Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court dealt the anti-choice movement its most devastating blow in decades, one of the nation’s leading anti-choice groups gathered at an airport hotel in Virginia for its annual convention.
The 46th annual National Right to Life Convention arrived at what organizers acknowledged was an unusual political moment. Beyond the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion restrictions in Texas, the anti-choice movement faces the likely nomination later this month of a Republican presidential candidate who once described himself as “very pro-choice.”
The mood felt lackluster as the three-day conference opened Thursday, amid signs many had opted not to trek to the hotel by Dulles airport, about an hour from Washington, D.C. With workshops ranging from “Pro-Life Concerns About Girl Scouts,” to “The Pro-Life Movement and Congress: 2016,” the conference seeks to educate anti-choice activists from across the United States.
While convention director Jacki Ragan said attendance numbers were about on par with past years, with between 1,000 and 1,100 registrants, the sessions were packed with empty chairs, and the highest number of audience members Rewire counted in any of the general sessions was 150. In the workshops, attendance ranged from as many as 50 people (at one especially popular panel featuring former abortion clinic workers) to as few as four.
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The attendance wasn’t the only sign of flagging enthusiasm.
“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” National Right to Life Executive Director David O’Steen announced at Friday morning’s general session. “It’s been a topsy-turvy year. It’s been, for many people, a discouraging year. Many, many, many pro-life dollars, or dollars from people that would normally donate, were spent amongst 17 candidates in the Republican primary.”
O’Steen said the organization needed “$4 million that we do not have right now.”
When asked by Rewire to clarify details of the $4 million shortfall, O’Steen said, “You’re thinking this through more deeply than I have so far. Basically, the Right to Life movement, we will take the resources we have and we will use them as effectively as we can.”
O’Steen said the organization wasn’t alone in its fundraising woes. “I think across many places, a lot of money was spent in these primaries,” he said. (An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found presidential candidates and affiliated groups spent $1 billion on the presidential race through March alone, nearly two-thirds of it on the Republican primary. Anti-choice favorite Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) spent more than than $70 million, higher than any other Republican.)
The National Right to Life Board of Directors voted to back Cruz in the Republican presidential primaries back in April. It has not yet formally backed Donald Trump.
“I really don’t know if there will be a decision, what it will be,” National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias told Rewire. “Everything has [been] kind of crazy and up in the air this year, so we’re going to wait and kind of see everything that happens. It’s been a very unusual year all the way around.”
Some in the anti-choice movement have openly opposed Trump, including conservative pundit Guy Benson, who declared at Thursday’s opening session, “I’m not sure if we have someone who is actually pro-life in the presidential race.”
But many at the convention seemed ready to rally behind Trump, albeit half-heartedly. “Let’s put it this way: Some people don’t know whether they should even vote,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “Of course you should … the situation we have now is just a heightened version of what we face in any electoral choice, namely, you’re choosing between two people who, you know, you can have problems with both of them.”
Another issue on the minds of many attendees that received little mention throughout the conference was the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down provisions in Texas requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and mandating clinics meet the standards of hospital-style surgery centers. The case did not challenge Texas’ 20-week abortion ban.
“We aren’t going to have any changes in our strategy,” Tobias told Rewire, outlining plans to continue to focus on provisions including 20-week bans and attempts to outlaw the common second-trimester abortion procedure of dilation and evacuation, which anti-choice advocates call “dismemberment” abortion.
But some conference attendees expressed skepticism about the lack of any new legal strategy.
“I haven’t heard any discussion at all yet about, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, how that weighs in strategically, not just with this legislation, but all pro-life legislation in the future,” Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri, said during a panel discussion on so-called dismemberment abortion. “There has not been that discussion this weekend and that’s probably one of my disappointments right now.”
The Supreme Court decision has highlighted differing strategies within the anti-choice community. Americans United for Life has pushed copycat provisions like the two that were struck down in Texas to require admitting privileges and surgery center standards under the guise of promoting women’s health. National Right to Life, on the other hand, says it’s focused on boilerplate legislation that “makes the baby visible,” in an attempt to appeal to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast a key vote to uphold a “partial-birth abortion” ban in 2007.
When asked by Rewire about the effect of the Texas Supreme Court case, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, appeared to criticize the AUL strategy in Texas. (Bopp is, among other things, the legal brain behind Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending on elections.)
“This case was somewhat extreme, in the sense that there were 40 abortion clinics—now this is just corresponding in time, not causation, this is a correlation—there were 40 abortion clinics and after the law, there were six,” Bopp said. “That’s kind of extreme.”
Speaking to an audience of about ten people during a workshop on campaign finance, Bopp said groups seeking to restrict abortion would need to work harder to solidify their evidence. “People will realize … as you pass things that you’re going to have to prove this in court so you better get your evidence together and get ready to present it, rather than just assuming that you don’t have to do that which was the assumption in Texas,” he said. “They changed that standard. It changed. So you’ve gotta prove it. Well, we’ll get ready to prove it.”