The Woman Who Killed Roe Marjorie Dannenfelser’s single-minded pursuit of an end to abortion.
When Marjorie Dannenfelser first came to Capitol Hill, before she became the most politically relevant voice of the anti-abortion lobby, before she extracted from the host of The Apprentice a promise to appoint anti-abortion judges, and before those judges tilted the Court decisively against a constitutionally protected right to an abortion, she was a young assistant to West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan. While out for a sandwich, Alan Mollohan had once been handed a flyer depicting an aborted fetus, a moment he recalled as having pressed upon him a certain undeniable horror. In 1989, he was head of the pro-life caucus in the House. “He was good to me,” Dannenfelser told me, “like a father. He cared about me.” He let her ignore her boring responsibilities to focus on the issue about which she had become passionate.
It was from Mollohan that Dannenfelser learned what she considers “one of the most important lessons” in politics: There can be no hesitation in the exercise of political power. “If you shoot a bear,” he told her, “you have to kill it.” Two decades later, in 2010, Dannenfelser was the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that works exclusively to elect anti-abortion legislators. That was the year Mollohan, now a 14-term congressman with impeccable anti-abortion credentials, voted in a way that she considered objectionable. He believed Obamacare effectively excluded federally funded abortions; she did not feel Obama’s executive order to this effect was reliable. After he voted for the bill, she directed her PAC to spend $78,000 against Mollohan, running radio ads that said, “Alan Mollohan betrayed us and voted to spend our federal dollars … on abortions,” though this was at best unclear. The congressman lost his 14th bid for reelection. If you shoot a bear, you have to kill it.
This is a story Dannenfelser does not hesitate to tell. She also enjoys being called the “velvet hammer.” Her 2020 book is called Life Is Winning, but it is less about the winningness of life than about the losingness of various people who failed to align themselves with her mission. The list of those alive and dead with whom Dannenfelser is utterly exasperated includes John McCain, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. All of them, she says, “had been given on a national stage many opportunities to authentically witness to the depravity and extremism of abortion” and had failed to do so. Bob Dole neglected to get sufficiently excited about banning an abortion procedure called intact dilation and extraction; what a shame it was that “after leaving one of his most potent issues on the sidelines,” he “lost in a landslide.” There is the “muddled thinking and incomprehensible musing” of Justice Anthony Kennedy; the failure of Newt Gingrich to even name-check abortion in his Contract for America; and Sarah Palin, “who arrived with great hope but left with great disappointment” after failing to show up for a conference call Dannenfelser had organized. Dannenfelser is disappointed in Senator Ted Cruz, former governor John Kasich, former governor Scott Walker, and former congressman Bart Stupak, to whom she promised an anti-abortion award and then dramatically rescinded the offer. There is the grief she professes to feel at having to campaign against more than a dozen stalwart anti-abortion legislators who voted for the Affordable Care Act, including one who sued her for lying about him in his district. There is the supremely exasperating Mitt Romney, who had a “natural aversion to the abortion issue” but appeared to have captured the heart of conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, whose “overwrought defenses of Romney” resembled those of a “lovesick schoolgirl.” Dannenfelser has pretty much had it with Renee Ellmers, to whom SBA List gave $17,000 but who subsequently “threw tantrums” over a bill requiring victims of rape to report that rape to authorities to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks.
This is the exasperation of a practiced biter of bullets, a woman focused on the mission at the cost of possibly everything else, one conscious of trade-offs, which she calls a “hierarchy of goods and evils,” and uncommonly direct about political transaction. There’s a cleanliness to her thinking, a rare resistance to derailment. Donald Trump gave her movement three Supreme Court justices; when asked whether his attitude toward abortion politics was purely transactional, she once replied, “If it were only that, that would be fine.” One senses, under this capable woman’s litany of small disappointments, a history of condescension in the halls of Congress, where the “consultant class” advised Republicans against addressing abortion at all — “partly,” she told me, “because of their own temperament but also because of the apparatus connected to consultants, fed cash to give the same stupid advice over and over again.” Dannenfelser and her allies, she says, were treated “as if we were a remote and mysterious species to be bought off with … shiny beads and baubles.” But now it is 2022, six triumphant years after her supporters lifted up the most anti-abortion president in history. is all but dead, and the power of a certain dark rhetoric increasingly evident on all sides. She is no longer remote.
Dannenfelser’s office is on the top floor of a glass-rimmed ovoid high-rise in Arlington, Virginia, beside a highway and overlooking the silos, barrels, and steel of a working concrete plant. One day in March, Dannenfelser wore pearls and green satin and on her couch we talked about all the people she had punished for failing to live up to her ideals. At the very end, I mentioned that I live in Los Angeles. The last time she had been to Los Angeles, she said, she went to see a small exhibit at the California Science Center called “Life! Beginnings.” A mom and her young son were there, inside a kind of skeletal wooden tube, looking at preserved human embryos and fetuses in chronological succession. There was a video, an authoritative woman’s voice narrating.
“That’s what you looked like,” the mother said to the little boy as a bulbous pink mass barreled across the screen.
“The first few weeks are a vulnerable time for the embryo, and some do not survive,” said the narrator.
“Why don’t they make it?” the boy asked his mother.
“Some just … aren’t healthy,” she said.
The interview was over. Marjorie was sitting on the couch in her office, remembering the guileless little boy struggling to grasp the idea of the embryos that hadn’t made it through. Her eyes were wet with tears.
When you imagine a fetus, it is possible you see the 1965 cover of Life magazine on which appeared Lennart Nilsson’s photograph of one — ethereal, clean, floating in space like a sleek, hairless little cosmonaut. Nilsson’s photos of fetuses at various stages were collected in the massively best-selling A Child Is Born, where they were taken for scientific artifacts and placed in a narrative sequence framed as a miracle. These images and others like them came to be known in feminist literature as “the public fetus,” a singular locus of public concern, sentimentality, and rage.
If we are by now accustomed to discussing ulterior motives and the well-documented history of legislators using abortion rhetoric to consolidate the right, we speak less of how the rhetoric works: by triggering in its subjects a stomach-churning horror. Millions of Americans believe that their fellow citizens tolerate and participate in the ongoing mass extermination of human children. They go to sleep — as I did as a child — assuming that the next day will involve thousands of babies murdered in a medical setting, whereupon cynical adults will call these murders “choices.” It is a horror not only in its violence but in the way it frames social reality; a world of self-justificatory liars slaughtering the innocent, architects of a darkness on par with the Holocaust or slavery. The family given to this worldview is focused on the grisly death of a child against the harrowing idea of “a woman’s right,” the repetition of which becomes itself part of the nightmare. Every other call to humanity then becomes a kind of hypocrisy: How can you claim to care about some narrow issue of social justice when you condone this unspeakable violence? It is a darkness the democratic process is not particularly equipped to handle, in that it breaks the terms of negotiation. If you come to believe you live in a state that sanctions the routine murder of children, nearly anything can be justified in their defense. “Abortion is murder,” reads the old tagline for the radical activist group Operation Rescue. “Act like it.”
This directive is illuminating in that, for a long time, even anti-abortion groups did not act like it. They hadn’t yet captured a party. Right up until Dannenfelser’s early adulthood, reproductive rights lacked obvious partisan valence. A Nixon appointee wrote the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade; two other Nixon appointees voted for it. The top two Republican candidates in 1964 supported liberalizing abortion laws. Three years later, a Republican governor in Colorado signed the first state law liberalizing abortion, and two years after that, a national poll showed Republicans were more likely to support first-term abortions than were Democrats. Dannenfelser’s parents are pro-choice Republicans; in this, they are typical of their time.
This era, prior to one party’s intense interest in the preservation of what it would insist on calling “life,” was also the last before the introduction of fetal ultrasound. Confirmation of pregnancy still relied heavily on a woman’s report of her sensory experience: menstruation, quickening, shifts in being that lack precise description but not hard reality. By the mid-’70s, write Malcolm Nicolson and John E. E. Fleming, two historians of ultrasound, “the pregnant woman was no longer the chief arbiter of the condition of her fetus, at any stage in pregnancy. Her testimony regarding her menstrual dates was no longer crucial in estimating fetal age, her experience of quickening no longer the significant marker of fetal life.” The uterus had become a space more easily measured and monitored, less a personal mystery than a space other people felt they knew well.
What we see remains complicated. “How did the unborn turn into a billboard image,” asks historian Barbara Duden in her tract on the public fetus, “and how did that isolated goblin get into the limelight?” Take that cover of Life, Nilsson’s tethered cosmonaut. An 18-week-old fetus does not, in any conceivable circumstance, appear outside its mother clean and pink and ethereally backlit. Nowhere in A Child Is Born, still a text used in universities as well as a staple of anti-abortion literature, is it revealed that Nilsson’s photos were of aborted fetuses, dead or dying, gray and blood-specked, arranged, then lit and colored the ruddy hues of a human baby. Another way to describe this picture: a person in her 18th week of pregnancy, absent almost all of her body. A living fetus is constitutive of a system — tucked inside a ligament-suspended uterus, nestled behind apronlike folds of viscera themselves thick with nerves and vessels and nodes, itself draped behind muscle — a single moving object among the shifting array of blood-filled organs that will slide to make room as the body changes. This is not the discontinuous succession of the “Life!” exhibit but a unity in flux. Almost all social movements work to erase context contrary to the cause. In this case, the context is a woman.
It is a Friday morning at the University of Florida; discarded Solo cups line the damp alley alongside Fat Daddy’s, and tree-strung Spanish moss swings in a warm breeze at the center of campus. Here, among chirping cardinals and squawking blue jays, high-school students spill out of two buses and begin setting up standing placards.
Their leader, Mark, refers to the photos as AVP, “abortion victim photography.” “You don’t want to see these pictures?” Mark says. “Stop abortion. You don’t want kids to see ’em? Stop abortions.” The students, ages 15 to 23, have chosen to spend their spring break this way, on what they call a “Justice Ride” after the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, confronting students at the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida and now the University of Florida, the idea being that Florida has both a high rate of abortion and good weather in March. Each midwestern student takes up a post by a placard and employs a conversation starter such as “Is infanticide okay?” Or “Do you think it’s okay to kill a baby?” College kids with backpacks walk by, make eye contact with one another, and laugh.
“Fuck you,” a college student says. “You’re disgusting.”
The high-schoolers shift on the ground. They take tiny sips from water bottles. They bite their lips and look far away and sway a little in the sun. They’ve been sleeping at campgrounds and churches, waking up each day to more of this.
At the center of the plaza, the organizers set up a table, and on it they place a small plastic model of a fetus severed from any memory of a mother. He’s nestled up against a copy of A Child Is Born.
A boy named Stephen, 15 but dressed like an old man in a panama hat and wire-rimmed glasses, stands next to a giant image of a disembodied arm in a gloved hand.
“People say, ‘I love abortion,’ and it makes me feel really sad,” Stephen tells me.
“No uterus,” says a college student, “no opinion.”
“Boys get aborted too,” says Stephen.
College students engaged in conversation walk by the photos as if there’s nothing there at all.
“I’m not used to people being this rude to me,” Stephen says.
Juliana, age 15, a very quiet, self-possessed girl in jeans embroidered with flowers, has spent much of the morning being cornered by a college student who appears to have taken his first course in philosophy. (“If God said to save this grandma you had to walk 1,000 miles constantly, up a mountain …”) Later, Juliana will tell me she thought it was a good talk. She tries not to internalize the negativity, she says. She doesn’t know what these students are going through. It’s her spring break, but she isn’t jealous of friends on more traditional trips. “I don’t have many friends,” she says.
There is Raquel, 17 and tired, maybe a bit angry, but also skeptical and suspicious in a way that makes me wonder how long the nightmare can hold her. She does a thing no one else will do in my reporting of this story, which is to look me in the eye and say, “So are you pro-life?” After that, she won’t make eye contact anymore. The group had been to an abortion clinic, where it was terrible to stand around “wondering if someone who walked out had just killed a baby.” They had been to the National Memorial for the Unborn, a wall of nameplates representing various people who never came to be above a pile of stuffed animals left in remembrance. Raquel says the hardest thing is “that people don’t care.”
“What do you think about abortion?” an 18-year-old named Hannah asks flatly, over and over. Her thumbs are in the pockets of her hoodie, her head cocked, hair in a messy bun. “What do you think about abortion?”
“Staying silent just means you agree with it,” Hannah tells me. “Some people say, ‘F-U-C-K you.’ They say, ‘Get a hysterectomy.’ But I try to think, You know what? I try to take the perspective, There’s only a few people that say that.”
College students have begun to gather under the moss, eating lunch in packs, casually scattered amid giant photos of dismembered parts. “You cannot kill thousands and millions of people without leaving residual pain in society,” a team leader named Seth tells me. “You kind of start coping,” he says, “and not seeing the humans anymore. That speaks to how I have to work hard to make sure I am not dehumanizing them by looking at them as merely corpses but as people whose lives are stolen. That’s hard.”
I ask Joe, 23, whether there may be something else he wants to do with his life. “That’s a very good question indeed!” he says. Actually, he wants to be a firefighter. “We all have ambitions and desires,” he adds. “But when there is such a high calling, there’s these people, 200, 300 times a day, being killed, how can you step away from it? That is such a turmoil for me.”
A man walks through the gauntlet of photos and begins to yell. “You’re disgusting!” he shouts. “You shouldn’t be here! You shame women. You don’t get polite!” Cheers erupt from the college students gathered on the grass, claps and whoops of approval.
The students around me find something to do with their hands. They sway and look away.
Two college students, both women, don’t walk by; they want to know who’s in charge. “I’m just concerned,” one tells me. “These are children. They shouldn’t be out here. How old is that one?” she says, looking at Stephen.
“A lot of people are forced to share custody with their own rapist,” the college student tells Raquel.
According to the CDC, the percentage of American women subject to an attempted or completed rape is estimated to be 21.3, but the center of campus on that Friday in March was not a safe space for statistical precision. That no one today will think to ask the obvious question, which is why the students or their caretakers believe any woman would endure months of nausea and fatigue and the myriad discomforts of a transforming body only to casually seek a late-stage abortion, suggests that almost no one in the day’s exchanges is familiar with or even particularly curious about the physical experience of pregnancy. The purpose of AVP is to forge an emotional connection between a passing student and a part of a woman’s body. That’s what you used to look like. And it is true that you used to look like a six-week-old embryo, which is to say an embryo at eight weeks of pregnancy, when two-thirds of abortions in this country take place. Embryos at this stage are considerably less than an inch in size, smoothly folded and alien in appearance, less favored by practitioners of AVP. Abortion providers report that when forced by anti-abortion laws to show women images of their early fetuses prior to the procedure, some women are relieved. They “say things like, ‘Oh, it’s — it doesn’t look like I thought it would look like,’ ” one clinic manager told researchers. “They feel a little more reassured and confident.”
One could say the figures in Nilsson’s photos, the disembodied fetuses on the table, are useful aids to empathy, allowing us to envision the latent humanity of a deeply enveloped microscopic being. One may also see them as fictional characters in the horror-filled inner lives of regular people, children, churchgoers, homeschooled teens worrying alone at night. Recently, it has been fashionable to blame the ills of the world on a “lack of empathy,” a diagnosis that fails to contend with our capacity to see ourselves in almost anything at all. I am not pro-life, I told Raquel, but I could easily imagine being so. It would be like switching on a different set of lights.
The Susan B. Anthony list was launched in 1992 by a feminist Quaker vegan named Rachel McNair to support female candidates who were against abortion. It was a direct response to EMILY’s List (an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast), and in its first election cycle, SBA supported 15 anti-abortion women, eight of whom won. But for SBA, early money was not like yeast; it was hard to fund-raise for these women, there were not many of them, and this was not the most efficient means of stopping the murders Dannenfelser believed were happening. Is SBA List a pro-life organization or a women’s group? she asked herself. Unable to make payroll, she called a close friend who wondered how much of her money she could give without angering her husband. SBA List began supporting pro-life men. Soon, the group was actively campaigning against women who were running against men. Soon after that, they were running against an anti-abortion women who was running against an anti-abortion man more trusted by SBA List. The Quaker vegan wanted nothing to do with it; she had fled long ago. “No other issue,” Dannenfelser writes, “however worthy, carries a moral weight equal to that of the unborn child in the womb.”
For a long time, I struggled to understand Dannenfelser’s conversion story, the one she provides in her book and to the Washington Post and to anyone who wants to know how the decidedly pro-choice leader of the Duke College Republicans came to be single-mindedly focused on ending abortion in America. It was not, as so many of these stories are, about the power of a single image. It was not about abortion in any obvious way. Dannenfelser describes her parents as argumentative, intellectual pro-choice conservatives with a commitment to civil rights, and it had been her own position that her body was not a site rightly subject to state management and control. She was extroverted, energetic, up for a party, already building the deep network on which she would one day rely. While interning at the Heritage Institute as a rising senior, she lived in a D.C. group home with eight or ten others, mostly men. There were libertarians, and there were social conservatives, and they endeavored to live together in what they called the “Right House,” engaging in debates that seemed urgent to the 20-year-olds involved.
One day, one of the social conservatives, Dean Clancy, found in the VHS player a tape that Dannenfelser calls “arguably pornographic” and that another member of the household told me was “definitely just porn.” The men had evidently been watching porn in the living room of a shared house. Clancy’s response was to pull the tape from the plastic shell, destroying it. The owner of the cassette, a libertarian, wanted to be paid for his destroyed property. (“Back then,” the house manager points out, “to replace a VHS tape you rented cost like $70. That’s a lot of money for a college student.”) Clancy refused to replace it. It was decided, according to Dannenfelser, that those who sided with Clancy had to find another place to live. “As I listened to the debate,” she writes, “something stirred within me, and I knew what was at stake was more fundamental than where I would sleep for the next several weeks.”
The right not to pay someone for a VHS tape that you destroyed in a public display of self-righteousness may be a curious moral foundation on which to build a life’s work, but this is the reason Dannenfelser gives for turning away from the practicality of her parents and definitively toward social conservatism. She soon converted to Catholicism and came to believe that full human rights are conferred upon a zygote at the moment of fertilization, rendering even a rape exception “abominable.” She tried to convince her parents of this and failed, repeatedly. “They really taught me to relentlessly pursue the truth,” she told me, “which is why it was so frustrating.” Her conversion from Episcopalianism provoked a new intensity; she began dating other serious Catholics, one of whom became a priest and one of whom, Marty Dannenfelser, became her husband. At the time, Marty was the top aide to the Republican chair of the pro-life caucus.
Dannenfelser left Mollohan’s office to be head of the SBA List in 1993 and operated the organization out of her home. To the Capitol Hill launch, she brought an infant daughter and a son in utero. “We had a lot of children very fast,” she says. She would eventually have five, one of whom is cognitively disabled and whose continued care structures Dannenfelser’s life. In 1997, she was, in her words, “drowning” and stepped back from her leadership role as president to be chairman of the SBA List board; she would return as president a decade later. She began her day with prayer and filled it with meetings with donors and politicians. These meetings, a colleague told me, were “often tearful.” Dannenfelser’s job was not to hold a bloody poster, yet it was bloody-poster adjacent in a way that seemed to her powerfully motivating. The posters, too, had their place. “I think, for instance,” she tells me, “of Alan Mollohan. This woman just walked up to him and handed him a picture of a dismembered unborn child, and he looked at that and was never the same. Now that’s a grown man who is in a position to be able to do something about it and should see the horror. I see it as like the stripes from whips on the back. I see it as the hosing down of Blacks in Alabama.”
There had been among moderate Republicans a kind of tiptoeing, what Mitch Daniels called a truce on social issues and what Dannenfelser calls “an insidious, demoralizing call for unilateral surrender by pro-lifers.” When she asked Scott Walker to support an abortion ban at five months, he said, “People back home aren’t talking about this,” an answer she clearly finds pathetic. If people are out and about murdering children, as Walker professes to believe, maybe bring it up yourself. The men near her talked around death, not into it, and here she saw both cowardice and a lost electoral opportunity.
SBA List’s 2005–6 budget cycle called for $5 million, the 2021–22 budget cycle for $78 million. Dannenfelser discovered she could generate headlines by campaigning against vulnerable anti-abortion candidates she found wanting. In 2010, earnest pro-life Democrats such as Bart Stupak worked to exclude health plans with abortion funding from the Affordable Care Act; when their efforts failed, they agreed to vote for the legislation as long as Obama would give an executive order to the same effect. Dannenfelser held that this was not the same thing. For the difficult work of being an anti-abortion Democrat, SBA List had planned to give Stupak an award. For the decision to vote for the ACA after his amendment failed, SBA List un-gave it to him. “Stupak stripped of ‘Defender of Life’ Award,” read a headline in The Hill, though in conversation, Stupak, who says he doesn’t know Dannenfelser or anything about this award, sagely points out that you cannot be stripped of an award you never received. Dannenfelser launched campaigns against Mollohan and Stupak and more than a dozen other anti-abortion Democrats, running misleading radio ads and billboards that read, for example, DRIEHAUS VOTED FOR TAXPAYER-FUNDED ABORTION. Steve Driehaus, who says this was awkward for him at church, filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission. The SBA List then sued for the right to make inaccurate ads about Driehaus and won. Now, it wasn’t just anti-abortion conservatives donating to SBA List; free-speech conservatives were also onboard. And yet, through the 2012 election, Dannenfelser writes, “pro-lifers were on the outside looking in.” NARAL got to speak in prime time at the Democratic National Convention; no one was giving anti-abortion speeches at the Republican one. Naturally, Dannenfelser would attribute Romney’s loss to his lack of enthusiasm for the cause.
The ideal SBA list candidate would be a woman. This candidate would oppose abortion in every case, but her rhetoric would veer unfailingly toward the rarest, latest instances; she would frame the status quo as radically permissive and place the United States among a handful of countries that allow abortions after 20 weeks, preferably with China and North Korea. She would understand the movement’s lexicon (partial-birth and abortifacient and pain-capable); she would know the electorate absolutely did not want to punish women who have had abortions or put them in prison; she would have lived a clean and purposeful life of faith and family, rendering the anti-choice position safe for the moderate suburban woman, someone who just wants a reasonable compromise.
In 2016, the presidential candidate who seemed capable of this, to Dannenfelser, was Carly Fiorina, who was unusually willing to claim, unprompted, that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for profit. Fiorina’s complete failure to gain traction as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination could perhaps be attributed to sexism (“Look at that face!” Donald Trump had said. “Would anyone vote for that?”), but there was not time, in the fight to save millions of unborn souls, to reflect on the plight of women in American statecraft. It was important to find the next-best candidate, whom Dannenfelser supposed would be Ted Cruz. It was clear who the last choice on the right would be. “I would look at the good aspects of Planned Parenthood,” Trump told a reporter in 2015. “And I would also look because I’m sure they do some things properly and that are good for women … We have to take care of women.”
In response, the SBA List immediately issued a statement denouncing all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, on the not unreasonable assumption that money is fungible and any money given to other services could be shifted to abortion. In 2016, Dannenfelser signed on to a statement addressed to “Iowans” that read, “As pro-life women leaders from Iowa and across the nation, we urge Republican caucusgoers and voters to support anyone but Donald Trump.” The letter spoke of his statements in support of potential pro-abortion judges and vice-presidents, strip clubs at his casinos, and his publicly expressed thoughts about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle.
Trump, who self-identified as “very pro-choice” in 1999, had by this time begun to awaken to the grassroots power of anti-abortion voters. He was trying. He was talking about “Two Corinthians” and going to events where both Dannenfelser and Jerry Falwell Jr. were present. He did not yet know the script.
“Should the woman be punished for having an abortion?” Chris Matthews asked Trump before an audience of voters.
“Look,” Trump replied. “I would say that it’s a very serious problem, and it’s a problem we have to decide on.”
“But you’re for banning it … How do you ban abortion?”
“You go back to a position like they had, where people will perhaps go to illegal places,” Trump said, setting the script fully on fire. “But,” he shrugged, “you have to ban it.”
“Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no?”
“The answer is,” Trump began. He looked away, as if deciding, and chopped the air with his right hand as he came to it. “There has to be some sort of punishment.”
This was the answer implied by words like genocide, but it was decidedly not the answer of someone practiced in anti-abortion rhetoric, in which ordinary women are said to be merely sites of murder. March for Life called Trump “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement.” “Punishment is solely for the abortionist,” said Dannen-felser. “The pro-life community is of one mind on this,” said Kellyanne Conway. “You do not punish the woman.”
The “pro-life community,” however, was soon out of more tractable options. Trump was the candidate and the mission remained and so Dannenfelser bit yet another bullet. She would work with what she had to prevent a murderous Clinton presidency. Anything else would be indulgent. When Cruz declined to endorse Trump at the convention, having, in her words, “failed to grasp the reality of what happened,” she was livid. “Why is he the only one who gets to be pure?” she asked a reporter on her way out of the arena.
In the coming weeks and months and years, no one would, in fact, get to be pure, least of all Ted Cruz. It was hard to get in touch with Trump’s people in the months running up to the 2016 election, unclear who was in charge, who would answer the phone, and whether that person had relevant authority. Dannenfelser attended a meeting where, after being introduced by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham and flanked by Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, Trump — on his third wife and third sexual-assault allegation — professed his Christian faith. Dannenfelser claimed to be “impressed.” The campaign asked her to head up its pro-life coalition, essentially asking to use her extensive election infrastructure.
She said she would, for a promise. She sent a pledge, via Conway, for Trump’s signature committing him to “nominating pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.” This was not a request her group had made before. “No president wanted to talk about a pro-life judge,” Dannenfelser tells me. “They were willing to say a ‘constitutionalist judge’ or a ‘strict-constructionist judge,’ and we decided in the end, with Trump, we’re just going to say what we mean.”
She waited for a response, expecting objections to the wording; in typical negotiations of this kind, politicians behaved as if she were trying to trap them, which, of course, she was. As it turned out, Trump did want the letter edited. He wanted it to begin, according to Dannenfelser, with “a description of how terrible Hillary is on life.”
Dannenfelser and her staff went to work for him by motivating the most socially conservative voters, a job made easier by the selection of Mike Pence for vice-president and then made harder by the release of a video in which Trump supported, in a general way, grabbing women “by the pussy.” Dannenfelser says she “felt ill at the prospect of defending a man who could speak that way.” Her daughters told her they could not support her if she supported him. “Ultimately,” she wrote, “I had to accept my own public argument: Trump’s commitment to the pro-life cause outweighed his offensive remarks. My daughters saw a snapshot in time and were right to be appalled. But I saw the evil that had been wrought in the decades since Roe v. Wade, which had ended the lives of more than 50 million preborn babies.”
Inside the logic of this particular nightmare, the 50 million dead, there could be no question of falling back. Dannenfelser watched the final presidential debate. Trump had, of course, been coached, but he still sounded, usefully, like a child. “If you go with what Hillary is saying,” he said, “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby … you can rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day.”
Finally! thought Dannenfelser, watching at home. Here was an answer neither avoidant nor squeamish; here was a man describing the improbable violence she wanted to be on every voter’s mind, the Gerber baby, the Nilsson baby, the visual stand-in for every routine eight-week abortion across the nation. “Trump got it right and was never even a part of it,” she tells me. “He wasn’t a part of it. But he has an instinct for how to build something.” Others had focused on “issues surrounding the act itself, paying for it, informed consent about it, parental notification about it. He’s one of the first politicians that was able to talk about what it is. Everyone else was afraid to offend. He wasn’t afraid to offend. He’s not a cautious man.”
Trump saw the horror story waiting to be told but also what lay behind it: the deep physical pleasures of indignation, the wash of moral righteousness, the comfort of a world divided between the innocent and the damned. SBA List deployed 1,000 canvassers and unleashed its phone calls and digital ads, one of which was simply Trump in his “rip the baby out of the womb” moment. The group’s budget at the time was $18 million. “Almost completely unnoticed by pundits and political elites, who had dismissed the growing strength of these forces for years, the voting bloc Dannenfelser created was leveraged in a moment when the situation seemed most dire for Trump’s campaign,” wrote Ilyse Hogue, then-president of NARAL, who could see, better than almost anyone, where all of this was going.
“The job you did was incredible,” Trump told Dannenfelser after the election, “and, uh, sort of record-setting.” Trump’s SCOTUS nominations would proceed as if Dannenfelser herself had scripted them, reliable pro-life votes culminating in the long-favored nominee, finally a woman, one raised not just within Catholicism but within a conservative sect, a mother to seven and possessed of all the cagey caution Trump lacked. Trump “had the potential to be the greatest pro-life champion ever elected president,” Dannenfelser says. He gave them all they asked for and more
In 2017, only 40 years after the ultrasound became a routine part of prenatal care, anti-abortion legislators in Kentucky mandated that a provider perform an ultrasound on a woman who wants an abortion, display the image, and describe it, even against the woman’s wishes — a violation newly possible. Women having early abortions would have a probe in their vagina, their feet in stirrups, and though some cried and covered their ears, their doctors were not allowed, by law, to stop talking. “There is no area of medicine,” petitioners wrote in an unsuccessful challenge to the law, “that considers the forced display and description of diagnostic images over the patient’s objection or against their will to be appropriate or part of informed consent.” In a way, this was not so much a perversion of the technology as a return to its origins: The pioneer of obstetric ultrasound was a British obstetrician and anti-abortion activist described by a colleague as “not a good listener”; he used his device to the same purpose on his own patients.
The costs to basic human decency of the 2016 election were predictable in the aggregate but perhaps not in the details. Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2017. That year, under Trump’s direction, CBP began taking young children from their mothers and fathers, providing no information on where they were or whether their parents would see them again. A Congolese asylum seeker described hearing her 6-year-old scream, “Don’t take me away from Mommy!” A Honduran woman was breastfeeding in a detention center when authorities pulled her child away; she resisted but was overcome. Hundreds of children were warehoused behind cheap metal fencing, where they were, according to reports, largely unsupervised, crying, their diapers unchanged, and without books or toys or beds. Lawyers visiting a child-immigration prison in El Paso found a 2-year-old boy covered in mucus and his own urine, sick with the flu, being watched over by three young, hungry, unwashed girls who said no one else was there to care for him. A 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome was separated from her parents, an allegation to which one Trump surrogate responded, “Womp-womp.” Dannenfelser remained clear on the mission. “From its inception,” she wrote in response to the outcry, “Susan B. Anthony List has been completely dedicated to protecting the first right without which no other rights matter: the right to life … therefore, we refrain from public comment on immigration and many other topics.”
While the children purportedly in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement endured the worst of these conditions, the head of that office was a 37-year-old man named Scott Lloyd, author of an anti-abortion coming-of-age novel called The Undergraduate, in which the first-person narrator is mostly called Willie but is once, apparently as an oversight, referred to as Scott. (“We always knew you were a strong, virile young man, Willie,” his Italian American friend tells him after he impregnates a woman. “You got da Super Sperm, you know what I’m sayin’, my nigga?”) Among Lloyd’s first acts in office was to order that he be notified if any of the minors in the custody of ORR expressed interest in getting an abortion. (“The unborn child is a child in our care.”) Under his direction, ORR kept spreadsheets tracking the periods of girls ages 12 to 17. Shelters were banned from “any action that facilitates” the termination of a pregnancy, including making appointments or providing transportation, without Lloyd’s personal approval. In at least one case, Lloyd himself flew down to try to dissuade a minor considering an abortion. In another, a 17-year-old girl known to the courts as Jane Doe requested an abortion after fleeing abusive parents and crossing the border unaccompanied, but she was not permitted to leave the shelter to get one. When the ACLU sued on her behalf, the government argued, in court, that it had a “legitimate interest in promoting fetal life.”
Among the men who weighed in on this was a judge named Brett Kavanaugh, who felt she should have to find a sponsor in the U.S. and be released from custody in order to seek an abortion, lest the court create “a new right for unlawful immigrant minors in U.S. government detention to obtain immediate abortion on demand.” Jane Doe got her abortion, eventually. It was the rare 16-week termination — in this instance, performed on a girl abused by her parents in her home country and kept, by an obsessive ideological novelist and his enablers on the bench, from an abortion at nine weeks. Inside the nightmare, to allow even the nine-week abortion would, of course, be wrong. “If you think this is just an appendectomy, you rush that person to the hospital,” Dannenfelser told the New York Times. “But if you think that an abortion is actually taking another person’s life, you pause, you think, you consider and figure out other options.” Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in October 2018.
In January 2020, Trump became the first president to attend the March for Life, where he was lauded not only for his court appointments but also for expanding restrictions on federally funded abortion beyond any of his Republican predecessors. Later that year, he nominated Amy Coney Barrett, the pro-life movement’s favored candidate, to the Supreme Court. At this point, he was already working to undermine basic mechanisms of democratic governance, eroding trust in every vote, up until and beyond the day he cheered on a violent crowd threatening to hang his vice-president. When I asked Dannenfelser whether she would in theory support a leader who would ban abortion while destroying democratic norms, she was not glib, dismissive, or defensive. “It would have to be,” she said, “a prudential judgment.” Everything SBA List had achieved, she said, was, in the model of “other human-rights organizations that never would have been successful if they did not have the tools of democracy. And that is the first part of the judgment. And then you bring in the death of children, and that’s pretty important.”
Every Monday for the past few months, Dannenfelser has led a call to pray for her favored outcome in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade. She invites notable guests to lead the prayer, such as Ben Carson and Mike Pence, and on Monday May 2, the guest was the anti-abortion activist Father Frank Pavone. “Each Supreme Court justice is under incredible pressure,” she said at the beginning of the call. “There is a hidden and visible assault on the part of the dark side. Let’s name him: the Devil.” Dannenfelser was a little out of breath. It was the end of another long day, she had hurried from dinner, she was leading the call from her car, and now, for some reason, her staff was texting her, interrupting the earnest prayer with the incessant ding of incoming texts. “Lord God, you rescued us from nothingness,” said Father Pavone. Ding, ding. “You delivered them with your mighty hand and with signs and wonders and miracles.” Ding. Dannenfelser was annoyed. Her staff knew she had the call at this time, a moment to focus on what it was all for. Nevertheless, she allowed her attention to be drawn from Pavone’s words to find that she could now read a leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion on the very case about which they had come together to pray.
When the prayer was over, she drove home taking calls and parked in her driveway, where she continued to receive texts as she scrolled through Alito’s decision. “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” she read. Ding. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” Ding. “At the time of enactment, only six countries besides the United States ‘permit[ted] nontherapeutic or elective abortion-on-demand after the twentieth week of gestation.’ ” From this summary of Mississippi’s argument, she followed a footnote that led to a citation of SBA List’s research arm. She had known this moment would come. She had not known it would come so fast.
This decision marks, for Dannenfelser and her staff, a new era of fragmented political struggle. The work only multiplies. It is now, she says, a “51 front” war, all the states and Congress, too. Already, her organization is heavily involved in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia. She has held 21 meetings with state governors, with more to come. “It has taken this long,” she says, “for us to arrive at the beginning.”
In 2021, more restrictions on abortion were enacted than in any year previous. It was widely acknowledged that the religious right’s deal with Trump had worked out spectacularly well, but it was not yet clear what it was that had been traded away, how much damage democracy itself had sustained. It is in this context, perhaps, that we can best understand that early narrative turn, in which Marjorie Dannenfelser watches a man destroy a tape in order to create a world more aligned with his values. The question would follow her to her triumph and beyond. What is it you are willing to sacrifice in the service of stopping the horror? What is it you are willing to break?