Early last September, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) polled its members — more than 150 of the most conservative congressmen in the House of Representatives — and asked them to list their priorities for a bill to fund the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. According to a copy of the poll obtained by National Review, their top priority, by far, was removing funding from Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States.
Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is perhaps the promise Republican politicians have made most consistently to their voters over the last decade, and for good reason: The group performed 332,757 abortions last fiscal year alone, more than one-third of the estimated number of annual abortions in the U.S. But despite Republicans controlling the White House, the Senate, and the House for the preceding two years, the last Congress ended with President Donald Trump signing a spending bill that continued funding Planned Parenthood to the tune of about $500 million.
Shortly after that RSC poll was conducted, House speaker Paul Ryan met with GOP caucus leaders to discuss the draft appropriations bill. A Republican aide with knowledge of the meeting tells National Review that Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, then chairman of the RSC, brought up the poll results, along with the party’s continual promise to defund Planned Parenthood, and asked whether defunding would be prioritized in the legislation.
The answer was no. In fact, some Republicans didn’t even want voters to know that so many GOP congressmen placed defunding Planned Parenthood at the top of the party’s list of legislative priorities. Representative Tom MacArthur — a Republican who at the time was facing a tough reelection battle in a moderate New Jersey district, a race he ended up losing — lobbied heavily at the meeting to keep the survey results private. “If this thing gets out, it will kill me,” he said, according to the GOP aide. His wish was granted; the full results aren’t available to the public.
One longtime leader in the anti-abortion movement describes Ryan as “one of the most pro-life speakers we could ever have,” but according to the GOP aide, even the former speaker downplayed the issue, telling members at the meeting that they needed to “keep their eye on the ball.” He pointed instead to the Trump administration’s proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule that would remove Planned Parenthood from the Title X family-planning program, which has funded the group since 1970 and currently provides it about $60 million a year. (Most of the group’s federal funding comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements rather than through Title X.) That rule has yet to go into effect. A spokesperson for Ryan declined to comment on the meeting.
This incident gets to the heart of why, after years of pledging to defund Planned Parenthood, GOP politicians have still failed to follow through: Leaders within the party behave as if pushing pro-life policies would benefit Democrats more than Republicans. Much of their reluctance to attempt a defunding in the last Congress understandably stemmed from the fact that the GOP lacked 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Democratic filibuster. But pro-life advocates in Washington say the party will never get to 60 votes on the issue unless the GOP leadership stops treating pro-life voters as a constituency to be pacified and instead constructs a legislative strategy that turns abortion into a winning issue for conservatives.
‘My main beef has not been that we haven’t defunded Planned Parenthood yet, although I wanted it defunded yesterday,” says Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action. “It has been that we haven’t really had a plan for getting it done.”
Far from believing that opposition to abortion is politically dangerous for the GOP, pro-life advocates in Washington have long thought that prioritizing anti-abortion policy would win greater support for the conservative movement. Such a strategy, they say, is less about which specific pro-life legislative battles Republican politicians choose to fight than it is about fighting those battles in a way that reveals the coherence of the anti-abortion argument and forces Democrats either to admit the incoherence of their position or to defend the indefensible.
From this perspective, the fight over Planned Parenthood funding is an opportunity to turn public opinion against Democrats, who advocate forcing taxpayers to bankroll a corporation whose provision of health care declines while its provision of abortions rises — and while the overall U.S. abortion rate drops. Though the Hyde amendment has been added to spending bills since 1976 to prevent the direct federal funding of abortion, the fact that money is fungible means that any funding of groups such as Planned Parenthood — which don’t financially separate abortion from their other practices — necessarily underwrites the provision of abortion.
Taxpayer-funded abortion is unpopular with most Americans, and yet Planned Parenthood maintains a strong reputation as a health-care organization. Closing that gap, strategists say, requires Republicans to rebut the notion that a defunding effort is an attack on women’s rights and to present it as a diversion of money to community health centers that offer more health care and don’t perform abortions. Though Planned Parenthood’s annual half a billion is a pittance in the larger federal budget, pro-life voters believe defunding the group would remove the federal government’s symbolic seal of approval from the group’s provision of abortion.
But Republican politicians rarely manage to couch the fight in these terms, much less use defunding legislation as a method of exposing Democratic extremism. Even as pro-lifers acknowledge the political math of the Senate filibuster, they say the last two years are a case study in how a lack of strategic vision has continually prevented the GOP from delivering on this longtime campaign promise.
Republican politicians, after all, know that anti-abortion voters have nowhere else to go. Since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the GOP has been their only refuge, and the party has, in turn, relied heavily on the pro-life constituency, hundreds of thousands of voters loyal to Republicans who know exactly what to promise: judges reliant on the Constitution’s text, restrictions on abortion late in pregnancy — and legislation to strip federal funding from organizations that provide abortion.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump realized the necessity of capturing these votes. He asked Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life lobbying group the Susan B. Anthony List, to lead his coalition of pro-life advisers. She agreed, on the condition that Trump pledge to back several anti-abortion policies, one of which was to redirect Planned Parenthood’s federal funding to community health centers. Those coalition leaders and the voters they influenced were a critical element of Trump’s eventual victory over Hillary Clinton.
Even though those leaders have less to show for their support than they had hoped — Trump also pledged during the campaign to make the Hyde amendment permanent and sign a federal 20-week ban on abortion, neither of which happened — many still call Trump the most pro-life president in history. The president reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, which withholds U.S. foreign-aid money from groups that provide or promote abortion overseas, and he signed a bill, passed under the Congressional Review Act, reversing an Obama-administration policy that had forbidden states to defund Planned Parenthood under their own Medicaid programs. For the most part, pro-life leaders have been pleased with the president’s appointment of judges and justices who they believe are likely to uphold abortion restrictions.
These victories aside, movement leaders are acutely disappointed that a House and Senate with a pro-life majority never sent a bill defunding Planned Parenthood to the Republican in the White House — and, more important, that they didn’t appear to do everything they could to try.
The defunding effort might have been doomed by the lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but some strategists and longtime activists in the pro-life movement believe that the disorganized GOP strategy in the previous Congress shows that Republican leaders treat anti-abortion policy as an afterthought to pacify pro-lifers. Viewing it instead as a crucial part of creating a Republican agenda that will win majority support, they say, is a prerequisite for eventually achieving legislative victory.
The most significant attempt to defund Planned Parenthood in the last Congress came early in 2017, when the Republican leadership agreed to add a defunding provision to a legislative proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When that entire endeavor collapsed, the momentum behind redirecting Planned Parenthood’s funding stalled.
Some pro-life activists were encouraged by the Obamacare-repeal effort because the anti-abortion language remained in the legislation throughout the entire debate and wasn’t removed for procedural reasons. Ultimately, the bill went down not because of intraparty disagreement about abortion funding but because of Republican divisions over a replacement health-care policy.
But others argue that the haphazard effort to use the repeal bill as a vehicle for defunding, and the disregard for defunding thereafter, revealed an unwillingness to turn Planned Parenthood’s deceptive messaging — and Democratic politicians’ parroting of it — on its head. Several pro-life advocates attest that behind the scenes, Senate leaders resisted tacking a defund on to any other legislative efforts last session, including the Labor and HHS spending bills, a typical place for defunding language.
“To their credit, the House wanted to include the Planned Parenthood defund,” McClusky says. “They said to us, ‘We don’t think it brings us votes, but we want to do it because it’s the right thing.’ But the Senate was fighting us tooth and nail on it, and a lot of the fiscal-conservative groups were, too. We found ourselves fighting our allies in the Senate, and that took a lot of pro-life groups’ energy.”
The showdown over the Senate appropriations bill last summer was an example of what pro-life leaders have diagnosed as, fundamentally, a messaging problem — an ongoing failure to strategically use pro-life policy as an electoral winner. Those leaders refuse to buy into the notion that their long-term policy goals are only wishful thinking. They note, for example, that 60 percent of Americans favor limiting abortion to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, a policy supported by a majority of self-described pro-choice individuals and half of Democrats.
But instead of trying to make it politically dangerous for Democrats — or moderate, pro-choice Republican senators such as Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — to continue backing publicly funded abortion, Republican leaders tried to avoid the issue altogether. In a huge concession, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed not to include “poison pill” riders — language added to address policy issues not directly related to the main bill — in spending legislation, and Democrats routinely categorize provisions that defund abortion under that umbrella. As a result, Senate leadership put no Planned Parenthood provision in the draft appropriations bill, not even as a means of forcing Democrats to strip the language out and declare where they stood on the matter.
Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) introduced an amendment to add the language near the end of the process but initially was blocked by his own party’s leadership, who attributed their caution to fears that Democrats would offer a pro-abortion side-by-side amendment that could pass with the support of Collins and Murkowski. When they finally relented and permitted a vote, the measure failed to get even a majority.
Defenders of Republican leadership argue that the demise of Paul’s amendment proves the GOP did the best it could with the votes it had. They say that pro-life advocates who expected more are being unrealistic. But critics cite it as an example of how occasional show votes, often obstructed or delayed by leadership in the first place — or conveniently timed to coincide with constituent trips to Washington for the annual March for Life — are not a sufficient strategy for getting 60 votes at some point down the road, either.
“Here’s what I don’t think they’ve done a good enough job of: making the case for why this is really important,” says Doreen Denny, senior director of government relations at Concerned Women for America. “When was the last time they held a hearing on abortion? Where is the concerted effort to message on this and the things that have happened with Planned Parenthood that are so disconcerting?”
“The border wall got one of the last-ditch efforts with the new Congress. Why was all the attention on the border wall?” says Lila Rose, president of Live Action. “Why wasn’t the attention on building a wall between taxpayers and this abusive abortion corporation? They choose to prioritize other issues, when this is an issue that polls on their side, but most importantly where it’s the right thing to do.”
Some say that Trump ought to have refused to sign a spending bill that continued funding Planned Parenthood or that the GOP leadership should have abolished the legislative filibuster. Others point to political battles that GOP leaders waged with fervor, such as the showdown over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court or the last-minute effort to rally Democratic support for a bipartisan criminal-justice-reform bill. Those efforts featured an assertive GOP message driven by party leaders, making it politically costly for Democrats to veer from what the Republican leadership wanted.
The attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, by contrast, were inchoate. Republicans failed to force legislators to step out from behind the euphemism of “women’s health care” and openly defend the notion that taxpayers should subsidize organizations that profit from ending innocent human lives.
That kind of legislative tussle might not have resulted in an outright win last Congress, but it would have laid the groundwork for a future victory. Instead, now that the GOP has lost the House majority, pro-life leaders are relying on the Trump administration to do what it can without Congress. They pin their immediate hopes on the anticipated rollout of the HHS Title X rule, but even that would be a change written in sand — subject to being rolled back under a future Democratic administration — and would remove only about $60 million of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.
Abortion opponents have no recourse to the Democratic party, but they hope to use their influence as a voting bloc to prevent GOP leaders from continuing to shift the goalposts. In 2016, Republican politicians said they’d fulfill their defunding promise if voters gave them the White House. But with their man in the Oval Office, they began to claim that their hands were tied without a 60-vote Senate majority. They qualify their promises with preconditions meant to prepare pro-lifers for yet another disappointment.
Some leaders say it could cost Republicans votes if they continue to drop the ball on anti-abortion objectives. “This administration says it’s pro-life. The GOP leadership says they’re pro-life,” Rose says. “But it’s a matter of priorities. Is this a top priority? They are going to lose pro-life passion, and pro-life turnout on Election Day, if there’s not prioritization of this issue.”
Others say that, at the very least, pro-life constituents have more influence than they might realize. “After the first omnibus passed last spring, all of a sudden, we and our counterparts started getting calls from members of Congress — some members that I’ve talked to regularly but others I’ve never talked to — telling us to call off our dogs,” McClusky says. “We didn’t understand what they meant at first. But members had gone back home, and people weren’t talking about the wall. They weren’t talking about how much money was being spent. They were talking about why a Republican Congress had kept funding Planned Parenthood.”
As the Democratic party increasingly demands laws permitting abortion up to the moment of birth, GOP politicians have an opportunity to expose the Left as being radically out of step with most Americans on this issue. It is a pivotal moment for Republicans to realize that show votes and judges are no replacement for an anti-abortion electoral strategy.