Capitol gains: New strategies in the pro-life movement

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Article Ethic of Life Politics
New strategies are paying off for the pro-life movement.

Last year a bill came before the Ohio state legislature that held the potential for the biggest pro-life victory since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The law proposed a ban on abortion from the time a fetus’ heartbeat could be detected, effectively cutting the window of opportunity for a woman to end her pregnancy to as little as six weeks. Yet as some rallied in anticipation of what appeared to be a watershed moment, representatives of Ohio Right to Life, one of the state’s most prominent pro-life voices, chose to remain quietly on the sidelines.

“We just don’t know that it is the right strategy,” says Stephanie Krider, Ohio Right to Life’s director of legislative affairs.

For the young but savvy Krider, who began advocating for pro-life legislation two years ago, strategy is the key word in tackling abortion. Rather than focus their efforts on the “heartbeat bill,” which even if passed in the legislature would likely face strong scrutiny from the courts, Ohio Right to Life has instead devoted its energy to less restrictive bills that could be more effective in the long run.

They’ve seen the passage of a law that prevents abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the point at which an infant could live outside the womb, and they’ve supported a bill that would strengthen requirements for minors to receive a parent’s permission before having an abortion.

Such laws don’t put an end to abortion, but they are steps in the right direction that can make an immediate impact. “We really try to be strategic and to think these things through,” Krider says. “We’re not just throwing pro-life laws out there to see what happens. We are really targeting this to try and overturn Roe eventually.”

A similar approach has taken hold in states throughout the country, leading to a wide range of new laws that have broadened the scope of the pro-life movement. Banning abortion is still the ultimate goal, but passionate pleas for a reversal of Roe are slowly but surely being overshadowed by well-calculated, carefully planned initiatives that take a more incremental approach. And clearly the new strategy is proving effective.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 80 new laws dealing with abortion were enacted in 19 states in the first half of 2011 alone, more than triple the total number of laws limiting abortion passed the previous year. These legislative efforts cover limitations on when and where abortions can take place, restrictions on how they are paid for, and regulations governing the doctors and clinics that provide them.

Meanwhile, several states have attempted to pass laws that would impose much broader restrictions on abortion, such as Ohio’s “heartbeat bill.” Mississippi garnered national attention in 2011 for placing a “personhood amendment” on its ballot, giving voters an opportunity to legally define an unborn fetus as a person, which in turn would make abortion, and even some forms of contraception, prosecutable under the law.

Such sweeping efforts to eliminate abortion are finding less success, however. On November 8 Mississippi voters soundly rejected the “personhood amendment,” as did voters in Colorado when similar amendments were proposed in 2008 and 2010. But Personhood USA, the organization behind the initiative, says they are already working on getting the measure on ballots in six additional states in 2012.

Supply and demand

Longtime pro-life advocate Helen Alvaré doesn’t recall there ever being an official declaration that the pro-life movement would shift its focus to an emphasis on laws that limit abortion. “But it is working,” says Alvaré, a former pro-life spokesperson for the U.S. bishops who is now a law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Fairfax, Virginia.

She says that today’s new generation of innovative, media-savvy pro-life advocates look at abortion as a business that has both a supply side and a demand side. Reducing demand, which includes education efforts and changing the cultural norms about premarital sex, is one way to prevent abortion. The current legislative efforts represent a more targeted attack on the supply end by limiting access to abortion through numerous channels.

“We need to do both,” Alvaré says. “But going after the supply side—it is effective.” And by adding roadblocks that make it more difficult for women to access abortion, limiting the supply can even have an impact on demand, she says, by making women “think twice not only about abortion but about getting pregnant in the first place.”

This strategy is not entirely new. Legislative advocacy group Americans United for Life (AUL) has been working for decades on crafting model legislation aimed at reducing abortion at the state level. The turning point, says AUL president and CEO Charmaine Yoest, came in 2007 when the Supreme Court upheld a law banning “partial birth abortions,” in which an abortion is performed late in the second trimester by partially removing the fetus from the uterus. “It was small, but it was a victory nonetheless,” Yoest says. “And it launched a real opening for us.”

That opening is the creation of a legal precedent for laws restricting a woman’s right to have an abortion. Since the high court is unlikely to overturn its decision on the legality of abortion in general, Yoest says that the pro-life movement needs to look for ways to win smaller battles that build momentum and cut down on the number of abortions that take place.

“We are working to push a boulder uphill, and you do that inch by inch and mile by mile,” she says. “If there were a way to abolish abortion tomorrow, we would all be anxious to nail that down. But in a culture where there is as strong of support as there is for abortion, we have to keep focusing on the victories that are right in front of us.”

Legal limits

The issue of placing legislative limitations on abortion access took center stage during the national debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2009. Arguments about an amendment that would preclude federal funding of abortion as part of health care coverage nearly derailed the bill, and the U.S. bishops and the Catholic Health Association (CHA) publicly took opposing sides on the bill’s passage when the amendment was removed. The CHA still supported the bill when President Barack Obama promised to sign an executive order barring abortion funding from health care coverage, but the bishops and other pro-life voices argued that the law still left open the possibility of abortion being covered under government-funded health care plans.

In the wake of the law’s passage, the issue was taken up in state legislatures under a provision that would allow states to formally opt out of allowing insurance plans that offer abortion coverage to be included in the state’s health care exchanges. As of November, 13 states had passed legislation to do so, with others considering similar bills.

Those victories are only the tip of the iceberg. States have passed laws that further limit health care plans, such as Medicaid or public employee health benefits, from paying for abortion. Planned Parenthood, which has long received government funding for its reproductive and sexual health services, has also been targeted because it provides abortions. Several states, including Indiana and Kansas, have passed laws that remove all state funding for Planned Parenthood, something Alvaré says would at one time have been unthinkable. “You could have knocked me over with a feather in the ’90s if you told me this was going to happen,” she says.

In addition to cutting funding sources, states have enacted numerous other limits on abortion, including late-term abortion bans, waiting periods, parental consent laws, and requirements that women be offered a chance to view their ultrasound or listen to the heartbeat before deciding to end their pregnancy. Some of these issues, says Yoest, even have support from the pro-choice side. An abortion rights supporter who is also the parent of a teenage girl, for example, might strongly support parental consent requirements. “That’s a human issue,” Yoest says, “and you find a common cause on things like that.”

Tackling such issues at a state level has another benefit in that pro-life leaders can learn from one another’s mistakes. Attempts to pull state funding for Planned Parenthood in Indiana and Kansas passed the state legislatures but got tied up in court, which Ohio Right to Life’s Krider says helped their state in crafting its own bill to defund Planned Parenthood. “If we just passed the same law that Indiana did, it is like banging your head against a wall,” Krider says. “We’re not going to gain any new ground by doing the same thing they’ve done, so we’re taking a different approach.”

On common ground

Some new laws put a different spin on “pro-life” by aiming to make the abortion process safer, something that has taken the pro-life movement into uncharted territory.

After a Philadelphia grand jury report in early 2011 cited unethical and criminal activities at a Pennsylvania abortion clinic, the state legislature introduced a bill that would hold any clinic performing an abortion to the same health and safety standards as a surgical facility. Though such a law wouldn’t stop any abortions from taking place—and would actually help clinics improve their operations—it received the backing of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

“I have to confess that initially we were reluctant to get involved with this legislation,” admits Fran Viglietta, the conference’s director of social concerns. “We’re generally not in the business of helping abortion clinics,” he explains, “but this was a pro-life bill whose primary concern was patient safety. The Catholic Conference won’t support abortion, but we can certainly sign on in support of that effort.”

Similar bills were soon introduced in other states, including Virginia, which succeeded in passing a strict set of regulations devised by the state health department and approved by the board of health. Virginia’s law applies hospital standards to abortion clinics, governing things like building safety requirements and medical equipment use, and subjecting the clinics to safety inspections.

As in Pennsylvania, the state’s Catholic bishops’ conference signed on in support of the bill, which according to executive director Jeff Caruso calls for “common sense” guidelines that only aim to make abortion, as long as it continues to be legal, a safer procedure. That goal put Catholics in some unusual company—working on the same side as legislators who support abortion rights.

“Some policymakers that are not against abortion would definitely say that, at the very least, these clinics need to be regulated and have common safety standards,” Caruso says. “That is something that people who consider themselves pro-life and people who consider themselves pro-choice can overwhelmingly agree on.”

That newfound sense of cooperation with pro-choice legislators is critical to the success of pro-life laws, says Krider of Ohio. “We’re trying to play ball with them. We’re not just trying to run over anyone who is opposed to us,” she says. “I’ve really been making an effort to speak with those legislators and explain our issues, and we really haven’t been shut out of anyone’s offices.”

These newfound working relationships also stretch across party lines. Although many of the new pro-life laws were passed due to an influx of newly elected Republicans in 2010, Democrats have shown support for a number of the initiatives as well. That’s due to a rising tide of pro-life views within the Democratic party, says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

“We see that public opinion on abortion is swaying, and if you look at a lot of the polls, it is pretty high the number of Democrats who support some of these restrictions on abortion,” she says.

Unresolved conflict

Despite the positive working relationships that some have found, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates have something else in common—not all parties on either side are thrilled with the latest developments.

Although some pro-choice politicians support abortion clinic regulations, the clinics themselves have argued that the laws are little more than an attempt to shut them down. Day says the issue is also divisive among Democrats, even though the concept of promoting better health care is a traditional value of the party.

Lingering tensions from the argument over the federal health care bill have also caused a lack of trust between pro-life Republicans and Democrats, which Day warns could spell trouble for future pro-life initiatives. “As a pro-life movement, we need to look at what our strategy is and not put all our faith in one party,” she says.

Pro-life advocates have also long been divided over the incremental approach to legislative regulation of abortion. Organizations such as the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League have been arguing against this approach for decades, and American Life League has argued that being “pro-life” prohibits the support of any law that would allow abortion in some, but not all, circumstances. Another group, American Right to Life, lays out on its website a lengthy list of arguments against laws that regulate abortion, claiming they “merely prune the abortion weed and strengthen its root.”

Those who fight for such laws, however, disagree. Caruso of the Virginia Catholic Conference argues that state-level groups cannot simply wait for Roe to be overturned when immediate opportunities exist to reduce the number of abortions taking place. “One state cannot individually make abortion illegal, but what we can do is certainly to restrict abortion as much as possible and to encourage alternatives to abortion,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and I think these incremental policies are saving many lives.”

When it comes to laws that seek a broad elimination of abortion, such as the proposed “personhood amendment,” there is more room for disagreement.Some fear that if such laws are overturned by the courts, it could set a legal precedent that strengthens abortion rights and would ultimately make overturning Roe even more of a challenge.

Such concerns led Mississippi Catholic leaders to take a cautious approach to the 2011 ballot measure in their state. In the days leading up to the election, Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, Mississippi said that the diocese would neither support nor directly oppose the initiative, instead letting Catholics vote based on their own conscience. But Latino echoed the sentiments of other pro-life leaders in expressing his personal misgivings about the amendment in a letter issued to priests and lay ministers of the diocese.

“I share their zeal and passion for the sanctity of human life,” he wrote of the amendment’s sponsors. “However, I find the unintended consequences of this particular initiative deeply concerning.”

Americans United for Life’s Yoest acknowledges that there is a legitimate concern that laws regulating abortion could backfire if they’re overturned in court. That’s why great care is put into evaluating which efforts to get behind and ensuring that the laws are soundly written to withstand judicial challenges. She likens the process to a military strategy, with each victory helping to build momentum without losing the focus on the ultimate goal of ending abortion.

“Winning is almost always good,” says Yoest. “The challenge is making sure that you’ve laid the groundwork for long-term success and that you don’t win a skirmish and lose the war.”

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 1, pages 26-29).

Image: iStock/Jon McIntosh