Pro-Life Movement and GOP Politicians at a Disconnect, 2 Years After Dobbs

The sudden discord between pro-life activist groups and Republican Party politicians comes at a high-stakes moment for the larger pro-life movement.

Pro-lifers participate in a protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 in Washington, D.C. to mark two years since the Dobbs ruling.
Pro-lifers participate in a protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 in Washington, D.C. to mark two years since the Dobbs ruling. (photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The National Celebrate Life Conference, an annual pro-life gathering sponsored by a collection of pro-life activist groups, was held in Washington, D.C., June 21-23 to commemorate the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. The weekend featured impassioned speeches at numerous events, including a sparsely attended rally at the Lincoln Memorial in 100-degree heat. 

Speakers basked in the glow of their signature victory two years removed, but also lamented being abandoned by Republican Party politicians, most notably former president Donald Trump, whose decision to oppose a national abortion ban opened the floodgates for other high-profile GOP politicians to follow suit. 

“A large contingent of people who are supposed to be on our side have abandoned this movement,” said the Celebrate Life Gala’s keynote speaker, Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire. “It’s one of the most shameful twists of irony that I’ve ever seen.”

The sudden discord between pro-life activist groups and Republican Party politicians comes at a high-stakes moment for the larger pro-life movement, which has struggled to pivot from Roe toward wide-ranging political battles against a reinvigorated opponent. Not only must it fend off a well-funded opposition on a bevy of fronts, including upcoming state ballot initiatives and court challenges over the abortion pill and other unresolved legal questions in the wake of Roe’s demise, it must now also navigate internal divisions unseen since the days of former President Gerald Ford. 

“President Trump is not a pro-life candidate,” Live Action founder Lila Rose recently told Axios. “There have been a number of Republicans who have gotten soft and who have basically run for the hills.” 

Adding to the gloom is the stubborn reality that a clear majority of Americans disapprove of efforts to restrict abortion. Following the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, voters in seven states — including deep red states such as Montana and Kansas — have approved pro-abortion ballot initiatives. 

The pro-life side has yet to win a single state ballot victory. At least three more states, and possibly as many as 10, will hold ballot initiatives this November. 

Public opinion surveys offer another sobering snapshot of the hurdles the pro-life movement faces, now five months before Election Day. According to a recent Gallup survey, 60% of Americans believe that the fall of Roe was a “bad thing.” Additionally, 63% of Americans say they favor preserving access to the abortion pill mifepristone, while 69% believe that abortion should be legal throughout the first trimester.  

The decision by numerous Republicans seeking elected office to soften their abortion stance and instead embrace Trump’s position on state’s rights is a tacit nod to this reality.  

The case of Sen. Rick Scott highlights the tension between the moral imperative on life and perceived electoral reality for Republican politicians. In Florida, where the former two-time governor is seeking reelection to the Senate, a measure will appear on the ballot this November to determine if abortion rights will be protected up until the point of fetal viability, which usually occurs around 24 weeks of pregnancy.  

Pro-abortion activists, galvanized by Florida’s six-week abortion ban that went into effect in May, collected more than a million signatures to put a proposed state constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to abortion before viability on the ballot. Recent polling reveals that 57% of registered voters in Florida say they will vote for the measure, while only 36% say they will vote against it, and 6% are undecided. At least 60% of voters must approve the proposal for the amendment to pass.

Scott, who once voted in favor of a 15-week federal abortion ban, now says he believes abortion policy should be dictated by “consensus” and left to the states, echoing Trump’s position.  

This hasn’t stopped Scott’s opponent, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, from hammering him on the issue. She has made abortion the centerpiece of her campaign and for her effort has pulled to within two points of Scott in the Republican-leaning state.  

Kristan Hawkins, founder and president of Students for Life of America, which cosponsored Celebrate Life Weekend, isn’t surprised that the strategy of “softening” on abortion isn’t working. Echoing sentiments expressed in Walsh’s keynote, Hawkins believes voters aren’t responding to pro-life arguments because political leaders simply aren’t making the case. 

“In reality, saying ‘it’s a state issue’ doesn’t win them any votes,” Hawkins told the Register. “I was on a campus not long ago and I asked some protesters, ‘Are you going to vote for Trump now that he said it’s a state issue?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely not! Republicans are pro-life!’ I think it’s a misguided strategy.” 

Celebrate Life Conference rally 2024
Celebrate Life Conference rally on Saturday, June 22, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.(Photo: Peter Laffin/National Catholic Register)

The splintering between pro-life activists and Republican politicians, which also includes a sharp divide over contraception and IVF, has given Democrats cause for optimism despite their otherwise bleak electoral outlook this fall. Trump is currently ahead of Biden in swing-state polling and is running even in national polls, and voters report trusting him over Biden on most major issues, with abortion as a notable exception.

But should they ride their advantage on abortion to major wins this November, they promise to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that advanced in the Senate in 2023 before ultimately failing. It would have mandated access to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy for any reason in every state across the nation.  

There is also good reason to expect that a revamped bill would go much further. Electoral victories would only embolden a pro-abortion movement that has long desired to go beyond Roe in federal law by banning state-level restrictions and religious exemptions for health-care providers.

For these reasons, Hawkins is reticent to criticize Trump and the Republican leadership too forcefully, fearing that it will suppress the pro-life vote. With Biden and the Democrats as the only viable alternative, she believes it is imperative to support Trump despite his less-than-optimal stance.  

“There’s a 100% pro-abortion candidate on the other side, so at the end of the day, you have to vote against the Democrats,” she said. “This is the first time many of us will be voting against a candidate rather than voting for a candidate. But this is an all-hands-on-deck situation right now.”

A pro-life woman kneels in prayer in front of the EMW Women's Surgical Center, an abortion facility, in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 8, 2021.

Report: Interstate Travel for Abortion Doubled From 2020 to 2023

Pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute data indicate the states with the highest uptick in out-of-state abortion seekers are bordering states that enacted new restrictions on abortion. In contrast, the Institute of Labor Economics recently estimated that states with pro-life laws will welcome approximately 32,000 more babies annually.