Empowered by a president who pushes their priorities, by a Supreme Court now seemingly tipped in their favour and by sheer determination, anti-abortion activists and lawmakers across the country have pushed dozens of bills into law in the past few months.
The most aggressive of the anti-abortion laws that have been passed have not taken effect and are expected to face challenges in court — which in some cases was an aim of the anti-abortion activists to begin with.
Perhaps more than any co-ordinated strategy, activists across the country are tapping into the same energy and feeding on one another’s momentum.
«This is a wave that is rolling across our country in the pro-life states,» said Sue Swayze Liebel, who runs the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus for non-profit anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List. «Everybody just put the pedal down, let’s all go, everybody rushing to the finish line.»
Liebel spent the most momentous week in years for the anti-abortion movement on the road. She started with activists in Texas, to drum up support for a bill that would ban abortion on the basis of race, sex or disability.
By Wednesday, she was at the Missouri statehouse to champion a bill that would ban abortions after the eighth week of pregnancy. By the end of the week, she was cheering friends like state Repupblican Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an architect of the bill, as it passed the Legislature.
The movement’s grassroots networks can be hard to define.
Activists are more likely to co-ordinate through their Catholic and evangelical churches than on mailing lists of mass political email chains. In some states, the local Right to Life chapter may be the strongest activist hub. In others, it might be the Concerned Women for America chapter, or the regional Family Policy Council group.
The activists do not often agree on whether their priority should be to pass a six-week ban or a 20-week one. But together, their efforts have magnified the voices of millions of Americans who want abortion to be illegal, and they are prevailing over millions of other Americans who do not.
If there is a legislative link, it is in the national anti-abortion groups, like Susan B. Anthony List or National Right to Life, who offer model legislation and research for lawmakers and activists. Firms like the Alliance Defending Freedom or Americans United for Life offer legal counsel as the laws take shape. But raw cultural momentum has taken over and shows no signs of slowing.
«The advice of lawyers is of less concern than it ever has been in the pro-life movement right now,» Lee said. «They don’t care. Social movements sometimes take on a life of their own.»
That is what happened in Alabama, which on Wednesday passed the nation’s most restrictive measure, effectively banning abortion unless a woman’s health is at «serious» risk. The president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, Eric Johnston, who calls himself an abortion purist, felt the slew of anti-abortion legislation that has been approved by other states in recent months did not go far enough.
This included even the so-called fetal heartbeat bills, which outlaw abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, when an ultrasound may be able to detect the pulsing of what will become the fetus’ heart. Even in cases of rape and incest the fetus must always be the primary concern, he said, but not if the mother’s life is in danger.
Last summer, as the Senate prepared to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Johnston, 72, saw an opportunity. After years of pushing various abortion restrictions, he began to write a bill for his most restrictive one yet. His language became central to the final law.
The Supreme Court may decide not to take any abortion cases. But Johnston and other activists channelling the movement’s energy say this is the closest they have ever come to a perfect shot.
«All the stars were lining up,» he said. «I thought, this may be the best time to do it.»
Activists in Utah say that strategy never would have worked in their state, even though they applaud Alabama’s boldness. Mary Taylor, who leads ProLife Utah, said she felt «envious» watching other states pass anti-abortion bills. The Utah Legislature is a bit more cautious, she said, and so her coalition decided to push the 18-week ban instead of others that would go into effect around six weeks.
Still, the surge of proposals across the country have helped her brainstorm more of her own for the next legislative session. Sometimes she talks with friends she has met over the years, like Liebel. But a simple newspaper article about another state’s strategy is often enough to generate a new idea, and a phone call to a new ally about how to proceed.
«I’ll reach out and ask, ‘What were your strong points, what were the pitfalls?’ Things like that,» she said. «I’ve got one in the works right now.»
The success of the anti-abortion movement is far from sudden. In Ohio, Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said legislative successes in his state have come about through years of slow, careful and sometimes tedious work.
Because Ohio was the first state to try, in 2011, to pass a ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, Gonidakis said he had received calls from «state senators in almost every midwestern state» asking about strategy. He also talked on the phone with policy staff for the state Senate in Kentucky, which later passed its own heartbeat bill.
Activists have been buttressed by many of the nation’s conservative churches, which have increased their emphasis on abortion policy in recent years. A few decades ago, many Southern Baptist churches would preach far more frequently against divorce and premarital sex, said Wayne Flynt, one of Alabama’s most influential historians and an ordained Baptist minister. «There has been a huge shift,» he said, «and a narrowing of focus to abortion and same-sex marriage.»
Republican control over state legislatures, built since the Tea Party wave in 2010, has made much of the anti-abortion movement’s success possible.
Counterpunches from Democrats in blue states only cemented the movement’s resolve. Outrage among activists grew after New York passed a law protecting abortion in later stages of pregnancy, and Virginia’s governor used language that many Republicans saw as an endorsement of infanticide.
Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor, described a situation in which an infant would be delivered with severe deformities, and then a «discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother».
In Mississippi, anger over the remarks in Virginia led to a meeting between two of the state’s most powerful men, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Senator Joey Fillingane, a leading critic of abortion in the Legislature. That impromptu conversation revived a bill, now signed into law, that would effectively ban abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy.
Abortion rights groups are planning to fight many of these laws in court. On Tuesday, at statehouses and courthouses nationwide, groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood are planning to protest the slew of new abortion bans.
«We must unite against this unprecedented attack on our fundamental rights and freedoms,» Dr Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement. «We are in the fight of our lives.»
Opponents, for their part, feel the same about their fight.
«It doesn’t take any co-ordination,» said Reeves, who is running for governor of Mississippi. «Obviously, in anything in life, whether it’s a basketball game or my daughter’s 14-and-under travel softball team this weekend, momentum matters. As momentum grows, it gives others the ability and confidence that they can get this done.»