Jul 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Anti-abortion rights movement struggles to find post-Roe North Star

Illustration of a protest sign that says "End Roe" lying on the ground amidst confetti.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade has left anti-abortion rights activists, grassroots organizations and the Republican Party divided over how to move forward, after decades of rallying behind a universally shared goal.

Why it matters: Many anti-abortion rights leaders privately recognize the political appetite for a federal abortion ban is not there right now, and that pushing too hard, too fast could cost them in crucial elections.

Between the lines: For years, Republicans in Congress and at the state level have been able to support and pass highly restrictive abortion laws without having to deal with the political ramifications, since those laws would usually get tied up in the courts before taking effect.

  • GOP lawmakers could brandish their pro-life bonafides and satisfy a significant portion of their base without facing the blowback of how those strict laws would be felt in their communities.
  • But the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Casey has unilaterally altered that dynamic, raising new questions about how the Republican Party should message on abortion.

What to watch: GOP lawmakers are in an especially precarious position — their base sees the end of Roe as a starting point, but the broader American electorate overwhelmingly believes abortion should be legal in most cases.

  • Just 12% of Americans believe Congress should pass a national law banning abortion, according to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute.
  • “This is not a conversation we want to have,” John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns, recently told Politico. "We want to have a conversation about the economy. We want to have a conversation about Joe Biden, about pretty much anything else besides Roe."

What they're saying: “Pro-lifers and abortion advocates will rhetorically call for federal legislation, but that requires 60 votes in the Senate," Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a close friend of former President Trump, tells Axios.

  • "For that reason, it is likely that resources will shift [away from a federal fight] and progress made primarily in state legislatures in the near term," Reed predicted.
  • "A lot of the conservative legal folks that I've listened to and go to say the way the opinion was written, a federal ban is no more constitutional than federal legalization. This was very much an issue that was returned to the states," says Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and a partner at Firehouse Strategies.

Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, told Axios her goal is still to push for a federal ban, but that she and other anti-abortion rights leaders "believe in the democratic process."

  • "The people that are truly anti-abortion are ... very eager to vote. I mean, let's be honest, the consultant class in Washington never wants to talk about abortion. But they better understand that this is what has brought their candidates to victory, year after year after year."

The intrigue: The Atlantic's Elizabeth Bruenig, a Catholic progressive who opposes abortion, notes that some anti-abortion rights groups have called for a new commitment to building a "safety net" for mothers — which she describes as "precisely the kind of legislation that the anti-abortion rights movement has adamantly ignored for the past 50 years."

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, has introduced a bill to expand the child tax credit, provide for parental leave and create a national clearinghouse for maternal resources.
  • Nance told Axios she's also working on a new website, called Life.gov, that would help educate and provide family resources to women. "We want every state to put together all alternatives," she said. "Whether it's public or private housing, legal and educational training ... or adoption, fostering."

But even on this issue, the GOP is divided: As two former Republican congressional staffers write in the National Review, anti-abortion rights leaders may "feel restrained from supporting a 'safety net' for women, out of ideological concerns" and "perceived mission creep."

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