The pro-life community was looking forward to Thursday, when the House was scheduled to vote on the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act"—a bill that would ban abortions for women over 20 weeks into pregnancy—as the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion protest, was descending on the National Mall.
For a brief, beautiful moment in time, the legislators and activists were to align in their quest to further restrict abortion access in America—but it all came crashing down. Infighting among social conservatives in Congress—in a sense emblematic of broader disorganization within the movement—led to the cancellation of the vote, forcing the march to soldier on, directionless.
Specifically, female GOP lawmakers in the House fought against a provision in the bill concerning rape: if a woman wanted to circumvent the ban because her pregnancy was the result of a rape, she would be required to provide a police report as proof of rape—suggesting that unreported rapes are illegitimate. (The Justice Department estimates that 68 percent of rapes are not reported to authorities.) Such a redefinition of rape, many House Republicans (reportedly mostly women) realized, would open lawmakers in swing districts up to potentially devastating attacks from Democrats and women's groups come 2016.
Instead, the House passed a substantially weaker version of the bill that would make federal funding for abortions permanently illegal (it has been effectively illegal since 1977, when the Hyde Amendment first took effect.)
But none of that seemed to matter at the time warp that is the March for Life.
"I feel strongly in the sanctity of all life," Debbie, a native of Fairfax Virginia, told me as she protested alongside her 16-year-old-son, Joe, who has accompanied her to the march, as well as to protest outside abortion clinics, for the last four years.
Joe held a red-and-white sign that read "CHOOSE LIFE THAT YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN MAY LIVE," which featured a white fetus, roughly the size of his head, made of felt.
"I don't think preventing pregnancy is necessarily good," Debbie said when I asked if she supported birth control as a means of preventing abortion. "I understand your logic, but don't agree with it…life is precious."
Dave Banaszak of Ohio told me he has been coming to the march for so long, he can't even remember when he started. "I believe in respect for the sanctity of all human life," he told me. He then explained that because I was born after Roe v. Wade, I am "a survivor."
Banaszak told me he worries about birth controls that are actually "abortifacients," a term he believes accurately describes Plan B and IUDs. Told that neither of those forms of birth control could cause spontaneous abortion (although the FDA's outdated description of Plan B has caused confusion as to whether or not it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a uterus) Banaszak looked at me skeptically and asked, "Are you a medical professional?"
The March for Life is a sea of thousands of Debbies, Joes, and Daves, nuns and priests, and school-age children who for some reason are not in school and instead wield signs almost as big as their bodies that read: "LIFE COUNTS," and "DEFEND LIFE."
If you were to take away the homemade signs and fetus action figures, the March for Life would still look like a time warp of mom jeans and hairstyles from 1974, the year of the event's founding.
Social conservatives once monopolized political debate in America, but recent years have seen their issues take a back seat to the economy and foreign policy. Not helping matters is their loss on the issue of gay marriage: 36 states now have legal same-sex marriage, and only 14 still have bans.
The movement now seems slightly lost: would-be presidential candidates, save for the evangelical verging on theocratic types, rarely discuss social issues. And even when they attempt to take socially conservative-yet-moderate positions, they sometimes find themselves confusing the whole movement further.
Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul came out in support of Plan B, accurately stating that it was not an abortion pill. The problem was that Paul himself, in 2013, introduced legislation that would define life as beginning at conception. Were such a proposal to become federal law, it wouldn't matter if Paul wanted Plan B to be legal, because he wouldn't have any say in how his law would be interpreted at the state level.
Perhaps because the social conservative movement has struggled to find its new platform, issues like abortion and "traditional" marriage have been discussed by mainstream politicians mostly within the confines of social conservatives—not that they're always fighting over the podium there.
At the Family Research Council's conference ahead of Thursday's march, former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who has hinted at another run for the White House, was the headliner. The only current officeholders to address the (small) crowd were Senators James Lankford and Lindsey Graham.
The latter expressed dismay that the attempted redefinition of rape had eclipsed the issue of late-term abortion: "We need to find a consensus position on the rape exception…. The rape exception will be part of the bill. We just need to find a way definitionally to not get us into a spot where we're debating what legitimate is. That's not the cause. We're not here debating legitimate rape. We're talking about saving babies at 20 weeks."
But the whole day wasn't a bust for the social conservatives. Breitbart News reported that, according "multiple eyewitnesses," counter-protesters wielding signs reading "ABORTION ON DEMAND WITHOUT APOLOGY" were arrested for "crowding, obstructing, or incommoding."