March for Life anti-abortion activists ready for the 'tipping point' of a Supreme Court ruling gutting Roe

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March for Life anti-abortion activists ready for the 'tipping point' of a Supreme Court ruling gutting Roe
© Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg/Getty Images Demonstrators hold signs during the annual March For Life on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.

Attendees of Friday’s March for Life, an annual anti-abortion march in Washington that marks the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, were optimistic that this year’s march would be the last with Roe on the books. They were marching toward a Supreme Court that has before it a case where the conservative majority is expected to scale back — and perhaps fully reverse — the 1973 precedent that protects abortion rights nationwide.

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‘I’ve been coming since 1974. There is a difference in expectation and hope,” Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey told CNN, after a speech describing the moment as a “tipping point.”

A Supreme Court decision that overruled Roe will make abortion an even more contentious political flashpoint. Only 30% of Americans would like to see the precedent reversed, according to new CNN polling.

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But to the activists at Friday’s march, their enthusiasm and persistent commitment to ending abortion — as manifested by the thousands who showed up on the National Mall with temperatures in the teens — were evidence that “Roe is not settled law,” as Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life’s Education and Legal Defense Fund, said.

If the anti-abortion movement wins the generational fight that it launched in the courtroom, the battle lines next go to statehouses, where lawmakers will be pushed to put extreme restrictions or outright bans on the procedure. 

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Where the fight goes after such a ruling was a throughline of the day’s events, even as activists acknowledged that nothing is for certain until a decision comes down. The movement has been disappointed by the Supreme Court before.

“There’s a well-founded hope that the court will overturn Roe, or at least allow far more leeway to the state in terms of sending abortion policy,” Maureen Ferguson, a senior fellow for The Catholic Association, told CNN at the rally. “So I think people here are hopeful, but I don’t think anyone’s considering this to be a slam dunk.”

‘More action at the state level’

The case, Dobbs v. Jackson, was referred to multiple times by the rally’s speakers. The Supreme Court is reviewing Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. At oral arguments last month, several members of the conservative majority made comments suggesting that, beyond just upholding the law, they were inclined to dismantle Roe itself, which protects abortion before fetal viability, a point around 23 weeks into pregnancy.

A ruling that weakened or overruled Roe would free up states to pass more restrictive laws and possibly prohibit the procedure. For years, the anti-abortion movement has been pressuring legislatures to pass bills that limit access to the procedure and prompt test cases aimed at getting the court to change its precedent.

But at Friday’s rally, activists said Roe reversal would drastically change the battleground and that the movement needed to prepare now for that shift.

“A lot of groups are looking to figure out how to start taking action more at the state level,” said Ken Rolling, who was marching Friday with students from Oxrose Academy, an online school of which he is a headmaster. 

The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports anti-abortion politicians, has been reachiing out to governors, its spokesperson Mallory Quigley told CNN, in addition to its work with state and federal legislators.

“Making sure that the executive branches of the state governments are prepared to lead the conversation about consensus in their state is so important right now,” Quigley said.

‘It doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be abortion anymore”

That the Supreme Court is at the precipice over overturning Roe is the product of a decades-long campaign by the anti-abortion movement to reshape the judiciary. It culminated with the election of former President Donald Trump, who ran on nominating justices who would overturn Roe “automatically.”

Two of the three judges Trump put on the high court replaced justices who had been sympathetic to abortion rights, while the first Supreme Court vacancy he filled came after Senate Republicans — backed by anti-abortion groups — blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat.

“We’ve been engaged in politics to elect a pro-life president, pro-life senators, such that we would create a political environment where we could have Supreme Court justices appointed like Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh,” Quigley said, referring to the three Trump appointees.

But it is yet to be seen whether the politics of abortion have caught up with the legal success that anti-abortion movement is on the brink of achieving.

Per the new CNN poll, 52% of Americans would like to see their states become a “safe haven” for women who want abortions but can’t get them where they live, while only 20% of the public would like to see the procedure banned outright. Another 20% would like to see their states restrict — but not ban — abortions.

“Just because the law is changed — and we don’t know if that’ll happen — but it doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be abortion anymore,” said Father Dave Pivonka, who wrote an op-ed this week arguing that anti-abortion activists need to focus on changing people’s minds about abortion in addition to changing the law.

“I’m hoping that the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, but to think … that’s the thing that’s going to fix everything, I don’t think that’s accurate,” Pivonka, who is the president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, told CNN at the march.

A Catholic group called the The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property was handing out a pamphlet titled “The Day After: What is Our Dream for a Post-Roe America.” It argued that anti-abortion activists should fight to end abortion not only in red states, but also nationwide, and that they needed to target LGBT rights, divorce and contraception as well.

“The culture is where the rubber meets the road,” Michael Drake, a member of the group, told CNN. “So that’s people’s individual decisions, that goes through everybody’s heart. That’s where the battle is.”

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