It would appear that anti-abortion conservatives are starting to come around to the realization that when the Supreme Court gutted Roe in its 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Republican Party became the protagonist in the classic tale of “The Dog That Caught the Car.” As The Hill contributor B.J. Rudell put it, the pro-life movement had it pretty good for about 50 years, residing “in a self-made and self-contained cocoon, operating with equal parts political savvy and practical ignorance.” As long as its great dispute was a live issue—a political Schrödinger’s box that would remain a potent electoral motivator so long as it stayed closed—the movement could reap the benefits of its unrealized vision.
But once Samuel Alito and his fellow travelers peeled the box open, the world got a good long stare at the dead cat inside. The post-Dobbs landscape has been a regularly scheduled litany of dystopian one-offs—here’s a woman forced to travel 1,400 miles to deliver a skull-less fetus; there’s a woman who nearly died because she could not obtain a medically necessary abortion—peppering the steady, ambient worsening of the world: the obstetrics positions going unfilled, the measurable rise in health inequity, the “ominous health trends” that rose up, spawned in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to undo the modern world.
And did I mention that on top of all of this, the Dobbs decision is implicated in the consistent way that Republicans keep getting rinsed at the polls? It’s no wonder that elite conservatives have recently decided that the real problem here is the need to rebrand the term “pro-life,” not the myriad horrors that have been unleashed since the movement that sallied forth under that banner 50 years ago finally got all the things it wanted.
Right now, this “rebranding” effort is at the stage where various Republicans say staggeringly obvious things with the absolute wonder of a wee child. “What intrigued me the most,” said North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, “was that ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ means something different now; that people see being ‘pro-life’ as being against all abortions … at all levels.” Wow, no shit—that truly is a remarkable state of affairs! His Senate colleague Josh Hawley choked out some similarly incredulous words in a recent interview: “Most voters think [‘pro-life’] means you’re for no exceptions in favor of abortion ever, ever, and ‘pro-choice’ now can mean any number of things,” he said, adding, “So if you’re going to talk about the issue, you need to be specific.”
But as TNR’s Tori Otten pointed out, we can actually be excruciatingly specific about what Republicans want, and it’s pretty much entirely indistinguishable from “no abortion, ever, ever,” and not so much something that a few hasty marketing summits among GOP bigwigs is going to be able to obscure. “Since Roe was overturned,” Otten reported, “Republicans have banned abortion completely in 14 states. In many other states, Republicans have limited abortion access with cruel laws to the point that the procedure is effectively banned anyway.” The would-be rebranders are lagging badly behind the curve: Across the country it didn’t take long for the right to push hard for draconian bans after Dobbs was handed down. The plain truth is that when the next Republican trifecta hits Washington, many of them will be pushing hard to pass a nationwide abortion ban.
This is the biggest problem that those who are so desperate to “rebrand ‘pro-life’” face right now: This is a movement that’s largely defined by the zealots in its ranks. You’re not going to be able to exert control over a nation of anti-abortion radicals with a Central Committee to Temper Our Excesses and Lessen the Completely Foreseeable Consequences of Our Actions. Wherever those fanatics hold a little bit of untrammeled power, they’re doing headline-grabbing things to get attention and advertise exactly what they want the post-Roe landscape to look like.
Take, for example, the extremists who’ve brought so-called “abortion trafficking” laws to several counties in Texas. As TNR’s Melissa Gira Grant recently reported, political leaders in these jurisdictions have breathed new life into laws over a century old, in the service of incentivizing vigilantes to patrol Texas highways, looking for women who might be seeking to leave the state to receive abortions, in order to detain them for cash rewards. Or take the “pro-lifers” in Oregon who, far from getting their cues from Washington elites urging circumspection for the sake of winning elections, are plowing ahead to the next frontier and looking to ban contraceptives next—just as one could have predicted (and did).
Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer, and the rest of the people trying to slap a new name on “pro-life” are simply not going to cow this movement into submission with a PowerPoint presentation on the value of adopting a more palatable brand identity—not after they’ve already spent a wild-eyed half-century howling for an unpopular set of draconian policies to be imposed on the country. And so the Republican Party will continue to be defined by its militants, not its marketers. Yes, this could contribute greatly to future Democratic wins at the polls, as an agitated public sends more protectors of abortion rights to office. But this should give us pause nonetheless—because wherever the pro-life dead-enders can hold on to even a little bit of political power, they will continue to advance their tyrannical vision, inch by inch, and in their wake damage the lives of a yet-to-be-counted number of ordinary Americans—leaving a trail of ruin that no rebranding can redeem.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.