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Shifting sands

Pro-life groups scramble to adapt to a new political landscape post-Dobbs


Pro-life and pro-abortion groups demonstrate outside the Supreme Court. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shifting sands
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A few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, ending 49 years of legal abortion across the country, one of America’s most recognizable pro-life organizations adopted a new identity. Susan B. Anthony List now calls itself SBA Pro-Life America. Press Secretary Kelsey Pritchard says the name change is in part an effort to force reporters to include the phrase “pro-life” at least once in their articles.

Dobbs made our language more important than ever,” Pritchard said. “The way we speak about the movement can impact our success. The left defines the terms too often, and then we sometimes too willingly accept those terms or don’t fight back. Or we start using them ourselves just inadvertently.”

Now, a year after Dobbs, the language of abortion isn’t the only thing that’s shifted. The bulk of pro-life politics has moved to the states, and pro-­abortion groups are throwing millions of dollars into down-ballot races that could have significant influence over abortion policy. It’s a reversal of ­fortune for pro-lifers, whose significant gains in state legislatures eventually led to the reversal of Roe v. Wade. But now they face pro-abortion ballot initiatives on every front, a rampant and rage-fueled funding machine, and a pro-abortion message that is increasingly unified and extremist.

Pritchard represents SBA’s state affairs team, which expanded in the last year and launched to canvas states across the country. In a post-Dobbs landscape, where pro-lifers ostensibly have the upper hand, Pritchard’s team has discovered it still faces an uphill battle. Not only does it have to encourage lawmakers to advance pro-life protections, it must also counter messages that confuse conservative voters.

Pritchard called the 2022 midterms a wake-up call. Every pro-life ballot initiative failed, even in majority-conservative states. The Kaiser Family Foundation found roughly half of American voters said the reversal of Roe motivated them to head to the polls in November. Based on waves of pro-life losses in Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas, Montana, and Arizona, most of these voters were pro-abortion.

“The No. 1 thing is our fight on ballot measures,” Pritchard said. “The midterm losses showed how much work we have to do in informing against lies and deception in these races that Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion, leftist groups are spending millions on and how intentional we have to be with language.”

The recent state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin sparked record turnouts and funding to a type of election that historically hasn’t drawn attention. That, in part, was thanks to the $45 million highlighting the political significance of the contest to voters on both sides of the aisle. In the most expensive state judicial election in U.S. history, Judge Janet Protasiewicz beat out conservative Judge Daniel Kelly, and in so doing flipped the ideological scales on the state’s Supreme Court bench to one more likely to support abortion practices.

Nikki Haley speaks on abortion at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s offices in Arlington, Va.

Nikki Haley speaks on abortion at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s offices in Arlington, Va. Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

For anyone eyeing a run for office, Wisconsin’s race makes it clear that abortion—and a stance about what it means for life and for women—remains at the forefront of what draws voters to the ballot box.

That draw has forced candidates to be more precise with their messaging. The Dobbs decision put pressure on 2022 congressional candidates midrace to better define their positions beyond simply supporting a reversal of Roe. Many candidates avoided questions about abortion, changed their stances too many times to be trustworthy for voters, or minimized the issue altogether. Others, like Scott Jensen, a Republican gubernatorial candidate for Minnesota, went from calling for an abortion ban to describing abortion as a constitutional right.

SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser decided this time around to give candidates a rubric.

“We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections,” she wrote in a statement released April 20.

Dannenfelser supported former President Donald Trump in both of his previous presidential campaigns. Trump has often called himself “the most pro-life president” for appointing three conservative Supreme Court justices who eventually contributed to Roe’s reversal. But even Trump has declined to take a firm position on abortion in the 2024 presidential race. He said it’s up to the states alone. This lost him Dannenfelser’s backing—temporarily.

With the door wide open for an SBA endorsement, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley arrived at the organization’s Virginia headquarters to deliver her own speech about abortion policies. She called herself unapologetically pro-life and urged politicians to find consensus. Instead of waiting for reporters to dog her with questions on the trail about how many and which types of protections she supports, Haley got ahead of the curve in what might become a standard for Republicans courting conservative and moderate votes. She said her presidency would be dedicated to “saving as many babies and helping as many mothers as possible.” But she did not promise a 15-week law protecting the unborn.

In the weeks that followed, Trump invited Dannenfelser to his estate in Florida. After her visit, she issued a press release praising his pro-life record. But the former president still did not promise to back a federal policy. In May, Haley called federal protections for the unborn politically “not realistic,” earning her a public rebuke from Dannenfelser.

WHILE THE PRESIDENTIAL candidates grapple with the political realities of supporting a federal abortion ban, pro-lifers are waging war against an increasingly well-funded pro-abortion lobby in the states.

Ohio is majority conservative, but the state has one crucial loophole the pro-abortion lobby hopes to exploit: It is one of 18 states that allow a citizen-­initiated amendment process that skips the legislative hassle as long as enough voters want to add it to the ballot.

In February, Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom and Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights submitted a constitutional amendment for consideration to Ohio’s Ballot Board. The amendment, written by the ACLU, says it would “protect reproductive freedom with protections for health and safety.” The text asserts that every individual should make his or her own medical choices without infringement from the state. To do that, the ACLU wants the state to remove any restrictions on abortion and leave it up to individual physicians to determine a baby’s viability.

But pro-life advocates say the amendment’s ­language leaves many terms open to interpretation. It does not limit its scope to adults, opening the door to outlaw parental consent for minors seeking abortion. It also mentions any health matters “related to reproduction,” which could include ­hormone therapy and sex change treatments.

When you look at the amount of money that the abortion rights people are able to bring in, it should terrify anyone.

Protect Women Ohio (PWO), which opposes the amendment, made its formal debut on the same day the Ohio Ballot Board allowed the ACLU to begin collecting signatures. PWO press secretary Amy Natoce notes the amendment does not say “woman” anywhere in the text.

“The ACLU is going state by state, along with Planned Parenthood, and passing these amendments; however, it seems that they couldn’t help themselves this time, and they threw everything and the kitchen sink into this,” Natoce said.

Natoce has worked in Republican politics for years, most recently for the reelection campaign for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. She’s seen the ACLU “reinvigorated” at the state level since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. And she’s noticed the pro-abortion lobby copying typical ­conservative terms like “freedom” and “protection” to push not just abortion but a whole host of other liberal priorities.

“It feels like every day when I check the papers, I see a new story about the ACLU pushing in another state for these extreme laws that are attacking parents and also opening up the doors to minors obtaining gender reassignment surgeries and procedures,” she said.

The ACLU has until July 5 to collect at least 413,000 verified signatures in Ohio before the amendment can be placed on the ballot. According to press releases, the organization is aiming for at least 700,000.

While they now form the leading edge of pro-­abortion tactics, constitutional amendments have a mixed track record. Three measures to expand abortion passed during the 2022 midterms. Two pro-life initiatives, in Kentucky and in Montana, failed. Others, like Michigan’s Proposal 3, made it past the hurdles to become a state constitutional amendment. As a fixture of the state’s core gov­erning document, Proposition 3 gave residents of the state a constitutional guarantee of a right to “reproductive freedom.”

Other states, like Pennsylvania, have very specific rules to pass a constitutional amendment, and the process can take years. But it starts in the state legislature. If both chambers pass with three-quarters approval in consecutive sessions, then voters can make their choice in the next election.

The effort to pass constitutional amendments takes time and a lot of money. The public relations fight for and against Michigan’s bill racked up costs totaling $57 million.

KRISTEN DAY HEADS Democrats for Life of America. She used to work as chief of staff to former Rep. Jim Barcia, D-Mich., then as co-chair of the Democratic Pro-Life Caucus. That group has now disbanded, and only one Democrat remains in the overall House Pro-Life Caucus: Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.

When asked what happened to all the pro-life Democrats, Day replied simply: “Money.”

Planned Parenthood’s affiliate super PAC, Planned Parenthood Votes, has exploded in size in the past six years. Super PACs, while unable to make direct donations to politicians, can funnel money toward a campaign or fund efforts against another candidate. In 2016, Planned Parenthood donated less than half a million dollars to its PAC. In 2020, that number ballooned to $3.8 million and two years later to $4.8 million—a 26 percent increase.

Planned Parenthood’s donations, however, aren’t even close to the full amount that’s available to the PAC. Between 2021 and 2022, Planned Parenthood Votes received $25.5 million in donations and spent nearly all of it. Some of its greatest financial expenditures in 2022 went to oppose candidates like Mehmet Oz, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, and to support Raphael Warnock, another U.S. Senate candidate looking to hold on to his seat in Georgia. According to the Federal Election Commission, the group spent $3.9 million to defeat Oz, while $528,000 went to supporting Warnock.

Henry Cuellar speaks during a campaign event.

Henry Cuellar speaks during a campaign event. Eric Gay/AP

In the first few months of 2023, the PAC has already spent $2.5 million.

“When you look at the amount of money that the abortion rights people are able to bring in, it should terrify anyone,” Day said. “We were involved in the Michigan constitutional amendment up there. The pro-choice side spent $45 million—$30 million came from 10 donors, and none of them live in Michigan. And the pro-life side spent $20 million, but it was all small donations from within the state. So that money can really play a big advantage in pressuring people who want to be reelected.”

While state-level pro-life advocates educate voters, lobbyists are combating pro-abortion pressure on lawmakers. Often, this means trying to rein in the Democratic Party’s pro-abortion swing. Day says the party has become much less tolerant of pro-life Democrats since Dobbs. “We talked about being an inclusive, big tent party. We’re really not. The message Democrats are sending is that if you don’t agree on every issue, then you should leave.”

Day focuses most of her efforts on teaching Democratic lawmakers and voters what the constitutional amendments proposed in their states actually mean. For example, she spoke with people in Michigan, Maryland, and even Virginia who were shocked to discover that the “freedom” initiatives they supported actually would limit a woman’s options. Day said the abortion reversal pill is an example of something the “pro-choice” party should support. But in April Colorado became the first state to ban the treatment.

“Democrats are supposed to protect the vulnerable,” Day said. “We should be providing resources and making sure that they have a choice. But we became a pro-abortion party as the only option. That, to me, is not consistent with Democratic values. But it comes back to the money. You make a lot of money from abortion. It’s a good fundraising thing, but it’s not good for women.”

Like her co-belligerents in the Republican Party, Day is working to force lawmakers to participate in a national discussion about whether to implement federal pro-life protections or leave everything up to individual states. Every day she reminds lawmakers that most voters don’t want limitless abortion on demand and that the organizations lining the ­party’s coffers do not represent most voters. Day's efforts counter what has become a well-oiled ­messaging machine the pro-abortion lobby has refined post-Dobbs.

“When you look at polls, a majority of Americans want reasonable regulation and limitations. And we are wildly out of touch with the rest of the world on this,” Day said. “The pro-abortion side is really good at their messaging and making the issue seem mainstream when it’s not.”

—with reporting from Leo Briceno


Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.

@CarolinaLumetta

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