© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Former Mississippi abortion provider Beverly McMillan prays outside Jackson Women’s Health on May 21, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S. Photo taken on May 21, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Fi
By: Sharon Bernstein, Gabriella Bot and Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – For a Mississippi doctor, it was a glimpse into a fetus’s arm. For one police officer, it was treating anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic. The Civil Rights Movement inspired a Catholic leader.
These and other experiences have shaped prominent abortion opponents who, in their decades-long efforts to see the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the constitutional right to abortion .
This could come any day. As they await the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that could undermine Roe’s protections, some leaders of the anti-abortion movement reflect on how they got there.
Most Fridays, Dr. Beverly McMillan, 79, prays outside Mississippi’s only abortion clinic.
Her quiet opposition was a far cry from the beginning of her obstetrics career. In 1975, McMillan became the first physician to provide abortion services at the first independent abortion clinic in Mississippi.
Three years later, she abruptly resigned, she said, “overwhelmed by the humanity of her abortion”. In an interview, she recalled how she could identify the tiny arm muscles of a 12-week-old fetus, which reminded her of her young son.
The Jackson, Mississippi resident has spent much of the past 4 years since trying to sway public opinion against abortion.
About 60 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. Even so, McMillan and other anti-abortion advocates have successfully pushed legislation such as her state’s 15-week abortion ban, sparking a legal battle expected to end when the Supreme Court overhauls federal abortion rights.
“Who would have thought that Mississippi’s 15-week limit on abortion would reach Supreme Court level? Of course I didn’t,” McMillan said.
McMillan, who now serves as vice president of Pro-Life Mississippi’s board of directors, said the organization’s leaders are committed to supporting women struggling with pregnancy.
She hopes to one day introduce a “personality amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, which has long been obvious to her: “Human life begins with conception and has the same inalienable rights as those who are born.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian policy and lobbying group in Washington, said he felt the cry of the anti-abortion movement one summer day in 1992.
He was off duty from his job as a reserve police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and joined members of his church to check out Operation Rescue protests at a local abortion clinic. He was appalled by the alleged police abuse by hundreds of anti-abortion protesters who had gathered at the clinic.
He said he spoke out and was fired by the force.
“I just saw this in a completely different light for the first time,” said Perkins, who was ordained as a Southern Baptist pastor. “It’s really been a… great battle between good and evil.”
After entering politics and serving as a Louisiana representative from 1996 to 2004, he pushed for legislation aimed at restricting abortion, including the first version of a state law regulating women’s health clinics. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 2020.
Perkins, 59, said that as the political power of evangelical Christians has grown over the past 30 years, abortion has become a touchstone for them: If politicians oppose abortion, they are likely to agree with other policy positions of evangelical voters.
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 series of state-level abortion restrictions.
“The momentum on this is building. It’s no accident that the courts have dealt with this,” he said of the Dobbs case.
In February 2020, Theresa Brennan quit her job as a corporate lawyer to take charge of an anti-abortion group her grandparents helped start in California in 1967.
The Right to Life Coalition said it was the first group in the country dedicated to opposing abortion. Brennan remembers how much she longed to join her grandparents and parents at the organization’s annual fundraising gala as a child.
Later, as a young woman, she disagreed with their position, feeling that she shouldn’t be telling others what to do with their bodies. It wasn’t until she had a child of her own that Brennan said she fully embraced her family’s anti-abortion beliefs and, later, their activism.
“I think being pregnant and realizing it made me think twice,” said Brennan, 52.
Since becoming the organization’s president, Brennan has used her legal background to advise the network of crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion medical clinics and maternity homes the organization represents.
As some pregnancy centers become clinics that provide some medical instruction and services, Brennan helps them comply with state laws that regulate such activities.
Her group also lobbied against the abortion-rights bill and donated diapers and other supplies to pregnancy centers and maternity homes.
“Let’s invest in families — mothers, children — not in abortion,” she said.
Archbishop Joseph Nauman
Under the direction of Archbishop Joseph Nauman, the Archdiocese of Kansas City has committed $500,000 to support a ballot measure in August that would require Kansas voters to amend the state constitution to exclude abortion rights.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Naumann is expected to continue his advocacy work at the state level, continuing his decades of anti-abortion work.
“I’m encouraged that we’ve gotten to this point, but it’s certainly not the end,” he said. “If the court rules as expected, it’s going to be an issue for every state.”
Nauman, 73, was in seminary in 1973 when Roy’s 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 looking at abortion through a civil rights lens in 1984, when he was asked to lead the St. Louis Church’s anti-abortion efforts. He believed that the right to life was essential for the unborn, who he believed were fully human from the moment of conception.
“Of course it’s a woman’s right to decide when to have a child, but once a child is conceived, then both people have a right,” he said.
The archbishop said St. Louis’ role taught him many ways to oppose abortion in and out of the church, and he took that knowledge with him as he rose through the hierarchy. He served seven years on the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Anti-Abortion Activities, including as chairman.
He joined bishops who said President Joe Biden and other Catholic leaders who support abortion rights should not receive communion.
Nauman said he has deep sympathy for women facing unwanted or difficult pregnancy. He said his father was murdered at work while pregnant with Nauman, and he was raised by a single mother.