With Higher Stakes In The Abortion Debate, Activists March On Washington

Jan 18, 2019
Originally published on January 18, 2019 9:02 pm

Updated at 1:20 p.m. ET

On Friday, as they have for decades, anti-abortion rights activists marched through Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Supreme Court – a location that symbolizes the long-held goal of reversing the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide in 1973.

But this year's rally comes at a moment when many anti-abortion activists are feeling more hopeful about that goal, on the heels of the confirmation and swearing-in of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The March, which began in 1974 in response to the Roe decision, draws thousands of abortion opponents from around the country. In her opening address, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini asked supporters to keep pushing forward.

"Will you march until abortion becomes unthinkable?" Mancini asked. "Will you march so that one day soon we no longer need to march?"

Vice President Mike Pence phoned into the rally before making a surprise visit with his wife, Karen Pence. He praised President Trump's judicial nominees and told opponents of abortion rights that there is still "much work to do."

"Know that we will stand with you until that great day comes where we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law," Pence said.

Leanne Jamieson, who runs a crisis pregnancy center in Dallas that counsels women against abortion, says she hopes to see more restrictions on the procedure.

"Without the right to life, we have no other rights," she says. "There's no point debating the right to free speech or the right to bear arms if we don't have the right to life."

People march through Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Supreme Court – a location that symbolizes the long-held goal of reversing the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
Amr Alfiky / NPR

For Jamieson, the makeup of the Supreme Court was the primary motivating factor behind her vote for Trump in 2016. But she says she's "conflicted" about Trump's tone and rhetoric. With Kavanaugh on the court, she hopes to see Roe overturned.

This year, fresh off Kavanaugh's swearing-in, many activists on both side of the debate say a decision substantially rolling back abortion rights could be closer than at any time in recent memory.

New terrain in the abortion fight

Religious and social conservatives have repeatedly pointed to the power to shape the Supreme Court as a reason to support President Trump, despite his history of statements and positions that might seem otherwise at odds with their values. Activists say that has paid off in the form of several Trump policies restricting access to abortion and contraception, and his judicial nominees, most notably Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

"If you would've asked me during the 2016 campaign, that President Trump would be the one that would help ... in putting in these pro-life policies, I probably would've thought you were crazy," said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at March for Life. "But it's certainly a much different scenario with both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench."

Anti-abortion rights activists hold a banner with the words Love Gives Life.
Amr Alfiky / NPR

Pence, an evangelical Christian who has always seemed a more natural fit than Trump with social and religious conservatives, will also speak at a March for Life dinner on the evening of the main event. Pence headlined the march in 2017, soon after President Trump's inauguration. Trump himself so far is not scheduled to speak, though he addressed the march via satellite in 2018.

Seizing the opportunity to shift the Supreme Court to the right, conservatives have rallied behind Trump's judicial nominees. They continued to back Kavanaugh after sexual assault allegations surfaced during his Senate confirmation hearings. Now, with Kavanaugh on the court, activists are closely watching several pieces of legislation that are winding their way through the legal system as a possible test case that could set up an opportunity for the Supreme Court to reverse or weaken Roe and other cases guaranteeing women the right to an abortion.

Abortion rights advocates say they're worried the new court will move to further restrict access to abortion and uphold state laws that would not previously have passed constitutional muster.

A sign lies on the ground at the March For Life rally in Washington, D.C.
Amr Alfiky / NPR

"Everything is on the line"

"This is a time where everything is on the line for me as a doctor," Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, a physician, said in a recent interview with NPR. "It's about my patients; it's about their lives ... With Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court we are facing a situation where, within the next year, Roe v. Wade could very well be further eroded or overturned."

Anti-abortion activists like McClusky hope the new court will affirm state laws that more aggressively restrict abortion. That has both sides gearing up for battles over abortion-related legislation in statehouses across the country.

"A lot of it will be playing a lot of offense and defense, I think, in the states," McClusky said.

Activists have pointed to legislation like Iowa's "heartbeat bill"; if it survives ongoing legal challenges, that law would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected – often before many women know they are pregnant. Other goals of the movement include advancing bans on abortion based on the sex of the fetus or a diagnosis of fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks to the gathered anti-abortion rights activists.
Amr Alfiky / NPR

Debating the science?

March for Life organizers say a major focus of this year's rally is to promote the idea that the anti-abortion rights position is bolstered by science.

"Science is on the side of life," March for Life President Jeanne Mancini told supporters at a conference on Thursday that was streamed on the group's Facebook page. "There've been so many advances in science and technology – especially radiology and sonography – so that the humanity of the child is evident more and more at earlier stages."

That view has many critics in the abortion rights and reproductive health communities, including Dr. Sarah Horvath, a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). The group supports legal abortion prior to fetal viability and describes the procedure as "an essential component of women's health care."

Horvath said abortion is sometimes required to preserve a woman's life or health, and said she's concerned about activists politicizing science.

"Claims of the pro-life movement to being 'pro-science' are actually a misuse and a manipulation of the facts," Horvath said. "There are very real and harmful impacts on access to care ... that occur when facts are obscured or twisted to fit an ideology."

March for Life organizers say a major focus of this year's rally is to promote the idea that the anti-abortion rights position is bolstered by science.
Amr Alfiky / NPR

Mary Ziegler, a legal historian of reproductive rights and law professor at Florida State University, said the emphasis at this year's March for Life reflects a larger, and growing, cultural divide.

"The focus on science in the March reflects what has been a decades-long shift away from arguments about a right to life — and toward claims about the costs of abortion for women and for society," she said in an email. "That focus has only polarized the debate further — now those on both sides disagree not only about what the Constitution says but also about the basic facts about abortion. So the debate about truth, 'fake news,' and facts has pushed the two sides even further apart."

Reproductive rights are also likely to be a focus of the third annual Women's March, planned for Saturday. The march is going forward in a year when the organization has been plagued by internal disputes and allegations of anti-Semitism against one of its leaders, prompting some sponsors including the Democratic National Committee to drop out. Planned Parenthood Action Fund is still listed as a partner for the Women's March.

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Big crowds are going to be marching through Washington, D.C., this weekend, and a major focus is going to be on abortion and reproductive rights. The anti-abortion rights March For Life kicks off its annual rally today, followed by a march to the Supreme Court. And then tomorrow, progressive women from around the country and their allies will gather for the Women's March, which was first organized in 2017 in response to President Trump's election.

NPR's Sarah McCammon covers the abortion debate and is going to be at both marches. She's in our studios this morning. Hi, Sarah.


GREENE: So I think, I mean, on all sides of debates like abortion, people would say there's always a lot at stake. Is that especially so this year, in 2019?

MCCAMMON: It really feels that way. I mean, remember, it was just not even a year ago, right, that Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last summer. And that set up a huge debate over these issues. He had been the swing vote on the Supreme Court for a lot of issues, including reproductive rights. And now abortion rights opponents are feeling more hopeful than they have in a long time that they could see Roe v. Wade overturned or weakened. That, of course, is the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. This march, the March For Life, in opposition to abortion, has been happening almost since that time. But organizers and activists are hopeful as they head into this year's march.

GREENE: So as we look at the March For Life happening, we're going to see more optimism and more of a sense of hope and mission that 2019 could be different for them. Is that fair to say?

MCCAMMON: For sure. They're cautiously optimistic, though, I would say. Not necessarily expecting Roe to be overturned wholesale, but they do see a big opportunity to advance state laws restricting abortion more deeply than they've been able to in the past. Here's Tom McClusky of March For Life.

TOM MCCLUSKY: If you were to ask me during the 2016 campaign that President Trump would be the one that would help in putting in these pro-life policies, I probably would have thought you were crazy. But it's certainly a much different scenario now, with both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench.

MCCAMMON: And we hear this a lot from anti-abortion rights activists. They're happy with what President Trump is doing, his efforts to restrict public funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood and his appointees to the judiciary.

GREENE: Well, on the flip side of this, how much anxiety are we going to be sensing from abortion rights activists in this moment?

MCCAMMON: Right. They're concerned. They say they're also energized. I would expect to hear about this tomorrow at the Women's March. Planned Parenthood is one of the partner sponsors for that march. I spoke recently with Dr. Leana Wen, who's the new president of Planned Parenthood, and here's what she said.

LEANA WEN: This is a time where everything is on the line. I mean, with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, we are facing a situation where, within the next year, Roe v. Wade could very well be further eroded or overturned.

MCCAMMON: And so abortion rights activists are organizing at the state level around these issues, trying to firm up support for abortion rights in statehouses. And they're pointing to the fact that a lot of new Democrats were just elected to statehouses and, of course, to Congress, many of them women, and others who campaigned on issues including reproductive rights. So they see that as a good sign.

GREENE: You mentioned organizing at the state level. I mean, these marches are going to be in Washington but, as we've learned from your reporting, it's really important to follow, you know, cases working their way through states, not just at the Supreme Court.

MCCAMMON: For sure. This battle will play out in the courts, but also in statehouses around the country. If Roe is weakened, those state legislatures will become even more important in terms of regulating abortion.

GREENE: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Sarah, thanks a lot.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.