Victorious but Wary, Pro-Life Movement Views the Post-Election Landscape

Pro-life leaders say the Republican sweep gives them an opportunity to roll back legal abortion — but others warn the movement risk gains by not investing in their own alternatives to Planned Parenthood.

(photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — A hard-fought election cycle has brought many in the pro-life movement to new heights of optimism, firmly convinced that, under President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress, they will finally be able to roll back legal abortion.

But other leaders in the pro-life grassroots warn that the movement needs to expand heavily at the cultural level, in order to end abortion — and not simply take it off the books — in the United States. 

Among the pro-life leaders celebrating the Republican control of the White House and Congress was Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who steered the Trump campaign’s pro-life advisory committee. In a statement, Dannenfelser called the 2016 election “an historic moment for the pro-life movement.”

She said four goals, which Trump pledged to fulfill, are now in reach: enacting the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act; establishing a permanent government-wide ban on public funding of elective abortion; defunding Planned Parenthood; and appointing pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are poised to make the biggest executive, legislative and judicial advances for the protection of unborn children and their mothers since Roe v. Wade was decided,” she said.

Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life Committee, also celebrated the election’s outcome in a statement, noting that Trump had “never backed down on his opposition to abortion,” while Hillary Clinton and the national Democratic Party lost the election after taking “the most extreme abortion position possible.”

Democrats for Life of America Executive Director Kristan Day said Trump’s victories in the traditional Democratic working-class strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania proved national Democratic leaders were destroying the party’s political future thanks to their failure to “respect the social conscience of pro-life voters” because millions of them would not support candidates that back the “severe party platform on abortion.”

“Americans want to see wages rise, and they want to see more people protected with health insurance, and they want to protect the environment,” Day said, “but they absolutely do not support abortion on demand.”


Pro-Life Bipartisan Majorities

Election Day saw pro-life bipartisan majorities hold in both houses of Congress. House Republicans, who overwhelmingly identify as “pro-life,” lost a handful of seats, but easily kept a 239-192 majority control of the lower chamber.

At the same time, it remains to be seen how House Speaker Paul Ryan’s life-affirming agenda will fare in Congress, with Trump in charge of the GOP. Ryan has tried to advance a conservative agenda informed by Catholic social teaching called “A Better Way,” but is vociferously opposed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO and newly named White House chief strategist. Bannon, who like Ryan is Catholic, has repeatedly targeted the speaker for removal from power, specifically over Ryan’s “social-justice Catholicism.”

In the Senate, the Republicans held on and kept 51-48 control of the chamber over their Democratic rivals. However, the Senate only kept a pro-life majority due to its three pro-life Democrats: Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania. They offset the last two Senate Republicans who identify as “pro-choice”: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Louisiana is set to have a run-off Dec. 10 for its Senate seat between Republican John Kennedy and Democrat Foster Campbell, both of whom are running as pro-life candidates, but with different approaches. Kennedy seeks to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act, while Campbell has run on advancing paid family leave, which dovetails with Trump’s call for paid leave for working mothers.


Planned Parenthood’s Darkest Hour

Pro-life activists have made stripping federal funding from Planned Parenthood, over its status as the nation’s largest abortion provider, their first priority. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Register there is “no reason” Planned Parenthood, which provides 40% of U.S. abortions, should not be defunded within the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency.

Currently, Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million in federal funding, more than a third of the abortion provider’s annual revenue of $1.3 billion.

In the wake of the election, Cecile Richards, CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, issued a statement to supporters pledging that Planned Parenthood centers would be keeping their doors open.

“They will do so today; they will do so tomorrow; they will do so every day, as they have for 100 years,” she said.

Richards also underscored the political stakes for legal abortion generally to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, saying that she believed “Roe v. Wade was on the ballot in this election.”

Trump seemed to agree with that particular sentiment in his own interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He said he would select “pro-life judges” and if Roe v. Wade was overturned, that would kick the issue of abortion from the federal level back to the states. Women who do not have access to legal abortion in their states, he said, would “have to go to another state.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 19 states have laws curtailing abortion that could go into effect if the Supreme Court reversed its abortion jurisprudence since Roe.


Making Abortion Unthinkable

But Hawkins also indicated that the pro-life movement needs to invest itself in solving the root causes of abortion, because laws alone will not “abolish abortion in our lifetime.” She also doubted that the movement could sustain its legal gains in the long term without healing the culture. Without cultural change, states like California, New York and Illinois would likely remain bastions of legal abortion.

Guttmacher reports 89% of abortions take place within the first trimester. The foremost reasons for abortion documented in 2004 by Guttmacher are: 74% said having a child would interfere with education, work or ability to care for other children; 73% said they did not have the resources to raise a baby at that time; and 48% said they did not want to be single mothers or had relationship problems.

According to Guttmacher data, women in their 20s account for more than half of all abortions. Also, more than 60% of women who seek abortions already have one baby.

“We have to make abortion unthinkable, not just illegal,” said Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat. He told the Register that, right now, what is needed more than ever are donors to invest heavily in helping pregnancy centers expand their range of services to women, including going to a fully medical model that could provide a direct alternative to Planned Parenthood.


Pro-Life Alternatives

Planned Parenthood’s abortion model depends on offering basic sexual and reproductive health services for its 2.7 million clients, of which as many as 12% come in for abortions. Without pro-life health care competing directly for Planned Parenthood’s clientele, should the abortion giant actually fall due to lack of federal funding, emerging abortion competitors with stronger models may swoop in and divvy up the abortion market share. Reuters has reported the abortion pill in the U.S. is rapidly overtaking surgical abortion, meaning up-and-coming abortion centers like Carafem, which only offer medical abortions via prescription, could find the collapse of Planned Parenthood an opportunity — if pro-life health centers do not fill the void.

Market research from the Charlotte Lozier Institute found that pregnancy-help centers have favorable impressions, but their brand is not widely known. It recommended adding more comprehensive services, particularly medical services, pointing out a combined 98% of women and 93% of men in the institute’s survey rated medical care from a doctor or nurse as the most or second-most important service a pregnancy-help center could provide.

A number of different models have emerged to help the nation’s 2,500 pregnancy-resource centers move in that direction if they choose, such as  Obria Medical ClinicsGuiding Star Centersthe Gianna Centers and Bella Women’s Care, as well as the Stanton Health Center and CompassCare.

“As a pro-life movement, we need to continue to innovate how we reach out and support women who have unintended pregnancies and are in need of support,” Schleppenbach said, “so no woman ever has to feel that abortion is her only option.”


Broader Horizons

Other pro-life activists, such as Rebecca Bratten Weiss and Matthew Tyson, founders of the New Pro-Life Movement, believe that the pro-life movement needs to see its work more broadly than ending abortion, becoming more intentional about establishing the dignity of the human person as the bedrock of culture.

“Every aspect of the culture should be supporting life at every moment,” Weiss told the Register. She said the nonpartisan New Pro-life Movement draws its principles from Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the human person.

“Our long-term vision involves providing families with the social safety networks that they need so we truly have a culture that values life, not just laws that say don’t kill,” she said.

Part of their concern is that pro-life leaders speak up to make sure that people do not lose health coverage and that life-affirming measures from the Affordable Care Act, such as prenatal coverage for pregnant women, do not end up on the chopping block along with anti-life measures such as the contraceptive mandate.

“We want to expand what it truly means to be pro-life,” Tyson said.

Holding Accountable

The election also has pro-life leaders conscious to not repeat the last time the GOP had total control of the White House and Congress, from January 2005 to January 2007, when hardly any pro-life legislation moved forward.

Hawkins, who served on Trump’s pro-life advisory committee, said she and other pro-life leaders took a lot of flak for supporting Trump, and if he reneges on his campaign promises to the movement, “I’ll be leading the charge [against him].”

Schleppenbach said the pro-life movement must actively “hold their feet to the fire” and not accept excuses for lack of action from the administration and Congress.

He said that the White House should also put an “immediate moratorium” on the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. He added that the federal government needs to enforce the Weldon Amendment’s protections for freedom of conscience on abortion and put an end to violations from California, New York and Washington.

 Added Schleppenbach, “We cannot simply sit back and think our work is done.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.