To put it delicately, Marjorie Dannenfelser was skeptical of Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries. In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, she signed on to a letter that urged voters to choose someone else. Trump, who’d once described himself as “very pro-choice,” could not be trusted on abortion, wrote Dannenfelser and her colleagues, all women opposed to abortion rights.
As the head of the anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List, Dannenfelser and her co-signers — among them Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America, and former Colorado GOP Rep. Marilyn Musgrave — added that they were “disgusted” by Trump’s treatment of women. They mentioned specifically then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who Trump said had “blood coming out of her whatever” when Kelly questioned him at a presidential debate, and Trump’s fellow 2016 candidate, Carly Fiorina, whose looks he criticized, saying “Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”
But Dannenfelser is now a key Trump ally and, in 2020, her group’s top goal is getting him re-elected.
As president, Trump has helped Dannenfelser overcome her doubts, giving her access she was long denied during Barack Obama’s presidency.
“I literally did not set foot in the White House for eight years, and now our relationship with the president and vice president is so close, and the collaboration means you can have a national strategy rather than being on constant defense,” she said.
Trump and his administration have proved a boon for the anti-abortion movement, both through proposed regulatory actions and the appointment of judges whom Dannenfelser expects to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, most prominently Supreme Court Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch.
In preparation for the 2016 election — Susan B. Anthony List ultimately endorsed Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton — Dannenfelser’s end goal, she said, was to “set up a situation where we could have a court that could hear and take a look at any state legislation that could start to unwind Roe v. Wade.”
That goal could soon become a reality as states rush to pass legislation that challenges the premise of Roe v. Wade.
Dannenfelser says the birth of the “fresh, new, pro-life movement” started with Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing last year.
She got another big win in June when Trump moved to stop fetal tissue research by government scientists because some of the tissue is sourced from abortions.
Congress, by contrast, has been a disappointment. Divided, as it is, “the action is not so much there,” she said.
Susan B. Anthony List is looking closely at congressional races that could shift the balance its way, and the Senate seat in Alabama looks like a prime pickup target.
Earlier this year, Alabama joined a host of states passing tough restrictions on abortion, and the state’s Democratic senator, Doug Jones, is up for re-election next year. Jones has spoken out against the law.
Susan B. Anthony List plans to highlight how out of step Jones is with state lawmakers.
“He could not be a higher contrast with the will of the people of Alabama. He has just raised his hand to say, ‘Please defeat me,’ and we will oblige,” she said.
The group is also weighing Senate races in North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Arizona and Colorado.
Opposing abortion is “a winning issue,” Dannenfelser said. “If you attach yourself to this [issue], you are going to expand your base — not deplete it — and you’ll win.”
Dannenfelser was slow to her role as a crusading abortion opponent and GOP ally.
When she first moved to Washington from North Carolina after college, she thought it would be temporary. Dannenfelser was working on Capitol Hill — for an anti-abortion Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia — and never imagined herself needing to even change her license plate, much less getting deeply involved with the anti-abortion movement or settling down and starting a family here.
But her experience as a House aide “really convinced me that what was chiefly missing in the pro-life movement was a very strong political arm — one that takes itself seriously like unions take themselves seriously, like the NRA takes itself seriously,” she said.
Ironically, in college at Duke, Dannenfelser had begun her dive into politics as a college Republican leader who supported abortion rights, and she recalls she “would have had an abortion in a minute if I thought I’d needed one.”
But when she began taking philosophy, her eventual major, her personal views shifted on the unborn.
“If it’s not a person, it’s the most ridiculous movement ever created,” she said. “If it is a person, it’s the most important human rights movement of this moment. I came to believe the latter.”
She came to Susan B. Anthony List shortly after its founding in 1993. The group contends, controversially, that Anthony, the 19th century suffragette, opposed abortion. The group later played a role in Mollohan’s 2010 defeat, targeting him for voting for the health care law enacted that year.
It was just one of many examples of Dannenfelser’s willingness to shift gears to help her movement. In another instance, after it became clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee in 2016, she helped him win over anti-abortion advocates in his campaign against Clinton.
The road ahead
Even with an ally in the White House, though, the road for Dannenfelser’s organization hasn’t been easy. Some of the regulatory policies she’s pushed for — to cut family planning funding for women’s health care provider Planned Parenthood and to enact conscience protections to allow health care workers who oppose abortion to opt out of working on them — are still pending and opponents have gone to court to stop them.
Her opponents’ goal “is to drag it out until the end of the administration, defeat this president and then it will all be a moot point, but that’s not gonna happen, because we’re going to re-elect him,” Dannenfelser said.
She hopes that if Trump is still in the White House in 2021, Susan B. Anthony List and the anti-abortion movement can lock up those unresolved wins, but also demonstrate they are about more than just abortion.
Dannenfelser has the group compiling data on care for women during and after pregnancy across the states. She hopes to use the research “to communicate to all what is available in that state, but most importantly, [point out] where there are holes and difficulties, [and] provide suggestions,” she said.
“I see that as the two wings of the dove of the pro-life movement right now. Justice in the law and mercy in the states for women and children, and it’s one of the most beautiful tasks that we’ve undertaken.”