A fantastic piece I discovered on Marjorie Dannenfelser, pro-life activist and president of the Susan B. Anthony List and the mission to abolish aborti0n in America.
One afternoon in May, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, took the Senate floor to ask for a vote on a provocatively named bill: the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after twenty weeks of gestation. “There are only seven countries in the world that allow elective abortions at this stage,” he said. “At twenty weeks, people have been born and survived.”
Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, offered a sharp rebuttal. The law would “drive more women to rogue doctors,” she said, and added a charge that is frequently aimed at Republicans these days: “It’s a war on women.” This was a spirited debate, though not a suspenseful one. Graham knew that Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, would not allow a vote on his bill. But he wanted to be seen trying to do something about abortion in America.
A few minutes later, Graham walked out to the Capitol Visitors Center, to join Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, for a press conference. Their purpose was to promise that, if Republicans won a majority in the coming elections, they would pass the bill. Accompanying them was one of the bill’s strongest supporters, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a small but savvy group that has emerged as a leading combatant in the abortion wars. For politicians seeking to limit abortion, Dannenfelser is a valuable link to the grass roots of pro-life activism—a committed activist who understands the art of messaging. In a brief talk, she praised Graham’s “ability to speak in an attractive way across all demographic lines, meaning Republican, Democrat, women, and men.” She described the act as “very modest, very reasonable,” the kind of bill that “women—more than men, even—support.”
Dannenfelser’s group is named for the pioneering feminist, and modelled on EMILY’s List, the powerful pro-choice organization, but it has little in common with most feminist groups; its sole aim is to abolish abortion. The S.B.A. List supports politicians who are pro-life (this, and not “anti-abortion,” is their preferred term) and, ideally, female—the better to deflect the old but effective charge that the battle against abortion is necessarily a battle against the half of the population that might potentially undergo one. Like all pro-life groups, the S.B.A. List takes pride in its status as an underdog, outspent by its liberal opponents and embraced by the Republican élite only when it’s convenient. And yet, even as another conservative project, the defense of traditional marriage, is failing, the movement to limit abortion retains its momentum. Last summer, in Texas, the state senator Wendy Davis made headlines for filibustering an abortion-regulation bill, but two weeks later the bill passed anyway. Thirteen states have moved to prohibit abortions after twenty weeks, and Dannenfelser envisions these bans as a precursor of Graham’s federal ban.
Dannenfelser didn’t start out pro-life: she grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, in a devout Episcopalian family that was conservative but pro-choice. In college at Duke, she was a pro-choice leader of the College Republicans. After graduating, she fell in with a crowd of Catholic intellectuals who converted her first to the pro-life cause and, eventually, to Catholicism; like many converts, she found that her new faith was stronger than her old one. (Although the S.B.A. List is strictly focussed on abortion, Dannenfelser personally believes in a “culture of life,” the Catholic teaching that also opposes contraception, euthanasia, and the death penalty.) She has a knack for shifting, almost imperceptibly, between passionate paeans to human life and dispassionate analyses of political realities, often delivered with a crooked smile. “When I was really strongly pro-choice, I didn’t go to bed thinking, Oh, my gosh, women can’t be free unless they have abortion; what am I going to do tomorrow?” she says. “Now I’m going to sleep thinking, Oh, my gosh, thirty-eight hundred children are going to die tomorrow. What am I going to do to actually save some of them?” She calls this phenomenon “the intensity gap”—a simple way of understanding why her side hasn’t lost this war, and may yet win it.
On the last day of July, twenty or so summer interns gathered at the S.B.A. List’s Washington headquarters, in an office building near Farragut Square. Every election season, the group chooses a few important campaigns to support. On that day, the focus was the Senate race in North Carolina, where Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, had a small lead over Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives. Dannenfelser hoped a Tillis victory would help give Republicans control of the Senate, putting McConnell in a position to make good on his promise. Like many other political issues, the fight over abortion has grown increasingly partisan, which means that often you support the cause by supporting the party. The S.B.A. List likes to remind voters that Hagan has “a one hundred per cent rating from America’s abortion giant, Planned Parenthood.” This is true, but not unusual; forty-six of the fifty-three Democrats in the Senate earned the same grade. In this regard, Hagan is a typical Democrat, and, for the S.B.A. List, that is precisely the problem.
The interns were given scripts and asked to dial into a system called i360, which connected them with North Carolina residents who were likely to be pro-life. They were instructed to tell whoever answered that they were “conducting a short public-opinion survey,” but the heart of the survey was an assertion tucked into the third question: “As part of the Obamacare legislation, Senator Kay Hagan voted to allow for your federal tax dollars to fund abortions. Does this make you more or less likely to vote for her?”
Chris Crawford, the S.B.A. List’s assistant national field director, was hoping that the interns would make around three thousand calls before they left, so there was no time for nuanced discussion. “We don’t really want people to get bogged down in conversations,” Crawford said. One man had protested that Question 3 was a “Republican talking point.” The intern simply replied, “No, sir, it’s not.”
Ever since Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Dannenfelser has been going after the politicians who supported it. During the 2010 midterm election, the S.B.A. List sought to erect billboards in Ohio saying that Steve Driehaus, a Democratic congressman, had “voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.” Driehaus complained that the proposed billboards violated a state law against falsifying a candidate’s voting record, and the S.B.A. charged that the Ohio law was unconstitutional. (The dispute, which reached the Supreme Court, became known as the “right to lie” case, and the Ohio law was eventually struck down.) Last month, the Government Accountability Office found that health-care reform had indeed led to taxpayer funding of abortion, partly because some subsidized insurance plans were failing to charge customers extra for abortion coverage. The cost was typically only cents per month, but for Dannenfelser that wasn’t the point: any government subsidy might increase the number of abortions.
There is also a strategic benefit to telling voters about “taxpayer-funded abortion”: it links the pro-life movement to less controversial causes, like fiscal discipline and general opposition to Obamacare. Although Tillis used his speakership to shepherd a pair of important pro-life bills through the North Carolina legislature, he hasn’t been talking about this legacy on the campaign trail, and neither has the S.B.A. List, which plans to spend about one and a half million dollars to try to get him elected. (By contrast, EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood are each spending about three million dollars, through their political affiliates, in support of Hagan.) Dannenfelser knows that the candidates she supports don’t necessarily want to be too closely associated with the pro-life movement. “You’re definitely going to come across people who think the best thing that could possibly happen is that nobody says the ‘a’ word for six months,” she says.
This skittishness has only increased in recent years, as Democrats like Boxer have accused Republicans of waging a “war on women.” Every Republican candidate must now fear the spectre of Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman who became famous, in 2012, for his disastrous response to a question about whether rape victims deserved the right to an abortion. (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said, thereby shutting down his own congressional career.) After Obama’s reëlection, the Republican National Committee released a report urging reform. “We must change our tone—especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters,” it read. That seemed to mean, among other things, that Republicans should talk less about abortion, so as not to scare off women, who sided with Obama in 2012, fifty-five per cent to forty-four.
Dannenfelser has a different view: she thinks that the Republican tactic on abortion should be to speak better, not less. In any case, she’s not convinced that abortion is the reason women tend to vote Democratic. Polls suggest that men and women don’t differ substantially in their views on abortion laws, and that the Democrats’ advantage among women is greater on issues like education and the economy. Still, Dannenfelser is willing to tailor her message to her audience, to a point, which is why the S.B.A. List’s script for North Carolina focussed on Obamacare, not on the pro-life laws that Tillis helped enact, which still arouse strong and mixed passions in the state. Her immediate goal, after all, is to help elect her candidate. But her ongoing project is to convince candidates that pro-life messages resonate—to make sure, in other words, that, once these candidates are elected, they feel that they can’t afford to forget about people like her.
In 1988, after graduating from Duke, Dannenfelser moved to Washington and found work in the office of a congressman from West Virginia named Alan Mollohan, who was the co-chairman of the pro-life caucus and, as it happened, a Democrat. The House had been controlled by Democrats since 1955, and part of Dannenfelser’s job was to keep the fragile pro-life coalition united. “Every vote was really close,” she says. “If you didn’t get all the pro-life Democrats, and the whole contingent of Republicans, you weren’t going to win.” In 1992, Dannenfelser left to take over the Susan B. Anthony List, then a small, idealistic alliance of feminist pro-life activists. She became both its president and its de-facto landlord—the group’s office was a spare room in Dannenfelser’s house, on a quiet street in Arlington, Virginia. At the time, the words “pro-life” conjured up the image of a protest movement: true believers huddled in front of clinics, holding candles and singing hymns. Dannenfelser was a true believer, too, but she was also ambitious and well connected, and she sensed that the movement was finally ready to overcome the shock of its traumatic beginnings.
In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant woman had a “qualified right to terminate her pregnancy.” States could prohibit abortion only once the fetus was hypothetically able to survive outside the womb, somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-eight weeks, and any such laws had to include exemptions to preserve the mother’s health. In a related case, the Court specified that “health” included “all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the wellbeing of the patient.” Suddenly, abortion was almost always legal everywhere, and activists scrambled to adjust.
The two sides took shape quickly. The Catholic Church had long proscribed abortion, and after Roe other Christian groups joined the fight. By the nineteen-nineties, an ecumenical pro-life alliance had helped make opposition to abortion a defining cause of the conservative movement and, increasingly, of the Republican Party. The Court’s decision galvanized liberals as well. Defending abortion access became a central mission of the National Organization for Women, and in 1985 EMILY’s List—now the most powerful women-oriented political group in Washington—was founded. (The name is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast.) In 1992, EMILY’s List helped elect four women to the Senate—all pro-choice Democrats—in what came to be known as the Year of the Woman. The following January, on the twentieth anniversary of Roe, Bill Clinton repealed a Reagan-era ban on government aid to overseas groups involved in abortion.
As the opposing sides became entrenched, abortion dissidents—pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans—grew scarcer and less powerful. During the debate over the A.C.A., pro-life groups hoping to amend the bill found few champions, because almost all the pro-life legislators were already against it. One of the exceptions was Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, whom Dannenfelser considered a friend and an ally. Stupak co-sponsored an amendment to bar federal funding of abortion. Then, in March, 2010, after the amendment failed in the Senate, he agreed to support the A.C.A., in exchange for a promise from Obama to sign a similarly worded executive order. Dannenfelser felt betrayed; as she talked about it one afternoon, her eyes filled with tears. “It was one of the worst days I can remember,” she said. Her former boss, the Democrat Alan Mollohan, also supported the A.C.A. In 2010, Dannenfelser’s organization spent seventy-eight thousand dollars to help defeat Mollohan in the West Virginia primary. “We can’t have a Democratic majority in the House or the Senate right now,” she said. “If we’re close, I can’t in good conscience, for the cause of life, support even a great pro-life Democrat.”
Dannenfelser still lives in Arlington, down the street from the house that was once home to the S.B.A. List, and the cause has shaped nearly every aspect of her life. She met her husband, Marty Dannenfelser, when he was chief of staff to Chris Smith, the Republican co-chairman of the pro-life caucus. She has five children, and although the two eldest drifted away from the Catholic Church, they remain firmly pro-life. One of her daughters is cognitively disabled, and Dannenfelser says that the hard but rewarding process of raising her has only strengthened her conviction that every pregnancy, even the most difficult, should be a source of joy. “Part of it is giving people a chance,” she said, over breakfast one morning, after a fund-raising dinner in New York. “Not only giving the children a chance to be born but giving people around them the chance to benefit from their lives.”
Messages like this are significantly more effective when delivered by women, which is one reason that Dannenfelser wants to elect more of them. She points to a dramatic debate from 1993 between Henry Hyde, the Republican congressman behind the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of certain federal funds for abortion, and Patricia Schroeder, a leading pro-choice Democrat. Schroeder argued that the amendment implied that “women in this country can never be trusted to use any judgment,” adding, “Women are not beasts.” Hyde won the debate, but Dannenfelser saw that he had trouble deflecting the charge of sexism. “He could speak to the fundamentals of the issue,” she says. “But he couldn’t speak with authority as a woman.”
As part of her effort to establish the anti-EMILY’s List, Dannenfelser launched a response to the Year of the Woman: a Year of the Pro-Life Woman. Fortuitously, she chose 1994, the year Republicans took control of the House and the Senate. At the time, the S.B.A. List’s main activity was bundling: collecting checks from concerned citizens and forwarding them to candidates, some of whom were surprised to find themselves the beneficiaries of an unknown pro-life group in Washington. Dannenfelser says that the contributions are meant to send an encouraging message, telling candidates, “We’re giving this to you because you’re pro-life.” That year, the S.B.A. List helped send five pro-life women, all Republicans, to the House. In 1995, for the first time since Roe v. Wade, a party that was opposed to abortion controlled both houses of Congress.
While the S.B.A. List focussed on elections, other pro-life groups, including Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee, were working on changing laws. Some activists concentrated on a rare late-term procedure known among doctors as “intact dilation and extraction,” which activists called “partial-birth abortion.” In the most common version, the doctor coaxes a live fetus past the cervix and uses surgical scissors to create an incision in its skull; the doctor then inserts a small vacuum tube to suction out the brains and other viscera, collapsing the skull and allowing for the fetus’s removal. It wasn’t clear that banning the technique would reduce the number of abortions—other techniques were available. But the idea made political sense, because it forced pro-choice politicians to address a procedure that makes most people wince.
Starting in 1995, Congress began introducing versions of a Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and Clinton vetoed them whenever they reached his desk. In 2003, after Republicans regained control of the Senate, the bill passed again, and President George W. Bush eagerly signed it. “For years,” Bush said, “a terrible form of violence has been directed at children who are inches from birth while the law looked the other way.” In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled, five to four, that the ban was constitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that doctors could accomplish the same goal by means of “less shocking” techniques.
This victory provided pro-life leaders with a template for political success. While the other side talked broadly about “choice,” pro-life activists needed to talk more narrowly about the unpleasant details of abortion. This helps explain why the movement is targeting abortions performed after twenty weeks, which account for only one per cent of the total. If you believe, as Dannenfelser does, that a human being is created at the moment of fertilization, then a late-term abortion is no more tragic than any other. And it’s not clear that a twenty-week-old fetus is capable of feeling pain. The limit of twenty weeks was carefully chosen to be just short of viability, so that if the Supreme Court wants to uphold the law it will have to revise the regimen it created forty-one years ago.
After the summer interns went back to school, having placed tens of thousands of phone calls, the S.B.A. List offices grew more grave: midterms were only a few months away, and the executives had to decide on their final endorsements. On a bright autumn morning, Dannenfelser and her top staff squeezed into a conference room to hear proposals from Adam Schaeffer, the co-founder of a political-consulting group called Evolving Strategies, which uses sociological methods to test political messages.
Last year, in the Virginia gubernatorial race, a seemingly strong Republican candidate named Ken Cuccinelli was defeated by Terry McAuliffe, a not especially popular Democrat, who portrayed Cuccinelli as an intransigent opponent of abortion access. Karl Rove was one of many Republican leaders who suggested that excessive pro-life fervor is dangerous, arguing that Cuccinelli “could not escape his past words on abortion, birth control and divorce laws.”
In Campaigns & Elections, a trade publication, Schaeffer published a provocative article suggesting that Cuccinelli’s position on abortion might have been a strength, not a weakness. He and his co-author, a Virginia activist named Nancy Smith, said that they had tested a variety of anti-McAuliffe ads on voters; the ones that worked best emphasized his “support for unrestricted, late-term, and taxpayer-funded abortions.” Dannenfelser called Schaeffer, and they agreed to collaborate on field experiments intended to prove that pro-life messaging could work. The conference table was covered with mockups of mailings: warnings and pleas, babies and fetuses, smiling mothers and concerned voters.
Schaeffer mentioned a campaign that targeted a candidate for supporting “late-term abortions of healthy babies.” Emily Buchanan, an S.B.A. List executive, looked uneasy. “The only thing about that is the idea of promoting a class of ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ babies,” she said. “We’ve been very careful to not focus on ‘These children have fetal abnormalities, so they’re different than the other children.’ ”
Schaeffer said, “You’re not saying that other abortions are good.” By including the word “healthy,” he wanted to remind voters that support for late-term abortion is “far outside the mainstream.”
A recent Pew survey found that fifty-five per cent of women and fifty-three per cent of men wanted abortion to be “legal in all or most cases.” But, as Dannenfelser likes to point out, a majority of both men and women would also approve of a twenty-week ban. In a recent Washington Post poll, women favored a ban by a margin of two to one. Dannenfelser argues that Republican candidates could use a prospective ban as a way of reaching out to Democratic women. Poll numbers and votes don’t always match up, though, so she is hoping that her work with Schaeffer will bring added empirical backing to this idea. She knows that the fight against abortion needs to be seen by politicians as not just a good cause but a smart one, too.
Unlike some other pro-life groups, the S.B.A. List doesn’t encourage candidates to support “personhood” laws, which specify that the right to life begins at conception. Those laws are polarizing, because they might prohibit contraceptives, such as intrauterine devices, that can prevent a blastocyst from implanting in the uterine wall. This year, Cory Gardner, a Republican congressman and a Senate candidate from Colorado, renounced, under pressure, a personhood amendment that he had supported, calling it “a bad idea driven by good intentions.” This is the kind of backlash that Dannenfelser wants to avoid; she believes that a blastocyst is a human life, but her group counsels politicians to focus on issues on which there is, or might be, a broad consensus. Her approach is avowedly incremental, and it requires solidly but not flamboyantly pro-life politicians like Tillis.
But, to bring an end to widely available abortion, the movement also needs to recruit more politicians who are true believers. One of Dannenfelser’s key allies is Kelly Ayotte, from New Hampshire, one of the two unreservedly pro-life women in the Senate. (The other is Deb Fischer, from Nebraska.) In 2010, the S.B.A. List supported Ayotte in a hard-fought primary, and Ayotte calls the group “a powerful force in mobilizing grass-roots support for candidates who believe in the sanctity of human life.” But even Ayotte frames her arguments in ways calculated to attract ambivalent voters; instead of talking about blastocysts, she talks about cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, as a means of reining in the federal budget, or requiring parental notification for minors, as a way to protect pregnant girls from “abuse.”
One afternoon in the town of Clemmons, North Carolina, near Winston-Salem, Dannenfelser sent a group of activists out into the field to administer the S.B.A. List survey. Wayne McKinney, a retired insurance agent in a bright-purple golf shirt, went door to door with his wife, Glenda. They were armed with glossy door hangers, in two varieties. One, with a goofy picture of a baby against a pink backdrop, claimed that Kay Hagan “refuses to protect unborn babies.” The other, more sombre, claimed that she had “voted to use your hard-earned tax dollars to support the abortion industry.”
Some people balked at telling a stranger about their voting plans, but most didn’t mind explaining how they felt about abortion. “We’ve found ladies for abortion,” McKinney said. “They’ll tell you, ‘Hey—I’m for it.’ I say, ‘Well, O.K. You have a good day, too.’ ”
His wife agreed, to a point. “The only ladies I have found that actually are for abortion, they will elaborate that it’s in the situation of rape or incest. They’ll say, ‘I don’t believe in using it as a form of birth control.’ ”
“Ninety-eight per cent will agree with that,” McKinney said. “As birth control? No. But, when you get into shades of gray, naturally there’s different points of view—and there should be. You just kind of leave it there, you know?”
Abortion has been legal in North Carolina since 1967, when the legislature passed a law allowing doctors to perform the procedure “during the first twenty weeks of a woman’s pregnancy.” (Back then, one state senator suggested that the law might help reduce the number of “vegetables” and “basket cases” receiving state benefits.) Although the state has long had a strong pro-life movement, Tillis, a former financial consultant, wasn’t particularly tied to it. But when he became speaker, in 2011, he formed an alliance with legislators for whom abortion was a priority. One of his first acts was an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, and a few months later he helped pass the Woman’s Right to Know Act, which directs that a doctor performing an abortion must first show patients an ultrasound of the fetus and give a detailed explication of its features. Last year, against strong opposition, Tillis prevailed upon the House to pass Senate Bill 353, which tightened regulations on abortion clinics, and might force some of them to close.
Dannenfelser counsels politicians to talk about pregnant women in ways that sound helpful, not punitive, and the laws that Tillis helped pass in North Carolina fit this model: they were framed as attempts to protect women from doctors who withhold information, or from dangerous clinics. Still, they were controversial; S.B. 353, in particular, generated protests and counter-protests. During the election, the law has been absent from attack ads. Though both pro-life and pro-choice groups claim that voters agree with them on S.B. 353, neither side is willing to bet on it.
Dannenfelser’s goal in campaigns is to inspire pro-life voters without driving away everyone else, so, instead of dwelling on Tillis’s record, the S.B.A. List is trying to portray Hagan as a pro-choice radical. This month, it began broadcasting a tearjerking ad built around a couple whose daughter was born at twenty-four weeks and survived. After a portrait of the daughter—a smiling blond preschooler—appears onscreen, a female narrator says, sorrowfully, “Kay Hagan supports painful late-term abortions. She’s too extreme for North Carolina.”
The S.B.A. List is supporting Tillis through a super PAC called Women Speak Out, which, like other such organizations, works independently of candidates and can therefore spend as much as it likes. (Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List are campaigning through super PACs, too.) “It’s totally counterintuitive,” Dannenfelser says. “You’re spending millions and millions of dollars to elect a candidate that you can never—we’re so careful, we don’t even talk to ’em.” As a consequence, she can’t be sure that a candidate welcomes her group’s talking about abortion on his behalf. “I think that they’re grateful,” she says. “But who knows?”
At a Women Speak Out field office in North Carolina, decorated with “Hagan Too Extreme” placards, the U.S. representative Virginia Foxx choked back tears when she talked about how important Dannenfelser’s group had been to her in 2004, when she was a first-time candidate. “Every time I thought I’d hit my low point, and I didn’t know where else money was going to come from, a big envelope would come in from the Susan B. Anthony fund,” she said. “A lot of them were five-dollar checks, ten-dollar checks. But they always seemed to come at just the right time.” She laughed. “It just is one of those little miracles that God performs, to help us when we’re feeling a little low.”
The S.B.A. List, in claiming its namesake as a pro-life pioneer, cites a quotation from an 1869 edition of Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution, which decries “the horrible crime of child-murder,” building to what sounds like a firm verdict: “Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed.”
In fact, the article—signed simply “A.”—was a subtle critique of a call for new anti-abortion laws. The author uses “guilty” in a psychological sense, to concede that a woman who procures an abortion will be haunted by it. The broader point is to frame abortion as a consequence of women’s oppression: “Women who are in the last stages of consumption, who know that their offspring must be puny, suffering, neglected orphans, are still compelled to submit to maternity, and dying in childbirth, are their husbands ever condemned? Oh, no!”
The article asserts that “the real murderer” is the cruel husband, and calls for a version of marriage that is “more exalted,” which is to say more equal. The suggestion is that, once women no longer have reason to fear men, abortion might be eradicated—but not until then.
The S.B.A. List’s embrace of feminism is nominal, but some smaller organizations have tried to show that a concern for unborn life can be compatible with the feminist tradition. Feminists for Life, formed in the aftermath of Roe, opposed abortion while working for women’s rights. And a Catholic-inspired group, Consistent Life, considers itself part of what it calls the “anti-violence community.” Its supporters include Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for “Dead Man Walking,” who wrote, “I stand morally opposed to killing: war, executions, killing of the old and demented, the killing of children, unborn and born.”
For most feminists, and most liberals, a commitment to legal abortion is non-negotiable. But this commitment may be accompanied by a note of ambivalence. In a new manifesto called “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights,” the feminist writer Katha Pollitt laments that the pro-choice movement has become “defensive” since the seventies, when “activists proudly defended ‘abortion on demand and without apology.’ ” Although there are still unapologetic advocates, mainstream politicians are likely to portray abortion not as an important tool for all women but as a remedy for perilous pregnancies, or a crucial option for victims of rape. The term “pro-choice”—already “a bit of a euphemism,” Pollitt argues—is often replaced by broad formulations involving “women’s health.” Some feminists call this the “awfulization” of abortion: when pro-choice advocates describe it as a necessary evil, in the hope of finding common ground with the pro-life side, they help make further restrictions seem more reasonable.
For the pro-choice movement, the trial, last year, of the Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell was a difficult moment. Some of the most upsetting accounts—including the stories of seven babies alleged to have been born alive and then killed by having their spinal cords snipped—bore at least a superficial resemblance to the stories that surfaced during the partial-birth-abortion debate. Gosnell seemed like a pro-life activist’s caricature of a villainous abortionist, only real. Many Americans, and liberals in particular, have grown increasingly sensitive to any conduct that looks like cruelty; this shift helps explain the heightened concerns about gender violence, bullying, and even the mistreatment of animals. Graham’s press conference, timed to the anniversary of Gosnell’s sentencing, was designed with this sensitivity in mind: the idea was to suggest that late-term abortion is cruel, too.
The pro-life movement may be having an effect on people’s views. Polls suggest that support for legal abortion is slightly but noticeably lower than it was two decades ago. The number of abortions has declined more steeply. Although Dannenfelser says that thirty-eight hundred abortions occur every day, recent surveys indicate that the current number is about twenty-nine hundred. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a respected pro-choice think tank, abortions in America peaked in 1990, at 1.61 million, and by 2011 had dropped to barely a million. The cause of the decrease is difficult to determine. Some pro-life advocates credit the proliferation of ultrasound technology, which makes it much easier to see a fetus as a baby. Others point to new abortion regulations enacted by a number of states. But a Guttmacher report found that the abortion rate had been falling precipitously before the laws took effect—and that the teen-pregnancy rate was falling, too, possibly because more people are using long-term contraceptives.
Arguments for the freedom to abort inevitably return to a single, persuasive claim: that women deserve autonomy. But autonomy, in this sense, might mean that women, as a group, deserve the right to determine which abortion laws they want their country to adopt. Dannenfelser isn’t particularly convincing when she lists all the ways in which the pro-choice movement—or, as she often calls it, the abortion industry—is harming women. (She can make the pro-choice movement sound like a sinister conspiracy to enrich abortion providers.) She makes a stronger argument when she simply points out that some abortion restrictions, including the twenty-week ban, poll well among women voters. The implication is that if most women want to change the law, they should be allowed to change it.
The Moore County Republican Men’s Club held its August lunch meeting at the Country Club of North Carolina, a private golf community down the road from Pinehurst Resort, which hosted this year’s U.S. Open. As the members took their seats, Bruce Carlson, the club’s chaplain, expressed the group’s priorities in the form of a prayer. “In this season of decision concerning our nation and state’s prosperity and freedom,” he said, “we ask you to be with those who are offering themselves to be our leaders, who are championing the causes of personal freedom and economic opportunity.”
The guest of honor was Thom Tillis, who had come to collect some checks and to outline his agenda. He boasted of cutting the average tax liability, relative to other states. “When we came in, we were at forty-four; we’re at seventeen,” he said. He promised to do the same for the country, and then he submitted to a friendly interrogation. “I like hard questions more than I do softballs,” he said, gruffly confident, as if he couldn’t understand why he didn’t already have the job he wanted.
No one asked him about abortion, and he didn’t bring it up. When the subject was mentioned after the speech, an aide began hustling Tillis to the car, saying that he was late for a meeting. Striding across the parking lot, Tillis explained that he had no plans to sponsor federal versions of the abortion bills he helped pass; he believed that every state should be able to make its own laws. “Mainly, what we need to do is make sure government doesn’t impede states’ right to make that decision,” he said.
Dannenfelser isn’t too worried about what Tillis says, or even about what he believes: when the time comes to vote against a pro-choice judge, or to send a twenty-week ban to the desk of a sympathetic President, he can surely be counted on. So far, though, Hagan has held a small but stubborn lead in the polls—about three percentage points, with Tillis leading among men and trailing among women.
Earlier this month, NARAL Pro-Choice America started broadcasting a TV ad that attacked Tillis for being supported by the S.B.A. List, which it called a “radical right-wing” group, “as anti-woman as it gets.” Dannenfelser knows that her organization might be blamed if Tillis loses. “From the perspective of Republican élites, we’re dead after every election, no matter what,” she says. “If Republicans won, they won despite us. If Republicans lost, it was because of us.” But the S.B.A. List plans to spend about ten million dollars this year, an all-time high, and it is doing better in the Senate races in Louisiana and Arkansas. For Dannenfelser, there are no moral victories. In order to prevail in the ideological argument over abortion, she must first prevail in the strategic argument about whether the issue can help her candidates at election time. “We’re not going to throw bombs just because it feels good,” she says. “We want to win.”