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Abortion foes prepare for their first March for Life, post-Roe

Antiabortion activists rally during the 49th annual March for Life in Washington in January 2022. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

As they’ve done for 50 years, abortion protesters will head down Constitution Avenue this week on their annual March for Life.

But this year, there’s a detour.

Instead of going straight to the Supreme Court, they’ll turn early to walk past the U.S. Capitol — a route modification acknowledging that Congress is a new locus in the abortion wars, now that the court has granted their long-standing plea to end a pregnant woman’s right to end her pregnancy.

“That is sending a very clear message to members of Congress that there’s still a need for a federal role to protect unborn children and their mothers from abortion,” said Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs at the prominent antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and a former member of Congress.

Friday marks the first March for Life since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. A national limit on abortion has become one of the new focal points for march organizers and other antiabortion leaders, who are pressing newly empowered House Republicans to pass legislation restricting how early in pregnancy women across the country can obtain the procedure, though such legislation won’t make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The March for Life began in 1974 as an annual abortion protest in late January, typically on or around the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, and this year’s theme will focus on next steps for a movement that won its greatest victory in 49 years last summer.

The first march in this new era of abortion policy is focused on “commemorating this historic moment,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund.

But it’s also about a strategic assessment of where the movement should go next, Mancini said, emphasizing the role both the federal government and states play. She detailed plans to ratchet up the group’s rallies in state capitals this year and to hold marches in all 50 states within the next five to seven years, with an ultimate goal in mind: “Working towards the day when abortion is unthinkable.”

Antiabortion leaders want to mark the moment with a strong showing of unity. But simmering just below the surface are divisions on the path forward among Republicans, state and congressional lawmakers, and those within the movement — discord that’s expected to once again explode into the public spotlight as federal and state legislative sessions kick into overdrive later this year.

Leaders maintain there’s consensus around the goal of stopping as many abortions as possible, but some concede there is disagreement on the path to get there.

“By and large, there is unity within the pro-life movement,” Mancini said. She added there is “a little bit of difference” around the extent of gestational limits on abortion at the federal level but said “that’s fair for us to work that through as a movement.”

Last week, House Republicans took their first shot at abortion legislation in their new role controlling the chamber, and decided to bypass votes on any strict limits on the procedure. Largely along party lines, the chamber passed a measure aimed at compelling doctors to provide care to infants that survive an abortion, a situation that’s rare. They also adopted a resolution — meaning it carries no legislative impact — condemning attacks on antiabortion facilities, groups and churches.

The bills were more measured than GOP leaders might have considered had they had won a larger majority in the midterms, The Washington Post previously reported, with one expert calling the legislation the “most cautious” route Republicans could take. The votes underscore the limits of what House GOP leaders can pass with their razor-thin majority, where just a few lawmakers have the ability to scuttle the party’s plans.

At least one lawmaker, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), has already issued a warning shot to House Republican leadership.

“We lost seats that we could have had because of some of the harsh stances on abortion that some in our party have taken,” Mace said in an interview, adding later that “when I saw three out of the 12 bills being abortion bills in our first week in Congress, I did raise my frustrations internally with leadership.”

Ultimately, top Republicans never scheduled a vote on the third measure, which would have permanently barred federal funds from being used for abortions, a policy that’s annually tucked into government funding bills, though its author — Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) — expects a vote as soon as the next few weeks.

Mace, a rape survivor, has become one of the more outspoken women in the Republican conference on abortion, and said she wants to see her party instead tackle legislation that can also pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. She’s working on several bills that she hopes will garner bipartisan support, such as measures allowing access to birth control over the counter and ending the backlog in processing rape kits, as well as exploring a way Congress can protect victims of rape and incest.

This comes as some Republicans are already unveiling their proposals for nationwide restrictions on abortion, even as others in the party have insisted the issue should be left up to the states. Last week, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) reintroduced legislation to prohibit most abortions after fetal cardiac activity has been detected, which typically occurs around six weeks of pregnancy, and over 60 House GOP lawmakers have signed on to the bill.

Meanwhile, Smith says he plans to again introduce his bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks, though he hasn’t heard from Republican leadership whether they would put the measure up for a vote on the House floor. Smith — who is a co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus and said he attended the first March for Life in 1974 — and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) are both scheduled to speak at Friday’s March for Life rally. Scalise’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even if Smith’s bill were to pass the House, it would go nowhere in the Senate, where Democrats held on to their slim majority in November’s midterm elections.

Abortion rights advocates scored major victories at the ballot box last year, harnessing voter anger over the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned the fundamental right to abortion. On the other side, antiabortion leaders criticized some Republicans for their campaign rhetoric, arguing that too many shied away from the issue of abortion and failed to paint their opponents as extreme.

In recent weeks, major antiabortion groups and conservative leaders have ratcheted up the pressure on House Republicans to approve a slew of bills, including banning abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, restricting abortions on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis, and requiring already approved abortion pills to be dispensed in-person by a health-care practitioner.

“With several states pledging massive resistance to the Dobbs decision, congressional silence on the fundamental human right to life is not an option,” roughly three dozen groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Members cannot squander the opportunity to advance policies that protect innocent life in the first Congress to convene in post-Roe America.”

But the Supreme Court decision also shifted the power to states to decide if and when to limit abortion — so March for Life and other groups are pledging to beef up their work around the country. Restrictions on abortion are in effect in over a dozen states.

March for Life is planning to double the number of rallies it holds in state capitals from five in 2022 to 10 this year, including the first official march in Arizona, Mancini said. Marches are coming up soon in a handful of states, including Virginia on Feb. 1, Arizona on Feb. 23, California on March 6 and Connecticut on March 22.

Meanwhile, SBA Pro-Life America is particularly targeting the curtailing of abortion in four states: Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Nebraska. And Students for Life Action will continue to hold lobby days in state capitals across the country.

Last year, Republicans in a handful of states learned of their political limits on the issue of abortion amid intraparty battles over exceptions for rape and incest and whether to include criminal penalties for doctors. Abortion rights groups are sharpening their plans to defend the procedure in states debating abortion restrictions.

“We now know that the big, big fights this year, in 2023, are in these state legislatures and these state capitals,” said Mini Timmaraju, the head of prominent abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. She detailed how her group plans to use the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe ruling — which was decided Jan. 22, 1973 — to kick-start training for organizers and volunteers at the state and local level, particularly focusing on states such as Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

On Sunday, the anniversary of the Roe decision, Vice President Harris will deliver remarks in Florida on fighting state-level abortion restrictions and make the case for national legislation to protect abortion rights, according to a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House. Florida restricts abortions after 15 weeks and is expected to be a battleground for further restrictions, putting Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, in the spotlight.

“Access to safe and legal abortion should be a fundamental right,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday on a press call. “That is the position that this administration takes. … We won’t stop fighting until everyone in America whose reproductive rights are under assault, that they are protected.”

But for the antiabortion movement, the overturning of Roe was just the beginning — a point at the center of this year’s March for Life.

“This year, we march with fresh resolve as a brand-new pro-life movement,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, told reporters, adding “we’re more expectant than ever that we will make new gains for women and children.”