The Women Celebrating a Year Without Roe v. Wade

For anti-abortion activists, the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating the national right to abortion is festive, but also a time to acknowledge challenges.

Bethany Bomberger, in a blue shirt, stands onstage with a microphone before a crowd of women raising their arms above their heads.
Bethany Bomberger led attendees in the wave before the start of the annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference in St. Charles, Mo., this weekend.Credit…Marta Payne for The New York Times

By Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham writes about faith and values, and reported this story from St. Charles, Mo.

It has been exactly a year since Bethany Bomberger gathered in an impromptu huddle outside a hotel ballroom with fellow anti-abortion activists, overcome with gratitude and optimism as news broke that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade just hours before the Pro-Life Women’s Conference officially opened.

“There will be life before Roe was overturned and life after,” Ms. Bomberger said this weekend, tearing up as she recalled what she described as a moment “the impossible became possible.” She and her husband lead an organization that opposes abortion, and that, lately, has branched into combating the rising acceptance of transgender identity — what she called “gender radicalism.”

As this year’s conference opened, Ms. Bomberger took to the stage at a modest suburban convention center outside St. Louis. “Who’s here with me to let loose?” she asked the crowd, leading several hundred women in the wave. “We pro-lifers, we have life on our side!” She was wearing a small gold necklace reading “mama,” a gift from her son.

The ruling last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization eliminated the national right to abortion and sent the issue back to the states. It also radically scrambled the landscape of abortion in the United States, shuttering some clinics, prompting others to open, and setting up new battles over abortion pills, miscarriage care and contraception. Legal abortions declined more than 6 percent in the first six months after the ruling.

For those who believe that abortion is the destruction of innocent life and spent years fighting to end it, June 24 now marks “a great day in the history of our country,” said Shawn Carney, the president and chief executive of 40 Days for Life. Mr. Carney’s organization was a co-sponsor of a Dobbs anniversary rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, where a crowd of people gathered Saturday morning to hear Mike Pence and Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece.

“The work for life goes on, all across America,” said Mr. Pence, who has pledged to make abortion a centerpiece of his campaign for president.

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Former Vice President Mike Pence speaking at an anti-abortion rally at the Lincoln Memorial Saturday, on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the national right to abortion.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

Redi Degefa, who lives in Washington and works as a staff member in Congress, said she had come to the Saturday morning rally to show that young women are represented in the anti-abortion movement. She said she was two years out of college and a Catholic, and came carrying a sign that read “Pray the rosary to end abortion.”

“It is both a celebration and also a reminder that, like, we have to keep up this energy, the energy that we’ve kept up the past 50 years — we have to double it now and keep going,” Ms. Degefa said. “It’s never going to be a win until abortion is abolished in all 50 states.”

Those in favor of abortion rights also used the weekend to rally support at events large and small across the country. Many gathered in Democratic-led states like California and New York, but there were also rallies in Florida, where the legislature recently passed a ban on most abortions after six weeks that is on hold while a legal dispute over Florida abortion law moves forward.

On Saturday, a crowd of abortion-rights advocates assembled outside Union Station in Washington. Speakers at the event, organized by the Women’s March, emphasized support for abortion access among Republicans and independents.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the director of the progressive group MomsRising, drew a strong cheer when she asked mothers in the crowd to identify themselves. “That’s our power,” she said.

For the anti-abortion movement, June has quickly become the new focal point of the calendar, a shift from the anniversary of when Roe was decided, in January 1973. Mr. Carney compared the Roe anniversary to the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which Americans do not celebrate, and the Dobbs anniversary to Juneteenth, which they do. He is among those who have suggested moving the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion event held every January in Washington, to June.

Other activists are observing what they are calling “Dobbs day” at statehouses this weekend, including in Georgia and Wisconsin. Some are calling on social conservatives to rebrand June as “Life Month,” a celebration of the decision that serves as a swipe at Pride Month.

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Angela Minter, an activist, at the Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Women have helped power the anti-abortion movement, and some say the first year without the national right to abortion is a moment to celebrate.Credit…Marta Payne for The New York Times

In the exhibition hall this weekend in Missouri, tables displayed bumper stickers, prayer bracelets and bright stacks of “Pro-Life Kids” coloring books. Nuns in habits mingled with young women in T-shirts reading “Love Wildly” and “Life Has Purpose.” A selfie station boasted a neon sign reading “Pro-Woman Is Pro-Life.”

Attendees were invited to “come dressed in your best 1972 or 2022 outfit” to a dance party on Saturday night, a reference to the year before Roe was decided and the year the court reversed itself 50 years later.

“It makes me so happy to know I’m dancing to celebrate the overturning of Roe,” Danielle Pitzer, director of sanctity of human life at Focus on the Family, said on Friday. She had packed a kaleidoscopic spangled “disco dress,” complete with platform shoes and a matching headband.

Though many American women mourned the loss of the national right to abortion, conservative women — and especially young women — had powered the movement against abortion and infused it with the fresh energy of a new generation. For them, this moment was one to celebrate, and to acknowledge the new challenges ahead.

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People opposed to abortion gather at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. While many American women mourned the loss of the national right to abortion, other women have helped power the movement to end legal abortion.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

American public opinion has moved toward more support for abortion rights, making the issue a painful political liability for Republicans. The party struggled to come to a consensus on abortion restrictions, and many G.O.P. presidential candidates have avoided the issue so far. At the same time, women have not stopped having abortions, even in states with bans: Instead they have turned to abortion pills or traveled to other states.

“We’ve learned this year that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Angela Huguenin, the director of operations for And Then There Were None, an organization that aims to persuade abortion clinic workers to join the anti-abortion movement. That effort has been greeted with more hostility from many clinic workers over the last year, she said. Dozens of clinics have closed since Roe was overturned, and many have had to uproot and move to neighboring states.

To the true believers in Missouri, many of whom work or volunteer for anti-abortion organizations, some of the political fallout can be chalked up to a communication failure: If the public better understood the movement’s commitments to both mothers and babies, it would see things differently.

Some in the movement are skeptical that Dobbs represents a clear-cut victory. Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the founder of the small anti-abortion group New Wave Feminists, was at a conference hosted by National Right to Life last year when the court handed down its decision. The room erupted into almost panicked elation, she said. Her own feelings were more mixed.

“It didn’t solve anything or do anything, it just created chaos,” she said. Some of the new state laws did not include exceptions for rape or incest and, she said, “horror stories” have since emerged in which women have been denied care for pregnancy complications.

“Pro-lifers might have won the battle but they’re not going to win the war” unless they write better laws and advocate a more comprehensive social safety net, she said. Missteps, she added, “could easily lead to the codification of abortion rights.”

The host of the conference in Missouri, Abby Johnson, is a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who is now a prominent anti-abortion activist.

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Abby Johnson, a former clinic director for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, now leads an organization to end the practice. She is in favor of prosecuting women for their own abortions in some circumstances.Credit…Marta Payne for The New York Times

In an interview on Saturday, Ms. Johnson reflected on the challenges now facing the movement, including the general unwillingness of Republican presidential candidates, other than Mr. Pence, to discuss the issue in public.

“I’m not sure why some politicians back away from abortion when clearly they have been using abortion as a fund-raising tool for many years,” she said. “They’ve been fund-raising off the backs of babies for decades, and now that Roe is gone they’re going to pretend abortion is not an issue anymore?”

Anti-abortion activists should continue supporting pregnant women and mothers, she said; her own organization was one of the first in the movement to offer paid parental leave to its employees.

But now is not a time for the movement to be overly concerned with “optics,” she said. Unlike some of her fellow activists, especially in the older generation and in mainstream lobbying organizations, she favors prosecuting women for their own abortions in some circumstances. Bans that have passed in conservative states generally do not include criminal penalties for women who have abortions, instead targeting doctors, pill providers and even friends who help a woman secure an abortion. A smaller, more hard-line group of abortion opponents has pushed for laws that include penalties for pregnant women.

“It’s an old talking point that women are victims,” she said. “If we really believe, like the pro-life movement has said for 50 years, that abortion is murder, than I think we have to act like it.”

Onstage the day before, she had warned about the rise of medication abortion, and of the abortion-rights movement’s dedication to “never stop killing babies.”

“We just had this big win,” she told the rapt crowd. “Let’s keep winning.”

Zach Montague contributed reporting from Washington.

Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values. She previously reported on religion for Slate. @publicroad