With Higher Stakes In The Abortion Debate, Activists March On Washington

Anti-abortion rights activists gather once again for the March for Life in Washington, D.C., Friday. This year, they are fresh off the swearing in of conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

People gather on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the annual anti-abortion rights March For Life. // NPR, Amr Alfiky

Updated at 1:20 p.m. ET

On Friday, as they have for decades, anti-abortion rights activists marched through Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Supreme Court – a location that symbolizes the long-held goal of reversing the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide in 1973.

But this year's rally comes at a moment when many anti-abortion activists are feeling more hopeful about that goal, on the heels of the confirmation and swearing-in of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The March, which began in 1974 in response to the Roe decision, draws thousands of abortion opponents from around the country. In her opening address, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini asked supporters to keep pushing forward.

"Will you march until abortion becomes unthinkable?" Mancini asked. "Will you march so that one day soon we no longer need to march?"

Vice President Mike Pence phoned into the rally before making a surprise visit with his wife, Karen Pence. He praised President Trump's judicial nominees and told opponents of abortion rights that there is still "much work to do."

"Know that we will stand with you until that great day comes where we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law," Pence said.

Leanne Jamieson, who runs a crisis pregnancy center in Dallas that counsels women against abortion, says she hopes to see more restrictions on the procedure.

"Without the right to life, we have no other rights," she says. "There's no point debating the right to free speech or the right to bear arms if we don't have the right to life."

For Jamieson, the makeup of the Supreme Court was the primary motivating factor behind her vote for Trump in 2016. But she says she's "conflicted" about Trump's tone and rhetoric. With Kavanaugh on the court, she hopes to see Roe overturned.

This year, fresh off Kavanaugh's swearing-in, many activists on both side of the debate say a decision substantially rolling back abortion rights could be closer than at any time in recent memory.

New terrain in the abortion fight

Religious and social conservatives have repeatedly pointed to the power to shape the Supreme Court as a reason to support President Trump, despite his history of statements and positions that might seem otherwise at odds with their values. Activists say that has paid off in the form of several Trump policies restricting access to abortion and contraception, and his judicial nominees, most notably Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

"If you would've asked me during the 2016 campaign, that President Trump would be the one that would help ... in putting in these pro-life policies, I probably would've thought you were crazy," said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at March for Life. "But it's certainly a much different scenario with both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the bench."

Pence, an evangelical Christian who has always seemed a more natural fit than Trump with social and religious conservatives, will also speak at a March for Life dinner on the evening of the main event. Pence headlined the march in 2017, soon after President Trump's inauguration. Trump himself so far is not scheduled to speak, though he addressed the march via satellite in 2018.

Seizing the opportunity to shift the Supreme Court to the right, conservatives have rallied behind Trump's judicial nominees. They continued to back Kavanaugh after sexual assault allegations surfaced during his Senate confirmation hearings. Now, with Kavanaugh on the court, activists are closely watching several pieces of legislation that are winding their way through the legal system as a possible test case that could set up an opportunity for the Supreme Court to reverse or weaken Roe and other cases guaranteeing women the right to an abortion.

Abortion rights advocates say they're worried the new court will move to further restrict access to abortion and uphold state laws that would not previously have passed constitutional muster.

"Everything is on the line"

"This is a time where everything is on the line for me as a doctor," Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, a physician, said in a recent interview with NPR. "It's about my patients; it's about their lives ... With Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court we are facing a situation where, within the next year, Roe v. Wade could very well be further eroded or overturned."

Anti-abortion activists like McClusky hope the new court will affirm state laws that more aggressively restrict abortion. That has both sides gearing up for battles over abortion-related legislation in statehouses across the country.

"A lot of it will be playing a lot of offense and defense, I think, in the states," McClusky said.

Activists have pointed to legislation like Iowa's "heartbeat bill"; if it survives ongoing legal challenges, that law would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected – often before many women know they are pregnant. Other goals of the movement include advancing bans on abortion based on the sex of the fetus or a diagnosis of fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome.

Debating the science?

March for Life organizers say a major focus of this year's rally is to promote the idea that the anti-abortion rights position is bolstered by science.

"Science is on the side of life," March for Life President Jeanne Mancini told supporters at a conference on Thursday that was streamed on the group's Facebook page. "There've been so many advances in science and technology – especially radiology and sonography – so that the humanity of the child is evident more and more at earlier stages."

That view has many critics in the abortion rights and reproductive health communities, including Dr. Sarah Horvath, a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). The group supports legal abortion prior to fetal viability and describes the procedure as "an essential component of women's health care."

Horvath said abortion is sometimes required to preserve a woman's life or health, and said she's concerned about activists politicizing science.

"Claims of the pro-life movement to being 'pro-science' are actually a misuse and a manipulation of the facts," Horvath said. "There are very real and harmful impacts on access to care ... that occur when facts are obscured or twisted to fit an ideology."

Mary Ziegler, a legal historian of reproductive rights and law professor at Florida State University, said the emphasis at this year's March for Life reflects a larger, and growing, cultural divide.

"The focus on science in the March reflects what has been a decades-long shift away from arguments about a right to life — and toward claims about the costs of abortion for women and for society," she said in an email. "That focus has only polarized the debate further — now those on both sides disagree not only about what the Constitution says but also about the basic facts about abortion. So the debate about truth, 'fake news,' and facts has pushed the two sides even further apart."

Reproductive rights are also likely to be a focus of the third annual Women's March, planned for Saturday. The march is going forward in a year when the organization has been plagued by internal disputes and allegations of anti-Semitism against one of its leaders, prompting some sponsors including the Democratic National Committee to drop out. Planned Parenthood Action Fund is still listed as a partner for the Women's March.

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