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Woman who supported abortion rights experienced evolution that changed her mind

By Jason Horowitz
Friday, May 14, 2010; C01

Marjorie Dannenfelser charts the emotion stirred up in Congress over the abortion issue in the final weeks of the health-care debate and divines where it's all going: The intensity will sweep Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) out of office and make her often overlooked antiabortion organization matter.

"The money is going to Nevada," said Dannenfelser, 44, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a small-scale ideological counterpart to Emily's List, the machine behind many Democratic women in Congress. "It's not hard to sell the idea that it will be an immense victory to have a pro-life woman unseat Harry Reid."

On Friday, Dannenfelser's organization will play host to Sarah Palin at a fundraising breakfast the activist hopes will give her musings some muscle. Dannenfelser argued that Reid's health-care law, which does not ban federal funding for the procedure, destroyed his antiabortion bona fides and created an opportunity for Sue Lowden, an abortion opponent who is the front-runner in the Nevada Republican Senate primary, to win. Lowden has a history of support for abortion rights, but Dannenfelser is not bothered by that. After all, she has gone through an evolution of her own.

Dannenfelser, a native of Greenville, N.C., and former debutante, grew up as Marjorie Jones, an Episcopalian and defender of a woman's right to choose. One summer spent in a Georgetown house for Republican interns changed that, when a bitter schism erupted between social conservatives and libertarians over a pornographic video. That domestic dispute began the gradual transformation that led Dannenfelser to her current antiabortion crusade, her conversion to Catholicism and the founding of a society named after the suffragist who, according to historians, hardly made abortion a signature issue.

In an election year crowded with social conservatives, "tea party" activists and Republican usual suspects clamoring to pick up seats, Dannenfelser is trying to make some noise of her own. The SBA List has hired a public relations firm, made a slew of endorsements, and Dannenfelser has been booked for myriad television appearances to associate Susan B. Anthony's imprimatur with a Republican resurgence.

Back in Nevada, at least one candidate is playing along. "It gives me credibility," Lowden said of the group's endorsement. "It's something on a nationwide basis that is going to help me in this race."

A resurgence

On a recent afternoon in the group's humble headquarters, Palin's visage hung on the wall in the center of 14 head shots of abortion opponents, all women who are or have been in elected office. Palin, like Dannenfelser, is the mother of a special-needs child, and the two women are simpatico on many things. Dannenfelser called Palin's keynote speech a favor and -- given Palin's hefty speaking fees -- a "freebie." In the call center, with a calendar of the Madonna and child mixed among strategic maps, young women worked the phones.

Dannenfelser, wearing a striped beige jacket and a necklace of silver spheres, came out of her small office, where books about the importance of women in the life of Pope John Paul II ("Wojtyla's Women") and an anti-Democratic screed ("The Party of Death") sat in a short bookcase. She spoke in a warm Southern accent, and as she fiddled with a pink packet of Post-it Notes, declared that the abortion issue is back on the nation's radar.

She welcomed its resurgence, and the attendant spike in interest in her group, which she attributed to the Democrats' health-care law. She still harbors a grudge against nuns who "provided cover" to Catholic lawmakers to support the legislation: "You still hear Democrats harkening to these nuns who nobody ever heard of till that day, and now they are the authoritative church figures?" she said, bristling. Rep. Bart Stupak's approval of the bill, she said, made the loss all the more painful.

"We were going to give him an award. We were going to support him in the primary," she said of the Michigan Democrat, an abortion opponent, adding, "He looked me in the eye and said of the president and the Democratic leadership, 'They know I won't fold. There is no way.' "

The day Stupak voted for the legislation, Dannenfelser said she made it clear to him that "we are going to be involved in your defeat."

Whether she stoked fear in him or not, Stupak announced that he will not seek reelection. Dannenfelser has hired Marilyn Musgrave, a former congresswoman from Colorado who opposes abortion, to target Senate seats held by Democrats in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana and New Hampshire. The bulk of the SBA List's money -- a few million dollars -- will go to Nevada, but resources will also punish House Democrats who oppose abortion and yet voted for the health-care bill. That included Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), who was Dannenfelser's employer on the Hill and whom she targeted in the Democratic primary, which he lost on Tuesday. "This should be just another sign to pro-life Democrats that voted for the health-care bill that they will face the same consequences as Stupak and Mollohan," she said in a statement. Mollohan declined a request to comment for this article.

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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