People attend the 50th annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on January 20, 2023 in Washington, DC.​
People attend the 50th annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on January 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Abortion Pills, Prayer, and *NSYNC: Inside Anti-Abortion Activists’ Weekend of Celebrating and Pleading

Anti-abortion activists spent what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade celebrating—and trying to figure out what their mission is now.

WASHINGTON — On Saturday evening, the architects behind the collapse of Roe v. Wade unveiled their latest triumph to a ballroom of screaming fans: an intricately choreographed, lip-synced homemade music video set to the *NSYNC song “Bye Bye Bye.”

For three minutes and change, attendees of the first post-Roe National Pro-Life Summit laughed, cheered, and generally lost their minds at the sight of staffers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that has orchestrated much of the conservative legal onslaught against abortion and LGTBQ rights, dancing their way through a “Bye Bye Bye” to Roe. They applauded when one staffer, wearing a black robe and the nametag “Justice Kavanaugh,” faux-kicked a man dressed in antifa-black, then shoved a woman carrying a sign that read “Ruth Sent Us.” And when another pair of staffers popped up with a binder that read “truth,” then threw it at another woman who stood behind a podium that read “Planned Parenthood,” the ballroom seemed to turn feral. 

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The entire video crescendoed with a man holding up a baby wreathed in a halo of light. Everybody surged to a standing ovation.

Tyson Langhofer, the ADF’s director of the Center for Academic Freedom, beamed on stage like a rock star basking in the cries for an encore. “We had as much fun making it as you guys did watching it,” he said.

They applauded when one staffer, wearing a black robe and the nametag “Justice Kavanaugh,” faux-kicked a man dressed in antifa-black, then shoved a woman carrying a sign that read “Ruth Sent Us.”

The Saturday evening extravaganza, which took place just one day before what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe, capped off a two-day flurry of anti-abortion organizing in the nation’s capital. On Friday, thousands of abortion foes took a literal victory lap during the first post-Roe March for Life, the largest annual anti-abortion gathering in the country. Then, on Saturday, a handful of influential anti-abortion organizations, including the ADF and Students for Life, hosted an all-day training session to prepare young anti-abortion activists for the post-Roe battle. The festivities were half-celebration, half-plea. Although Roe has fallen, the anti-abortion movement needs to convince its foot soldiers that their mission is far from over.

The problem is that no one can quite agree on what, exactly, the next mission should be. 

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At least 13 states have now banned most abortions, but anti-abortion activists also went 0-6 in state referendums on abortion in the midterms, including in states like Kansas and Kentucky. While congressional Republicans have introduced legislation that would outlaw most abortions nationwide, they lack the political will to make it a reality (and President Joe Biden will never sign one, anyway). And although anti-abortion activists have long proclaimed that their work is to make abortion unthinkable, not just illegal, the fact remains that most Americans still think about abortion: More than three in five Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases

Now, anti-abortion activists are now test-driving a host of strategies, such as supporting state-level restrictions, riling up their supporters over abortion-inducing pills, and hitching their movement to other provocative right-wing causes.

Although Roe has fallen, the anti-abortion movement needs to convince its foot soldiers that their mission is far from over.

On Friday, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini highlighted the movement’s pivot towards state-level action, announcing that the organization planned to hold 10 state marches in 2023 and ultimately have marches in all 50 states within the next decade. But marchers struggled to name concrete tactics that they would like to see the anti-abortion movement pursue—other than, of course, banning abortion, and being Christian.

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“The real change is going to happen in our own states and really locally,” said Martin Gavin, a 20-year-old college student. “So just continue to pray, pray the rosary, and do this kind of stuff, like these protests.” 

“Pray, praying,” agreed 22-year-old Valerie Jepsen. “And just starting small, like at your parish or your school, starting a group.”

At the Pro-Life Summit, which is geared towards high school and college students, activists tossed around close to a dozen different avenues of attack. Some wanted to turn towns into “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” Others pushed for laws that would ban abortions conducted after diagnoses of Down syndrome, or protect people who are supposedly “born alive” after a failed abortion. (This is incredibly rare. Abortion rights supporters say that, in practice, “born alive” bills would restrict doctors and families’ ability to deal with heartrending situations where, due to a medical emergency or fetal anomaly, a person may give birth to an infant that will not live long after birth and then choose to let the infant pass naturally.) 

But summit speakers also repeatedly shouted out one goal: cutting down on abortion-inducing pills. These pills are used in medication abortions, which accounted for more than half of all U.S. abortions in 2020. (Anti-abortion activists typically call these kinds of abortions “chemical abortions.”) Everybody at the summit seemed to be incensed by FDA’s recent decision to let pharmacies dispense mifepristone. They suggested that the FDA had been “weaponized” by the Biden administration and evoked powerful imagery of everyday pharmacies and bathrooms being turned into abortion clinics.

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“The bathroom is not a place for slaughter,” said Katie Greer, a 19-year-old student spokesperson for Students for Life. “It's not a place [where] a woman needs to have a tragic and deeply traumatic event happen to her, in her bathroom.” (Although abortion regret is a common narrative in anti-abortion circles, a landmark study on women who’ve had abortions found that 95 percent still feel it was the right decision three years after the procedure.) 

Donna McMaster of Garden City, New York raises a rosary she made during a rally for the National March for Life on January 20, 2023 in Washington, District of Columbia.

Donna McMaster of Garden City, New York raises a rosary she made during a rally for the National March for Life on January 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I think our goal is to bring awareness to the danger that chemical abortion brings,” added Noah Slater, 20. “So that’s sort of the new frontier, if you will, for the pro-life movement.”

Yet while the talks at the National Pro-Life Summit suggested that there is no single policy that will unite the anti-abortion movement, that may not matter. Rather, activists may yoke the movement together using something far more basic: a sense of victimhood. 

“While there always is going to be those people who are persecuting us for our beliefs, the majority of students are pro-life,” Greer said. “Media has created this culture that says abortion is normal and everybody supports abortion, but that's absolutely not true. That's what media says and that's what they push out. But you would be surprised.” (Almost 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support abortion’s legality, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.)

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At talk after talk, speaker after speaker told the young anti-abortion activists that they were persecuted, that they were “countercultural,” that they may lose jobs and grades and friends and family over their beliefs. Speakers repeatedly invoked Jane’s Revenge, a shadowy moniker that has been linked to numerous recent arsons and vandalisms against anti-abortion facilities that try to convince people to keep their pregnancies.

These sacrifices, speakers said, were worth it. In a “culture of death,” young people who oppose abortion “hold the line” and become forces for love. The speeches often felt closer to sermons, rife with references to Jesus Christ, sacraments, and the power of the church. 

Langhofer likened the decision overturning Roe to the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Because you are on the side unequivocally of light and goodness, the world is going to hate you,” conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey told the crowd during the opening speeches of the day. “The world is going to hate you for your stance, primarily your stance on the gospel, but also anything that flows from that, including your stance on abortion.”

“They love darkness. They rejoice in death. They celebrate depravity. They hate truth, light, life, and goodness,” Stuckey continued. “They hated Jesus, so of course they are going to hate you.”

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(No one brought up the fact that there have been at least 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, and 42 bombings directed against abortion providers since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation.)

Although abortion was compared to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust multiple times throughout the day, the anti-abortion activists ultimately seemed to settle on the metaphor of slavery, Reconstruction, and the fight for civil rights. 

Langhofer likened the decision overturning Roe to the Emancipation Proclamation; although that historic document ended slavery, it would be another century before Jim Crow was defeated. The post-Roe fight over abortion would, evidently, be similarly riddled with oppression and require extreme courage. (Summit attendees seemed mostly, though not exclusively, white.) 

He also tried to draw another parallel to U.S. history. “God in his provenance has placed me in this time and place,” Langhofer told the crowd. “I don’t know about you, but I am not throwing away my shot.” 

The crowd surged to their feet, cheering so loud that they drowned out what sounded like Hamilton’s “My Shot.” 

Christians are not a minority in the United States: As of 2020, 64 percent of Americans were Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. But opposing abortion, it was clear, was not just a stance, but an identity. Summit attendees could buy Converse sneakers decorated with words like “Pro-Life” and “Abortion Kills”; they took photos beneath a neon purple sign that declared, in cursive, “I am Pro-Life.” 

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The Pro-Life Summit also sought to knit the anti-abortion movement into a wide tapestry of conservative causes. While the ADF handed out fliers with available jobs, the powerful think tank the Heritage Foundation advertised its internship program. Speakers made numerous appeals for the sanctity of campus free speech and dropped drive-by attacks on covid lockdowns, fact-checkers, and LGBTQ rights.

“There is no such thing as a family-friendly drag show,” said Seth Dillon, the summit’s keynote speaker and head of the conservative satire website the Babylon Bee, to raucous applause. “There is no such thing as a pregnant man.” 

Dillon also repeatedly misgendered Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services and the highest-ranking openly trans official in the U.S. government. When he announced that USA Today had named Levine one of its 12 women of the year in 2022, the crowd roared with laughter.

The Women’s Convention may have sought to educate its attendees, but the National Pro-Life Summit wanted to inspire them.

The political playbook has changed post-Roe, but the emotional calculus has not. The pitch remains the same: Save babies. So the National Pro-Life Summit was a show of force, demonstrating that the movement remains staggeringly disciplined and able to present a cohesive front regardless of any dissent in the ranks. When one young attendee asked an ADF representative about the legality of the “sanctuary cities for the unborn” movement, she gracefully pivoted away without fully answering his question or casting doubt on another part of the movement.

By contrast, when the Women’s March held a convention six years ago, its talks included numerous critiques of other left-wing factions and of the march itself. The Women’s March, of course, later fell apart, failing to harness the energy that once led thousands of Americans to take to the streets in support of liberal causes.

The Women’s Convention may have sought to educate its attendees, but the National Pro-Life Summit wanted to inspire them. It worked, just as it has for generations.

Hundreds of people started to chant, growing louder and louder. “Life! Wins! LIFE! WINS!”

During his speech at the Summit on Saturday, Roger Severino, a Heritage Foundation vice president and former HHS Office of Civil Rights director, told the crowd that he had attended the March the day before—but he wanted to experience activists’ enthusiasm one more time. He told one half of the room to shout, “Life!” The other half was supposed to reply with “Wins!”

Hundreds of people started to chant, growing louder and louder. “Life! Wins! LIFE! WINS!”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” Severino told the crowd. “Thank you. God bless you.”