Pro-Life Heroes: The Road That Led to the End of Roe
YEAR IN REVIEW: The most significant news event in 2022 was 50 years in the making.
The most significant news event in 2022 was 50 years in the making.
The Supreme Court handed down a decision this year with the words “Roe and Casey are overruled,” marking the culmination of almost 50 years of work by pro-life advocates. While the June 24, 2022, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision was a moment of victory for the pro-life movement, it was the result of a multifaceted approach built up over the decades. The Register honors the pro-life leaders who paved the way for Dobbs, many of whom did not live to see this moment, for their efforts to expose the truth that abortion ends a human life.
When Roe v. Wade was handed down in January 1973, federal attorney Nellie Gray gathered fellow pro-life advocates in her townhouse on Capitol Hill to devise a way to commemorate Roe’s anniversary and the lives lost because of the decision.
Hoping that Roe would soon be overturned, she organized what she assumed would be a one-off event: the March for Life. The demonstration became a 49-year annual human-rights protest that consistently draws tens of thousands of marchers.
Jeanne Mancini, current president of the March for Life, told the Register that the day Dobbs was handed down was Gray’s birthday, and she couldn’t imagine a better birthday gift for a woman who “chose to put all of her gifts and talents towards the culture of life.”
Mancini said the annual demonstration that concluded every year outside of the Supreme Court served as one of many factors leading to the eventual overturn of Roe. “I can’t think of a more powerful statement that Roe wasn’t settled law other than the marchers literally going past the Supreme Court every single year,” she said.
“They may feel like one person doesn’t make a difference if they come to the march or not, but take all of those people and pull them away, and there’s no march.”
Mancini also praised the spiritual muscle of the pro-life movement, including figures like St. Teresa of Calcutta and Pope St. John Paul II, who fearlessly spoke the truth on abortion throughout their lives.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, Mother Teresa stated in front of former President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary:
“The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”
Mancini said that pro-lifers have worked on the issue in so many different ways over the years. Whether it was the legal angle, the work of pro-life pregnancy centers, or the political side of things, she called it “breathtaking how God’s mysterious plans led to this moment” of the overturn of Roe, saying God was clearly at work through these advocates “to help move us into the next phase of this human-rights issue.”
Among the early pro-life heroes that made the case against abortion was Dr. Jack Willke, a Catholic obstetrician who spoke out against abortion starting in the 1960s and advocated for pregnancy centers and maternity homes, popularizing the phrase “love them both.” He headed the National Right to Life Committee from 1980 to 1991. Another key influence in the pregnancy-care-center movement was Sister of Social Service Paula Vandegaer, who spoke out on the issue in the 1960s and was one of the founders of Heartbeat International, the first pro-life pregnancy-support center and the largest in the world.
Another notable figure in the movement was Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, who told Congress in 1981 that Roe “gave my profession an almost unlimited license to kill.” She was among the founders of the National Right to Life Committee, and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan credited her with changing his mind on the issue.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an abortionist-turned-pro-life advocate who founded the abortion advocacy group NARAL, was also an important voice early in the movement with his 1985 film The Silent Scream, which showed the abortion of a 12-week-old unborn baby. He said after his conversion that “legal abortion was the greatest mistake this nation has ever conceived.”
In the Public Eye
Joseph Scheidler, dubbed the “Godfather of Pro-Life Activism,” dedicated his life to pro-life work after a critical moment before Roe was handed down. His son Eric told the Register that the cause became personal for his father at a rally in 1972, where he saw a picture of a garbage bag of aborted babies at a Canadian hospital and one of those babies resembled a baby picture of Eric. The event made his father see “a connection between his child and an abortion victim.”
The moment spurred Scheidler, who passed away in 2021, to utilize his past work in advertising and media to get the word out about the evils of abortion. His son said that after Roe was handed down his father began putting advertisements about resources for women in crisis pregnancies in newspapers “on the same page as the abortion ads.” Scheidler said his family is still seeing the effectiveness of that technique, saying that a few years ago at an event a family told them that they chose life for their child 40 years ago because of those ads.
He said that his father looked for creative ways to reach people, asking, “How can we break through the noise on this issue and bring people around to the pro-life side?” Scheidler’s efforts to break through the noise were occasionally controversial and included “showing abortion victim photos in the public square, infiltrating abortionist’s meetings, and infiltrating speeches by pro-abortion speakers.” In his 1985 book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, Scheidler wrote about practical things pro-lifers could do, including talking to friends and neighbors about the issue, sidewalk counseling, and picketing abortion fundraisers.
Eric Scheidler said that he believes his father played a role in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but “in a way you might not expect,” by keeping the abortion issue “ever before the American people’s minds and eyes” through protests and media appearances. He said that the efforts of his father and others to keep abortion before the public eye kept up an “atmosphere of tension around the abortion issue,” which motivated voters to back senators who approved the nomination of justices to the Supreme Court making it possible for Roe to be overturned.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads SBA Pro-Life America, a group founded in 1992 that funds pro-life candidates, had a lot to do with the political efforts leading to Roe being overturned.
In 2016, she spearheaded a letter in which then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump pledged to nominate “pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Dannenfelser told the Register that while that pledge turned out to be “very important,” given that President Trump’s three nominees changed the makeup of the court making the overturning of Roe possible, “we would never have received that pledge if we hadn’t already built some political strength” in the pro-life movement.
She said the incentive for a candidate to sign that sort of pledge to pro-life voters came after “many milestones over the years” swaying public opinion due to the work of churches, state pro-life groups, and scientific advances in sonogram technology.
Leveraging the political power of the movement built by early pro-life leaders, Dannenfelser saw a “dramatic change” when pro-lifers held candidates accountable on the issue. All along the way, she said, “when there were candidates or officeholders who failed, it was important to make sure that they felt the sting of disapproval from the pro-life movement.”
Over the years, the movement “found our political voice, and once we made clear that we were a force to be contended with in the political arena,” that made “the critical Senate, presidential and Supreme Court actions possible.”
Some of these key actions included then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to wait to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia until after the 2016 presidential election, resulting in Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch, later followed by Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, to fill the vacancies left by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
The Dobbs Case
At this critical moment, the first-ever female attorney general of Mississippi, Lynn Fitch, asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe in their consideration of her state’s 15-week abortion ban. She wrote in The Washington Post that she understood the “magnitude” of what was being asked, but argued that “the court put political intuition above sound legal reasoning” in Roe and that it was time to correct that error.
Fitch, a single mom, said Roe pitted women against their children, and that in the years since Roe, “it has become easier for women to reach the very pinnacle of our success, economically and socially, fully independent of the right those seven male justices bestowed upon us.”
On June 24, the day Roe was overturned, Fitch said in a video message that now “our work to empower women and promote life truly begins.” Since policymaking on the issue has been returned to the states, she saw the urgent need for advocacy for pro-life legislation that protects unborn babies and provides assistance for women in crisis-pregnancy situations.
Dannenfelser said that there is more work than ever before for the pro-life movement, noting that pro-abortion politicians can undo all the state pro-life protections made possible by Dobbs. “I think we need to be doing 10 times what we already were doing,” she said of the next steps for the pro-life movement, calling for “coordination and unity and leveraging of all of the beautiful education tools” of the movement to target the individual situation of each state, along with backing pro-life candidates who will prevent efforts, like the extreme Women’s Health Protection Act, to undo state protections at the federal level.
Mancini said that in response to the “cultural backlash and confusion” following the Dobbs decision, the pro-life movement should focus on continuing to reach hearts and minds by combating disinformation on the issue, redoubling advocacy efforts at the state and federal level, and increasing the existing network of resources for moms in crisis pregnancies.
Editor’s Note: The March for Life will take place on Jan. 20, but will conclude at the U.S. Capitol building instead of the Supreme Court. The group also plans to expand from five to 10 state marches for life in an effort to have demonstrations in all 50 states.
- year in review
- Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
- lauretta brown