Speaker Mike Johnson Begins Role With Significant Pro-Life Funding Battle

The newly minted leader faces the challenge of forging GOP unity on the life issue.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., gives remarks during a bipartisan candlelight vigil for Israeli victims and hostages of the conflict with Hamas, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 7, 2023.
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., gives remarks during a bipartisan candlelight vigil for Israeli victims and hostages of the conflict with Hamas, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 7, 2023. (photo: Graeme Sloan / Sipa via AP )

WASHINGTON — In his first weeks as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, R-La., faces the formidable task of uniting a deeply divided Republican caucus — and one immediate obstacle is an internal GOP struggle over inclusion of language in a funding bill that would bar the mailing of the abortion pill mifepristone. 

Even though a Nov. 17 funding deadline is looming to avert a government shutdown, Tom McClusky, director of government affairs for Catholic Vote, told the Register that he did not see “a scenario where that language is pulled” from a measure to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, because he didn’t see Johnson backing down from defending the language. 

Reps. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., and GOP lawmakers from some districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020 in New York are among the party holdouts opposed to the provision. Some of these lawmakers told Politico that they did not see that language passing through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority, while others said the issue was for individual states to decide.

McClusky said the pro-life movement must continue to work to educate these members on the issue. He pointed out that Mace claims to be pro-life but is not firm on the issue “when it comes to the abortion pill, which is the biggest threat currently to the unborn.” According to a February 2022 survey, the abortion pill accounts for more than half of the abortions in the country. 

Mace has said that she is “pro-woman and pro-life,” but when a Texas federal judge halted the FDA’s approval of the abortion pill in April, she told CNN that mifepristone is “an FDA-approved drug. Whether you agree with its usage or not, that’s not your decision. That is the FDA’s decision.” She added that she supports “the usage of FDA-approved drugs even if we might disagree. It’s not up to us to decide as legislators or even the court system.”

McClusky acknowledged that members may be struggling post-Dobbs, as “it’s a lot less popular to be pro-life than it used to be,” but he said that protecting unborn human life is a part of the Republican Party platform that these lawmakers ran on and that “these members need to understand the extreme position is in support of this drug.” 

He said that in addition to the numerous health complications that dispensing the abortion pill without an in-person doctor’s visit can cause for women, the Biden administration’s loosening of requirements that the pill be dispensed in person means it “could be used by predators to make women abort without them even knowing it, and it has been used in that way.”

Johnson’s Pro-Life Record

McClusky believes Johnson, who has a strong pro-life voting record from his almost seven years in the U.S. House of Representatives, won’t budge on the language in the bill. 

He touted the new speaker’s pro-life credentials, saying he “has lived pro-life. He’s fought the battles; he stuck up for the religious-liberty causes” in his time as a lawmaker and as an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney. 

He also praised Johnson for being “outspoken” in holding the FBI and the Justice Department accountable for their alleged targeting of Catholics and pro-lifers. In July, Johnson spoke out about the American public trust in the FBI declining as they’ve seen “conservative Catholics and pro-life citizens characterized as violent extremists.” 

In January, he was among the co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act, a measure introduced in the House that “declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual comes into being.”

When asked about abortion in his first interview after being elected as House speaker, Johnson said that “we fight vigorously for the sanctity of life because every life matters” and added that the inherent value of human life is an important message that he didn’t see as “controversial.”

Fighting for More Pro-Life Provisions 

McClusky predicted that Johnson will also stand for pro-life and conscience language in some of the other current appropriation bills, but “there seems to be less opposition to those among the Republicans.” He said an agriculture bill is the only one being held up “because the problem is coming from within his own caucus.”

Melanie Israel, a policy analyst on life issues at the Heritage Foundation, told the Register that the pro-life movement wants to see “not just the status quo maintained with things like the Hyde Amendment and other policies that have been around for many years.” Moving beyond that, she said, “we’ve got a pro-life majority in the House, and so there’s this expectation that we don’t just maintain the status quo, we advance the ball forward with additional pro-life riders.” 

“There’s a pro-life majority in the House,” Israel said. “It’s time to legislate like one.” 

Israel wrote a report in August looking at some of the pro-life measures that are already moving forward and listing additional efforts she would like to see from the House. Successes include pro-life language in the Department of Defense appropriations bill and the bill funding the Department of Veterans Affairs that would revoke policies related to funding of travel to procure an abortion. Both bills were passed by the House earlier this year. 

And, along with the standard Hyde Amendment language barring taxpayer funding for abortion in the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill, pro-life language was added this month by House Republicans that would bar funding to hospitals or other organizations with physician training programs that mandate training to refer, assist in, counsel or perform abortions, or that penalize students who want to opt out of abortion training in postgraduate or residency programs. The House is likely to vote the week of Nov. 13 on the revised bill. 

But McClusky cautioned that while there are some “things that the Republican Party can start putting forward,” gaining ground on the pro-life issue will be “a long-term project because us getting 60 pro-life votes in the Senate is at least a decade off.” Senate Republicans currently have 49 seats in the Senate and would require 60 for the filibuster-proof majority needed to advance abortion legislation.

Indeed, he believes the biggest obstacle Speaker Johnson will face in advancing pro-life measures is going to be “the Senate, including Senate Republicans.” 

As an example, McClusky cited recent opposition among Senate Republicans to the eight-month-long hold on more than 370 military promotions that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has placed due to the DOD’s funding of abortion travel. 

A group of Republicans took to the Senate floor Nov. 1 to speak out against the hold, voicing concerns about its effect on military readiness. Tuberville countered that jobs were still being filled and his hold, therefore, was not affecting military readiness.

‘Stand Firm’

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, told the Register via email that she would encourage GOP House members to “speak out against the Biden admin[istration]’s new push of abortion through the Department of Defense and the performing of abortions at Veterans Affairs hospitals.” 

She expressed gratitude for a resolution Johnson introduced in January that was passed by the House and condemned violence against pro-life pregnancy centers. She said that in Congress there is “much work to be done,” and “that is why we need a unified pro-life House majority under Speaker Johnson’s leadership to stand firm against today’s pro-abortion-on-demand Democrat Party agenda.”

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Newly elected Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks in the House chamber after his election at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 25 in Washington.

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