The start of a new decade offers a good opportunity to reflect on the past ten years of pro-life work. When the decade began, the pro-life movement was playing defense. President Obama, a staunch supporter of legal abortion, was in the White House. The pro-life movement rallied to oppose the Affordable Care Act out of concern that it would result in taxpayer funding for elective abortions.
But despite the eventual passage of the ACA and Obama’s reelection in 2012, the anti-abortion cause actually had an impressive decade. During the 2010s, pro-lifers were able to expose some of the more nefarious actions at Planned Parenthood clinics and enacted some policies partially defunding the abortion group, among other successes.
One key development was that groups were able to expose misconduct by Planned Parenthood executives and others in the abortion industry. In 2015, pro-life activist David Daleiden released a series of undercover videos showing numerous Planned Parenthood employees discussing their contracts to illegally profit from fetal tissue and fetal body parts of aborted babies. The videos received substantial coverage, though some of it was inaccurate and biased against Daleiden. As a result of these videos, the House of Representatives formed a Select Committee to further investigate Planned Parenthood. That committee, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee, found that the videos offered enough evidence of illegal activity to merit referring several Planned Parenthood affiliates and biotech companies to the FBI and Justice Department for criminal investigation.
In addition, Live Action released a series of videos showing abortion-facility employees admitting that their clinics would perform sex-selective abortions. And in 2018, Americans United for Life reported on unsafe conditions at various Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion facilities.
As a result of these investigations, political efforts to defund Planned Parenthood gained some momentum. Eighteen states have placed limits on abortion facilities receiving public funds and instead have begun funding pregnancy help centers, which provide life-affirming alternatives to abortion. At the federal level, Planned Parenthood withdrew from the federal Title X program last year after refusing to comply with the Trump administration’s “Protect Life” rule preventing grantees from co-locating with abortion facilities or providing abortion referrals.
Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, much pro-life legislative progress has taken place at the state level. Over the past decade, states passed more than 400 pro-life laws, which is more than one-third of the total laws limiting abortion at the state level since Roe. Last year, state legislators were particularly ambitious: Six states enacted heartbeat bills, which would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and Alabama enacted legislation that would provide legal protection for nearly all unborn children.
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There are several reasons for this surge in pro-life legislative efforts. The Republican party has become more uniformly pro-life, and the GOP has obtained control of state legislatures in many states, particularly in the south. In fact, in 2010 Alabama became the final state legislature in the south to flip from Democratic to Republican control. At the same time, changes to the Supreme Court and other federal courts have spurred elected officials to take substantial policy steps toward protecting the preborn.
The Supreme Court is another reason for optimism. In 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy resigned. During his tenure, Kennedy often voted to strike down pro-life laws. He was replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, who many believe has a legal outlook more conducive to upholding abortion restrictions. This summer, the Supreme Court will hear June Medical Services, LLC v. Gee, considering the constitutionality of Louisiana abortion-clinic health-and-safety regulations, an opportunity for the Court to slowly roll back its jurisprudence that prevents states from enacting pro-life laws.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, public opinion on abortion remained fairly stable. The pro-life position achieved majority support in a 2012 Gallup poll, and a Gallup poll in May 2019 indicated that a plurality of Americans identifies as “pro-life.” Political scientists Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr published an article analyzing the General Social Survey (GSS) and found that, while young adults in the 1970s were the age demographic most supportive of legal abortion, starting in 2000, young adults had become the age demographic most opposed to legal abortion.
But the most important reason for pro-life optimism is that the long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate continues. According to recent Guttmacher Institute estimates, the U.S. abortion rate declined by more 23 percent between 2010 and 2017; Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports a similar decline, showing that the U.S. abortion rate has declined by approximately 50 percent since 1980. A key reason for this decline is that a higher percentage of women with unintended pregnancies carry them to term, illustrating that pro-life educational, legislative, and service efforts have been effective.
Of course, there were some setbacks over the past decade. Many Democratic politicians have become more aggressive in their support for legal abortion. Every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate opposes the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of the federal government to use Medicaid funds to pay for elective abortions. Last year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation legalizing abortion throughout pregnancy. Both Illinois and Maine have enacted legislation requiring taxpayer funding of elective abortions through state Medicaid programs. Many Democratic state legislators in Massachusetts support the Roe Act, which would repeal the state’s 1981 pro-life parental-involvement law.
Even so, pro-lifers should look back on the past decade with a great deal of satisfaction, having made gains politically, legislatively, and in public opinion, paving the way for more impressive wins in the future. As we meet in Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life tomorrow, we will have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future.
LifeNews Note: Michael J. New is an Associate Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He is a former political science professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.