The anti-abortion super PAC, Women Speak Out, helped boost the number of pro-life women Republicans to 22 in the House and 3 in the Senate. “Now begins the hard work of getting a return on that investment,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. Founded after the 1992 “year of the woman” sent a record number of pro-choice women to Congress, the SBA List spent years trying to build credibility to counter Planned Parenthood and the network of groups on the other side. The 2014 election results highlighted this younger generation of activists as major players in what promises to be a lively revival of abortion-based politics and policies.
“Abortion-centered feminism is dead,” Dannenfelser told a crowded press conference at the National Press Club on Thursday morning. “It’s the most important thing I’ll say today.” She noted the casualties on the Democratic side, a string of senators who campaigned on women-centric platforms, heralding the move away from “traditional Jane Fonda feminism” to the historic legislative moment that SBA List and its allies believe exists with a “common-ground” bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks.
Republicans in the newly sworn-in House introduced the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” on the first day of Congress, and a vote on the measure is scheduled for January 22, when tens of thousands of activists will be in Washington for the annual March for Life rally. The measure will easily pass the GOP-controlled House, but its fate in the Senate is less certain. Reaching a filibuster-proof 60 votes is a big hurdle, and any bill that reached President Obama’s desk would face a veto.
Undeterred, Dannenfelser cited the history of the Partial Birth Abortion ban, which President Bush signed into law in 2003 after its passage in some 30 states and an earlier veto by President Clinton. Thirteen states have passed pain-capable or similar legislation, with more expected to follow. A Washington Post poll in July 2013 found that 64 percent of Americans would support a 20-week ban; 27 percent would not. The United States is one of only seven nations that allow abortion beyond 20 weeks, Dannenfelser said, citing North Korea, China, Singapore, Vietnam, Canada, and the Netherlands.
What Dannenfelser calls common ground is anathema to pro-choice groups. In a dueling press conference, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards briefed reporters at the National Press Club on Wednesday. She called the 2014 midterms a “non-voting election” with turnout of 36 percent, a record low. In every competitive Senate race, “anti-choice politicians ran from their record,” she said, and in some cases presented themselves as champions of women’s rights.
“One of Cory Gardner’s mail pieces looked like we made it,” Richards exclaimed, holding up a bright-pink flier bearing a picture of a birth control packet so reporters could see it. The Republican handily defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado in part by downplaying his advocacy for “personhood” legislation, which would confer full constitutional rights on a fetus from the moment of conception; Gardner also called for the over-the-counter sale of birth control pills. Asked if common ground could be found there, Richards appeared dubious, pointing out it wasn’t that long ago that insurance companies did not cover birth control. “We can thank Viagra for that,” she added. Now that insurance companies have been shamed into covering birth control, Richards said she does not want women to lose insurance coverage if the pills are sold over the counter.
The anti-abortion movement is in the spotlight now as restrictive measures are weighed on Capitol Hill, and GOP-controlled legislatures and state Houses around the country enact more anti-choice measures. Asked about regulations that have forced dozens of abortion clinics to close in Texas, Dannenfelser defended the regulations as a safety precaution that Planned Parenthood should applaud, instead of condemn, even as she conceded, “Every abortion clinic should close, yes.”
A reporter noted that closing every abortion clinic would not end the demand for abortion, that women would try to abort on their own or would go to substandard clinics. “Would you prefer that to having legal clinics?” the reporter asked. For a moment, Dannenfelser seemed to be caught off balance. The anti-choice movement does not like to be confronted with the end goal of many of its adherents, which is overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal.
“We don’t have consensus now where we can think of closing every abortion clinic,” she said finally. “I’m alluding to a vision of what life could be like where every child conceived is welcomed to the world.” Pressed on Roe, which Supreme Court watchers say is one vote away on the nine-member court from being overturned, she declined to predict when that might happen. A Republican winning the presidency in 2016 might hasten the day, but in the meantime the strategy is, according to Dannenfelser, “Instead of direct overturning in one day, a refining downward until Roe becomes irrelevant.”
The Supreme Court in Roe ruled abortion legal until “viability,” defined as 24 weeks, or when a fetus could survive outside the womb. Given the poll numbers favoring a 20-week ban, the burden is on Planned Parenthood and its allies to convince the public that this decision should be made between a patient and her doctor, not by a legislature. “The right to abortion is seen in this country to be a fundamental right of women,” says Richards. Yet in the lead-up to 2016, anti-abortion activists have staked out ground they can potentially win on, putting supporters of abortion rights on the defensive for now in this fight with no end.