Interview: The SBA List and Abortion Politics
Written by Rhett Burns on July 12, 2017
Recently I sat down with my friend Emily Buchanan to talk about abortion politics and her work as executive vice president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life organization in Washington, D.C.
RB: Hi Emily, thanks for joining us. Can you introduce us to the SBA List? What do you guys do?
EB: So the SBA List was started in 1992 as a pro-life PAC focusing on electing pro-life women and helping pro-life men who were being opposed by pro-abortion women running for office. In the Congress at that time there was only one pro-life woman in the entire Senate or House of Representatives. And every time there would be a debate on the floor, the pro-life men would just be eviscerated by the pro-abortion women. The pro-life members of Congress—the men—came to our president Marjorie Dannenfelser, who was working on the Hill at the time, to ask her, “Can you help us? Can you get some pro-life women here to speak out on this?” So she began the organization, basically in her closet at home.
The media positions pro-abortion women to say that they represent all women but our organization has always stood to say, “No, that’s not true; the abortion lobby does not represent all women, in fact, most women support pro-life protections for babies like the five-month abortion ban.” We started out in that small area of focus, to elect pro-life women, and for the most part we achieved that goal. We now have over twenty-three pro-life women in House and the Senate. Of course, we’d like there to be more, but now every time there is a debate on the House or the Senate floor there is a pro-life woman voice. We’ve had several instances during floor debates where the whole time is filled by pro-life women. It takes away a whole argument that the pro-abortion crowd used, which was, “Men can’t speak for us.” And it really allows the debate to be more substantive.
RB: How has SBA List’s focus developed since then?
In 2006 we moved toward connecting politics and policy. We asked ourselves, “How do we become the NRA of the pro-life movement?” The NRA is known for championing their issue at the cost or benefit of whoever stands with them. For a long time the pro-life movement was just thrown some crumbs and just never really taken seriously. That was what we really needed to change to make significant gains legislatively. We started to make sure that when we endorsed a candidate, that they knew they were being elected by pro-life voters to vote for and advance pro-life bills. When they didn’t do that, then they heard from their constituents. And even more, when some representatives did not vote pro-life, then we defeated them in their elections.
2010 was a really big turning point with Obamacare. We had a group of pro-life Democrats who said they were pro-life and campaigned as pro-life representatives. But, even though we warned them that Obamacare would be the biggest expansion of abortion since Roe, they failed us at the last minute. They chose party over their own principles and voted for the bill. So we went to each one of their districts and defeated fifteen out of twenty of them. That was a pretty big turning point, where it was like, “Whoa, ok, the pro-life movement is really serious and they’re expecting me to vote this way, and, if not, there are consequences.” Since that election we’ve been continuing to do the same, to pivot to a pro-life offensive position. We’ve done that by focusing on policy objectives that are representative of where the country is at—so, for example, the Pain-Capable bill to stop abortion after 20 weeks. Now, in political debates our pro-life candidates go on the offense and say to pro-abortion candidates, “You think I’m extreme; what about you? You are saying that an abortion can happen up until the moment of birth. Explain that.” We are starting to see candidates really embracing this posture, and it is really exciting.
RB: And where are you today?
We are very focused on the four commitments that we asked Donald Trump to commit to during the primary: defunding Planned Parenthood, making the Hyde Amendment permanent to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion, nominating only pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, and signing into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which is the late-term, 20-week abortion ban.
RB: What are some things coming up that pro-life voters should look for in the news?
EB: The House recently passed the Obamacare repeal and replacement, which included two important pro-life provisions: the Hyde Amendment and defunding Planned Parenthood. And in this bill, defunding would only be for one year, so we would need to follow-up after this bill, if it passes, to make sure the defunding is permanent. Either way, pro-lifers need to be very watchful about the bill voted on by the Senate. We are wary that either of the two pro-life provisions could be removed from the bill either for political or procedural reasons. That’s why everyone needs to stay engaged, and contact your Senators frequently during this process.
RB: What are some lesser victories over the last few years that might encourage pro-life voters?
EB: Iowa just became the twentieth state to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act stopping abortion at 20 weeks. Twenty weeks is a point by which science shows the child can feel pain. It’s on track to be passed federally in a similar pattern to the way the partial-birth abortion ban went through. Essentially, we want to make it to be a political non-negotiable. By the time the partial-birth abortion ban went through the Congress it was voted for unanimously in the Senate. So that’s what we’re hoping will be the case with the pain-capable bill. We want to make it a winning issue for everybody. Having the states slowly pass it, while the conversation continues at the federal level, builds momentum.
I would say another major win is how pro-life the younger generation is. Millennials are pro-life and see this as a human rights issue.
And on the federal level, there have been many unseen victories during the Trump administration. For example, the Mexico City policy was modernized to be extended to all foreign-aid money so that none of that money can now go to any organization that promotes abortion, which is really an encouraging win.
RB: What kind of case would start cracking open Roe v. Wade?
EB: Well the one I would be most familiar with would be the 20-week bill. The reason why we like that piece of legislation is what it demonstrates: the state has a compelling interest in the pain-capable child. The case law suggests that states can take an interest in that type of human quality.
There is currently no federal legislation that bans abortion at any point in the pregnancy. As a nation, our message is abortion on demand at any time. Now there are states that have taken on different pieces of legislation, but you can go to New Mexico and get an abortion up until the moment of birth. Passing this 20-week bill on the federal level would be absolutely historic. It would be the first time the federal government is saying No! to abortion. A lot of our arguments are about funding or some sort of policy-related thing, but this is the first bill that would save human lives by actually stopping abortions after a certain point.
RB: Some pro-lifers want to swing for the fences and outlaw all abortions right now. Can you give us the case for gradualism?
EB: Yeah, well of course that would be great. That’s our goal: to end all abortions. But because whether we like it or not, we live in a system of government that requires more than just one side to agree with this. We need to be able to get everyone together on the same page. And what we know right now is that this country is unified in believing that there should be restrictions on abortion at least after 20 weeks. And every poll we do that has that issue in it shows that well over the majority of Americans believe that right now, but our laws don’t reflect that. This is a starting point, but it would be the biggest leap forward we’ve ever had. We simply don’t have the votes right now to pass a life-at-conception act. We just don’t. It would be wonderful if we did. We want to get people thinking about his issue at twenty weeks, and then there is no doubt we’ll be able to start pushing it back from there. It is a difference in strategy, but we know right now that we can save those babies after twenty weeks. We can save thousands of children every year.
RB: Thank you for this interview and for your pro-life work in DC.
In next week’s article I will interact with some of the issues raised in this interview.