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Woman who supported abortion rights experienced evolution that changed her mind

Faces of antiabortion movement: Marjorie Dannenfelser, an original organizer of the Susan B. Anthony List, stands at the group's headquarters next to photos of 14 elected officials, all women, who oppose abortion.
Faces of antiabortion movement: Marjorie Dannenfelser, an original organizer of the Susan B. Anthony List, stands at the group's headquarters next to photos of 14 elected officials, all women, who oppose abortion. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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Dannenfelser's operation, even if it hits its most ambitious fundraising goals, is dwarfed by Emily's List. In the 2008 cycle, Emily's List raised $43 million and helped elect 12 pro-choice women to the House, and two pro-choice women to the Senate. Asked about the importance of Dannenfelser's group, Jonathan Parker, the political director of Emily's List, shrugged and said, "We don't pay much attention to them."

Choosing sides

As a young girl, Dannenfelser founded a "kids' lib" club, and she recalls swaying non-constituents -- her mother, a librarian, and her father, a dermatologist -- to her cause.

At Duke, the College Republicans pursued a big-tent strategy to draw in more members and appointed her as their "pro-choice chair." She had a go-to line for men who challenged her staunch defense of abortion rights: "When you become a woman, come back and talk to me."

In 1986, after her freshman year of college, she spent a summer interning at the Heritage Foundation and stayed with 10 young Republicans in a townhouse on O Street in Georgetown. The "Right House" as it was known was a pilot project of the Conservative Student Support Foundation, run by Floyd Brown, a consultant and co-founder of Citizens United. The experiment faltered when the residence became torn apart by a group-house culture war.

"There was a fight between the traditionalists and the libertarians," said Michael Centanni, 43, then the manager of the house and now a chief operating officer at Base Connect, a direct-mail firm for Republican candidates who oppose abortion.

Dannenfelser said the social conservatives were not her crowd, and the libertarians were "more fun." But she was seeing a recent Georgetown grad Chris Currie, who was crashing at the house. ("It was coed," Dannenfelser said. "Watch out!") Currie, a devout Catholic, recalled how he spoke passionately against abortion to Dannenfelser, who described him as "the best apologist I've ever met, before or since." Currie -- now 48 and a registered Democrat -- said Dannenfelser was always "interested in the big questions." That summer, she started doubting her abortion-rights orthodoxy. Her questions intensified just as group-house drama erupted over what Dannenfelser called an "inappropriate" video.

"It was about stupid college stuff that masqueraded as high-minded talk about property rights and freedom of speech," Centanni said. "A friend of somebody brought over a VHS tape, two or the three guys watched it. In the morning, somebody had destroyed the tape. The question was who is going to pay for the tape."

The argument grew so heated that the libertarians, who had control of the house, purged the traditionalists from the residence. Dannenfelser decided to leave with the conservatives, along with Currie, to place in Adams Morgan.

"It made me choose sides," she said.

Upon returning to Duke, she majored in philosophy, and started a Duke chapter of students for life. A year after graduation in 1988, she landed a job back at the Heritage Foundation. Soon after, a colleague there suggested she meet with Mollohan to organize the antiabortion Democratic caucus. She continued to date Currie, though he soon left her to explore the priesthood. She converted to Catholicism in 1989.

In 1991, she married Martin Dannenfelser, then the chief of staff for Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and now staff director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and started running an antiabortion women's organization out of her home. She called it the Susan B. Anthony List because, according to the group's Web site, "Susan B. Anthony was an outspoken opponent of abortion, referring to it as 'child murder.' "

The reference to "child murder" comes from an unsigned 1868 editorial in the Revolution, a paper Anthony published. Much of the editorial is an indictment on the root reasons for unwanted pregnancies, and Ellen Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony House, a historical society, said that the suffragist's name is often used to bestow credibility on causes Anthony didn't necessarily have anything to do with.

"There is no evidence that this was as an issue she was passionate about," Wheeler said. "There was a movement to make abortion illegal back then, and she did not join that movement."

Since founding the Susan B. Anthony List, Dannenfelser has given birth to five children and sought to usher women opposed to abortion into political life. She acknowledged that her group's results have paled in comparison to her abortion rights counterparts, but she is upbeat about the current political opportunities.

"Nothing," she added, "compares to right now."

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