Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Pro-Life Movement Readies for the Fight of Our Times

While 2019 saw a tightening of state anti-abortion laws, the real challenge is in Washington.
pro life march

Almost 47 years after Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate hasn’t gone away. The last year saw red and blue states passing dueling abortion bills; there was a surprise blockbuster film about the divisive social issue; and the Supreme Court readied to handle yet another major abortion case.

While a lot of the action happened at the state level, President Donald Trump has remained an ally to the pro-life movement. Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life, told me in an e-mail that Trump promised “he would veto any legislation that would weaken federal policies on abortion protecting innocent, unborn life or policies that force taxpayers to pay for abortion.” Mancini believes this has set the stage for Republicans in lower offices to continue to push for pro-life policies.

This includes a spate “heartbeat bills” advanced by Republicans in state legislatures. These bills would ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected, although a few states have exceptions for rape, incest, or medical emergencies. Nearly half of the states have introduced or attempted to pass such bills. However, in the handful of states where they have become law, none have withstood judicial scrutiny: all of the heartbeat bills have been temporarily blocked by a federal court or struck down. Alabama’s legislature passed the Human Life Protection Act, which is a near-total abortion ban. It was set to go into effect in November but a federal judge blocked it too.

Ohio is one state that is becoming increasingly pro-life. Aaron Bear, president of Citizens for Community Values, assisted with the effort to pass a heartbeat bill. After three attempts, it finally passed this year, only for a federal judge to block it. In an e-mail, Bear told me, “It’s likely to be a long road ahead” before the bill passes judicial muster because of Roe v. Wade. He noted that Timothy Black, the judge hearing the case, served as a director of the Planned Parenthood Association of Cincinnati several years ago. “It is absolutely absurd that he did not recuse himself from such an important case, as he has on other abortion cases in the past,” Bear said.

While this is frustrating for many pro-life advocates, they still hope their efforts will bear fruit. The long-term strategy is that such legislation will ultimately be used to challenge Roe. Bear argued, “Ohio’s Heartbeat Bill in particular was designed with pinpoint precision for judges to find it  constitutional. However, many lower courts may feel like only the Supreme Court could take such a drastic step as to contradict Roe v. Wade. So while we think the lower courts should uphold it, we have always known that the Supreme Court’s decision is the only one that’s going to matter at the end.” 

Georgia lawmakers passed a heartbeat bill that restricted abortions past six weeks. Governor Brian Kemp signed it, and a federal judge blocked it. Yet even before it was enacted, Hollywood liberals took a special interest in the Georgia legislation because of the television and film industries in the state. Statistics via the Motion Picture Association of America show in 2016 that the Hollywood industry employed about 25,700 people in Georgia. Celebrities like Mandy Moore, Alyssa Milano, and Don Cheadle signed a petition claiming they would abstain from working in Georgia or hiring locals should Kemp sign the bill. This effort failed to dissuade the governor. 

Other states went in the opposite direction. New York, Vermont, and Virginia all enacted laws that would permit abortion virtually until birth. The New York state legislature passed, and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed, the “Reproductive Health Act,” which allows women to legally abort their babies into the third trimester. After Cuomo signed the bill, the World Trade Center was lit up in pink to celebrate this advancement of “reproductive rights.”

Virginia passed a law that bans abortion after 25 weeks, even though some babies born as early as 23 weeks have been known to survive outside the womb with significant medical intervention. However, in September a federal judge upheld a state law that requires a woman to undergo an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before she obtains an abortion. Vermont passed a “comprehensive abortion rights bill” which asserts “the fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.”

Washington isn’t out of the picture, however. The Supreme Court will hear June Medical Services v. Gee. This case revolves around whether a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortion to have the right to admit patients at a hospital is constitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, along with the other four more liberal justices, blocked Louisiana from enforcing this law until abortion providers could appeal. 

These admitting privileges rules are very similar to the Texas requirement justices anguished over in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstendt. The Supreme Court struck the requirements down in 2016, but that decision was reached before Justice Anthony Kennedy retired and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were confirmed.

While the Louisiana law being upheld would not affect Roe or Planned Parenthood v. Casey, it could signal that the Supreme Court is ready to hear a more fundamental challenge to existing liberal abortion jurisprudence.

But it is not just the law that matters for abortion policies, but also public opinion and the culture. Mancini believes we are seeing an important cultural shift on the issue. In February 2019, Marist released poll numbers that astounded pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike: nearly 75 percent of Americans wanted to see abortion restrictions and the same percentage opposed late-term abortion.

“The culture is shifting towards life and we see it especially with young people who consider this a foundational social justice issue. Advances in science and technology have fueled this cultural shift by allowing us to observe clearly developing life in the womb,” Mancini said. 

Another example is the film adaptation of Abby Johnson’s Unplanned, the story of her abortion conversion story. Johnson wasn’t just pro-choice, she was a Planned Parenthood director and employee of the year. Produced on a relatively small $6 million budget, Unplanned saw surprise commercial success, despite roadblocks including an unforeseen Motion Picture Association of America rating of “R” because the film shows an abortion. Multiple mainstream networks refused to air promotions of the film, citing its “objectionable” content. Yet it still landed in the top five movies on opening weekend in terms of revenue, doubling its previous box office projection.

Months after its 2019 release, Johnson described the incredible impact the film has had on people. 

For the last year, I’ve received so many emails and messages about how Unplanned radically changed the hearts and minds of people who saw the film. It was more than I ever expected. I heard of people who went into the movie pro-choice and left pro-life. Others told me how babies were saved specifically because the mother saw Unplanned and decided abortion was no longer an option. The positive effect of the film on laws has already happened in states like Georgia. We’ve shown the film to several other lawmakers around the country and certainly expect more changes on the legislative front. But I think that Unplanned showed how love is always the right answer and how compassion and gentleness and trust in God can move even the most hardened of hearts. I look forward to the day that abortion is unthinkable and hope that the film had some part to play in that great day.

If a renewed culture of life comes about in America, maybe 2019 will be looked back on as a starting point. 

Nicole Russell covers politics, law, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Washington Examiner. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.