The unpleasant reality facing the anti-abortion movement is that most Americans don’t actually want to ban abortion.
This explains why the pro-life summer of triumph, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, led to a season of such demoralizing political outcomes. Voters in Montana, Kansas, and Kentucky in November rejected ballot measures to make abortion illegal; just last month, in Wisconsin, voters elected an abortion-rights supporter to the state supreme court.
Yet the movement’s activists don’t seem to care. Thirteen states automatically banned most abortions with trigger laws designed to go into effect when Roe fell; a Texas judge this month stayed the FDA approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, setting in motion what is sure to be a drawn-out legal battle; and some lawmakers are pursuing restrictions on traveling out of state for the procedure—what they call “abortion trafficking.”
Even as the anti-abortion movement lacks a Next Big Objective, a new generation of anti-abortion leaders is ascendant—one that is arguably bolder and more uncompromising than its predecessors. This cohort, still high on the fumes of last summer’s victory, is determined to construct its ideal post-Roe America. And it’s forging ahead—come hell, high water, or public disgust.
The groups this new generation leads “are not afraid to lose short term if they think the long-term gain will be eliminating abortion from the country,” Rachel Rebouché, a family-law professor at Temple University, told me.
One such leader is Kristan Hawkins, the president of the anti-abortion group Students for Life. After Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, “some organizations had to go through this period where they had to reflect and figure out what they were going to do,” she told me. “But nothing changed in our organization—we’d already had that conversation years ago.” Students for Life participants have been calling themselves “the post-Roe generation” since 2019; that’s the year they launched a political-action committee to beef up their state-level presence and begin drafting legislation for a post-Roe society. In 2021, the organization started the Campaign for Abortion-Free Cities to promote what they call “alternatives to abortion” and neighborhood resources for pregnant women.
“What the anti-abortion movement is, who’s leading it, and what it stands for are still being contested,” Mary Ziegler, a UC Davis law professor who has written about abortion for The Atlantic, told me. But organizations such as Students for Life will, in all likelihood, “be the ones running the movement going forward.” To understand the goals of people like Hawkins is, in other words, to peer into the future of America’s anti-abortion project.
Hawkins “saw the politics in this in ways a lot of people don’t,” Ziegler told me—and she brought that acumen to the movement. She knew how to lead a grassroots campaign, and how a state legislature functions. Then just 20, she was younger than other pro-life leaders, so she had a better idea of how to engage young people. Hawkins is trying, Ziegler said, “to grow the movement in a way that no one else really ever did.”
Doggedness and moral conviction have always characterized the anti-abortion movement. Activists have sustained their energy for 50 years “by believing that success was possible, even in the absence of clear victories,” Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia, told me. Dobbs gave this new generation a taste of victory. Activists like Hawkins are bolder now. Without Roe, they reason, anything is possible.