Eight extremist organizations that are behind the rapid escalation of the war on women's rights
Is there a rift in the anti-choice movement? A recent story in the New York Times centered around Ohio Right to Life’s unwillingness to lend its support or endorsement to a bill banning abortion from the time a heartbeat is detected in an embryo certainly makes that clear. As reproductive rights activists have noted for a couple of years now, there’s a war breaking out between two anti-choice groups, the incrementalists and the absolutists. Both largely agree on the goals of the movement, which is a complete ban on all abortion, with severe restrictions and possibly bans on contraception as well. What they disagree about is tactics. Incrementalists view themselves as the more mainstream branch of the movement, and they focus mainly on chipping away at abortion rights. They’re wary of taking the fight to the courts, who tend to routinely shoot down any legislation perceived as an out-and-out ban on abortion.
The absolutists, on the other hand, claim this is a failed strategy and want to come out of the closet as full-throated soldiers in the war on women and sex, by directly attacking Roe v. Wade and taking the fight beyond abortion to contraception. Absolutists have managed to go around the more mainstream antiabortion movement, passing legislation and gaining ground in the Republican Party. They’ve even managed to make Democrats cower, as evidenced by the highly unusual decision of HHS to overrule the FDA’s decision to make Plan B available over the counter.
Who are some of these absolutists? Here’s a snapshot of some of the organizations that are demanding not just immediate challenges to Roe, but also want a rapid escalation of the war on women’s right to contraception and other forms of basic reproductive healthcare.
Personhood USA. This is the umbrella group for various state activist groups pushing to get “personhood amendments” onto the ballot. Unlike most anti-choice organizations that push for a variety of actions, Personhood USA has only one ostensible goal, to amend state constitutions to get fertilized eggs defined as legal “persons.” Behind this seemingly simple goal lies a radical agenda. Not only would personhood amendments ban abortion, but they would also make it illegal to treat ectopic pregnancies, save women suffering incomplete miscarriages from dying of sepsis, open up criminal investigations of miscarriages, and ban IVF and research on stem cells. Personhood advocates have repeatedly suggested that it should also be used to ban the birth control pill and the IUD, which they incorrectly argue work by killing fertilized eggs. The radical nature of the initiative made it impossible to pass in Mississippi, arguably the most conservative state in the country, giving incrementalists ammo in their argument against the absolutist approach.
Live Action. That absolutists can’t get their agenda past the voters doesn’t mean that their radical approach is a failure, however. After all, they don’t have to win over voters so long as they control the Republican Party on the choice question. Live Action provides some of the best evidence of the success of the absolutist approach. Live Action openly supports the absolutist agenda, putting its support behind personhood initiatives and attacking Planned Parenthood not just for providing abortions, but because the organization is willing to provide STD and contraception information to minors and self-identified sex workers.
Early in 2011, Live Action launched a series of deceptively edited videos that managed only to prove that Planned Parenthood follows the law, provides perfectly legal healthcare to minors and self-identified sex workers, and immediately complies with reporting laws regarding the abuse of minors. Even though it did nothing but prove that Planned Parenthood obeys the law and standard medical ethics, Live Action still managed to compel a national crisis over Title X funding offered to clinics that provide contraception services, which culminated in the Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government if contraception subsidies weren’t immediately halted. This, even though 77 percent of Republican voters support contraception subsidies. The word “abortion” was thrown around a lot to justify this attack on Title X, but at the end of the day, Live Action and the Republicans were attacking contraception, as Title X legally cannot subsidize abortion.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB presents itself simply as a support structure for American Catholic churches, but a large wing of the organization is devoted to lobbying for extremist anti-choice policies that are often far beyond anything being asked by incrementalist anti-choice activists. Conservative media threw a fit when Nancy Pelosi described this group as “lobbyists,” but the term is utterly accurate. The USCBB does spend a great deal of time and money lobbying for severe restrictions on abortion and contraception access.
The USCBB lobbies for an overturn of Roe, but that’s only the tip of their anti-choice advocacy. They exploited the healthcare reform debate to try to push for Congress to prevent private insurance companies from covering abortion care. They have taken a strong anti-contraception stance that makes fallacious, unscientific claims about contraception, including claiming that contraception artificially induces an unhealthy state (something actual medical experts would strongly argue against) and making unscientific claims about how contraception works. Currently, they are demanding that religiously affiliated organizations that take taxpayer money, such as hospitals and universities, be allowed to deny contraception coverage to female employees, many of whom aren’t even Catholic. They are also fighting the Obama administration’s choice to give grants to groups that offer complete healthcare to trafficking victims instead of giving them to Catholic organizations that refuse contraception or abortion referrals for women who have been forced into prostitution, suggesting that their main concern isn’t getting women out of trafficking situations, but blocking them from having healthy and consensual sex lives after escaping forced prostitution.
Ohio ProLife Action. As described in the New York Times, Ohio Right to Life refuses to support a bill that would ban all abortions after a heartbeat is detectable, not because they don’t wish they could, but because they believe it’s a political loser. The heartbeat is less extremist than personhood initiatives, but that’s like saying it’s less dark at 10 p.m. than midnight: technically true, but not particularly relevant. The heartbeat bill is a direct assault on Roe v. Wade, and Ohio RTL wants to wait until the Supreme Court is even more conservative before challenging Roe.
Meanwhile, the heartbeat bill is far more extreme than the simple abortion bans that were in place prior to Roe. Medical exceptions were available prior to Roe, and if a woman showed up in the emergency room with an incomplete miscarriage, doctors were allowed to save her life by removing the failing pregnancy. Under the heartbeat bill, doctors would be forced to wait until any kind of pulse in the embryo had ended before intervening, which would put women at risk of sepsis and would likely result in unnecessary deaths — all to save pregnancies that were unsalvageable to begin with. Ohio RTL likely realizes that it’s hard to endear yourself to voters when you stand up for torturing or even killing women for having incomplete miscarriages, so Ohio ProLife Action was formed to support this attack on women’s right not just to choose, but to survive a pregnancy gone wrong.
Susan B. Anthony List. Anti-choicers fallaciously claiming to be supportive of some “older” form of feminism have been around nearly as long as conservatives supporting racist policies while quoting MLK, and so the SBA List is doing nothing new with its ahistorical claims that irreligious, childless Anthony would have, if she were alive today, somehow miraculously supported its highly religious assault on abortion rights. But SBA List stands for a lot more than a simple overturn of Roe. In the name of Susan B. Anthony, who aligned herself with the 19th century “voluntary motherhood” movement that turned into the birth control movement, the SBA List has expanded into assaults on contraception access. SBA List has worked strenuously to defund contraception programs both on the national and international level. It claims to do so out of opposition to abortion, but in reality, the funds that it objects to that go to Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund are used strictly for non-abortion reproductive health services. UNFPA does not provide abortion services or referrals, but because it prevents women from dying of botched abortions and offers contraception services, SBA List opposes them. Even under Roe, doctors were permitted to treate women suffering from botched abortions, but SBA List embraces a far more radical vision than a mere repeal of women’s right to legal abortion.
In addition, SBA List put together a pledge for Republican presidential candidates to sign that hinted at a strong anti-contraception agenda with calls for the HHS and NIH to be staffed with “pro-life” leadership. Under George Bush, such leadership did more than simply oppose abortion, but fought against expanded contraception access at every turn. SBA List’s request for more of the same would endanger HHS regulations requiring insurance companies to treat contraception as preventive care that should be offered without a co-pay to insured women.
Leslee Unruh with the Alpha Center. Leslee Unruh is a one-woman machine of anti-choice extremism in South Dakota. Unruh was instrumental in getting complete abortion bans on the ballot in South Dakota not once, but twice (both were voted down). Unable to get an abortion ban in South Dakota the honest way, anti-choice South Dakota legislators, who appear to hang on Unruh’s every word, passed a law requiring women to seek “counseling” from anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers before being allowed to have an abortion. Unruh’s CPC was clearly the one that they had in mind, as it’s right down the street from the Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls that is the sole provider of abortion in the entire state. The legislation would basically force women to go through Leslee Unruh and her staff before they could have an abortion.
If you go to Alpha Center and aren’t pregnant, you’re still out of luck, because they certainly don’t offer contraception counseling for those who wish to avoid pregnancy. In addition to being antiabortion, Unruh is an outspoken anti-contraception activist who claims that the birth control is “playing God” and that women should forsake contraception because Unruh personally would like to see “more babies.” In addition to her CPC, Unruh runs the Abstinence Clearinghouse, which lobbied heavily for abstinence-only education during the Bush administration and now sells materials denouncing contraception, premarital sex (and premarital kissing), and even masturbation, even going so far as to threaten young people who send sexy text messages with claims that doing so causes depression and suicide.
American Life League. The American Life League is an oldie but a goodie. Just as the Tea Party couldn’t get started without some long-standing far-right organizations feeding them radical ideas, ALL led the charge of the hard-right turn of the absolutist anti-choicers. Before personhood amendments were even on the anti-choice radar, ALL was demanding not just an overturn of Roe, but also an overturn of Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision that legalized contraception for married couples. ALL has an annual anti-Griswold event called “Pills Kills,” where it charmingly argues against legal contraception on the grounds that it supposedly kills marriages. The theory is that sexual encounters that don’t make babies somehow drive couples apart, a theory that the 99 percent of American women who have used contraception at some point in their lives would find hard to believe.
ALL doesn’t even bother with claims that it objects to contraception spending because of poorly established links to abortion. This is a group that uses scare quotes around the term “reproductive health services,” implying that a woman getting a Pap smear in order to prevent dying of cervical cancer is not receiving legitimate healthcare, but is instead participating in some kind of anti-family, anti-marriage, anti-God conspiracy. In addition to objecting generally to women’s reproductive healthcare, ALL fights mandatory vaccination, linking pages that claim falsely that the MMR is made from aborted fetuses, and that these aborted fetuses cause autism. For “pro-life” people, they heavily support increasing the incidence of often-fatal diseases such as cervical cancer and preventable childhood illness.
The entire anti-choice movement of Kansas. Maybe it was because Operation Rescue kept getting away with consorting with violent people and known terrorists. Maybe it’s because it was aided and abetted by District Attorney Phill Kline, who abused his power to get the private medical records of abortion patients, which had information in them that miraculously became available to people who had absolutely no right to read them, such as Bill O’Reilly. (Kline’s license to practice law in Kansas has been indefinitely suspended due to his unethical behavior.) Maybe there’s something in the water in Kansas. For whatever reason, the Kansas anti-choice movement brings the concept of extremism to a new level.
Unlike Ohio RTL, Kansas RTL offers full-throated support to a personhood amendment, as part of its interconnections with American Life League. It claims that this will “restore” personhood to fertilized eggs, but in fact this law would be far more extreme than anything that was in place prior to Roe. The Kansas Coalition for Life continues to brag about the daily harassment it dealt to Dr. George Tiller, even though the harassment campaign culminated in an assassination of Dr. Tiller while he was in church in 2009. Instead of showing remorse for the role it played in painting a target on his back, KCFL moved on to the next target, Dr. Leroy Carhart, creating fliers with descriptions of his offices in nearby Nebraska with pictures of the doctor prominently displayed. Kansans for Life seems relatively mild compared to these two, but they still support defunding Title X subsidies for contraception. They also trade heavily in conspiracy theories around former pro-choice Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, accusing her of destroying evidence against Planned Parenthood in one of the various harassment lawsuits that anti-choicers in the state have filed against the organization.
By ordinary American standards, incrementalists are already radical, with their willingness to make abortion increasingly difficult to get while working toward an eventual overturn of Roe v. Wade. But by anti-choice standards, incrementalists are beginning to look almost moderate, simply because they have patience when it comes to stripping women of basic human rights. Unfortunately for them, the wild-eyed fanatics who want to strip all abortion rights and contraception and do it now are gaining prominence and power, and the fealty of conservative politicians who are afraid of looking “soft” on sexually active women.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and journalist. She's published two books and blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X. More Amanda Marcotte.
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