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The anti-abortion movement insists everything is really fine

If anything, anti-abortion leaders urge Republicans to go bolder. Candidates are less sure.

At the back of a crowd of faces, a sign is held high reading “Pray the Rosary to End Abortion.”
Pro-life supporters attend a rally at the Lincoln memorial in Washington, DC on June 24, 2023. 
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

The anti-abortion movement is at a political crossroads.

Last year, abortion rights won in all six states with abortion ballot measures, including in red states like Kentucky and Montana that otherwise elected Republican candidates. Earlier this month, activists suffered yet another defeat when Ohio voters cast ballots decisively against a referendum that would have made it harder for constitutional amendments, including an upcoming vote this November on abortion rights, to pass in the future. Abortion was not on the ballot, but anti-abortion groups campaigned heavily in favor of the Ohio measure, and they lost.

Even the Republican presidential primary, which the anti-abortion movement had been planning to dominate, has been something of a mixed bag, and there are signs that the movement’s influence is wavering. During Wednesday night’s GOP debate, Fox News moderator Martha MacCallum argued that “abortion has been a losing issue for Republicans since the Dobbs decision.” A recent New York Times/Siena poll shows that more than a third of Republican primary voters think abortion should be legal all or most of the time, and in a CBS poll this week, most didn’t think it was very important for Republican candidates to talk during the debate about their plans to restrict abortion.

Some candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, are still eagerly courting support from the movement, but others appear less willing to take their campaign cues from those anti-abortion organizations.

Donald Trump, for example, has resisted calls from the leading activist group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, to endorse a national 15-week ban on abortion. He’s also refused to say if he supports the type of six-week abortion ban that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in Florida. Trump would say, however, that “many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh.”

And when DeSantis was dismissive of federal abortion restrictions in late July, saying he believed the anti-abortion movement would see more success from states and local communities, SBA Pro-Life America criticized his stance as “unacceptable.” DeSantis’s campaign didn’t seem to care, countering that the governor “does not kowtow to D.C. interest groups.”

Does that mean the anti-abortion movement is planning to rethink its own aggressive post-Roe strategy of trying to limit abortion as much as possible in as many places as possible? For now, the answer is broadly no. Instead, leaders argue that any losses they’ve suffered over the last year have not been because their agenda is unpopular, but because it hasn’t been pursued boldly and strategically enough. If anything, they say, winning will require an even stronger commitment to restricting abortion.

GOP presidential candidates are divided on federal abortion bans

Leading groups opposing abortion rights are divided on what they want to hear from federal candidates.

SBA Pro-Life America has said it will not support anyone who does not express at least a commitment to restricting abortion at the federal level after 15 weeks. Meanwhile Students for Life made clear that they oppose such a 15-week litmus test, given that more than 90 percent of abortions occur within the first 13 weeks. Instead, they asked each candidate to lay out their proactive vision for a post-Roe America, and emphasized that their own blueprint includes granting legal protections to unborn children, defunding Planned Parenthood, banning the distribution of medication abortion by mail, and reimposing other restrictions on abortion pills that were relaxed under the Biden administration.

During the first GOP primary debate, however, most candidates declined to do any of these things, and appeared divided on whether the federal government should limit abortion at all. DeSantis dodged a question on whether he’d support a six-week ban, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley stressed the fact that there’s little chance of getting something through Congress, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum claimed a federal ban would violate the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution. Of the eight candidates on stage, only Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott backed a 15-week restriction.

Yet while some GOP political consultants quietly worry about electoral backlash to abortion bans that voters consider too extreme, anti-abortion groups have urged candidates to stay the course, and to champion the post-Roe successes the movement has achieved so far.

“A year after Dobbs, 25 states have put pro-life protections into law — half the country,” SBA Pro-Life America stated after the Ohio election. Rejecting the idea that abortion rights were helpful to Democrats in 2022, they touted the midterm wins of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, North Carolina Sen. Ted Budd, and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance. Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, offered a similar rosy post-midterms reflection, noting that public officials who backed or enforced abortion restrictions were reelected in nearly 20 states. “Democrats didn’t crack state governor, state attorney general, or state house seats in red states that have enforced abortion limits since [Dobbs],” she argued.

The movement against abortion rights isn’t admitting defeat

While the attempt to make it harder to pass ballot measures — known as Issue 1 — lost by 14 percentage points in Ohio, anti-abortion groups say that does not mean they’ll face a similar fate when abortion is actually on the ballot in November. The proposed Ohio amendment would restore the right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability, and permit abortions beyond that point if a patient’s doctor deems it necessary to protect their life or health.

In their post-mortem memo, SBA Pro-Life America said they lost for two reasons: they didn’t start their campaign against Issue 1 early enough, and some voters were motivated to vote no because of concerns about democracy and other policies, like the minimum wage or legalizing marijuana. The group claims it does not see support for abortion rights as a key reason for Issue 1’s failure.

Anti-abortion groups have also blasted Republican elected officials and business leaders for not campaigning hard enough. “The silence of the establishment and business community in Ohio left a vacuum that was too large to overcome,” SBA Pro-Life America argued. “So long as the Republicans and their supporters take the ostrich strategy and bury their heads in the sand, they will lose again and again.”

Terry Schilling, leader of the conservative American Principles Project, likewise slammed GOP donors for not spending heavily enough on the Ohio election, and he blamed Republican presidential candidates and national party leaders for downplaying its importance. Another national anti-abortion group, Students for Life, made similar arguments, noting that being outspent by opponents almost 5 to 1 “certainly helped create the confusion about what was at stake.”

While groups supporting abortion rights frame the Ohio results as a clear-cut victory for their cause, election analysts caution we don’t yet fully understand who voted for Issue 1 and why, and it is possible that voters who cast their ballot against the Issue 1 referendum in August will also vote against expanding abortion restrictions in November.

Students for Life has recently launched a “3-step plan” for defeating the abortion rights amendment, largely by mobilizing youth voters. The group is arguing that voters in states like Kansas are experiencing “buyer’s remorse” for approving a state constitutional amendment for abortion rights last year, and they claim they’ll dissuade Ohioans from making the same mistake. When asked for evidence of such remorse, spokesperson Kristi Hamrick told Vox it’s based on her group’s “lived experience [and] talking with people on the ground.”

Early polls on the November amendment bode well for abortion rights supporters; one from June found nearly 60 percent of Ohioans support the idea of an amendment for reproductive freedom. But political researchers say it’s generally harder for affirmative ballot measures to pass, given what’s known as a “status quo bias.” To pass the Ohio amendment, advocates may copy the playbook from Michigan, where abortion rights activists framed their winning 2022 ballot measure around the idea of restoring the rights of Roe v. Wade bringing back the reality Americans had known for five decades. Opponents, meanwhile, will claim activists are trying to radically expand rights.

Anti-abortion leaders are already running with this strategy, claiming that Ohio’s proposed abortion rights amendment’s language is so broad that it would create a new right to gender-affirming surgery, and therefore invalidate the state’s requirement for parental consent.

In its post-mortem memo, SBA Pro-Life America argued that advocates in Ohio must stick with “a simple message,” framing the upcoming referendum as “an attempt by ACLU to eliminate parental rights and legalize abortion on demand in the Ohio constitution.” The amendment would only permit abortions past the point of fetal viability to protect a patient’s life or health, but SBA Pro-Life America is urging advocates to claim it will “legalize unrestricted access to abortion until the moment of birth, paid for by Ohio taxpayers.”

Anti-abortion groups note that the ACLU has long opposed parental consent laws, and an ACLU Ohio lawyer in February said existing laws that conflict with a constitutional amendment “should not be enforced.” Still, Ohio case law generally requires parental consent for youth medical care, and the amendment could only affect parental consent laws if someone were to successfully challenge the rules in court as unconstitutional. Given that Ohio’s state Supreme Court is controlled by Republicans, legal experts think a more sweeping interpretation of the abortion rights measure is unlikely. Andrew Everett, an ACLU spokesperson, told Vox in July they “have no plans to challenge parental consent laws in Ohio.”

Even the most unapologetic anti-abortion groups recognize they need to work on the movement’s image

While leading national groups insist there’s no real proof candidates should back away from abortion restrictions, activists are talking more about the need to speak more compassionately to the needs of mothers and children — driven partly by media coverage showing pregnant women and new mothers have suffered under new anti-abortion laws.

SBA Pro-Life America urged lawmakers to support legislation that requires child support payments to begin when a fetus is in the womb, and to expand the child tax credit and parental leave support. Students for Life similarly emphasized the need to better support pregnant moms and parents on campuses. Route Fifty reported that at least four states have approved new tax exemptions for pregnant people and anti-abortion centers, and nearly a dozen more are considering them.

A few dissenting voices in the anti-abortion movement have recently urged more compromise. Schilling, of the American Principles Project, said candidates should stick with 15-week bans that allow for exceptions for rape, incest, and protecting the life of the mother. “Abortion limits need to be reasonable and popular,” he told Politico. “15 weeks, build a genuine culture of life, revisit,” echoed Duncan Braid, a staffer at the conservative think tank American Compass.

But for now these are minority voices, and the anti-abortion movement is broadly urging lawmakers to get bolder, lest they meet the same electoral fate as failed Republican Senate candidates Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Adam Laxalt in Nevada — who SBA Pro-Life America claim ran from abortion in their midterm races and subsequently lost. “Going on offense is essential for any candidate who wants to win in 2024,” said the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, at the conclusion of Wednesday’s debate.

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