for those bold enough to suggest that Republicans might be wise to exercise caution, and attempt to “balance women’s rights and balance the right to life,” as Mace told reporters before last week’s votes? “She’s going to be hearing from some outraged voters very soon,” Hawkins says.
This is the tight-rope that Republicans will be forced to walk in a post-Roe world. GOP candidates who grew accustomed to making wild anti-abortion promises can no longer claim their hands are tied. And if anti-abortion groups agree on one thing, it’s that their endorsements can no longer be taken for granted: they want to see results. “There definitely is the federal role in protecting life. And we expect candidates to say that,” says Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs at the prominent anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “It’s not just: ‘back to the states’ now.”
“In this new era, checking the box and saying you’re pro-life isn’t sufficient,” Hawkins adds. “We want people who want to change with us, not just have pro-life sentiments.”
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The dynamic is already on full display as Donald Trump’s nascent 2024 bid takes shape. Students for Life and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America — stalwart supporters of the former president’s first two bids — have so far withheld their support amid reports Trump is privately agonizing about the price Republicans have already paid for restricting abortion. Students for Life will hold its first 2024 straw poll of potential 2024 GOP candidates on Saturday, an early bit of feedback to ambitious Republicans who may be considering a White House bid but have not heeded national groups’ demands.
Musgrave, a former member of Congress, understands how public opinion works. “We want to end all abortion. But we’re practical. And we know what’s doable,” she says. At the same time, she says, her organization and others are keeping their eyes on the future: “We’re working for — and anticipating — the day when we will have a pro-life president and a pro-life majority in Congress.”