President: Pro-life group the Susan B. Anthony List
Raised in: Greenville, North Carolina
Calls Trump: “The most pro-life president we’ve ever had”
Marjorie Dannenfelser cries easily, and this, she believes, is her greatest strength. She cries when she hears “American Honey,” by Lady Antebellum. She even chokes up a little when recollecting the lyrics out loud in her office, because it reminds her of her upbringing in eastern North Carolina. “‘She grew up on the side of the road where the church bells ring / And’ … something,” she says, laughing at her own sentimentality.
But the subject that most easily brings her to tears, the thing that really cracks her open, is the thought of the 2,500 fetuses being legally aborted every day. “It’s the powerlessness,” she says, her eyes brimming over. When she talks about abortion, Dannenfelser doesn’t use the word fetus. She prefers baby or person, and the tears come because she feels so deeply connected with those “children,” their vulnerability, and the pain of their circumstances: “Just the moment of connecting with the whole human condition and how it can be hard,” she says.
For Dannenfelser, the tears are galvanizing. Since 1992, she has been at the head of the Susan B. Anthony List and has grown it into arguably the most powerful and effective anti-abortion organizing group in the country. In its early years, the narrow mission of the SBA List was to fund congressional campaigns of pro-life women, but it now supports male and female pro-life candidates at the federal and state level. It also lobbies Congress and state governments to pass laws that will restrict or curtail legal abortion. And it pressures politicians to appoint federal judges who can be counted on to uphold those laws. The SBA List projects that it will spend $25 million this midterm cycle, sending an estimated thousand canvassers to seven battleground states — including North Dakota, Missouri, and Florida, where Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill, and Bill Nelson are facing tough races — and supporting 13 pro-life Senate candidates and dozens more in the House. In 2016, it spent $18 million and helped reelect eight Senate Republicans — and it backed Donald Trump.
In her office in Arlington, Virginia, on the day before Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh were to testify before the Senate, Dannenfelser chose her words carefully. The national mood was explosive. Earlier that week, the SBA List had been rallying local support for Kavanaugh in states like Missouri, but now, perhaps out of consideration for my views (which she knew were opposed to hers on abortion), she seemed to pause. “If Kavanaugh were guilty of all these things, he shouldn’t be the nominee,” she told me. Once he was approved, though, Dannenfelser would push forward, promising to stoke partisan anger and elect pro-life candidates in November. “Americans saw through the vilification of an exceptionally qualified nominee, and their senators will be held accountable,” she said in a statement. The legislative priority of the SBA List is the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks — on the grounds, rejected by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that fetuses can feel pain in that developmental phase. The bill has failed in Congress three times but has passed in different versions in 20 states since 2010. Any Supreme Court ruling upholding these laws would neuter Roe, and Kavanaugh’s ascent to the Court makes such a ruling a near certainty.
In person, Dannenfelser is the kind of woman you’d be glad to chat with at curriculum night, with the harassed and slightly distracted affect of a working mother of five, which she is. “Marjorie’s genuine,” says Kathy Ireland, the former swimsuit model who has become a pro-life activist. “When you get to know her, you realize she loves women. She fights for women.” Dannenfelser’s authenticity is also tactical, an acknowledgment that the movement’s past approach — hair-sprayed old churchmen lecturing women that having an abortion would send them straight to hell — didn’t work. Shaming a woman “for having a different belief set, that’s not what the movement really is,” explains Rebecca Kleefisch, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, who benefited from SBA List support. “Women of faith leave the judging up to God.”
Two-thirds of Americans say they want Roe to stand, but half also say they are willing for it to be illegal in some circumstances. Dannenfelser embodies the movement’s recognition, arrived at over the past decade or so, that its most effective proponents are women who can come across as sympathetic even as they exploit that ambivalence by pushing for restrictions to abortion, like the 20-week bans and onerous safety requirements for clinics. “Pro-life women won’t be suspected, or credibly accused, of opposing abortion because they want to keep women in their place,” a male editor of National Review wrote in 2010. “They can therefore talk about the issue less defensively than male pro-lifers sometimes do.” Today, the movement’s most visible and energetic leaders — from Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America to Kristan Hawkins from Students for Life to Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life — are women who, like Dannenfelser, might comfortably discuss their own mixed feelings about a pregnancy or their fights at Thanksgiving dinner with relatives who support abortion rights.
“Women are especially good at communicating on a human level,” says Dannenfelser, although conservative women have historically been less good at this. “I think everybody knows how well the left, or progressives, do at communicating the human heart of the matter. And how the other side doesn’t.”
During the primary season of 2016, Dannenfelser — together with more than a dozen other female anti-abortion activists — strenuously objected to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Anti-abortion activists had been casting themselves as “pro-woman,” sometimes even “feminist,” for years, suggesting that it was men, or the patriarchy, that pushed women unwillingly into abortions to relieve themselves of the responsibilities of fatherhood. So it wasn’t just Trump’s past support for abortion rights that bothered these activists. (“I am very pro-choice,” he said in 1999.) It was the degrading way he spoke about women. In a letter to caucus voters, Dannenfelser and her peers encouraged Iowa Republicans to “support anyone but Donald Trump.”
The general election presented Dannenfelser with a values conflict: Trump may have come across as anti-woman, but Hillary Clinton was “a nightmare for the future for us, the legacy that we will never be able to return from,” Dannenfelser says now. “Of course, I could never, ever, in any way affirm” some of Trump’s behavior, she says (in her office, I mentioned the “pussy grabbing” comments), but “we had to make a decision, and the decision really came down to: Are we ever really going to be able to change abortion law or not?” The selection of Mike Pence as the vice-presidential candidate eased Dannenfelser’s mind.
Before she threw the full weight of the SBA List behind Trump, she determined to extract promises from him. Here she leaned on her old friend Kellyanne Conway, whom she’d known since the early 1990s, and who, as a GOP pollster, was one of the architects of the new, female-centered messaging against abortion. The SBA List has the best ground game in the anti-abortion movement. One of its key strategies is to mobilize its paid recruits to target “high intensity” voters, who can be counted on to turn out on Election Day. To assure the grass roots that Trump was for real (and to hold him to account), Dannenfelser enumerated her demands in a letter and gave it to Conway for Trump to sign. The letter, which Dannenfelser distributed to her grassroots leaders, was unprecedented in the history of presidential politics. It bore Trump’s signed promise that he would nominate pro-life judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, make the Hyde Amendment permanent law, and defund Planned Parenthood. It also made highly politicized claims about Clinton’s “extremism,” including that she supports abortion until an hour before birth. When, in the final debate, Trump accused Clinton of supporting procedures that “in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby,” Dannenfelser knew she had made the right choice. She and her troops focus much of their rhetoric on late-term abortions, even though only about 1 percent of abortions are performed beyond 21 weeks. (“They have to rely on extreme messaging to have impact,” says NARAL president Ilyse Hogue.)
By then, Dannenfelser had been an anti-abortion warrior for more than 20 years. She understood exactly how valuable her voters were and how she might use them to incentivize the billionaire, thrice-married Trump to become what she now calls “the most pro-life president in history.” The SBA List says it knocked on more than a million doors during the 2016 election cycle. In the campaign’s last week, it released an ad showcasing Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric in four battleground states: Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio. Whatever she might have once felt about Trump, her horror at legal abortion was stronger. “You’ve got to be decisive. You’ve got to take action, and you don’t look back,” she said.
When she was 18, the summer before she entered Duke, Dannenfelser had her own pregnancy scare. She had been raised in an Episcopalian home but at the time was adamantly pro-choice. Faced with the possible disruption of her future, she didn’t have to think twice about what she would do: She would have an abortion. “No way was I going to — ” she cuts herself off. “I mean, it just seemed like a stupid question.” (It was, in any event, a false alarm.)
At Duke, Dannenfelser became the pro-choice chair of the College Republicans and, in that intellectualized, conservative environment of the 1980s, had numerous late-night conversations about the ethics of abortion. Her conversion, she says, was a slow process. “I remember this one particular guy. He kind of pinned me down on ‘What is it?’ That thing.
I mean, what is the object of the abortion? And I just couldn’t get out of the logical problem I had. I had to call it a person.” Shortly thereafter, Dannenfelser converted to Catholicism, inspired by the conservative intellectuals she was encountering and compelled by its prioritization of a “culture of life.”
Yet the GOP candidates Dannenfelser so enthusiastically supports do little to value human life beyond eliminating access to abortion. They oppose immigration, they separate families at the border, they cut education budgets, they fail to provide any social supports for children or mothers, and they oppose the Affordable Care Act. When I point out some of those things to Dannenfelser, she talks about private-sector efforts to mediate these shortcomings and about “pregnancy care” centers, many of which are funded by organizations like hers. But on the broader failure of the GOP to deal comprehensively with the problems besetting families and children in America in the “culture of life” sense — “I know that’s true,” she says.
She may cry easily, but Dannenfelser is not one to get sidetracked by complexities. “I wouldn’t say that if you don’t get the culture right, if you’ve screwed up on that, you have no right to speak to the right to life. I think if you actually save the lives of 2,500 children today, it would be a job well done.”
Dannenfelser has two grown daughters, who still argue with her about her choice to support Trump. One of them in particular will say, “‘Don’t you think it’s going to do long-term damage to the pro-life movement, having someone who talked about women in a way that he did?’” she tells me. “And I would just say I’m very grateful for his leadership now, but in not many years he’s going to be a footnote, and we will, I pray, have much stronger pro-life laws in this nation because of his tenure. That’s the only way I can think about it.”