Leading voices and organizations in the anti-abortion movement are trying to rebrand their position as "pro-science," despite what medical professionals and reproductive health advocates say is a tendency for key figures and groups within the movement to distort scientific facts to further their cause.
March for Our Life President Jeanne Mancini will try out the new messaging on Friday at the largest annual anti-abortion demonstration, whose theme this year is "Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science," a decisive break from last year's: "Love Saves Lives."
"Being pro-life is not in opposition to science," the March states on its website. "It’s quite the opposite in fact! Medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause—that life begins at fertilization, or day one, when egg meets sperm and a new, unique, human embryo is created."
The March for Life did not immediately return Broadly's request for comment.
Doctors have a different view of how science relates to their work, seeing scientific findings as the basis for providing better care for their patients—abortion care included.
"As an OB/GYN, I find it an honor to take care of women in all sorts of reproductive health situations," Carley Zeal, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells Broadly. "Sometimes, that means they're seeking an abortion. I feel very confident that science really backs me up in providing the most comprehensive care for them."
Zeal is an abortion provider in Missouri, where some of the country's strictest anti-abortion laws have eliminated all but one abortion clinic, Planned Parenthood St. Louis, where she works. Zeal argues that some of the restrictions placed on women seeking abortions in the state are based in ideology rather than science. In order to terminate a pregnancy under Missouri law, women must first receive counseling that can include misleading information about the negative effects abortion can have on their mental health and likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Women are then required to wait 72 hours—the longest mandatory waiting period in the United States—before receiving abortion care.
"What we know is that the National Academy of Sciences, which is a nonpartisan scientific group, affirmed in their report on abortion safety that abortion is safe and effective in all forms and that same report found that the biggest threat to quality of abortion care is the litany of medically unnecessary precautions that raise costs and delay procedures," Zeal said.
The March 2018 report, as Zeal notes, deems legal abortions in the United States "safe and effective," and concludes definitely that having an abortion "does not increase a women's risk of secondary infertility, pregnancy-related hypertensive disorders, abnormal placentation, preterm birth, or breast cancer." Nor does it "increase a women's risk of depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder."
"The anti-choice movement's attempt to turn toward science is misleading to women," Zeal said.
It's not the first time the anti-abortion movement has tried to alter its messaging to hew to more widely accepted ideas. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that the movement was angling for a rebrand meant to evoke women's empowerment after reporter Ema O'Connor attended an anti-abortion convention in Missouri, where booths spilled over with feminist-inspired merchandise.
The event also offered a number of workshops in which speakers cautioned women against the old marketing strategies commonly used in efforts to end abortion. Instead of invoking religion or using fear tactics, speakers at the gathering suggested anti-abortion advocates take on a friendlier demeanor and deploy the girl-power messaging common in mainstream feminism.
“You have fornicated in the sight of God! Come out with your hands up!” one woman with a bullhorn shouted—providing an example of what not to do—at a talk called "Don't Be Weird: Ineffective Messaging in the Pro-Life Movement."
“Yes, this is real!” the leader of the workshop told the audience, according to BuzzFeed News, emphasizing the outdated nature of such an approach. “This is on the sidewalk in the Midwest.”
Anti-abortion activists are capitalizing on what they see as forward momentum for their agenda under the Trump administration, which many of them see as providing them with the ripest opportunity yet to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, has called Trump "the most pro-life president" the country has ever seen. "We're on the cusp of making history," Dannenfelser told POLITICO in May. "This is the strongest position the pro-life movement has ever been in since 1973." (SBA List did not respond to Broadly's request for comment.)
The Trump administration has proven itself to be a loyal ally to the anti-abortion movement, as well as a particularly visible supporter of the March for Life, which takes place every year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In 2018, Trump became the first sitting president to address the march, using his keynote speech—delivered remotely and broadcast at the event—to announce a new policy that would ban federal family planning dollars from going to clinics that provide abortions.
“When I ran for office, I pledged to stand for life, and as president, that’s exactly what I have done,” Trump said. “Today, we have kept another promise."
As anti-abortion ideology continues to pervade the highest reaches of government and inform federal policy, Zeal worries about the March for Life's evolving "pro-science" messaging.
"It’s important for us to keep focused," Zeal said. "We have to ask: 'Where does the scientific evidence support us?' And that’s definitely toward access to family planning."