The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Antiabortion groups electrified but cautious after draft court ruling

Demonstrators face off outside the Supreme Court on May 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Minutes after reading that the Supreme Court was prepared to gut Roe v. Wade, Kristan Hawkins joined a conference call to plan.

The antiabortion activist had rearranged her life for this moment, even selling her house last year and moving her family into a camper to travel the country, advocating for abortion restrictions. Now a leaked majority opinion said Roe “must be overruled.”

But it was only a draft. On their call, Hawkins and fellow activists at Students for Life of America scrambled to respond. “We got to get folks at the court tomorrow,” Hawkins remembers saying. “We have to see, you know, is this real?”

“Before you go to bed tonight, pray for the five Justices,” Hawkins tweeted to her 20,000 followers Monday during a long night of texts, calls and tears. “Pray for their safety. Pray for their courage.”

Monday’s leak electrified the antiabortion movement, which has spent nearly half a century working to reverse the court’s 1973 decision that a woman has a constitutional right to end her pregnancy. For advocates such as Hawkins — the 36-year-old founder of Students for Life of America — the draft opinion reportedly circulated in February was a thrilling signal that the abortion battle is about to radically shift.

“It’s not going to be the same-old, same-old waiting for a few older guys in Washington, D.C., to finally act,” said Hawkins, whose activism against abortion dates to high school.

The court’s leak set off protests in many quarters and rejoicing in others, yet many abortion opponents said they were holding back. Describing themselves as cautiously optimistic, activists worried about a last-minute upheaval to the court, prayed for its members’ protection and hoped the leak would solidify conservative justices’ positions rather than pressure them to back off.

Even a sudden death — “God forbid” — could upend the court’s makeup, said Jonathan Keller, president of the antiabortion California Family Council. He noted that Justice Clarence Thomas was recently in the hospital.

“There’s been a continuous Lucy-and-the-football feeling,” Keller said, comparing abortion opponents’ long fight to Charlie Brown’s thwarted attempts to kick a football in “Peanuts.” “There’s just been a real wariness from some pro-lifers … to see if this is actually real, or if we’re going to have that football pulled out from under us again.”

If the draft opinion published Monday night by Politico stands, it will represent a massive victory for antiabortion activists long disappointed in the Supreme Court, which in their minds missed opportunity after opportunity in the past few decades to overturn Roe.

A leaked draft opinion on May 2 shows that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn federal abortion protections. Here's what would happen. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

In the late 1980s they had expected Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to become the vote for ditching Roe, only to watch as he became known as the court’s swing justice. More recently that swing role has been played by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — who is widely believed to worry about the fallout of overturning a politically explosive, decades-long precedent. Over the past several years the court has declined to revisit lower-court rulings against state bans on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and just two years ago, Roberts joined four liberal justices in striking down abortion restrictions in Louisiana.

Abortion opponents saw a fresh opening with the confirmation of another conservative nominated to the court by President Donald Trump, Amy Coney Barrett, in 2020. Yet among the antiabortion crowd, Keller recounted, some thought it was wiser to chip away at Roe rather than “swing for the fences.”

Now, with their biggest dreams for the court in reach, antiabortion groups are scrambling to ensure state officials understand the logistics of putting long-dormant restrictions into action. Some of about a dozen “trigger laws” — which outlaw most abortions almost immediately if Roe falls — require the state attorney general or the governor to first certify that Roe was overturned. And some states will need to go back to the courts to lift previous blocks on their legislation.

“Once we have a final opinion, there’s a lot of work to do to move forward that we can be preparing for,” said Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel for Americans United for Life.

Still, Tuesday was a flurry of action.

Abby Johnson was headed to Louisiana for a talk that would emphasize the work still needed to prevent abortions in states with trigger laws. Women could evade restrictions with abortion pills, she said, or travel to neighboring states. At the airport Tuesday, she said, she surveyed the people around her and wondered how many of them knew about this week’s bombshell.

“This is my life,” said Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now encourages abortion providers or clinic workers to leave their jobs. “I mean, my life is abortion. … I think a lot of Americans have no idea what’s going on.”

The Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, spent much of the day touching base with allies on Capitol Hill and beyond, according to spokeswoman Mallory Carroll.

Students for Life of America sent an email to conservative leaders with “points to be hitting over and over,” Hawkins said, and also rushed to set up meetings with young people throughout the country to discuss the “lay of the land” in their states.

Hawkins will head to Kansas this weekend to kick off a door-knocking campaign, ahead of an August ballot measure that will ask voters to amend the state constitution to say there is no constitutional right to an abortion.

She said abortion opponents’ excitement is mixed with a “heavy feeling” and a sense that “everything we have been building towards, now … the rubber meets the road.”

Most Americans say the Supreme Court should uphold Roe, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, and Democrats hope the leaked draft decision will galvanize voters and donors ahead of the midterm elections. Abortion rights advocates are warning of dire consequences for women, especially those who cannot afford to travel out of state.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged that his chamber would again hold a vote on legislation to codify the right to an abortion into federal law. But the vote will largely be symbolic — such a measure already failed in February amid opposition from all the chamber’s Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

“This clearly is going to be about people making a choice in a few months about who is representing them and speaking for them,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in an interview. “We have to have a pro-choice Senate and a pro-choice House if we want to protect women’s rights.”

The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision established a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion. Some Democrats want to make it into law. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Abortion opponents say they will be working to change minds as well as laws, with ambitions far beyond a patchwork of restrictions. Their focus may shift toward the two dozen or so blue states in which abortions would remain legal, in some cases through most of a pregnancy.

“The Supreme Court is kind of doing a compromise here by saying, ‘Well, we’re going to send it back to the states,’” said Lila Rose, founder of the antiabortion group Live Action, known for its massive social media presence and undercover videos of Planned Parenthood clinics. “The bottom line is the right to life should not be up for democratic vote.”

Rose said she wants to see a ban on the “intentional destruction of human life” from the moment of fertilization, which she believes should block the use of Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill.

Many antiabortion advocates had been hopeful the high court would move to overturn Roe, citing signs the justices were open to it during December’s oral arguments. Most stunning, they said, was the leak itself, a rare breach of modern Supreme Court protocol.

Republicans quickly denounced the draft’s disclosure to Politico as an attempt to pressure the justices into switching their position. But the leaker’s identity and motivations are unclear — and most antiabortion advocates interviewed by The Post said they did not believe the public backlash would sway the court’s conservatives.

“I guess I’d be surprised if it does actually sway anybody,” said National Right to Life President Carol Tobias. “I really don’t know what the purpose of doing it was.”

Her organization has struck a cautious tone as it waits for the final ruling. On Monday night it issued a statement that read in part, “National Right to Life agrees with the statement of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch who said, ‘We will let the Supreme Court speak for itself and wait for the Court’s official opinion.’”

“Everyone is being a little reserved,” Tobias said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re not going to celebrate or claim victory,” she added. “And even when Roe is—”

She paused.

If Roe is overturned, we still have a lot of work to do,” she continued. “In many ways, our toughest job is still ahead of us.”