News and analysis
January 31, 2017

Groups That Oppose Abortion See Opportunity Under Trump

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz

Indiana college students Shelby Olinger (left) and Nora Hopf rally with antiabortion group Students for Life at the March for Life in Washington January 27.

Buoyed by the support of top Trump administration officials, nonprofits and activists who oppose abortion described a new sense of optimism about their cause following the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. They plan to channel their renewed energy into action, fast.

"We're excited," says Matt Yonke, assistant communications director of Pro-Life Action League. "Having a sympathetic administration and Congress, we're definitely set to go to work on some big goals that may have been completely unattainable in the past."

Expectations are high that the Republican-led White House and Congress will push for anti-abortion policies, including defunding Planned Parenthood and appointing an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court who could help overturn Roe v. Wade. Just days after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order reinstating a rule that blocks federal aid to foreign nonprofit groups that perform or offer information about abortions.

Anti-abortion nonprofits will be publicly advocating for those changes. Three organizations, including Pro-Life Action League, are organizing protests at Planned Parenthood offices around the country on February 11. More than 70 organizations have signed on in support. 

“The anniversary of Roe is where we really stop and reflect on what has brought us to this struggle.”

Despite the positive political outlook for her cause, longtime anti-abortion activist Monica Miller cautions that nonprofits still have to prepare for a fight. "There’s a lot of exuberance and optimism. I share it, but I share it in kind of a guarded sort of way," says the director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. "There are no breaks. We have to go full speed ahead and do what’s right for this victim class that has no rights. I don’t take anything for granted."

New Support

Advocacy, not fundraising, is the priority for many nonprofits that participate in the March for Life, their leaders say, especially for those groups whose costs are low because they are run by volunteers.

"The anniversary of Roe is where we really stop and reflect on what has brought us to this struggle," says Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for Americans United for Life. "It’s almost more of a memorial service than it is anything else."

Other charities with established fundraising programs declined to provide details on contributions.

A spokesman for Focus on the Family, a large conservative evangelical group, said donations at the end of 2016 were up slightly from the year before but did not share specifics. The group ranked No. 366 on The Chronicles list of the largest charities, reporting more than $74 million in private contributions.

This is a stark contrast from progressive nonprofits that have seen record donations in response to rhetoric and actions from the new administration.

Planned Parenthood, for example, saw its donations increase 40-fold in the month after the election. A quarter of those gifts were given in the name of Vice President Pence, who opposes abortion rights.

American Life League did send out an appeal to raise money to cover the costs of sending 12 people to the march. Executive director Jim Sedlak says there's been a slight increase in donations to the nonprofit since President Trump’s election.

"I wouldn't say a huge uptick," he says. "It was a little better than it has been in the last few years."

Several anti-abortion organizations did notice support increase after protests were staged following the inauguration.

This year, the March for Life served as something of a rebuke to the Women's March on Washington, which took place one week earlier. Several anti-abortion nonprofits saw the women's marches — which received major financial support from Planned Parenthood and drew an estimated 500,000 to Washington and several million to cities around the world — as unwelcoming to their views.

New Wave Feminists, a small Texas nonprofit, drew attention after Women's March organizers told the group it would no longer be an official partner, claiming the organization had been listed by mistake.

Publicity about the incident attracted donations and a jump in social-media following, from 16,800 followers on Facebook to more than 25,000, says Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, who added that "our 'membership' has definitely shot up."

Because all staff are volunteers, she says, the group seldom asks for donations. "We've slowly been gaining new members because we've been getting a lot of news coverage. Whenever we appear on any type of show, I've noticed some $25 donations coming in."

A spokeswoman for the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, the march's nonprofit arm, said nobody would be able to provide a tally of new donations in the immediate future.

Students for Life of America, a national organization with chapters across college campuses, saw a spike in donations, social-media engagement, and positive messages from supporters after the Women's March on Washington rejected anti-abortion nonprofits, said Kristina Hernandez, director of communications. Ms. Hernandez declined to share specific fundraising numbers.

Representatives from New Wave Feminists and Students for Life of America participated in the March for Life in Washington. The next day, more than 1,800 people, mostly high-school and college students, attended the Students for Life national conference in Maryland.

New Energy

On Friday in Washington, anti-abortion nonprofits and religious congregations were out in force. Protesters carried signs from the Family Research Council, Save the Storks, and the Susan B. Anthony List, a political-advocacy group that supports politicians who are anti-abortion. Many people held signs calling for the government to defund Planned Parenthood.

The fact that Mr. Pence spoke to the crowd — the highest-ranking government official ever to appear before the annual event — solidified nonprofit leaders' hopes.

"Vice President Pence being there definitely pushed some new energy," says Mr. Yonke, who attended the event with four colleagues. "He had some great things to say on the subject. You can tell when a leader is really behind your cause."

Other speakers included Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned anti-abortion activist.

Around 4 p.m., representatives from Silent No More, a campaign of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life, spoke in front of the Supreme Court about their personal abortion stories.

The fact that Vice President Pence spoke to the crowd solidified the groups' hopes.

Maggie Sweet, the Lehigh Valley regional coordinator for Silent No More, has been to the march several times and said this year about 120 people from her group attended. She traveled from Bethlehem, Pa., carrying a sign that read, "I regret my abortion."

When she had the procedure 30 years ago, she says, "I thought it was OK. It was the law of the land."

But today, she says, "no one talks about the consequences" of an abortion. "The consequences outweigh the choice."

Activists affiliated with nonprofits that promote abortion rights were present, too. They have pledged to continue to fight efforts to limit abortion at the federal and state levels.

Lili Knighton and her husband came to counter the protest. Ms. Knighton belongs to the National Organization for Women, Naral Pro-Choice American, and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

"For me, abortion rights is about a woman's right to choose," she said, standing in front of the Supreme Court. "It has nothing to do with the fetus and everything to do with controlling women."

Lyric Rahyne, another counterprotester, volunteers with Planned Parenthood's Baltimore chapter, teaching sex-education and health classes in the city's public schools. As a middle-class white woman, she says, "I’ll always be able to find a doctor, but there are people that don't have those resources."

"This idea of religious morality is getting into law," she says. "We have a structured system that's supposed to protect us from that, and it's dissolving in front of us. It's frustrating and it's frightening."

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig and Eden Stiffman.