If a woman had asked her 30 years ago, Marjorie Dannenfelser says, she would have driven her to the abortion clinic.
Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Dannenfelser said she can’t remember her Southern Episcopalian family ever mentioning “the A-word.” She declared herself a libertarian and never questioned a woman’s legal right to an abortion.
“I would have had one in a minute,” Dannenfelser said in a recent interview in her Washington, D.C., office.
Dannenfelser now heads one of the country’s leading groups against abortion, the Susan B. Anthony List, which has spent two decades pushing to elect anti-abortion lawmakers — particularly women.
She says those efforts are now helping to put the anti-abortion-movement on offense for the first time since Roe v. Wade — and she has a wide following.
“Marjorie has emerged as one of the mainstays and biggest names in the pro-life movement in the country,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' Bipartisan senators earmark billion to support democracies globally Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (R-S.C.), who has authored numerous bills to restrict access to abortions, said in an interview. “She is not trying to be the purist of the pure on the issue. She’s trying to save as many babies as she can.”
Dannenfelser’s seemingly abrupt switch from one side of the issue to the other took place over the course of one summer in Washington, D.C., when she was interning and living in a group house. It coincided with her conversion to Catholicism, though she says it was primarily “the intellectual argument” that swayed her, as she’d also recently become a philosophy major.
“In that summer, I met God in a shocking encounter through devoted Catholics who took time with me,” she wrote in a 1997 piece for
Crisis Magazine. “The first thing to go was my pro-choice position.”
A few years later, the former debutante took a job on Capitol Hill working for then-Rep. Alan Mollohan, a Democrat opposed to abortion whose district spanned the Rust Belt and farm towns of West Virginia.
While on Capitol Hill, Dannenfelser became the sole full-time staffer for a recently launched panel, the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.
She remembers raucous debates about abortion on the floor dominated by Democratic women including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and then-Reps. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFirst senator formally endorses Bass in LA mayoral bid Bass receives endorsement from EMILY's List Bass gets mayoral endorsement from former California senator MORE (Calif.) and Patricia Schroeder from Colorado.
The only members who spoke out against abortion were men, which Dannenfelser said gave the abortion-rights supporters an easy argument. Liberal women would say men had no right to weigh in, and there were no conservative women to say otherwise.
“Almost always, no matter how strong the man is, they’re worried about [the gender issue], and they should be,” Dannenfelser said, pointing to disastrous gaffes on the topic of abortion by Republicans like then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo).
“[Men] realize they have an extra burden of not being a woman and speaking to something that they themselves are not going to experience,” she said.
Between 1985 and 2015, the number of female Republicans in Congress doubled, to 22 members. While women still make up just over one-quarter of all Republicans, Dannenfelser says she is making progress.
Most importantly, she said, is that opposition to abortion has been cemented into the GOP’s national platform, and every candidate — from a prospective state lawmaker to a presidential candidate — makes it part of their campaign.
“Going from not a lot of power to it better be in your platform is a journey from being on permanent defense to being on permanent offense,” she said.
Battle over policy becomes personal
Dannenfelser’s biggest legislative battle on Capitol Hill took place during the drafting of ObamaCare.
In the final days of the legislation, a small but powerful group of Democrats led a revolt against the bill because it would have allowed federal funding for abortions. Then, abruptly, lead negotiator then-Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) announced a deal with the White House, and the bill passed.
Dannenfelser remembers the day his office stopped returning her calls. The day of the vote —Palm Sunday — she went to the Capitol and found all of his doors were locked.
It was the end of a tense battle — one that conservatives believed they had enough leverage to win. But then the White House won back the support of the anti-abortion Democrats, carrying the legislation over the finish line, and groups like the Susan B. Anthony List never forgave them. Stupak later said he received death threats and was “bitched out” at airports.
The next November, the group was fired up to oust the same group of Democrats that had before been close partners.
One of those lawmakers under fire was then-Rep. Steve Driehaus, a first-term anti-abortion Democrat from Ohio. To keep him out of office, Susan B. Anthony List bought billboard space and created radio ads calling him out for what they described as betrayal of his values: someone who very publicly said -ObamaCare would allow for taxpayer-funded abortions and then voted for it anyway.
He sued the group for defamation, but ultimately lost.
An opportunity on abortion
Since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Congress has made almost no changes to federal abortion law. But in 2014, anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List saw an opening when Republicans had just won control of Congress for the first time in eight years.
Dannenfelser and allies like Graham began shaping a plan to get a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy to the floor. The bill, though it was sure to be vetoed by President Obama, would have powerful political messaging that they believed could help them in 2016.
In January 2015, the House was expected to hold a symbolic vote on a Susan B. Anthony-backed bill on a day timed with the annual March for Life.
But then House GOP leadership abruptly pulled the bill.
Several Republican women, led by Dannenfelser’s home state lawmaker, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), had objected to language regarding exceptions for rape, and they refused to endorse the bill.
Dannenfelser went to work, calling and meeting with lawmakers to resolve their issues. Ultimately, GOP leaders tweaked the bill’s language on rape, and it passed along party lines a few days later.
“That bill could have fallen apart,” said Graham, who sponsored the Senate counterpart of the 20-week ban. “At a time, the pro-life movement was more of a debating society. Now, we’re hitting on all cylinders.”