January 20

By Kaia Hubbard

When abortion opponents gather in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life to mark 50 years since the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, their sights will be set on the Capitol – a departure from their decades-long route to the Supreme Court, which just months ago gutted the decision that established a right to an abortion.

But where the movement was met just last year with an amenable conservative supermajority of justices on the brink of overturning the 1973 decision, handed down 50 years ago on Sunday, the legislative path forward this year is murky at best – and the movement’s hold on the Republican Party splintering.

In the wake of the political earthquake that was the overturning of Roe v. Wade – a watershed moment that shook up the midterm elections and drove hoards of people to the ballot box – “a brand new pro-life movement” has emerged that has its sights set beyond Roe, seeking to end abortion nationwide. But after the decades-long chase for the proverbial white whale and, with it, a unifying goal, the Republican Party and anti-abortion activists appear disjointed and directionless in a stunning contrast to just a year ago.

For the anti-abortion movement, overturning Roe was only step one – though it took nearly 50 years and a coordinated effort to systematically and incrementally see its demise. The ultimate goal, advocates agree, is more than to just make abortion illegal, but also unthinkable.

Getting there is another story.

“Having shifted from one major front, where the strategy was to overturn Roe,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told reporters earlier this week, the messaging now is about “how ambitious you can be.”

Even so, 50 years after Roe was decided and months after it was gutted, a fracture between those who oppose abortion and those who perhaps see it as a necessary political evil has seemed to complicate the path forward.

Some political strategists warned Republican candidates against weighing in on abortion, opting for more palatable topics like inflation and crime as the midterms drew near. When Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, proposed in September a prohibition on abortion beyond 15 weeks of pregnancy, many of his GOP colleagues balked at the idea, the timing of which came squarely between the high court’s decision and the midterms, and looked to distance themselves so as not to fall prey to Democratic messaging that claimed they were seeking to impose a national ban.

The threat was a formidable one, as what Republican candidates had perceived to be an inevitable “red wave” never materialized in the midterms. And as exit polls and analysts pointed to abortion as the GOP’s downfall, the party – and the movement – looked for where to place the blame.

In the days following the election, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel addressed the hesitancy among political consultants to put abortion at the forefront of their candidates’ campaigns, criticizing them for instructing GOP candidates to shy away from the subject. Prominent anti-abortion groups that spent tens of millions of dollars on the issue likewise argued that the disappointing results came because Republican candidates did not take things far enough, employing the “ostrich strategy” of “putting their head in the sand and hoping the reality goes away” when it came to abortion.

“We had inside-the-Beltway, swamp-like consultants informing candidates that they can stay away from this issue, that this is going to be harmful to them,” Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins says. “Our messaging throughout the summer, throughout the fall was if you run from the abortion bully you do so at your own peril. And that’s exactly what we saw on Election Day.”

In contrast, the groups and leaders argued that those who had taken strong stances on abortion – like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – performed well, while others attributed their success to a mix of factors, including their incumbency and other policies.

But then there were those on the other side, who pointed to extreme abortion policies as the GOP’s downfall. Even former President Donald Trump, who became the darling of pro-life circles when he all but secured Roe’s fall with the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices, waded into the conversation this month, arguing that abortion – not his influence – was to blame for the poor GOP showing in the midterms while suggesting that some in his party were too extreme on the issue.

Just last week, the divide – between those who see abortion as a strength or a hindrance to their political fortunes – was again on display. Republicans in the House brought forth a pair of messaging bills that anti-abortion leaders have called the “bare minimum,” but a handful of GOP lawmakers balked at the decision to pursue legislation on the issue so quickly after the outcome of the midterms.

“We learned nothing from the midterms if this is how we’re going to operate in the first week,” Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina told Politico. “Millions of women across the board were angry over overturning Roe v. Wade.”

Indeed, several polls have suggested that the majority of the public disapproved of the high court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And seven months after the decision, nearly a third of women of reproductive age in the U.S. fall under an abortion ban in 12 states or severe restrictions in a handful of others. But some proposed restrictions that had been expected to pass were fended off in and ahead of the midterms by voters in states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan, where voters opposed anti-abortion ballot measures. Other state courts blocked abortion bans that would have taken effect in Roe’s absence.

Supporters of abortion rights, too, have perhaps unsurprisingly criticized Republicans for continuing to pursue abortion restrictions in light of pushback from some voters in November’s elections.

“Despite the fact that the midterms proved that voters across the country want abortion to remain legal, abortion opponents are continuing to try to ban abortion nationwide,” Jennifer Dalven, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union told reporters this week, pointing to an effort to reverse the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a drug used in medication abortions.

Medication abortion has become a new battleground in recent months, as the Biden administration has looked to expand access to the FDA-approved drug used to terminate early-stage pregnancies, while anti-abortion groups have sought to block access. A group in Texas recently brought a challenge against the FDA’s decision to approve a drug in 2000 used in medication abortion, which accounts for more than half of abortions nationwide.

Despite a limited ability to get things done in Congress, anti-abortion groups see opposition to abortion pills as a way to combat the procedure at the federal level despite policymaking paralysis in Washington.

“When it comes to talking with legislators and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., we’ve heard comments even from Republican friends that, you know, ‘Our job is done. Suddenly abortion is no longer this federal issue, it’s only a state issue.’ But that’s absolutely wrong,” Hawkins says.

Those groups opposed to abortion are also turning an eye to 2024, with the goal of electing a president who will establish a “federal minimum standard” for abortion, or a nationwide ban, despite the Supreme Court’s decision to send the decision on the procedure back to the states.

Who that leader is remains to be seen.

After Trump’s comments about abortion’s role in the midterms, for which he received fierce pushback from anti-abortion groups, the former president took things a step further this week, bemoaning evangelical leaders who have not supported his latest White House campaign.

“Nobody has ever done more for right-to-life than Donald Trump,” Trump told the conservative media outlet Real America’s Voice. “I put three Supreme Court justices, who all voted, and they got something that they’ve been fighting for … Roe v. Wade. They won. They finally won.”

Other 2024 hopefuls, like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, have said abortion should remain up to the states, while DeSantis has promised to do more to “expand pro-life protections” and former Vice President Mike Pence has gone the furthest, putting his support behind a national abortion ban.

But for those among the anti-abortion movement, earning their backing to become the 2024 Republican nominee – or any elected representative – may require even more.

Hawkins says that in this new, post-Roe era, merely saying you’re pro-life is “not enough.”

“There’s no get-out-of-effort free card anymore,” she says. “That court roadblock has been removed – which the route of the march changing to end at the Capitol, not the court, demonstrates. We’re requiring action.”