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‘Will We Keep Marching?’ On Roe’s 50th Anniversary, Abortion Opponents Reach a Crossroads

For the past 20 years, Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, has traveled to Washington for the March for Life, the anti-abortion rally that marks the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and is held every year to urge its end.

The January march has long served as a dependable “shot in the arm” for activists around the country, Mr. Scheidler said. “For people who go every year, it’s like a family reunion.”

On the brink of the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision, however, the family is divided about where to go next.

Months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, a major victory that anti-abortion activists fought to achieve, many want to focus on pushing more stringent restrictions. Others want to focus on bolstering the social safety net for parents and families. To that end, prominent anti-abortion leaders have signed onto a new statement urging “significant changes in public policy.”

The divergent agendas coincide with an already precarious time for the movement that was once unified around ending Roe.

Abortion battles have largely returned to the states; thirteen have nearly eliminated abortion access while others have expanded it and enshrined protections into law. In November, voters affirmed abortion rights in every state where the issue was on the ballot, including in conservative states like Montana and Kentucky. Activists and politicians disagree on post-Roe strategies and emphases. The march’s own website asks the question, “Will we keep marching?”

The answer is yes, at least this year.

Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said the march had long served as a dependable “shot in the arm” for activists around the country.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

“What I hear from people is we’re not yet done,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of the organization that puts on the event, adding, “I certainly hear from people that we’re in a different stage.”

That shift is reflected in plans for this year’s events.The organization’s “Capitol Hill 101” training session for activists on Thursday — the day before the march itself on Friday —will be devoted to explaining the role of the federal legislature in abortion policy. Last week, House Republicans passed a bill that would threaten criminal penalties for a doctor who fails to resuscitate a baby born alive during an attempted abortion. (The bill has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.)

Many anti-abortion activists are now more focused on legislative wrangling and legal battles playing out in the states, and the internal conflicts to contend with there: Those opposed to abortion disagree on things like whether to settle for a ban at 12 or 15 weeks, and whether to carve out exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

More on Abortion Issues in America

  • At a Crossroads: As the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling approaches, anti-abortion activists who fought to have the decision overturned are split about what they should focus on next.
  • In Congress: Republicans used their new power in the House to push through legislation that could subject doctors who perform abortions to criminal penalties.
  • Morning-After Pills: The Food and Drug Administration revised its guidance on the most commonly used emergency contraceptives, making clear they are not abortion pills.
  • Abortion Pills: In a move that could significantly expand access to medication abortions, the F.D.A. moved to allow retail pharmacies to offer abortion pills in the United States.

The March for Life is ramping up its network of state events. And the marchhas a new route, ending not at the Supreme Court as it has for 49 years, but between the court and the U.S. Capitol, symbolizing that “the judiciary is still critically important,” Ms. Mancini said, but now, so is Congress.

Many groups, including the Catholic high schools that send busloads of students to the event, are still planning to make the trek to Washington. This will be the first occasion for the entire movement to gather since its triumph in the high court last summer.

Historically, the march has been “the place everybody had to be if they were anybody in the pro-life movement,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, the author of several books on abortion law and politics.

But the end of Roe compounded existing fractures in the movement and upended its hierarchy, Ms. Ziegler said. (She has written opinion pieces in support of abortion rights.)

The movement’s ultimate aim is the same as it ever was: to end the practice of abortion. But, Ms. Ziegler said, “the problem now is that the goal is harder to define and harder to attain.”

March for Life participants in front of the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 1985.Credit…George Tames/The New York Times

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., canceled its annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life, events it had hosted close to the march for a quarter-century. In a statement, the archdiocese said it had heard from many dioceses that they were focusing on local events this year.

The end of Roe “really quickly has become something very dangerous for the movement, and we need to do something to counteract it,” said Charles Camosy, a professor of medical humanities at the Creighton University School of Medicine who writes often about abortion. “It’s not clear that a big march in Washington is what’s going to do it.”

Mr. Camosy said he had accepted a speaking engagement near his home in New Jersey that falls on the same day as the march, following the instinct that local activism should take precedence over a national gathering this year.

Abortion rights supporters are also focused on local action: They’ve planned marches and rallies in cities across the country on Sunday, the day of the Roe anniversary.Vice President Kamala Harris plans to speak in Florida.

Mr. Camosy and Mr. Scheidler are two of the four abortion opponents who led a statement made public on Thursday that offers one path forward for the movement. The statement “on building a post-Roe future” endorses expanded child tax credits, paid parental leave, affordable child-care options and “expanded Medicaid funding for prenatal care, delivery and postpartum expenses,” among other policies it says will work to reduce the economic and social pressures behind some abortion decisions.

The anti-abortion movement often emphasizes support for pregnant women and families, but serious efforts have been largely limited to private foundations and nonprofits. Increasing public spending to care for families is often opposed by lawmakers on the right.

“Support from nonprofits will not be enough,” the statement says, answering a claim from many abortion opponents that pregnancy resource centers and other anti-abortion charities can meet the vast needs of poor pregnant women.

“What I hear from people is we’re not yet done,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of the organization that puts on the March for Life, adding, “I certainly hear from people that we’re in a different stage.”Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times

Notable signatories include Lila Rose, the founder and president of Live Action; Russell Moore, the editor in chief of Christianity Today; and Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who is now a high-profile anti-abortion activist. They also include Catherine Glenn Foster, the president and chief executive of American United for Life, and Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, who jointly released a separate proposal on Wednesday to “make birth free” via congressional legislation.

“Just as it’s not clear what the Republican Party is going to be, it’s not clear what the pro-life movement is going to be,” Mr. Camosy said.He sees an opening for the anti-abortion movement to support a robust social safety net, finding common ground with Democrats and helping to position Republicans as “the party of the family-friendly working class.” (Mr. Camosy is a former board member for Democrats for Life of America, but he quit in 2020 over what he described as the party’s increasing extremism on abortion.)

The post-Roe moment means “the pro-life movement is more diffuse, more free to be diverse and interesting and attack local problems,” he said.

Other leaders agree that this is an opportunity for a fresh start.

“This is Year 1 for the pro-life movement,” said Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “We want to everyone to know this is the year where the work really begins.”

For a movement that is effectively in brainstorming mode, any idea — from travel restrictions to corporate pressure to a full federal ban — could be the one that sticks.

This is “a moment of reorientation and regrouping,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, which will co-host the National Pro-Life Summit at a Washington hotel the day after the march.

People protesting abortion rights walk toward the Supreme Court during the March for Life last year.Credit…Leigh Vogel for The New York Times

Ms. Hawkins signed the statement on a “post-Roe future.” But her organization has other priorities, too. Students for Life is among those emphasizing the need to crack down on abortion pills, which have taken on increased importance as conservative states have enacted bans on the procedure.

For some observers, it’s an open question whether a movement that has caught its white whale can maintain the focus and intensity required to sustain the activism of the last half-century.

“In the short term we’ll continue to see it as a salient political issue, but at some point people will have to recognize there’s no national consensus” among those opposed to abortion, said Daniel K. Williams, a historian.

That raises the question of whether abortion will become, for many who oppose it, something more like an “intractable problem,” comparable to drug abuse or child abuse — serious issues, but ones “that don’t lead to an annual march and a political litmus test,” Mr. Williams said. (Mr. Williams, too, signed the “post-Roe future” statement from Mr. Camosy and Mr. Scheidler.)

For young people against abortion who plan to attend the march in Washington this week, the emergence of a more diffuse movement is not necessarily a bad thing, they say.

Jesse Muehler, a recent college graduate who teaches middle school English at a private school in northeast Indiana, is traveling to Washington with Lutherans for Life, an organization based in Indiana that opposes abortion.

Mr. Muehler is aware of the protracted legal tug of war that has unfolded across the country since last summer. But in his view, localizing the abortion debate is ultimately good for the anti-abortion cause.

“Having those conversations with the people who disagree with you that live across the street from you, or that live across town from you are more valuable and more meaningful,” he said. “It wasn’t just about Roe.”

Mr. Scheidler, of the Pro-Life Action League, is a second-generation activist. Over the years, he has attended the March for Life with his father, Joe, and his six daughters. He has passed out fliers, bought T-shirts and chanted slogans like, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go!” with an exuberant crowd of thousands.

This year, however, may be his last. “I’m going this year but I’m not sure I’ll go again,” Mr. Scheidler said last week. “I’m not sure why we’d go to D.C. in the dead of winter to call for the end of a precedent that was overturned.”

Ava Sasani contributed reporting.

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