In 2019, the nation reeled from polarization over abortion bans and the future of the Supreme Court. Pro-choice advocates warned that powerful men threatened women’s freedom by moving to block abortion access while remaining insensitive to the reality of unintended pregnancy.
But the pro-life movement today is fighting back against that narrative through leaders like Lila Rose of Live Action, Catherine Glenn Foster of Americans United for Life (AUL), and Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List.
Those women are just a few of the more than 30 female leaders, writers and activists who argued -- in interviews with Fox News -- that abortion is a detriment to, rather than an instrument of, women’s empowerment.
Nearly every pro-life organization in the United States has a woman at the top. On Friday, one of those women -- March for Life President Jeanne Mancini -- is expected to lead about 100,000 activists in Washington in challenging the prevailing narrative advanced by groups like Planned Parenthood.
This year’s March for Life theme is “Life Empowers: Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” as the movement works to reclaim the mantle of feminism. Mancini chose that in honor of the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage, the hallmark of an early feminist movement that pro-lifers allege was “hijacked” by the sexual revolution.
“To me, the epitome of feminism is using our rights and privilege[s] to protect the vulnerable,” Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of the pro-life New Wave Feminists, said. During an interview with Fox News, she reflected on her mother’s decision not to abort her despite facing difficult circumstances at just 19 years of age. “She knew I was a human being,” Herndon-De la Rosa said.
Outside of the March, there are thousands of women working as grassroots activists, caregivers, and medical professionals as part of the movement. For example, both Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America (SFLA) and Penny Young Nance of Concerned Women for America (CWA) lead organizations whose hundreds of chapters around the nation are overwhelmingly led by women (100 percent for CWA, 62 percent for SFLA). CareNet Vice President Cindy Hopkins told Fox News that her vast network of pregnancy care centers is similarly dominated by women at the executive level.
Powerful women like Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey are signing far-reaching abortion restrictions into law as well. Others, like Democratic Louisiana State Sen. Katrina Jackson and Faith2Action’s Janet Porter, known for the “heartbeat bill,” have authored pro-life legislation under review at the legislative and court level. And covering developments like these is a generation of female, pro-life journalists, like Lauretta Brown of the National Catholic Register and Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review.
Feminism reconsidered: ‘Abortion is the opposite of empowerment’
While the legacy of early feminism is contested, pro-life women suggest that leading figures -- like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Wollstonecraft -- saw abortion as a symptom of, rather than liberator from, male dominance. They will also remind you that Alice Paul, a suffragist who authored the Equal Rights Amendment, was explicit in her condemnation, referring to abortion as the “ultimate in the exploitation of women.”
Today’s pro-life feminists similarly see abortion as a “tool for oppressors,” as Rose put it. They say the practice encourages men to objectify them for pleasure rather than loving them holistically -- their capacity for motherhood included. Pro-life women like Hawkins describe abortion as the “opposite of empowerment.” For Rose, the “natural progression of feminism -- if it’s on the right course -- is to reject passionately any legal attacks against our children.”
Contemporary feminism, these women contend, denigrates their sex by aiming for "sameness" rather than equality with men, a way of “placating the patriarchy,” according to Herndon-De la Rosa. For that reason, EWTN anchor Catherine Hadro told Fox News she didn’t think it was “intellectually honest” for "pro-abortion feminists" to call themselves “pro-woman.”
Pro-choice advocates have engaged in attempts to normalize the procedure through activities like the “shout your abortion” campaign -- a sharp contrast to the “safe, legal, and rare” motto of the 1990s. Planned Parenthood also made plain its view of abortion when its latest annual report asserted that “walking into our health centers is an act of empowerment.”
AUL’s Foster told Fox News, however, that she had the exact opposite experience when she entered an abortion clinic in college. “I walked through those doors … not because I was exercising my so-called right to choose but because I didn’t feel that I had any other choice,” she said. Foster claims clinic personnel held her down, forcing her to undergo an “extraordinarily painful” abortion, something she initially wanted but changed her mind about after the clinic refused to let her see an ultrasound of her unborn child.
Her organization pushes for state-level abortion regulations and opposes restrictions on crisis pregnancy centers, which have been criticized by pro-choice feminists but provide the type of “choice” Foster says she would’ve wanted as a college student.
It should be no surprise that a movement trying to defeat the nation’s largest abortion provider is dominated by the gender most affected by that procedure, Hadro and others suggested. Many pro-life women either previously had abortions of their own, worked in the field, or had friends who appeared to be deeply wounded by the procedure.
“The unique power of a woman is to be a mother … abortion literally destroys and it spits on that most fundamental capacity we have and it rejects it,” said Rose, who often labels abortion a form of violence. Pro-life speaker Gianna Jessen lent support to that characterization when she told Fox News she was “burned alive” in a botched saline abortion.
Foster’s clinic wasn’t owned by Planned Parenthood, but pro-life leader Abby Johnson, a former clinic director for the group, gave a harsh assessment of the organization.
Johnson, who claims Planned Parenthood directed her to turn “every client interaction into a revenue-generating visit,” told Fox News: “We just looked at them and said ‘you’re weak,’ and we exploited them at that time of vulnerability ... That’s not what women should be doing. We should be building each other up.”
The battle rages on
Both sides of the abortion debate remain engaged in an intense, state-by-state battle after decades of political warfare.
A spate of state-level bans and federal defunding efforts has groups like Planned Parenthood denouncing what they call an unprecedented "attack" on reliable access to women's health care.
These groups argue that by regulating abortion, pro-life legislation is violating a "fundamental human right" to have the procedure, effectively endangering women's lives. Prominent slogans like "hands off my uterus" echo the concept that women should remain sovereign over their own bodies and able to make very private decisions about their reproductive health. Protests surrounding abortion have featured hangers and "Handmaid's Tale" costumes to warn about the alleged dangers of a world without abortion access.
Pro-life laws seemed to focus on outright bans like the heartbeat bill, but have included clinic regulations that have resulted in facility closures in multiple states. Planned Parenthood responded with a long list of legal challenges – approximately 40 open cases, according to its report – and was able to salvage Missouri's last abortion clinic amid restrictive legislation.
NARAL did not respond to Fox News’ multiple requests for comment. Neither did the National Organization of Women (NOW). EMILY’s List did not respond to a request for comment, and Planned Parenthood declined to provide one.
Of course, the pro-life reading of early feminism has faced substantial pushback from scholars, like Akron University law professor Tracy Thomas. She wrote a lengthy paper that argues groups like Feminists for Life (FFL) are “misappropriating women’s history.” Thomas acknowledges that early feminists didn’t “affirmatively endorse” abortion like those in the 20th Century did, but says their ideas provided a foundation for that position.
The National Abortion Federation (NAF) told Fox News that pro-life women advanced a false version of feminism. “Simply calling yourself a feminist does not suddenly give you the right to make reproductive decisions for others,” said Katherine Ragsdale, NAF interim president and CEO. “We continue to recommend that people not take health care advice from people yelling at them on the street or any others who lack health care training and expertise.”
Feminist icon Betty Friedan, who founded the seminal National Organization for Women (NOW), expressed anti-abortion sentiments but affirmed the procedure as a way to maintain choice over motherhood. Some, like feminist Jessica Valenti, have championed abortion as the key to a woman's ability to chart her own course in life. "Abortion is normal, good, and people don't regret having them," she tweeted in January.
In a 2014 op-ed, Valenti laid out her case for why abortion was critical to women's equality. "The ability to control if and when we parent determines how we participate in society," she said. She adds that abortion is necessary "because women’s desire to seek the life they want in the way that men can is our right and its purpose, not a side effect."
Pro-life activists: Sexual revolution 'hijacked' the women's movement
Scholar Erika Bachiochi asserts, however, that Friedan's embrace of abortion was a marked departure from how her predecessors understood choice in motherhood.
Bachiochi, formerly an "ardent pro-choice feminist," spoke as the keynote at the March for Life conference on Thursday. She and others have argued that the sexual revolution uprooted feminism from its early foundations by decoupling sex and reproduction. In doing so, Bachiochi says in a forthcoming book, it “arguably unleashed upon women in our day the very circumstances the early women's advocates most feared: male sexual aggression.” Early feminists, Bachiochi argues, subscribed to a concept of “voluntary motherhood” that put the onus on men to control their sexual desires, rather than consigning women to contraception and abortion.
Friedan actually credited a man with starting the pro-choice movement. Journalist Lawrence Lader, whom Friedan described as the “father of abortion rights," helped found one of the nation’s foremost abortion advocacy groups with another man, Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Nathanson was a physician who performed and oversaw more than 60,000 abortions before converting to Catholicism and vehemently condemning the procedure.
In his book “Aborting America,” Nathanson claims Lader saw “recruit[ing] the feminists” as the key to mainstreaming abortion advocacy. Herndon-De La Rosa and other pro-life women frequently accuse Lader as well as other men of corrupting the women’s movement. Referring to the influence of “misogynists” like Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Herndon-De La Rosa said: “We’ve been sold a bill of goods.”
Bachiochi also argues that for the early feminists, rights were necessary in order to fulfill pre-existing duties, “and so there would be no understanding of a right to take the life of a child to whom I owed pre-existing duties.”
According to author and former “Cosmo girl” Sue Ellen Browder, NOW fractured when Friedan shoe-horned a pro-choice resolution into its 1967 convention. Both she and Thomas acknowledge that organizations like FFL spun off from NOW over the abortion issue.
Browder, author of "Subverted," also claims influencers like Cosmopolitan Magazine, Hefner, and the pharmaceutical industry subtly coaxed women into a sexual pseudo-liberation. Browder argues that Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown directed writers like her to "lie" in stories, glorifying sexually free lifestyles that would help sell products for companies that advertised in the magazine. Cosmopolitan’s parent company, Hearst, did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment.
Contemporary feminists often argue that part of the pro-life drive includes controlling women's bodies, suggesting that material provisions aren't enough to empower women. And pro-life pregnancy centers, they say, keep women in the dark about their options. That's an accusation that those pro-life leaders lob back at abortion clinics as well.
But pro-life women say authentic empowerment is assisting women so that they continue their pregnancies, rather than telling them they "can't" and need abortion. “We’re constantly working on systematically eliminating the reasons that drive women to abortion,” FFL President Serrin Foster told Fox News.
Although Herndon-De La Rosa is proud of her mom for not resorting to abortion when she faced a lack of resources, the “New Wave Feminist” said she doesn’t want other families to experience the hardships hers did. In speaking with Fox News, Herndon-De la Rosa reflected the views of many pro-life leaders when she said: “Ultimately, we have to make abortion unnecessary and unthinkable.”