Groups pushing for the advancement of abortion rights and those looking to limit the procedure have an ambitious agenda starting this week, foreshadowing a year that could be critical for advocates on both sides of the debate.
In two months, the Supreme Court will hear its first major abortion case since 2016, and both sides are revving up for a major presidential election. States are also eyeing a number of new reproductive health bills as their legislatures come back into session.
A flurry of legislation timed around the Jan. 22 anniversary of the landmark 1973 abortion rights case Roe v. Wade and the largest annual anti-abortion rally, known as the March for Life, is typical in most years. But with a split Congress and impeachment proceedings pending in the Republican-controlled Senate, this year’s activity will focus more on motivating supporters to prepare for upcoming fights over state policies, court cases and elections.
Kristan Hawkins, president of the anti-abortion Students for Life of America group, envisions renewed energy beginning this week, stemming in part from the 2020 campaign season.
“There’s a general feeling that most people would agree that this is going to be a pivotal year when we talk about abortion in our country,” she said.
More than 100,000 abortion opponents are expected to rally for the March for Life on Jan. 24, with a 3,000-person conference scheduled the following day aimed at training abortion opponents to mobilize. In recent years, the president and vice president spoke at the March for Life. Top administration officials are expected to make an appearance this year as well.
Last year, the march was timed for the week of a Senate procedural vote to codify a ban on taxpayer-funded abortion, the announcement of a newly formed Senate Pro-Life Caucus and a letter from President Donald Trump to Speaker Nancy Pelosi promising to veto any abortion rights legislation.
Anti-abortion advocates want to see movement on their key policy priority: legislation that they argue would protect an infant who survives an attempted abortion.
Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, expects the call to action this year to be related to a House discharge petition to require a vote on this bill. Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, who sponsored the House version, is slated to speak at the march, as are other GOP lawmakers and Louisiana Democratic state Sen. Katrina Jackson, who wrote the law that the Supreme Court will hear in March.
Another priority, according to Hawkins, is targeting Planned Parenthood funding.
“I know several people who have reached out to various people at the administration to talk about debarment of Planned Parenthood,” she said.
The Department of Health and Human Services is able to temporarily block federal funds to an organization in cases of fraud or other illegal activity.
State and court battles
Legislative and legal action on both abortion bans and the expansion of abortion rights is also expected to heat up.
In 2019, seven states passed near-total abortion bans, none of which is in effect because of litigation. The ACLU said two of those cases, Mississippi and Missouri, could see appeals court arguments in the next couple of months.
“The million-dollar question is whether the Supreme Court will step in to review one of these cases,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “It’s too late for that to happen this term. So the earliest we’d really be looking at is 2021, and it’s unclear whether the Supreme Court has the appetite to jump into that question right away.”
Jessica Arons, senior advocacy and policy counsel for reproductive freedom at the American Civil Liberties Union, also sees state policy changes as an often-overlooked issue.
“While a high-stakes showdown will be playing out at the Supreme Court, we should not take our eyes off of what is happening in the states,” she told reporters last week. “Already, bills that would ban abortion from the earliest days of pregnancy, like those passed in Georgia and Alabama last year, have been introduced in 10 states, with more likely to be filed in the coming days.”
This year, “there is a genuine risk [that] at least five more abortion bans could be enacted,” Arons said.
Arons and other abortion rights supporters are also watching court cases besides the Supreme Court case in March, which will determine whether a Louisiana law that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital can go into effect.
The ACLU is watching at least two other types of cases that could make their way to the high court next year. One type is cases targeting a method of abortion known as dilation and evacuation. Laws in Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio were blocked by lower courts but have been appealed.
The other type challenges restrictions that would ban abortions based on a reason, such as a fetal anomaly. In March, the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on an Ohio law.
Both sides are doubling down on grassroots efforts to energize voters who share their beliefs about abortion.
A majority of Americans do not want Roe v. Wade to be overturned, according to a poll released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. About 91 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of independents do not want the decision to be reversed, while 57 percent of Republicans do want it overturned. However, only 6 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans consider reproductive health to be their top campaign issue, the poll found.
Abortion may get more attention this year, though, in states like Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Michigan, which might have ballot initiatives this cycle that could roll back abortion rights.
Progressive groups are also on the offense, building on the success of enacting state legislation in places like New York last year. For instance, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and others are backing a Massachusetts bill that would allow access to abortion later in pregnancy and loosen parental consent restrictions for minors.
Last week, Planned Parenthood announced a new voter program, We Decide 2020, that provides voter information about candidates’ reproductive health stances. The new program launched with a five-figure digital buy in battleground states. Planned Parenthood previously announced plans to spend $45 million on this election.
“Our country is at a crossroads, but now it’s time for us to reclaim our power,” said Jenny Lawson, executive director for Planned Parenthood Votes. “In 2020, we’re fighting back and electing reproductive champions up and down the ballot — because our futures depend on it.”
On the other side of the debate, Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion, announced Friday that it would dramatically expand its grassroots efforts. Volunteers were already talking to voters in Arizona, Florida and North Carolina but also will be targeting Iowa, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. They’ve also increased their budget to $52 million this cycle.
Mallory Quigley, national spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List and Women Speak Out PAC’s independent expenditure campaign, said they will also target traditional Democratic voter groups.
“Our focused, battle-tested voter outreach method will ensure we reach the voters who can provide President Trump and pro-life Senate candidates the winning margin,” she said.
“You may not always agree with what the president tweets out,” Hawkins said. “You may not agree with every policy he has, or any other politician, but you always know when we vote, we think about what is the most pressing issue. … You have to vote for the candidate that’s going to do the most to limit abortion.”