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 Wisconsinrapidly 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 beendownright 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-lifemovement 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 worryabout 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.
With these numbers in mind, it’s possible that the pro-life movement is in a moment of transition, not retreat. This impression is only reinforced by talking to the leaders of the movement’s next generation, who look very little like their elders. In conversations over the past several weeks with activists and other young people who care deeply about ending abortion, I found many who are skeptical of the movement’s long-held ties to the GOP and the Christian right. Instead, they are using the language of feminism, human rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement to make their case for a new culture of life.
“There’ a little bit of truth to the old pro-choice saying that the movement is a bunch of old conservative white men,” activist Aimee Murphy told me. “But I really have seen a massive shift with the youth, to ensure that our solutions are women-centered and that we’re being consistent and nonpartisan, inclusive and opening and welcoming.”
Murphy was a pro-choice 16-year-old in California when an abusive, on-off boyfriend raped her. When the rape resulted in a pregnancy scare, Murphy’s rapist wanted her to get an abortion, and threatened to kill her and himself if she didn’t. A decade later, she still chokes up when she talks about that time in her life. But the threat was also clarifying. “In that moment, something clicked,” she said. “I could not use violence to get what I wanted in life. I realized that if I were to get an abortion, I would just be passing oppression on to a child.”