After Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade at 50 looks far different than anniversaries past

The Hill

Supporters against abortion are seen during the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Friday, January 20, 2023. This is the first march since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Activists and lawmakers on both sides of the abortion issue are marking Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling by seeking to reenergize supporters and refocus their goals after the landmark decision was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The court’s ruling last June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe, drastically altered the landscape for both the pro- and anti-abortion movements. 

Each side is using Sunday’s anniversary to remind supporters what’s still at stake and highlight how the battle over abortion rights has shifted from the courts to Congress and the states.

“With a divided Congress for the next two years, and a 2024 presidential race that will certainly bring surprises and some uncertainty for the nation, here’s what we do know: The key battles for reproductive access will be fought at the state level for the next two years and beyond,” said Rob Bonta, attorney general for the state of California.

The split Congress means federal action on abortion is unlikely for the next two years. But officials at all levels of government acknowledge it is an animating issue for millions of voters that will linger well beyond the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

“The people really spoke in the last election to make clear, you know, that they think Roe was rightly decided,” a senior Biden administration official said. “They don’t want a national ban. They do want national protection. And so, yes, we will continue to take up that mantle and fight for it.”

The anti-abortion movement is also crafting a new state-based strategy, as its leaders come to terms with the fall of Roe.

“After all those years, finally that moment came true. And while we prepared, nothing really prepares you for a reality in this area,” Marjorie Dannensfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony (SBA) Pro-Life America, one of the country’s leading anti-abortion groups, said during a call with reporters on Wednesday. “This is week one of the very beginning of a new life for our movement.”

Dannenfelser said with a new focus on states, the legislative goals for abortion restrictions will be as ambitious as possible. SBA leaders said they are targeting Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Nebraska as places where they see the opportunity to enact “strong pro-life protections.” 

This year also brought a significant change to the annual March for Life rally on the National Mall, which anti-abortion groups have held every year since 1974 to protest Roe v. Wade and call for its end.

With the original goal of the march achieved, anti-abortion leaders are at something of a crossroads. 

“While this year marks our most significant victory, the human rights abuse of abortion is far from over, sadly,” said Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Defense and Education Fund.  

To reflect the new reality, the March for Life on Friday took a detour to pass by the Capitol on the way to the Supreme Court. The organization also has five state-level marches planned, and by 2030 aims to have one in every state. 

The march has historically drawn top Republicans to address the crowd, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Trump. But in a sign of how this year is different, only two Republican lawmakers spoke: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus. 

“When you’re in a battle, it’s important to keep your focus on what the mission is. But every step of the way it’s also critical that we celebrate victories along the way, and boy did we get a victory just a few months ago when Roe was overturned,” Scalise said. 

Anti-abortion advocates are pushing hard for a national abortion ban, putting pressure on Republican lawmakers to embrace even stricter limits on when and how women can access the procedure. 

In his remarks at the march, Scalise highlighted two bills the new GOP House majority passed in its first week — neither of which was a national ban.

Putting an early marker down on the 2024 GOP presidential primary, SBA said any candidate who does not support federal restrictions should be “disqualified” from winning the nomination.

But after a public backlash resulted in the GOP winning far fewer seats in the midterm election than expected, the party is divided on the best path forward. Some Republicans are unveiling plans for national 15-week abortion bans, while others want to avoid the issue completely and leave it up to the states.  

On the other side of the issue, abortion rights activists are making their own plans, and acknowledging the long road ahead.

“We’re at a time where we can’t keep doing the same things in the same way as a movement and expecting different results. This is a time and a moment for us to drastically rethink how we want to show up in this movement,” Oriaku Njoku, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said during a press briefing.

NARAL Pro-Choice America is using the anniversary to launch a program to train state and local activists who want to organize their communities, highlighting efforts in Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

Vice President Harris will mark the anniversary of Roe with a speech in Florida, the third most populous state in the country and one that is central to the fight over reproductive rights.

In her speech Sunday, Harris will “make the case for national legislation to protect reproductive rights, and she will draw a contrast between the Republicans’ extreme approach to reproductive health and that of the Biden-Harris administration.”

Harris has emerged as the White House’s foremost public advocate for reproductive rights, meeting with hundreds of activists, medical workers, state and local lawmakers and advocates over the past year and traveling around the country to push back on abortion bans.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last year signed into law a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, though abortion rights advocates are concerned he will back a more restrictive law this year as he eyes a 2024 presidential bid. 

Harris and advocates are hoping to use the enthusiasm and outrage among those who support abortion in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision to put pressure on state lawmakers and governors weighing more restrictive policies.

“Florida right now is really the epicenter of access for many patients in the south who are facing full out abortion bans,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “The [midterm] elections are over, but it’s our state legislatures and governors that will be deciding what priorities to focus on for their constituents.”

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