In the era of Trump and Whole Woman’s Health, the future of pro-life activism is young, female, secular, and “feminist.”
If you are a pro-life activist, you have several reasons to be discouraged at the moment. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s most vociferously anti-abortion justice, died in February. Then in June, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—the most sweeping abortion decision since 1992—the court struck down parts of a 2013 Texas law that placed strict restrictions on abortion clinics under the guise of women’s health and safety; similar laws in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin rapidly fell in the wake of the 5–3 vote. As the Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty summed it up this summer, “2016 is turning out to be the worst year for the pro-life cause in at least a generation.”
Normally, an election season would bring the promise of a restart: the possibility of a Republican ally in the White House, and a Supreme Court justice or three following in his wake. But Republican nominee Donald Trump called himself “very pro-choice” as recently as 1999 and has been downright incoherent on the issue during the past year. Even if you believe his conversion to the anti-abortion cause, he has shown almost no grasp of its language or the ideas behind it. As evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson put it in July in an essay titled “There Is No Pro-Life Case for Donald Trump,” Trump is “someone who in his personal life has not merely lived in, but reveled in the moral atmosphere and commitments that stand beneath our abortion culture.” The video made public on Friday of Trump boasting about sexual assault was just a visceral reminder of a well-known truth: The Republican candidate’s private moral code is built on what you might call anti–family values.
Despite recent setbacks, however, the demographic outlook for the pro-life movement looks anything but bleak. On issues from race to sexuality to drug law, Americans are used to seeing each new generation become more progressive than their parents; with abortion, it’s not happening: In a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey, 52 percent of millennials said the label “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well, a number that roughly mirrors the general population. A 2013 poll showed that 52 percent of people aged 18 to 29 favored bans on abortion after 20 weeks, compared with 48 percent overall. Pro-choice activists now worry about the “intensity gap” among young people: A poll commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2010 found that 51 percent of anti-abortion voters younger than 30 considered the issue “very important,” but for pro-choice voters the same age, only 26 percent said the same.