A year after victory in Dobbs decision, anti-abortion activists still in fight mode
National Right to Life is one of the nation's oldest and most prominent anti-abortion organizations, and every summer its annual convention is held in a different U.S. city.
Last year, members were gathered in Atlanta on the very day when the news broke that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade with the historic Dobbs ruling.
The room erupted with "a lot of tears of joy, cries of excitement," recalled Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "And then it was kind of impressive. Everybody sat back down, kept on going with the general sessions and the workshops because we knew we had work to do."
That buckle-down and keep-at-it approach also pervaded this summer's convention, held in Pittsburgh at an airport hotel. There were few overt victory laps. Attendees acknowledged the gains they had made in the year since the Dobbs ruling. But they were more focused on states where abortion remains legal or the societal forces that they believe contribute to women ending pregnancies that they might otherwise keep.
"We know we have a lot of challenges ahead, but our hands are untied," Tobias told conference attendees. "This is a great day."
Abortion opponents don't think they're winning
The workshops and talks at the gathering June 23-24 reflected the changed political landscape, with titles such as "Political Messaging in Post-Dobbs America" and "Pro-Life Success in the States: Strategies for the Post-Roe Era."
There was a sense of excitement at this year's conference due to the new legal reality, said attendee Frank Pavone: "The battle is really engaged. We no longer have that feeling of being, like, constricted, tied up."
Dobbs demolished a federal right to abortion, and its legality currently rests with each state. This has created a patchwork of laws that have made legislation designed to stop abortions less effective in some parts of the country.
To put a stop to this, Pavone — a controversial figure who leads the Florida-based Priests for Life — wants Congress to pass a federal ban. But he's concerned that even the anti-abortion lawmakers in Congress appear reluctant to act. He suspects they are afraid of such a polarizing issue, so they are letting states take the lead in implementing bans. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that six in 10 Americans support abortion rights.
"Let's look at the makeup of the next Congress," said Pavone. "We have to see who we have and how far are they willing to go."
The gathering's keynote address was delivered by James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee. He expressed frustration by the lack of progress in preventing actual abortions, in the year since Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health. Since that decision, abortions — with narrow exceptions — have been banned in 14 states. An estimated 25,000 fewer terminations occurred in the nine months following the ruling.
That's meager progress, according to Bopp, when one considers that before Dobbs, by some estimates the number of abortions was more than 900,000 a year.
"What went wrong? And how can we do something about that?" Bopp asked while speaking to a pensive crowd of anti-abortion activists in the hotel ballroom.
Bopp complained that some Democratic prosecutors refuse to enforce laws designed to curtail abortion access, while health care providers continue to stand up clinics in places like eastern Oregon and southern Illinois, just across the border from states where the procedure is illegal or more restricted.
"We have to face the reality that the world has changed, and it is strange and dramatic," said Bopp.
Looking for new strategies in a post-Roe landscape
Abortion care has changed in the half-century since Roe first conferred a federal right to abortion up until the point of viability. Now, slightly more than half of abortions are achieved through oral medications that induce a miscarriage — usually through a two-pill regimen, which people can receive through the mail, or travel to neighboring states to pick up before returning home to terminate a pregnancy.
Bopp is infuriated by the websites, volunteers, and travel networks that have sprung up to disperse the medications to states that now ban abortion, or to help patients get to appointments at out-of-state clinics: "[There is] this incredible network of people and organizations, both financial, ideologically, who are supporting illegal abortions in your state, trafficking your women and girls," he said.
As Bopp describes it, the anti-abortion movement is still embattled. And while Dobbs is a useful tool, it has fragmented the cause across 50 states, creating multiple fronts.
Many of the attendees in Pittsburgh pointed out that abortion remains legal in 36 states and D.C., though gestational limits on how late in a pregnancy that an abortion can be performed vary drastically from state to state.
And legality does not equate accessibility: A researcher at Middlebury College recently found that the average American must travel 86 miles to the nearest abortion provider.
Abortion opponents also feel they have lost ground in states that strengthened abortion rights and added protections for doctors or nurses who provide abortions.
For example, New York passed legislation in June to prohibit law enforcement from cooperating with any cases that might seek to prosecute New York-based doctors who use telehealth services to deliver abortion care to patients who reside in states where the procedure is less accessible.
Those changes have been especially frustrating for anti-abortion activists living in those states.
"I don't like to tell people I'm from New York when I'm in a pro-life venue, but I am," said Catherine Jacobs. She lives in New York's Chemung County, just north of the Pennsylvania border.
In the hallway outside the conference rooms, Jacobs had set up a table for her group Teachers Saving Children, a network of anti-abortion educators.
In between chatting with other attendees, Jacobs, a retired art teacher, sketched fetuses in an oversized notebook propped on an easel. These drawings then became raffle prizes for people who donate to her organization. The images were large and vivid, colored in pink and blue — Jacobs depicts some of the fetuses smiling or sucking on their thumbs.
Her table also exhibited fetal models at various stages of development; each wore a diaper paired with a blue or pink top. The pieces, poured from resin, are based on figures she sculpted using oven-baked clay.
Jacobs told NPR she started the project after a high-risk twin pregnancy. She also had a miscarriage before that. "I lost a baby that size. I held it in my hand," said Jacobs, gesturing at the models. "I grieve for that child."
Jacobs appeared heartbroken that, in her view, babies are still being killed in the U.S., despite Roe's toppling. Through her art, she tries to show the individuality of each fetus, and maybe even convince others that abortion is a sin. There's little else she can do in upstate New York, she said, where physicians will continue to provide abortion care for the foreseeable future.
Is a stronger safety net is key to ending abortion in the U.S.?
While a total and national prohibition of abortion is a goal for many at the conference, attendees like Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, are focused on other strategies.
The founder and CEO of New Wave Feminists, Herndon-De LA Rosa stood out from the conference crowd in her all black outfit and straight black hair. She remembers that when the Dobbs decision was released last year, she didn't join in with the hugging and high-fiving. Instead, she went to her hotel room and cried; she was overwhelmed by the change, she said, and also felt empathy for her friends who support abortion rights, because they felt hurt and scared by the ruling.
Herndon-De La Rosa is from Houston and describes herself as a "pro-life feminist." In keeping with the standard anti-abortion view, she believes life starts at conception and that abortion is violence against unborn children. But she is most focused on the fact that people will continue to terminate unwanted pregnancies as long as systemic injustices — such as lack of affordable housing or health care disparities — persist in the U.S.
"Right now, fertility is absolutely a liability for females. Still. Nothing has changed other than the law," she said.
Herndon-De La Rosa supports condom use and access to hormonal birth control, though she would like to see the development of more male birth control options, so that the burden doesn't completely fall on women.
Herndon-De La Rosa also believes that new state laws must make room for instances when abortion is medically necessary. She's upset with what she calls "sloppy" legislation that has been enacted without consulting physicians.
"Women will die from that," she said.
Many other attendees also brought up the need for a stronger social safety net. One speaker, who operates a chain of state-funded anti-abortion pregnancy centers in Pennsylvania and Indiana, said the goal is to remove the "crisis" from an unplanned or so-called "crisis pregnancy," by giving a person the support and resources they need to have the child.
In addition to more taxpayer-funding for these pregnancy centers, Maria Gallagher, the legislative director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, said people also need to be able to earn a living wage, and have access to educational opportunities and health care.
"We need to have those conversations now because we're in the post-Roe era," said Gallagher. "If we don't have them now, when are we going to have them?"
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