By Sharon Bernstein, Gabriella Borter and Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – For a Mississippi doctor, it was a glimpse of a fetal arm. For a police officer, it was the treatment of anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic. A Catholic leader was galvanized by the civil rights movement.
These and other experiences shaped prominent abortion opponents in their decades-long effort to see the U.S. Supreme Court reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion.
That could come any day. As they await a Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that might gut Roe’s protections, some leaders of the anti-abortion movement reflected on how they reached this point.
DR. BEVERLY MCMILLAN
Most Fridays, Dr. Beverly McMillan, 79, can be found praying outside Mississippi’s only abortion clinic.
Her quiet opposition is a far cry from the start of her obstetrics and gynecology career. In 1975, McMillan became the first doctor to provide abortions at Mississippi’s first free-standing abortion clinic.
She resigned abruptly three years later, she said, “struck with the humanity” of a pregnancy she aborted. In an interview, she recalled how she could make out the tiny arm muscle of a 12-week-old fetus, reminding her of her young son.
The Jackson, Mississippi, resident has dedicated much of the four decades since trying to sway public opinion against abortion.
About 60% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Even so, McMillan and fellow anti-abortion advocates have successfully pushed for legislation such as her state’s 15-week abortion ban, which spurred the legal battle that is expected to end with the Supreme Court overhauling federal abortion rights.
“Who would have thought that Mississippi’s 15-week limit on abortions would be at the Supreme Court level? I certainly didn’t,” McMillan said.
Now serving as vice president on the Pro-Life Mississippi board, McMillan said the organization’s leaders were dedicated to getting support for women struggling in pregnancy.
She hopes one day there will be a “personhood amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that says what to her has long been obvious: “Human life begins at conception and has the same inalienable rights that born people have.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian policy and lobbying group in Washington, says he felt called to the anti-abortion movement on a summer day in 1992.
He was off duty from his job as a reserve police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and had joined members of his church to check out an Operation Rescue protest at a local abortion clinic. He was shocked by what he called police abuse of the hundreds of anti-abortion protesters gathered at the clinic.
He spoke out and was fired from the force, he said.
“I just saw this for the first time in a much different light,” said Perkins, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. “This really is a colossal battle between … good and evil.”
Upon entering politics and serving as a Louisiana state representative from 1996 to 2004, he pushed through legislation aimed at restricting abortion, including the first version of a state law regulating women’s health clinics. The U.S. Supreme Court struck the law down in 2020.
Perkins, 59, said abortion became the litmus test for evangelical Christians as their political force grew in the past three decades: If a politician opposed abortion, they likely agreed with evangelical voters’ other policy stances.
He credits the Roman Catholic Church with leading the way in the abortion fight but said evangelicals injected new energy into the movement from the 1980s onward by getting anti-abortion politicians elected to statehouses.
Those socially conservative lawmakers passed a raft of state-level restrictions on abortion.
“The momentum is building up toward this. It’s not by accident that the court has taken up this issue,” he said of the Dobbs case.
In February 2020, Theresa Brennan left her job as a corporate lawyer to take the helm of the anti-abortion group her grandparents helped found in California in 1967.
The Right to Life League says it was the country’s first organization dedicated to opposing abortion. Brennan remembers how as a child she longed to join her grandparents and parents at the group’s annual fundraising gala.
Later as a young woman, she disagreed with their stance, feeling it wasn’t her place to tell others what to do with their bodies. It wasn’t until she had her own children that Brennan says she fully embraced her family’s anti-abortion beliefs and, later, their activism.
“I think being pregnant and realizing what that was really made me think twice,” said Brennan, 52.
Since becoming the group’s president, Brennan has put her legal background to work providing advice to the network of crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion medical clinics and maternity homes the organization represents.
As some of the pregnancy centers move toward becoming clinics that provide some medical guidance and services, Brennan helps them comply with state laws regulating such activity.
Her organization also lobbies against abortion rights bills and provides donations of diapers and other supplies to pregnancy centers and maternity homes.
“Let’s invest in families – in mothers, in children – rather than investing in abortion,” she said.
ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH NAUMANN
Under Archbishop Joseph Naumann’s direction, the Archdiocese of Kansas City has put $500,000 behind an August ballot measure asking Kansas voters to amend the state constitution to say it does not include a right to an abortion.
It’s the sort of state-level advocacy Naumann expects to remain engaged in should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, continuing his decades of anti-abortion work.
“I’m encouraged that we’re at this point, but it’s certainly not the end,” he said. “If the court rules as anticipated, it will make this an issue in every state.”
Naumann, 73, was in the seminary in 1973 when the Roe decision legalized abortion in the United States. Like other devout Catholics, he opposed abortion, but at the time he was more focused on the civil rights movement.
He said he began to view abortion through the lens of civil rights in 1984, when he was asked to lead the church’s anti-abortion efforts in St. Louis. He felt the right to life was fundamental to the unborn, who he believed were fully human from the moment of conception.
“Of course it is a right of a woman to decide when to bear a child, but once that child is conceived, there are two human beings who both have rights at that point,” he said.
The archbishop said the St. Louis role taught him numerous ways to fight abortion, at church and beyond, and he took that knowledge with him as he rose through its hierarchy. He served seven years on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities including as chairman.
He has joined bishops who have said President Joe Biden and other Catholic leaders who support abortion rights should not take Communion.
Naumann said he has deep sympathy for women facing unplanned or difficult pregnancies. He was raised by a single mother, he said, after his father was murdered at work while she was pregnant with Naumann.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Gabriella Borter and Brad Brooks; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)