On May 22, 2018, President Donald J. Trump walked out onto the dais in front of a packed hall at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. to thunderous applause. He was comfortable and relaxed, and seemed almost taken aback by the enthusiastic reception. “Thank you. Wow. Thank you very much. Thank you, Marjorie. Thank you, Marjorie, for that wonderful introduction. All my friends are out here.”
He had just been introduced to the crowd by Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of America’s most powerful and influential pro-life organization, the Susan B. Anthony List. In the 27 years since the SBA List was founded, they have grown from a tiny pro-life organization trying to combat the influence of abortion groups on Capitol Hill to a well-funded juggernaut with access to the halls of power. In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence was SBA List’s keynote gala speaker—in 2019, it was Mitch McConnell and Nikki Haley.
In Life Is Winning: Inside the Fight for Unborn Children and Their Mothers (published last month with an introduction by Mike Pence and a foreword by former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders), Dannenfelser tells the fascinating story of how the SBA List, founded with a mere $2,485 in 1993, became the powerhouse that sent out 1,000 canvassers and knocked on a million doors for Trump during the 2016 election. It is the story of how the political pro-life movement not only remained relevant but expanded its influence during a time when the GOP elites assumed that abortion was a losing issue.
Dannenfelser writes that she is sympathetic to politicians changing their minds on abortion because she was once pro-choice herself—even when, as a young woman, she campaigned for Reagan in the 1980s. Her mind was changed on the issue by a confluence of deeply personal events, she writes—becoming Catholic and encountering the teachings of Pope John Paul II, the death of a childhood friend, and extensive personal research. Her involvement in the pro-life movement followed soon after, and she began working for West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan, co-chairman of the House Pro-Life caucus, working to organize pro-life Democrats.
The abortion movement had EMILY’S List, a political action committee solely dedicated to electing pro-choice women, but Dannenfelser soon realized that the pro-life movement had no equivalent. Thus, the Susan B. Anthony List was born, named for the pro-life suffragette whose newspaper, the Revolution, had once referred to abortion as “child murder.” A range of disparate pro-life feminist groups were behind the founding, and Dannenfelser was asked to serve as executive director. The Capitol Hill launch raised $9,000. The first two tasks were simple: Find viable female pro-life candidates and connect them with the donor cash they needed to get across the finish line.
During the 1993-94 election cycle, SBA List raised $70,000 for pro-life candidates, while EMILY’s List raised nearly $6 million. Still, eight of the initial fifteen candidates endorsed by the SBA List won, a success rate of 53%. The following year, SBA List switched strategies—after an internal struggle within the organization, it was decided that they were a pro-life group rather than exclusively a women’s group. SBA List would endorse both male and female pro-life candidates. Meanwhile, Dannenfelser fundraised through coffee parties hosted by wealthy and influential supporters (such as Kathleen and Quinton McManus, Joanne Kemp, Susan Baker, Mary Ellen Bork, and others.)
An essential first step was teaching GOP candidates how to campaign on being pro-life. Republicans were embarrassed by their pro-life supporters, didn’t know how to address the issue, opposed pitching pro-life policies in political advertising unless the ads were specifically targeted to a religious audience, and generally played awkward defence on the issue when it came up. The GOP saw abortion as an issue that was useful for procuring votes, but had no intention of prioritizing pro-life policy. In 1995, however, pro-lifers flipped the script: A bill banning partial-birth abortion was put forward, with seven female congresswomen endorsed by the SBA List as co-sponsors. It was a bill that drew attention to the horrific nature of late-term abortion, and it put the Democrats in the awkward position of defending something most Americans saw as barbaric. It passed, with some Democrats joining their Republican colleagues in voting for it. Bill Clinton vetoed it in April 1996.
Ironically, the politically savvy Clinton understood the pro-life movement’s strategy better than his opponent in the 1996 presidential election, Bob Dole. Clinton was livid at the bind he’d been forced into, growing red-faced and angry when asked about his veto. Dole, despite having run against an abortionist for the Senate in 1974 and winning narrowly by campaigning as a pro-lifer, refused to take advantage of the opportunity. He backtracked on pro-life commitments, signaled his desire to soften the GOP’s platform on abortion, and avoided talking about the issue. He had a “basically perfect” voting record, but like many Republicans of that era, abortion was a matter of political convenience rather than conviction. Many believed that Dole could have used partial-birth abortion as a wedge issue to deprive Clinton of Catholic votes—even Democratic pollsters were warning that the country was not with Clinton on the issue. He vetoed the ban again in 1997, and many Democrats joined the GOP in an attempt to override the veto—including, for a second time, Senator Joseph R. Biden.
In 2000, the SBA List spent $3 million and won 17 out of 22 races. George W. Bush was a genuinely pro-life president, but spoke vaguely about the issue at first—interestingly, Marvin Olasky told me that he met with Bush personally on pro-life policy, but that he suspects Pat Buchanan’s entry in the race led Bush to soft-pedal the issue to avoid the perception of being “pulled to the Right.” Dannenfelser lists Bush’s many pro-life accomplishments—but still, she writes, the “consulting class” kept the movement out and relegated them to the “back of the political bus.” Similarly, in 2008 John McCain had a nearly 100% pro-life voting record, but “had never made the issue a priority.” SBA List’s impact was growing nonetheless—in 2009, Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America referred to them as “the NRA of the Anti-Choice Movement.”
During the Obama years, SBA List honed their strategy, going into districts or states and engaging the grassroots by strengthening existing groups and supporting them with resources. When Congressman Bart Stupak and 19 other pro-life Democrats caved on their commitment to insist on an amendment banning abortion funding in Obamacare, SBA List swung into action, launching a campaign to ensure that all politicians who had betrayed the movement would lose their seats. Through radio ads, direct mail, billboards, and even a bus tour, SBA List’s campaign had a brutally effective outcome. Stupak decided to retire, and twelve other pro-life Democrats were defeated—including Alan Mollohan, Dannenfelser’s old boss. The message was clear: SBA List could help candidates win—and they could also make candidates lose. They were playing to win. Dannenfelser is still convinced that if the pro-life Democrats had held strong, Obama would have buckled—instead, as of 2020, more than 700 subsidized healthcare plans directly subsidize abortion.
Election Night 2010, Dannenfelser writes, “was a turning point for SBA List.” They spent $11 million in 90 races, and won 62 of them. “[A] pro-life Republican majority took control of the House of Representatives,” she notes—and she wept with gratitude and relief at the results. But immediately afterwards, the GOP appeared to be up to the same old tricks, with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels suggesting a “truce on the so-called social issues.” SBA List showed up at the Republican National Convention, and all GOP leaders recommitted to the pro-life plank. Still, Mitt Romney was a lukewarm supporter of the movement at best, especially as the infamous comments by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock seemed to confirm his belief that the abortion issue was a losing one. At the 2012 RNC, it was made clear to the pro-lifers that they were on the outside looking in. At the DNC, on the other hand, NARAL and Planned Parenthood were front and center. Ludicrously, the conclusion of the GOP elites after Romney’s defeat was that he had spent too much time talking about social issues.
The 2016 election changed everything. As the primaries heated up, the SBA List took the same position held by nearly every pro-life leader in the country: Anybody but Trump. Dannenfelser writes that the race was packed with pro-lifers: Jeb Bush was “a true believer”; Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had long committed to pro-life policies, and Carly Fiorina was pushing for an SBA List endorsement. Dannenfelser watched with mounting dismay as Trump, a Manhattan outsider with a long pro-abortion record, demolished the opposition. Trump was the nominee, and SBA List would have to play ball—especially when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, raising the stakes. Dannenfelser began talking with Kellyanne Conway, who had done polling for SBA List, about what an endorsement might look like. SBA List sent a pledge to the Trump campaign committing to a series of pro-life policies, and promised that if he signed the letter, they would campaign for him.
Trump not only agreed to sign the SBA List’s pledge, but Conway wanted changes: “I’ve talked to Mr. Trump, and he wants to sign. But he thinks the letter should be stronger and begin with a description of how terrible Hillary is on life.” The SBA List was happy to oblige, and with the selection of Mike Pence—a long-time favorite of the pro-life movement—the campaign was underway. But it was Trump’s brutal description of late-term abortion at the presidential debates that persuaded Dannenfelser and other pro-life leaders that Trump might actually be for real: “Based on what she’s saying…you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day. And that’s not acceptable.” It was a defining moment: For years pro-lifers had been begging GOP politicians to force their opponents to defend the barbarism of abortion. Finally, one was—and it was Donald J. Trump.
For four years, Dannenfelser writes, Trump has defied skepticism and governed like a pro-life president. He became the first president to speak at the March for Life. Behind closed doors, several sources tell me, he actually pushes pro-life policies. In response, many pro-life leaders feel that for the first time, they have a president who understands their strategy and knows what needs to be done. It may just be Trump’s character—going on the offensive, after all, is his modus operandi. But many pro-life leaders believe they finally have a president who is willing to do what it takes—and treating them like loyal allies to boot. With the Trump administration, at long last, pro-lifers find themselves walking through open doors and taking a seat at the table after years of political betrayals and lukewarm support. They are at the pinnacle of power, where the air is thin. It is heady stuff.
With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the stakes are higher than ever for the pro-life movement. The SBA List is returning Trump’s loyalty by ignoring his character flaws and campaigning hard for him across the nation. Marjorie Dannenfelser, for one, believes that his convictions are genuine—as she stood behind him while he spoke at the March for Life, she writes that she was convinced that he was “truly speaking from the heart.” And who knows—she may be right. For better or for worse, many believe that the fate of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, and the abortion debate in America seems, for the moment, to be tied up with that of Donald J. Trump.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.
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