National Catholic Register
Amid Biden’s Abortion Push, Pro-Lifers in New Congress Face Challenge of Defending Life in a Post-Roe Climate
Speaking with the Register, the House and Senate pro-life caucus chairs discuss how they are seeking to advance the pro-life cause in 2023’s changed political and legal context.
By Lauretta Brown Nation
WASHINGTON — Pro-lifers in the new 118th Congress continue to face an uphill battle as the Biden administration and pro-abortion lawmakers have made it clear that advancing abortion access is a priority following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
In response, pro-life lawmakers are looking to block these efforts to expand abortion access, expose Democratic lawmakers’ extremism, and educate on the issue.
“We are in a new era, fresh off victory in Dobbs and energized for what comes next,” wrote Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., this week.
The pro-life Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives started the year out by sending a clear message on the issue with the passage of two key pieces of legislation. The first was the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would require that medical care be provided to an infant born alive after a failed abortion. That measure passed with a vote of 220 to 210 with one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, crossing the aisle to support it.
The second message was a resolution expressing the sense of Congress condemning the wave of violence against pregnancy centers and churches in the wake of Roe being overturned. The resolution calls on the Biden administration to “use all appropriate law enforcement authorities to uphold public safety and to protect the rights of pro-life facilities, groups, and churches.” It passed with a vote of 222 to 209, with the support of just three Democrats.
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, told the Register that pro-lifers in Congress can advance measures like these to “point out the extreme position of the abortion supporters,” but “as long as [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer is in control of the Senate and Joe Biden is in the White House,” Congress will not be passing pro-life legislation.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, referenced the recent vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act on a press call Wednesday ahead of the March for Life, saying that, “as the country sees Democrats standing by the extremism of abortion on demand up until birth, even after birth, support for that position, I believe, will lead to attrition in the voter base of the Democratic Party.”
House Pro-Life Caucus co-chair Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., told the Register via email that despite the limitations, the pro-life issue is absolutely “a priority for Republicans” in this Congress. She introduced two pieces of legislation this past week that she believes are in line with the beliefs of the majority of Americans. The Protecting Life and Taxpayers Act and the Defund Planned Parenthood Act would “prevent taxpayer dollars from going to organizations that provide abortions,” she noted.
A January 2023 Marist poll found that 60% of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion domestically, and 78% oppose taxpayer funding of abortion internationally. Fischbach said that “many Americans across the country value the lives of precious unborn babies, and it is wrong to force them to spend their tax dollars on something that goes against their closest-held values.”
Prior to his presidential run, President Joe Biden was formerly opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion because of the conscience objections of many Americans.
Outlook in the Senate
While pro-life measures can pass the House, they face almost certain failure in the Senate, as it has remained under Democratic control following the midterm elections.
Newly appointed Senate Pro-Life Caucus Chair Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi acknowledged the current Senate makeup, but told the Register in an email that there are various ways Senate pro-lifers can play defense on the issue and work to protect existing pro-life funding protections.
“Our minority status in new the Congress means we are unable to schedule pro-life votes,” the Republican senator said. “However, we will push for measures to overturn pro-abortion regulations by the Biden administration under the Congressional Review Act, as well as offer pro-life amendments to bills moving on the floor.”
The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to review major rules from federal agencies before they take effect.
Sen. Hyde-Smith added that courtesy of the pro-life House majority, they will be in a position to “use Congress’ power of the purse to advance pro-life policies in annual spending and defense bills.” She cited pro-lifers’ ongoing work to block Senate Democrats from advancing legislation that would “eliminate the Hyde Amendment or other long-standing pro-life protections.” The Hyde Amendment, a decades-old appropriations rider barring the use of federal funds for abortion, was targeted by pro-abortion lawmakers last year but remained intact due to strong GOP opposition as well as opposition from a few Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin, who is Catholic, of West Virginia.
The Senate Pro-Life Caucus chair added that pro-lifers in the Senate will continue to “vigorously oppose” legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act, pushed by Democrats last year, which would have codified Roe and barred nearly all state limits on abortion. She said that measure would have made “every state a late-term abortion state” and eliminated “even the most modest pro-life protections.”
Responding to Biden’s Abortion-Pill Push
Sen. Hyde-Smith and Rep. Fischbach both stressed that it is important for pro-life lawmakers to speak out against the Biden administration’s attempts to expand abortion access. On Jan. 3, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would allow retail pharmacies to provide the abortion pill mifepristone. Prior to this, the provision of mifepristone was limited to certified doctors, clinics and some mail-order pharmacies.
This is just the latest step in the Biden administration’s deregulation of the pill, as the FDA also removed an in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone in December 2021.
Fischbach pointed out that with the removal of these safety requirements, “there are numerous health checks for women that will never be performed like accurate gestational age (mifepristone is only approved for consumption up to 10-weeks gestation), ectopic pregnancies which can only be detected via ultrasound, or abuse of the mother. All of these can be life-threatening for women.”
Hyde-Smith said that the FDA’s action violates “long-standing federal laws that clearly prohibit the mailing of abortion drugs” and promotes “dangerous do-it-yourself abortions by mail and telemedicine and turns brick-and-mortar pharmacies and post offices into abortion centers.” She is introducing a bill called the “SAVE Moms and Babies Act” that would reinstate the safety restrictions on mifepristone.
Last year, after the removal of the in-person dispensing requirement, she sent a letter to the FDA citing “a first-of-its-kind longitudinal study, published in November 2021, that found the rate of abortion-related emergency room visits following a chemical abortion increased by more than 500% from 2002 through 2015.”
She said that pro-lifers “must combat the misinformation about do-it-yourself abortion pills by making the complications and dangers associated with these drugs more well known. Researchers and scientists should also be held accountable in how these drugs are studied and presented to the public.”
Seeking Common Ground
While many debates on pro-life issues will come down to votes along partisan lines, Fischbach was “hopeful” that Democrats and Republicans can “come together to support both mother and child; for example, expanding telehealth access to expectant mothers.”
Hyde-Smith said that in the Senate, pro-lifers “will promote legislation that will support pregnant moms in choosing life, and we are eager to work across the aisle whenever we can to do this. Several of my colleagues have already introduced commonsense measures to support pregnant moms and families, as well as pregnancy centers.”
One example of this, she said, was the Unborn Child Support Act introduced by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., which “would help pregnant moms by ensuring child-support payments begin at conception.”
Another effort to help empower pregnant mothers came from Sen. Rubio, who introduced in September the Providing for Life Act, which included expanding the child tax credit to help struggling families, expanding tax relief for adoptive parents, and permitting pregnancy resource centers to receive Title X funding.
Pro-life leaders are also discussing what abortion limit might have the most consensus in the post-Roe climate. While pro-life lawmakers do not have control of Congress, there has been some discussion of advocacy for a national abortion limit, possibly at 15 weeks or earlier — substantially earlier than the 24-week “viability” standard that applied prior to the overturning of Roe.
Fischbach said she believes “legislation developing a framework around gestational-age limitations for abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and [to save] the life of the mother is in sight.”
Hyde-Smith said that Senate Democrats have “a truly extreme position on abortion — through all nine months, up to the moment of birth and even perhaps after,” adding that she looks forward “to working with my colleagues to build consensus for protections for the unborn, in contrast with the extreme and shameful position embraced by pro-abortion proponents.”
What Federal Limit Is Achievable?
The January Marist poll found that 69% of Americans supported limiting abortion to, at most, the first trimester. This is in line with consistent Gallup polling showing that only about 28% of Americans support abortions in the second trimester, compared with about 60% supporting them in the first trimester.
Tobias was unsure what consensus lawmakers could arrive at on a nationwide abortion limit, but thought a 15-week limit “would be a very humane step forward.” She added, however, that such a measure would only protect a small percentage of babies because “most abortions are performed before the 15-week line.” She noted that there’s also “a lot of support for protecting babies once their heartbeat can be detected.”
Dannenfelser said that she hoped to see lawmakers begin “to form a consensus where we’ve come to a place where we think this is the strongest, the most ambitious we can be for life on the federal level.” She said that, at the moment, it is unclear what that consensus will be.
She pointed out that now that individual states have authority over their own state’s abortion laws, pro-lifers are seeing how various limits are “being received in the states, and so that, of course, affects what congressmen coming here are arguing for as well.” Dannefelser predicted that “experience of what is happening in the states should have a lot to bear on what happens in the Congress.”