What Anti-Choice Activists Said at the March for Life (And Why You Should Be Skeptical)
At this year’s March for Life, held last week in Washington, DC, anti-choice leaders walked the fine line between promoting their uncompromising hostility to reproductive freedom and attempting to soften their image in the face of declining public support.
The anti-choice movement’s push in 2019 for draconian bans on abortion faced significant backlash from the 7 in 10 Americans who support the right to decide if, when, and how to raise a family. Yet they remain laser-focused in their ultimate goal of gutting Roe v. Wade and criminalizing abortion nationwide.
In public statements at the march and on social media, anti-choice leaders continued demanding a complete ban on abortion in all circumstances. At the same time, they looked to rebrand — papering over their extremism with shallow attempts to co-opt feminism and appropriate the language of the civil rights movement. And as always, they did their very best to prop up Trump’s floundering presidency.
Don’t be fooled by their messaging tricks — the anti-choice movement is just as extreme as ever.
Here are our five takeaways from the 2020 March for Life:
1. The Anti-Choice Movement Is All-In for the Trump Administration
Anti-choice activists were overjoyed when President Trump announced he would address the March for Life, making him the first-ever sitting president to speak at the rally in person. They called the president “the MOST Pro-Life President in the History of the United States” and the “Most Pro-Life President. Ever.”
Trump’s appearance at the march comes as no surprise considering that attacking abortion access and demonizing pregnant people who seek abortion care is one of his go-to pivots. As NARAL President Ilyse Hogue explained, the move was “a desperate attempt to divert attention from his criminal presidency and fire up his radical base.”
Trump’s announcement and speech came on the tail of a flurry of anti-choice activity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The night before the march, HHS Secretary Alex Azar referred to the federal agency as “the Department of Life” in a statement. The next day, HHS announced a new action attacking state efforts to ensure abortion is covered by health insurance, and rolled out the effort at ProLifeCon, an anti-choice event hosted by the recognized-hate group Family Research Council.
2. So Much for ‘Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman’: Anti-Choice Activists Still Cut Women Out of the Conversation
Anti-choice activists know their ideology is unpopular. This helps explain why they repeatedly co-opt feminist language to help sell their stance and push the falsehood that bans on abortion are about protecting women. It takes real effort for anti-choice activists to distract from the unpopularity of their own policy goals.
Considering that the theme of this year’s march was, “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” anti-choice activists were shockingly reluctant to talk about the actual effects abortion bans have on pregnant people. Instead, they used the march’s theme to promote falsehoods about feminist foremothers and disinformation about abortion.
Anti-choice activists made the disingenuous and disproven claim that the original suffragettes were anti-choice. By hiding their beliefs behind the veneer of feminism, anti-choice activists acknowledge what we already know — that empowering women is a winning stance.
But we need to recognize this tactic for what it is: a desperate ploy to hide their true beliefs.
Under the guise of protecting women, anti-choice activists push their favorite lie: that abortion hurts women. Though evidence shows that abortion is safe, anti-choice activist Abby Johnson suggested otherwise. Unsurprisingly, March for Life also tweeted, “The truth is abortion hurts women.”
The claim that abortion hurts women should raise eyebrows. The truth is that anti-choice activists know how misogynistic their ideology is; that’s why they feel the need to disguise it. Their attempts to shield themselves from backlash by co-opting feminist language should not be mistaken for actual feminism. Most Americans see through the anti-choice movement’s facade: A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that most people — 67% — think state regulations on abortion are intended to make access to abortion more difficult. Just 32% of respondents believed these regulations were about protecting the health and safety of women.
In a quantitative analysis by NARAL of anti-choice Twitter activity the week of the march, it was clear that Trump was the main focus of the rally, not women. The terms “president” and “Trump” were used more frequently than the words “woman” or “women.” If there was any doubt that the rally was shoring up support for and cozying up to Trump, the term “women” was also mentioned far fewer times than “@realdonaldtrump” — the president’s Twitter handle.
It’s clear that anti-choice activists’ loyalty lies with Trump, and not women.The fact they appeared to care more about getting into Trump’s Twitter mentions than mentioning women serves as a shocking and sobering reminder of that fact.
The reality is that draconian bans on abortion hurt women and families. And research shows that 77 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. Because the anti-choice movement knows this, they wrap themselves in a shroud of revisionist history and push lies.
3. Anti-Choice Organizations Continue to Try to Appropriate the Language of Civil Rights and Progressive Politics
Anti-choice activists aren’t content co-opting the language of feminism, they are also trying to rebrand their cause as the “civil rights movement of today.”
In her speech at the March for Life, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser leaned into this framework, as did Focus on the Family president Jim Daly. Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins retweeted a claim that “ABORTION IN AMERICA IS A FORM OF SYSTEMIC RACISM [emphasis original].”
It wasn’t just Dannenfelser and other anti-choice movement leaders — activists hostile to abortion also took to social media to parrot the dishonest rhetoric. On Twitter, anti-choice activists grasped at straws to make themselves appear as civil rights activists. Nearly half of the most commonly used phrases of three words or more from the Twitter accounts NARAL monitored were some variation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. In fact, “Martin Luther King” was mentioned nearly as frequently as “pro life movement.”
This all aligns with an ongoing anti-choice strategy: In 2019, several anti-choice organizations worked to subvert widespread public support for reproductive freedom by pushing false claims that abortion, rather than anti-choice laws, is discriminatory.
4. Despite Having More Access to Power Than Ever Before, the Anti-Choice Movement Claims They’re the Underdogs
Throughout the day of the March, anti-choice activists tried to minimize their unpopularity. They marveled at the size of their crowd, claiming their movement was more popular than ever before.
But at the same time, several rally speakers played the victim, peddling the falsehoods that conservatives are censored online and discriminated against in everyday life because of their beliefs. At the March for Life Youth Rally, Charlotte Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s daughter, told attendees, “You’re not the in-crowd. You’re not reflected in mainstream media and you’re not popular all the time. But that’s ok because anyone who made a difference in the history of the world wasn’t really popular at the time.” And a Students for Life video released on the day of the march claimed that the anti-choice movement is fractured.
As we’ve explained previously, anti-choice activists have found that aggressive and unrelenting accusations of liberal bias in media and on social media can push outlets to be overly deferential to their conservative critics. There was no shortage of these accusations during this year’s March for Life. For example, Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins dubiously claimed that YouTube was “shadow banning” the March. This claim of victimhood is cynically baked in to the anti-choice mentality. By casting themselves in this way, anti-choice activists draw attention away from the ways in which their policy aims oppress and punish women.
5. The Anti-Choice Movement Is As Extreme As Ever
Don’t be fooled by their deceptive messaging.The anti-choice movement is as extreme as ever, and their attempts to co-opt the language of feminism and civil rights are a ploy to obscure their campaign of control. For anti-choice activists, banning abortion is simply step one in their radical agenda of rolling back reproductive freedom. For instance, anti-choice activists aren’t just coming for abortion — one sign displayed prominently while Trump spoke at the march called for the abolition of “birth control,” “divorce,” and “sodomy.”
Anti-choice organizations use creative messaging to distract from the unpopularity of their agenda, but we know that’s all it is: a distraction. By co-opting the language of feminism and civil rights, anti-choice activists signal just how afraid they really are of their own cause. The anti-choice movement will bend over backwards to distract from their dangerous anti-woman ideology aimed at upholding white, male dominance rather than letting everyone make their own decisions about their family’s future. That’s why we must know what to look for and not to fall for it.