Policy

Marching abortion opponents have message for Trump administration: Do more

Advocates push fetal tissue, family planning changes

Attendees at the 2017 March for Life bow their heads in prayer near the Washington Monument during the speaking program. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Thousands of abortion opponents will take to the streets of Washington on Friday for the nation’s largest annual anti-abortion rally, coinciding with a flood of anti-abortion action from government officials that underscore the movement’s priorities for 2019.

The March for Life is held every January to protest the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide.

The event’s organizers have deep ties to the administration and regulatory changes sought by advocates may be in store this month. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak at a dinner following the event. President Donald Trump addressed the group last year, the first time a sitting president has done so.

“This White House has been so active doing what they can and picking up the torch where Congress failed,” said Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony List, one of the nation’s leading anti-abortion groups.

Advocates are awaiting the finalization of rules that would change which groups can apply for Title X family planning funding and separate payments made for abortion coverage from other benefits under the 2010 health care law.

“We’re pushing the administration right now,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, one of several anti-abortion groups that met with White House officials late last year to discuss goals. “We are having conversations with the administration about what could be done.”

From the archives: March for Life attendees take on Washington

One idea advocates are pushing is for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to declare that Planned Parenthood would no longer be a qualified government contractor.

Another priority — which anti-abortion groups fear they may not win a complete victory on — is a looming decision about whether to continue federal funding of fetal tissue research. The Department of Health and Human Services distributes about $100 million to the National Institutes of Health per year for this type of research, and advocacy groups want this to stop because some tissue comes from abortions.

Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for March for Life, said HHS is close to a decision but is expected to take a middle ground that neither abortion opponents nor abortion rights advocates will embrace.

“The unfortunate term that was used when it was explained to me by someone at HHS is that they are literally splitting the baby,” McClusky said.

HHS and NIH officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Groups such as Live Action, March for Life, and Susan B. Anthony List have called for NIH Director Francis Collins to be fired over his defense of this research.

“If it does go the way that I think it’s going to go, I think it’s just going to re-emphasize the fact that he’s not the right fit for a pro-life administration,” McClusky said about Collins.

Legislative push

Anti-abortion groups were better positioned to push legislation when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, but the groups say there are still steps they can promote.

“Our big push, our call to action, at the march will be protecting pro-life protections in appropriations bills,” McClusky said.

These types of riders include the Hyde amendment, which prevents federal funding for abortion, or the Weldon amendment, which prohibits federal funds from going to a state or federal agency that discriminates against providers that don’t perform or refer for abortions.

The Senate on Thursday rejected a key procedural motion on a bill that would permanently ban taxpayer-funded abortion.

The groups are also playing defense against abortion rights supporters, particularly in the Democrat-controlled House.

“We are looking at the reality of the divided Congress. It’s a twofold strategy: making sure that we are fighting and being very vigilant of any pro-abortion legislation the House tries to pass,” Quigley said. “There’s more than a dozen pro-life riders that have to be added to these spending bills when they come up.”

David Christensen, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council and a former Capitol Hill staffer, also said protecting these amendments is at the forefront.

“Our goals are to protect current pro-life policies in federal law and to prevent Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi in the House from undermining those,” he said.

When the Democrats were previously in power during the Obama administration, the groups looked for bipartisan compromises on issues like adoption and human trafficking, McClusky said. But he said noncontroversial deals will be harder to strike now that there are fewer Democratic lawmakers who oppose abortion, with the exception of Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, a co-chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus.

Looking ahead to elections

Abortion opponents also will pursue messaging bills that can highlight lawmakers’ policy positions, even if the bills do not become law, McClusky said.

“Especially when you have a divided Congress, it’s good to have a contrast of what each side represents,” he said.

Those types of bills are often used in elections to show voters where candidates stand.

Last year, a big focus for many anti-abortion groups was pushing voters to support their side ahead of the midterm elections.

Already, groups such as Susan B. Anthony List are keeping the 2020 elections in mind.

“We were on the ground 19 months ahead of Election Day ahead of the midterms. We are looking to 2020 and are preparing the ground game,” Quigley said. “I think we are very focused on making sure we keep the presidency in 2020 and strengthen our pro-life majority to build back the majority in the House.”

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