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Post-Roe, anti-abortion groups move toward policy push

This year's national March for Life is the first one held since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June

The 50th annual March for Life makes its way down Constitution Avenue in Washington on Friday.
The 50th annual March for Life makes its way down Constitution Avenue in Washington on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Thousands of anti-abortion activists gathered on the National Mall on Friday for the movement’s biggest annual rally, marching this year for the first time to the Capitol rather than the Supreme Court — a signal that their fight against legalized abortion has moved to the legislature, rather than the nation’s high court.

Friday morning, a sea of people began gathering for the March for Life — adults, high school students and families with young children carrying signs and banners bearing messages like “Value Them Both” and “Let Life Happen” as well as props and memorabilia like baby dolls and religious items.

The march has traditionally culminated in a walk to the Supreme Court to urge the high court to overturn the 1973 court decision that created the right to an abortion. 

But this year is different. Following the high court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last June, anti-abortion activists have turned their eyes toward Congress and state legislatures, with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., telling the crowd that the Dobbs decision was “only the end of the first phase of this battle.”

Days after formally taking the House majority, House Republicans passed two measures supported by abortion opponents — one that they say would increase protections for an infant born after an attempted abortion and the other condemning recent attacks on anti-abortion advocates and religious facilities. 

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., credited Speaker Kevin McCarthy as the “only reason” the House was able to vote on and pass two anti-abortion measures last week.

He said the House would vote on his bill to permanently ban federal funding for abortion “in the coming weeks.” The Hyde amendment currently bans funding for most abortions as an annual rider to federal spending bills.

Smith, a co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said he first attended the March in 1974 while in college and later, in 1981, for the first time as a member of Congress.

“Countless times we chanted the slogan, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go,’ and today we celebrate — Roe is gone,” he said.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, meanwhile, focused her remarks on policies that would support families in the aftermath of Roe, focusing on affordable child care, improving workplace flexibilities and updating foster and adoption care policies.

“This year is different,” said Fitch, whose office defended the state’s 15-week ban in the Dobbs case. “So it is our charge today, in a new Dobbs era, to channel that same determination, hope and prayer that has led you to march these streets for 50 years.” 

Fitch, speaking to reporters after her remarks, said Mississippi is ready to be a leader in policies that help families.

“We’re hoping that that will be effective and helpful for other states, because we know those are central issues: adoption, foster care, child support. All those are applicable to all of our states,” she said.

Next steps 

The seven months since the Dobbs decision have been an awakening of sorts for those on the sidelines, but advocates have been preparing for such a change for years.

In 2020, Students for Life of America co-led a post-march summit focused on the actions activists would need to take when the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

And in 2021, abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, submitted a Supreme Court brief saying that implementation of a Texas abortion law was “a frightening preview of a post-Roe world.”

Now, post-Roe, both sides face the limits of a split Congress and a flurry of litigation.

Abortion rights advocates are anticipating a federal court decision that could temporarily block nationwide access to medication abortion as soon as mid-February — which would impact more than half of abortions across the U.S. Any rulings will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.

For abortion opponents, 2023 presents the opportunity to coalesce around common next steps — though efforts among states and even at the federal level have been more fragmented.

Expanding access 

Even as anti-abortion groups cheered, abortion rights groups have funneled energy into events opposing the march and mourning the end of Roe. 

Along the march route and in the nearby Brookland neighborhood, home to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — the largest Roman Catholic church in North America — abortion rights supporters had hung posters and flyers depicting last year’s march, when the group Catholics for Choice displayed projections on the Basilica advocating for abortion rights.

The Sunday, Jan. 22, anniversary would have marked 50 years of precedent under Roe, a fact that is still hard to swallow for some advocates, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who expects it to be “especially gutting” for many.

“Never before have we marked this anniversary when this decision — and the fundamental freedoms for women it ushered in — are no longer the law of the land,” said Shaheen.

The White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver a Roe anniversary address on Sunday in Florida. 

The Women’s March, initially held after former President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, has shifted its strategy post-Dobbs, locating its biggest march this year in Madison, Wis., to signify “that the fight for reproductive freedom is now in the states,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March.

She said the group chose the location because of existing infrastructure and ahead of a Wisconsin Supreme Court election this spring. She hopes the 4-3 conservative court could shift to a 4-3 liberal majority — opening a path to overturn the state’s abortion ban. 

Judicial elections are considered nonpartisan, but advocates often look to prior rulings for hints how a judge may rule on a particular issue, such as abortion. Justice Patience Roggensack, who is not seeing reelection, is considered conservative.

State legislators are also eying efforts to expand access by attempting to repeal old restrictions and pushing for additional resources. 

Herminia Palacio, president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank committed to advancing sexual and reproductive rights, said that about 17.8 million women of reproductive age live in a state without any abortion providers.

“On what would have been Roe’s 50th anniversary, we are instead facing the deepest crisis in abortion access in 50 years,” she said. “Abortion is now unavailable in 14 states, and that list will continue to grow.”  

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