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SOCIETY: Person of Interest

Women & Children First

An Interview with Marjorie Dannenfelser

by Marcia Segelstein

Marjorie Dannenfelser is co-founder and president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a non-profit organization dedicated to electing pro-life candidates to national office and to supporting policies that will ultimately end abortion. Given her background in politics—going back to her college days at Duke University—and her work experience on Capitol Hill, that may sound unremarkable. But add in the fact that she was once an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, and it becomes remarkable indeed.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 28

Dannenfelser, along with a group of like-minded women, started the Susan B. Anthony List out of her home in 1992, when there were a total of two pro-life women leaders in Congress. Thanks to the well-funded, largely successful work of Emily's List, begun in 1985 to elect pro-abortion Democratic women, they had their work cut out for them.

Dannenfelser spoke with Salvo about her own change of heart on the issue of abortion, why politics is necessary to the pro-life cause, and whether she's optimistic about the future.

What was the goal behind starting the Susan B. Anthony List?

We were women from all kinds of different backgrounds, but all strongly pro-life. We were united behind the idea that the modern feminist movement was leading us not only in the wrong direction, but in a direction that undermines every truly beautiful thing about women, when it embraced abortion.

I had a background on Capitol Hill in politics. And what I saw was a political machine behind a particular brand of female politician. A system to support women who reflected our values did not exist. It existed on the Left, but we had almost zero representation in Congress.

Why did you choose to be named after Susan B. Anthony?

She understood the rights of women and she also affirmed the rights of unborn children. There was no word "abortion" then, but she was firmly against it. She called it child murder, and said that it would burden a woman's conscience for life and burden her soul in the grave. She understood that you couldn't build human rights on the broken rights of other people.

As a magazine, we don't cover politics per se. But is it possible to divorce abortion from politics?

Just by being in America we live in a political system. So we either avail ourselves of it or we don't. The founders set up a system where, if there is a human rights abuse, an enormous moral failure, there's a system so that we as citizens have the power to address it. So we'd better be political. We should be just as political as the suffrage movement was, as the abolitionist movement was, as the child labor movement was. In those cases, there had to be national leaders who would step forward and address the problem and enact life-saving measures into law. And that's exactly what we're trying to do: enact life-saving measures into law. In fact, we have an even higher claim to that because, as horrible as other human rights abuses have been, they haven't involved the deaths of children every single day. That is the ultimate human rights abuse.

There might be some who would argue that the way to advance the pro-life cause is to change hearts and minds, not laws.

It must be both. It's hard to do ministering of any kind. But having to be involved with politics means that we come into contact with people who misunderstand us, who misrepresent us, who revile us. And that's what God promised would happen when we're doing the right thing. You have to change hearts and minds to change laws. Nobody ever said, "Let's just change people's attitudes about slavery." You do, of course, have to change hearts and minds, and we have.

If the laws reflected what the hearts and minds of the nation contained right now, we would probably have no second or third trimester abortions. Parents would not be cut out of the process. There would never be sex-selection abortion. We would not be funding Planned Parenthood. So I would say it's a dangerous argument to say that all we need to do is change hearts and minds. The difficult and smart and compassionate thing to do is to do both.

Why is abortion so high on the national radar screen right now? Was it the Gosnell trial?

Most of us don't want to believe that true horror exists. And if it raises its head, we want to think of it as an isolated event. The Gosnell moment, if you want to call it that, is certainly part of the reason. When people saw what a late-term abortion looked like—a slit in the back of the neck of a baby that's 22 to 24 weeks old—only the most callous could turn away. I think it did two things. One, there were reporters in the mainstream media reporting on this who didn't really believe things like this could happen. So it exposed the practice on a high-profile, national level. And it reignited the pro-life movement.

What projects are you focused on at the moment?

The two most important things we're involved in are Senate races and the pain-capable legislation. We pressed to have the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act passed in the House of Representatives, and with women's leadership, it was. And Lindsay Graham has introduced it in the Senate with our partnership. [The bill would ban most abortions nationwide after 20 weeks.] For that bill ultimately to pass, we have to have a few more votes in the Senate and a president who will sign the legislation. That sounds like a pretty high bar, and it is. But that was the path of the partial-birth abortion ban, which was vetoed twice under Clinton.

You've been described as being ardently pro-choice in college. Can you describe your change of mind on this issue?

You know, it's hard to explain grace. I was chairman of the College Republicans at Duke, and my pro-choice position was out there. So some of the smartest, best people I knew decided it was important for me to change my opinions. They were nonjudgmental, they were very smart, and they were people I admired for other reasons. It was definitely a religious and an ideological change that happened at the same time.

I think what happens when you give up on the pro-choice argument [is that] you have to open your heart, and some of this other stuff gets in there, too. Once I gave in, it just opened the door for all sorts of other graces to come in. I went from being pro-choice to pro-life, moved toward the Catholic Church, and changed my major from pre-med to philosophy. I was trying to find God's will for me without even knowing that's what I was doing.

Are you optimistic about the work of the Susan B. Anthony List?

Yes, I'm incredibly optimistic. It's presumptuous not to be optimistic. All we need are open doors. It's like being a salesman. As long as you can get in front of somebody, you can make the sale. God can do that through us, and that's why I'm so optimistic. There are people who can change just as I changed. And if I could, anybody can!


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