In the News 2018

Inside the Ground Game to Reverse Roe v. Wade

AVON, Ind. — Armed with sunscreen, doorknob fliers and a mission 50 years in the making, the team of activists sporting blue “I Vote Pro-Life” T-shirts fanned out into a web of cul-de-sacs in a subdivision just west of Indianapolis, undeterred by towering rain clouds and 90-degree heat.

It was exactly a week after President Trump had named Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to be his nominee for the Supreme Court, and the group was joking that they had a new sport: Extreme Canvassing.

In short surveys, the teams ask voters about their hopes for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation and their opposition to abortion funding. Canvassers have knocked at nearly 1.2 million homes nationwide in recent months, and by November, they are slated to reach their goal of 2 million.

“Whenever I’m feeling tired, I say, ‘I’m doing it for the babies,’” said Kaiti Shannon, 19, as she consulted a mobile app to determine which porch with wind chimes to approach.

These are the ground troops of the social conservative movement, who have long dreamed of a nation where abortion is illegal. Ahead of the midterm elections, the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political group, has dispatched hundreds of these canvassers across six battleground states. They aim to galvanize Americans who oppose abortion but who rarely vote outside presidential races, and to pressure red state Democrats, like Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, to support Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Leaders of the anti-abortion movement believe they are closer than they have been in 50 years to achieving their goals, and local efforts like these are at the heart of their plan to get there. They see this political moment — a White House that advances anti-abortion priorities, a Supreme Court poised to tilt in a conservative direction, and a possible third Supreme Court seat to fill while Mr. Trump is still in office — as a rare opportunity, and one they have worked for years to create.

Some say they feel excited; others are cautiously optimistic. They are all definitely determined.

“Abortion is the single most significant human rights abuse of our time,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, which has brought tens of thousands of protesters to Washington every year since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. “I have a lot of hope for incremental laws — for example, a late-term abortion ban.”

While a majority of Americans have long believed abortion should be legal in most or all cases, the vocal anti-abortion movement is pursuing its goals at the local level. In states like Indiana, whose legislature has a Republican supermajority, activists have repeatedly pushed incremental laws that restrict abortion, require parental involvement or limit state funding.

Already, anti-abortion activists in Indiana hope that one of their laws, which gave a fetus nondiscrimination protections but was struck down in federal appeals court earlier this year, may be the one to challenge Roe v. Wade — if their attorney general appeals to the Supreme Court in the months ahead. But there are dozens of other cases working their way through the courts nationwide, including one involving an Iowa law banning almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, and a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. Seventeen states have laws that ban abortion after about 20 weeks.

These efforts reflect “a long-term and sophisticated strategy” to gain the upper hand, says Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights organization NARAL. “They’ve been stacking the courts, taking over state legislatures,” she said in an interview, referring to anti-abortion groups. “This has been their plan. This is no doubt the day they have been waiting for.”

As the canvassers dodged sprinklers in the Indiana suburbs, it was clear they saw their role as more than just a job for which they are paid $10 an hour: Many said they have opposed abortion most of their lives.

Joey Kurucz, 24, a law school student who has knocked on 2,600 Indiana doors, told the story of talking with voters in June when a dog bit his side, leaving a scar. He continued to shout questions at the owner from the safety of a neighbor’s lawn. “They were pro-life!” he recalled with a smile.

Debra Minott, 62, said she spends 15 minutes every morning in silent prayer, asking for an end to abortion. She decided to go door-to-door five months ago, after regretting that she had not done more for the cause earlier in her life.

“I sometimes pick the worst days to go out, when it is so hot, because I want people to remember that I came to the door to advocate for life,” Ms. Minott said, as she tucked a flier under a doormat.

Their interactions with voters may be the linchpin of a calculated, top-down strategy, but on the streets, it feels more personal. At one house, a woman answered the door and shared her ambivalence about legalized abortion, recounting how she had one years ago. A canvasser asked if she could give her a hug.

A few streets away, a young man at first cracked his door just a few inches, holding it open with his toes to answer the survey. Eventually he stepped outside to say he does not want abortion to be used as birth control.

Another woman watching Fox News in her open garage said she wanted Judge Kavanaugh confirmed and Roe reversed, but that she also thought there were other ways to combat abortion, like promoting safe sex and using the morning after pill.

No one talked about the pending legal cases, and few discussed Mr. Trump. But their inherent opposition to abortion makes them prime candidates for national groups to organize.

The Susan B. Anthony List started its field program in force four years ago, and plans to spend at least $25 million on it ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, up from $18 million in 2016. In some states, like Florida and West Virginia, their canvassers are also targeting persuadable voters, especially Hispanics, who oppose abortion at higher rates than white adults.

Other conservative evangelical and Catholic groups have been pouring money and resources into the battle to confirm Judge Kavanaugh this fall, which abortion rights groups pointed to as a vulnerability of the anti-abortion movement.

“The gains that have been made in the last few years have really come from a very small contingent of special-interest groups and powerful lobbyists,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, the vice president of Catholics for Choice, noting that a majority of Catholics believe abortion should be legal. “I don’t think they have as many people in their corner as they think they do.”

But as national attention focuses largely on the Supreme Court confirmation, movement leaders are hoping for political wins as well. In Minnesota, anti-abortion activists are zeroing in on the open governor’s seat, considered a tossup. The Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, has vetoed seven bills supported by abortion opponents during his time in office.

“Our House and Senate are willing to pass this stuff,” said Scott Fischbach, executive director of the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a group whose political arm helped push the State Legislature to an anti-abortion majority in recent years. “We are going to do more on this governor’s race than we’ve ever done in the past.”

Students for Life, a youth movement that calls itself “the pro-life generation,” is starting a van tour in early August to six states — West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Alaska and Maine — to drum up support for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Conservative statewide Christian groups, like the Ohio Christian Alliance, are urging thousands of local churches to have their members contact lawmakers to do the same.

Next month, the Susan B. Anthony List plans to host news conferences in front of the offices of vulnerable red-state Democrats, and to organize petitions and digital ad campaigns in an attempt to ramp up the political pressure to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.

For the activists on the ground in Indiana, there has already been a taste of victory: Former Gov. Mike Pence, champion of anti-abortion measures, is now in the White House.

“We knew that Indiana, our values, would be on the national stage,” Mr. Kurucz, the canvasser who was bitten by the dog, said as he stepped up to another door. “I know we are pushing people to that successful result in November.”

This piece was originally published at the New York Times. 

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