How has the pro-life movement affected culture and politics? Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, examines that impact in her new book “Life Is Winning: Inside the Fight for Unborn Children and Their Mothers.” She joins the podcast to discuss how the pro-life cause went from “an orphaned political problem” to a winning issue “embraced at the highest levels of the Republican Party,” how women built the pro-life movement, and more.
Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Marjorie Dannenfelser. She’s the president of the Susan B. Anthony List. Marjorie, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser: I love being with you. I’m a former Heritage [Foundation] intern, so it’s one of my favorite places to alight.
Del Guidice: Well, thank you so much for making time to be with us. And as a former Heritage intern myself from just a few years ago, it’s great to have that common bond together. …
You’re the author of a new book, “Life Is Winning: Inside the Fight for Unborn Children and Their Mothers.” What would you want our listeners to know about this book?
Dannenfelser: I think the most important takeaway is to understand two things. One is, if you believe that abortion is the taking of the life of a human being, someone equivalent to you and me in terms of moral standing, then you have a cause that is the greatest civil rights cause of our time.
And if that’s the case, it’s important to understand the political muscle that this civil rights cause has and to exercise that muscle, to flex it at important points along the way, recognize the political moments in what you should be stepping in, and breaching the divide between our founding documents, which acknowledge the foundational right to life, and where we are now under a Supreme Court not acknowledging that and undermining that.
Del Guidice: In the book you talk about how the pro-life cause went from what was an orphan political problem to a winning issue that really has been embraced at the highest levels of the Republican Party. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened?
Dannenfelser: Yeah. I think it is instructive for this movement, which is so central to all our rights. It’s also instructive for any movement, any cause, any principles in which you believe that have their basis in the founding documents.
It was an orphan cause. You could witness that, and I don’t think it takes much explanation for anybody who has really been following this for very long and cares about it at all. It had been the back-of-the-bus issue for the Republican Party for a very, very long time.
The attitude was, let’s get these guys. They do a lot of work during elections, but let’s make sure that we hide the position once we get to a general election. And once we are in office we can say, “Look. Just stick with us because the best thing you can do is stick with the Republican Party because we’re the people who will take care of you.”
So once the people that we have supported are in our Senate offices, or in the Oval Office, or in the House offices, we come to them, activists I believe in the past especially came to them and said, “Hey, we need your leadership on this issue,” it was as if their friendship had dissolved or had been forgotten.
That is something that a union, the NRA, tobacco farmers, any union or any lobby who takes itself seriously would not be treated in such a fashion.
So I think really it’s a story of taking this movement seriously enough to make sure that there was a system of punishments, and praise, and support, and the withdrawal of support for candidates and then elected officials who either support the cause or didn’t support the cause. That’s what politics is.
So what was missing was that really strong political arm of the movement, and we’re not where we need to be. I think we’re well along the way. That’s the story that this book tells.
Del Guidice: You also talk about how pro-life women in particular really helped build the coalition of the pro-life movement into more than a 900,000-strong group of grassroots activists across the country. Can you talk a little bit about how this happened?
Dannenfelser: Yes. You know, I was working in the House of Representatives and I helped create the pro-life congressional caucus. My job was to try to corral votes of pro-life Democrats, which there were many then, and pro-life Republicans to get a majority vote on any legislative matter.
The thing that I saw as being one of the most prohibitive factors in getting ahead was how overwhelmingly feminine the pro-abortion movement was, and how overwhelmingly male ours was.
Now, I love men. That’s the difference between us and the feminist left. But we needed really strong women spokespeople who were elected to office and could put to the lie that said that somehow abortion was the great liberator for women, and we really just didn’t have that.
So that is how Susan B. Anthony List started, named for the suffragist who was proudly pro-life. And we built that. We built a team of great pro-life women.
There is a Pro-Life Women’s Caucus in the House of Representatives now, I’m proud to say. And we then saw, we kind of had critical mass, not enough women, but at least critical mass, and so we moved on to the larger strategy of the national pro-life movement with that as a springboard.
Del Guidice: Something that has really impacted the abortion debate on a whole has been the debate over partial-birth abortion. How has that particular debate within the larger context of the abortion debate really, I guess, signified it in such a way that that debate itself has really made a mark on when abortion is discussed and what that procedure is? How has that specific debate impacted the larger abortion debate?
Dannenfelser: You know, it’s an important question because the answer to that question, even in answering it, even in discussing it in public life when that was introduced long ago involved a discussion of what the abortion procedure is.
This is why I’m a convert to the cause, actually talking about what it is. What is the object of an abortion? The object is the death of a child. That is the purpose of it, and the object of it is a child. It’s not a frog. It’s definitely not inhuman. It’s definitely human.
So that kind of conversation, but especially when it involves a late-term abortion and the grisly detail that one must speak of when you’re explaining what a partial-birth abortion is, really changed the debate in the early ’90s, early and mid-90s, about what this was. Because the problem with this particular human and civil rights cause is that it’s hidden.
In every other civil rights or human rights cause in our nation’s history, you’d have pictures that were compelling, that were humanizing, and just demoralizing, to see how humanity could treat each other.
You have the spraying down of blacks in the South. You’ve got pictures of slaves, their backs, the leather having slashed great marks across their back. All sorts of horrific pictures from all other civil rights battles, but this one is the hidden one.
So it takes words to describe, and now we have sonograms to also picture. But that has been the challenge, and that’s also why in later times now the bill that we championed, along with National Right to Life who started it in many states, is the 20-week pain-capable bill, really focusing on the humanity of that child and what the act itself is.
Del Guidice: Well, how has the left’s rhetoric about choice and women’s bodies, something that is discussed a lot, and the left uses a lot of those terms when talking about abortion, how has choice and women’s bodies affected the passage of the Pain-Capable [Unborn] Child Protection Act?
Dannenfelser: Well, I think it’s interesting. “My body, my choice” was and remains the mantra pretty much. That’s kind of where the gut of the movement is. They sometimes have better words in marketing schemes and words used, but that’s basically what it comes down to.
And that is definitely where I was coming from when I was very strongly pro-choice in college. I literally said those words, and I believed them.
I was changed from pre-med to philosophy, and in that distance really started to ask some pretty tough questions about, “Well, doesn’t it beg the question to put it in those terms,” so moving on to other terms made it much harder. You had to do back flips to get to, “This is not the death of a person, of a human.”
So how has the partial-birth abortion debate, the late-term abortion debate, the born-alive debate—where [Virginia] Gov. [Ralph] Northam discussed allowing a baby to just sit there with no help in a failed abortion—really contrasts that sort of what I would consider a very empty way of describing what’s happening in abortion?
“My body, my choice” acknowledging only one person in that choice, and then the other way, which is the death of that child, the manner in which the child dies.
… The eyes, ears, nose, eyebrows, fingernails, heartbeat, ability to hear a mother’s voice, and respond to her song just starting at five months, that contrasted, that beauty of that image, the sweetness of that image, contrasted with “my body, my choice” is very advantageous for just deeply human resonance and how we respond to argument.
Del Guidice: Pivoting to more recent events regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and all we see going on there, do you see an opening or opportunity as there is talk about the value of life, the sanctity of life? Is there good news there and a headway that you see can be made when discussing the sanctity of every life?
Dannenfelser: I do, I do, and a couple of ways come immediately to mind. One is, my great friend, the great Alveda King, always discusses this in reference to her father and her uncle, Uncle Marty Luther King, and in her own work in the pro-life movement, saying that we, in repeating what they said, those men in our lives said, which is that we’re all one race, we’re all in the same human race; we have different ethnicities that arise to the DNA on your skin level, but we are all one race, therefore, we should be seeing each other through one perspective, that we are one and that we are created in the image of the creator.
So when we encounter laws across this country that are called anti-discrimination abortion laws across the country but are passing state, after state, after state, it’s a law that [Justice] Clarence Thomas has said he thinks that it’s important for the court to look at, and they ban abortions because of ethnicity, then we’re talking again about a human and which humans get to live and which humans don’t, and the decisions we make as a nation about who lives and who dies.
When we hear the quote from the dying George Floyd who said, “I can’t breathe,” I also think of those tiny precious black lives whose breath is extinguished, whose life has been deemed not worthy, and I think it’s a real moment for us to support our black friends who are fighting this fight for unborn lives, as well as authentic and beautiful lives that adults are trying to live.
Del Guidice: Looking at the response to your book, how have leaders both in politics and culture responded to this book that’s coming out?
Dannenfelser: I’ve been really so pleased and really humbled, and when I say humbled I actually mean humbled. Because … when I was back at the Heritage Foundation, I thought, “I really don’t want to get into that, the pro-life business. I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to do.” But every time you say something like that haven’t you found that God hears you and like, “Oh, wait a minute. Let me just put this thing in your way.”
So I really do feel like it’s in the call of my life, and I’ve been so led by other people and by friends who have such great talent, almost always exceeding my own, but I’ve been pretty good at picking people to help lead this organization.
So the response that I’ve gotten, the vice president has written the foreword to the book. [Former White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee [Sanders] has written a preface. We are getting all sorts of great governors, and friends, and good people around the country who’ve been involved in the pro-life movement for a very long time that we work with, and that are so enmeshed in the story of this book that they see their part, and they see the truth of it.
And frankly, it’s such an uplifting, great tale, and honestly, the stories that are most interesting are just the people like the president, the vice president, governors, surprising things that they’ve done along the way to really make this a successful movement and therefore make it a successful book. So it’s been good to hear those comments.
Del Guidice: Well, finally, Marjorie, looking into the future, where do you see more opportunities in the fight for unborn children and their mothers?
Dannenfelser: I think we are at … such a turning point in our country that the march to the Supreme Court is on, that laws that really reach to the heart of Roe are being passed all over. Those are viability questions about whether the viability standards should stand under laws in our nation.
And we are very, very close to overturning, chipping away, deeming basically as nothing Roe v. Wade, so that then the true will of the people, where we actually stand in this country, can make its way into the law in state, after state, after state, and eventually it should certainly be for our nation as a whole.
We are very close. We’re much closer than we ever have been to being a pro-life nation. That’s because of our courts and that transformation that we’ve seen right before us. So we’re close. We’re very close. We just need just an increment more of Supreme Court justices, and a few laws coming across the bow at the court, and those are happening all right now so it’s a moment of great hope.
Del Guidice: Well, Marjorie, thank you so much for being on “The Daily Signal Podcast,” and speaking with us today about your new book. Once again, it’s called “Life Is Winning: Inside the Fight for Unborn Children and Their Mothers.” Marjorie, thank you so much for being with us.
Dannenfelser: That was fun. Thanks for having me.
LifeNews Note: Rachel del Guidice writes for The Daily Signal, where this column originally appeared.