At this year’s March For Life, the country’s largest annual anti-abortion rally, little was said about federal bans on the procedure, yet another sign of the growing political quagmire abortion opponents now face.
Speakers at Friday’s rally — including House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican — were careful to avoid mention of a national ban. With Roe v. Wade gone, the passage of a federal 15-week abortion ban has become one of the anti-abortion movement’s signature goals. Major organizations such as Students for Life and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America have pressed Republican lawmakers to endorse the policy. But the notion of a ban has become an albatross for the GOP, with poll after poll finding that most Americans oppose efforts to directly outlaw abortion, with that opposition increasing earlier in pregnancy. Even 15-week bans, which Republicans have floated as a moderate approach, have proved unpopular, with one poll finding opposition from about 44 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of independent voters and 70 percent of Democrats.
Some Republican politicians — notably former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump, who are both running for their party’s presidential nomination — have sought to distance themselves from abortion ban proposals. Haley has repeatedly noted on the campaign trail that Congress is unlikely to pass such a policy in the near future.
Rather than touting outright bans, some anti-abortion activists and politicians are emphasizing strategies to invest government resources in anti-abortion centers — also known as crisis pregnancy centers — and bills aimed at dissuading pregnant people from seeking abortions.
Those centers took center stage at Friday’s march.
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“This is a critical time to help all moms who are facing unplanned pregnancies — “To work with foster children and help families who are adopting, to volunteer and assist at our vital pregnancy resource center and maternity homes, and to reach out a renewed hand of compassion and to speak truth and love,” Johnson said.
Johnson highlighted two bills House Republicans passed this week. One would block a proposed federal rule meant to keep states from using money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — one of the programs most often associated with the term welfare — to support anti-abortion centers. Another bill would require that colleges and universities ensure students are aware of any resources “to help a pregnant student in carrying the baby to term,” including anti-abortion centers.
““We’re passing these bills, we’re marching today because it takes a lot of work to convince people that every single human child, every unborn child has a value,” Johnson said.
With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, neither bill is expected to become law. The White House has criticized both bills. Congressional Democrats noted that the proposal around college students would not require students to get information about contraception or abortion, giving them an incomplete picture of their options.
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Anti-abortion centers are not regulated as medical institutions and have come under criticism by health care providers for providing misleading and often inaccurate information about people’s pregnancies and about the consequences of abortion. They generally do not have physicians on staff, and while they may offer free sonograms, people who visit those centers say they are often incorrectly told how far along they are in their pregnancies, a finding confirmed by independent research. The resources they offer for pregnant people often do not address the deeper challenges unplanned parenthood can exacerbate, such as economic costs, lack of health insurance and lack of child care.
“It seems like this bill is not getting at the more structural issues that would help support low-income families,” said Usha Ranji, associate director for women’s health policy at KFF, a health policy research organization.
Still, emphasizing anti-abortion centers could offer a safer political path for Republicans. Though there is little public polling about anti-abortion centers, they are likely more palatable to voters than abortion bans, public opinion experts told The 19th.
But it’s unlikely that the GOP’s debate over a national ban will end any time soon..
“Part of the issue with the Republican Party and their inability to craft a coherent message on this is the anti-abortion movement — the social movement — is divided,” said Alisa von Hagel, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the anti-abortion movement. “There are organizations that want to go full board with personhood amendments and complete bans nationwide — go the whole hog in — and there’s a significant number of organizations saying ‘Whoa, read the room, we need to take these more measured, limited approaches that chip away gradually.’”
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At Friday’s event, Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, emphasized anti-abortion centers but also praised abortion bans passed in states across the country, including near-total prohibitions on the procedure, calling for more such bans to be enacted. Fourteen states currently ban almost all abortions, two more outlaw the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. Such laws are largely unpopular within their states.
Republicans in Congress have continued to push other abortion restrictions, such as attempting — and failing — to outlaw mail-based distribution of medication abortion pills and to prohibit states from structuring their Medicaid programs so that they provide insurance coverage for abortion. Federal funds, which make up part of Medicaid, legally cannot be used to subsidize abortion, but states are free to use their own resources to offer that benefit.
Those proposals have failed to gain traction. But they do indicate the extent to which abortion — and efforts to restrict it — remain potent.
“There have been many times where people — myself included – have massively overestimated their political savvy when it comes to navigating the politics of abortion,” said Molly Murphy, a pollster and president at the Democratic-aligned firm Impact Research. “We look at how poorly positioned they are as a party on this issue — how they’ve paid a political price and seemingly are set to continue to pay a political price.”