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Meet the Anti-Abortion Group Pushing Presidential Politics to the Extreme Right

Anti-abortion views first entered presidential politics in 1980, seven years after Roe v. Wade, when Ronald Reagan embraced a “family values” agenda to run against Jimmy Carter. They’ve been the stock-in-trade of Republican candidates ever since, and, this year, a pro-life group called the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List—more about them in a minute—has instituted an early gut-check, a “Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge.” All of the candidates, except Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson, have signed it. Romney has the problem of his moderate past—he ran as pro-choice in the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race—and doesn’t want to vet his cabinet choices for their views of abortion, which is a provision of the pledge. Herman Cain is anti-choice but thinks that requiring the president to “advance” anti-abortion legislation in Congress (as the pledge does) risks violating the separation of powers. As for Johnson, he’s a pro-choice libertarian.

But the news isn’t only that most of the candidates signed the pledge; it’s what they’ve signed. The SBA pledge signifies a radical escalation of the war against abortion by aiming to mobilize all three branches of government to subvert and overturn Roe. As Ed Kilgore showed recently in TNR, the pledge is part of the “upward ratcheting of pressure” exerted by conservative fringe groups across the Republican field—pressure which has also resulted in the hopefuls’ embrace of Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it and the “Cut, Cap, Balance” pledge to dramatically address the deficit.

There are four parts to the SBA pledge. Signatories promise to nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal bench only judges who apply “the original meaning of the Constitution”; to put forth only pro-life appointees for “relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions” (the head of the National Institutes of Health, for example); to cut off federal funding to hospitals and clinics that perform or fund abortions; and to advance a “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” banning abortions after the fetus reaches a certain stage of development. In short, the document stakes out a position that is openly committed to extirpating in Washington any views on abortion except those of hard-core right-to-life activists.

The commitment to cutting off federal funding for any entity associated in any way with abortions brings the “gag rule” home to America. The detested “gag rule” was an executive order issued by Reagan, revoked by Clinton, reinstituted by George W. Bush, and revoked by Obama as one of his early acts in office. It blocked U.S. funding for clinics and hospitals abroad that performed abortions—or even discussed the option of abortion. The consequences for international family planning and women’s health providers were severe. In Zambia, for example, according to Time, the local Planned Parenthood lost one-quarter of its funding; the ability to provide diverse care—early child immunizations, malaria screenings, tests for cervical cancer—was greatly impeded. Now, Republicans seek to impose such draconian limitations at home.

The specific target now is Planned Parenthood of America (PPA), so much a mainstay of low-cost ob/gyn services (including contraception and pap smears) that it could been seen as something like the Red Cross for America’s women. PPA has been under siege since the fall, when, out of the blue, Tea Party Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana tacked on an amendment to the budget bill to defund PPA because it provides abortions. (PPA hasn’t used federal funds for its abortion program since 1977.) The amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate by a good margin—even a few conservatives couldn’t stomach the prospect of a PPA collapse. But now, under the mandates of the SBA pledge, the Pence amendment returns, ratcheted up to defund any entity in any way associated with abortion services, just like their peer institutions were in Mali and Cambodia.

WHO IS BEHIND this weird amalgam of extremist goals graced with the name of a great nineteenth-century feminist? The Susan B. Anthony List recently came to prominence in the November midterms and now crows over its success in helping elect several dozenanti-choice candidates to Congress—including the first anti-choice female senator ever, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The group was part of the 1990s ascent of the ostensibly “woman-friendly” approach of the anti-choice movement chronicled by Sarah Blustain and Reva Siegel in The American Prospect. Some activists in the “left” wing—even right-wing movements have their divisions—came to believe that the mainstream public was either indifferent or hostile to the flood of images of bloody fetuses and wanton women, not to mention the murders of physicians and bombings of clinics, and that decades of zealous activity had chipped away at abortion rights in the states but failed to effect any change at the national level.

Founded in 1992 and reorganized in 1997, the SBA List was one of the groups that sought to cover itself with the mantle of the women’s movement—thus the choice of name. The organization’s line mixes the old language of the imperiled-fetus with talk of the lifelong grief and depression that supposedly afflict women who get abortions. They even have an anti-patriarchal angle: “Choice is a fiction in a male-dominated society,” they argue, where men refuse to take responsibility for the children they engender and drive women to make decisions which will cost them a lifetime of remorse.

The claim that there is a medically verified “post-abortion stress syndrome” rests on pseudoscience, and the presentation of Susan B. Anthony is pseudo-history. As shown in a recent Washington Post article by Lynn Sherr, an Anthony biographer, and Ann Gordon, editor of Anthony’s papers, there is absolutely no basis to the claim that Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion. Anthony lived a very long life (1820-1906) and wrote a great deal, but the writings that the SBA List has cherry-picked for evidence of her supposed “passionate abhorrence” for abortion are at best obscure and have no relation to her views about justice for women, which were keyed, above all, to winning the right to vote. In fact, neither Anthony nor any other nineteenth-century women’s rights reformer led an anti-abortion movement, proposed or supported laws to criminalize abortion, or saw abortion as a political problem.

When Anthony’s peers did talk about sex and its results—which was seldom (this was the Victorian age, remember)—they considered in the problems of a society where contraception was illegal and furtive, men’s sexual domination over women was legitimated by law and upheld by culture, and many women resorted to illegal and dangerous abortions as their only recourse for unplanned pregnancies. A handful of feminists expressed distaste for abortion because it represented one outcome of all these injustices. But they also expressed their “abhorrence” for unplanned pregnancies on the same grounds. And, in any case, Anthony did not take part in what was a very muted discussion, given the reticence of the age.

THERE IS A history that’s relevant here, and it’s not a cooked-up history of the women’s rights movement. It’s the history of the recent takeover of the Republican Party by people who, not too long ago, were deemed cranks. Look back, and you see that once, in the 1960s, Republicans furnished the core of politicians who backed legal abortion because it represented sane public health and population policy, and advocates for reform worried about Democrats. In 1972—a year before the Court decided Roe—Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican governor of New York, vetoed a bill pushed through by the Catholic Church that would have nullified the state’s historic law legalizing abortion. In his veto message, Rockefeller firmly defended the will of the people of New York and the principle of tolerance for different moral views. Then, in 1977, Republican Senator Edward Brooke from Massachusetts defied the growing right-wing consensus in his party to cast a brave vote against the Hyde Amendment, which banned Medicaid funding for abortion, and argued eloquently on the Senate floor that, for poor women, a right to abortion without the means of payment was not access at all.

But that was then. That Republican Party is as remote as the party of Theodore Roosevelt. Gone is even a hint of toleration for a GOP that would encompass different views—or, for that matter, any idea of a style of governing that could encompass different views. Anti-abortion has become a critical testing ground for the hard-riding high-jackers of moderate opinion.

Christine Stansell is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Feminist Promise, 1792 to the Present.