This is the fourth post in a RWW series on the reemergence of the fetal personhood movement and what it means for the future of abortion rights in the U.S.
Part 1: The Personhood Movement: Where It Comes From And What It Means For The Future Of Choice
Part 2: The Personhood Movement: Internal Battles Go Public
Part 3: The Personhood Movement: Undermining Roe In The Courts
Last week, the Republican Party was forced into yet another uncomfortable public conversation about abortion and rape.
The House GOP, enjoying a strengthened majority after the 2014 elections, announced that on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it would hold a vote on a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a top priority of groups like National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and Americans United for Life (AUL), which see it as a legislative key to toppling Roe v. Wade.
The night before the House was set to vote on the bill, GOP leaders pulled it from the floor, citing concerns by Republican women that a clause exempting rape survivors from the ban would require survivors to first report their assault to the police — a stipulation that they argued would prevent women from reporting rapes and would be politically unpopular.
Some anti-choice groups, however, had already stated that they would not support the bill — because they believed that the rape exception violated the principles of the anti-choice movement by exempting some women from abortion prohibitions.
In fact, less than two years earlier, the addition of the rape exemption to the bill had caused an acrimonious public split in the anti-choice movement, leading to the formation of the newest group advocating for a “personhood” strategy to end legal abortion.
The 2013 bill, proposed by Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, included only an exception for abortions that would save the life of pregnant women. But in a committee hearing on the bill, Franks caused an uproar when he defended his bill by claiming that rape rarely results in pregnancy anyway. House Republicans, facing another outrageous comment about rape from one of their own, quickly added a rape exception to the bill, put a female cosponsor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, in charge of the floor debate, and pushed it through the House.
The day before the vote, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) sent members of Congress a letter calling the Franks bill, which was based on its own model legislation, “the most important single piece of pro-life legislation to come before the House since the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was enacted, a full decade ago.”
The group told members of Congress that it would go after them if they voted against the bill, even if they opposed it because they thought the legislation did not go far enough to ban abortion: “NRLC will regard a vote against this legislation, no matter what justification is offered, as a vote to allow unlimited abortion in the sixth month or later — and that is the way it will be reported in our scorecard of key right-to-life roll calls of the 113th Congress, and in subsequent communications from National Right to Life to grassroots pro-life citizens in every state.”
Major anti-choice groups including the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life also applauded the vote.
But Daniel Becker, head of National Right to Life’s Georgia affiliate, was not pleased. In the days after Republicans added a rape exception to the bill, Becker worked the phones, urging House Republicans from his state to oppose the “shameful” watered-down legislation. His efforts convinced two Georgia Republicans, Rep. Paul Broun and Rep. Rob Woodall, to buck their party and the major anti-choice groups and vote against the bill. Georgia Right to Life then endorsed Broun in his unsuccessful campaign to win the GOP nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat.
NRLC was livid and, true to its word, sent out a press release the next day singling out Broun and Woodall for their no votes.
Also furious was a prominent NRLC ally in Georgia, conservative pundit Erick Erickson. The day that the House approved the 20-week ban, Erickson wrote a scathing blog post calling Becker’s group “the Westboro Baptist Church of the pro-life movement.”
“Instead of saving souls, they’d rather stone those who are trying to save souls,” Erickson wrote. He called for the formation of a new anti-abortion group in Georgia to replace Becker’s as NRLC's state affiliate.
Several months later, in time for an upcoming meeting of NRLC’s board, Erickson founded his own group, Georgia Life Alliance. He then asked the national group to disaffiliate itself from Georgia Right to Life and take his group on as its official state chapter. NRLC's board happily complied, saying that Becker’s group had “ruptured its relationship” with them with its defiance on the Franks bill.
It didn’t take long for Becker to strike back. Fewer than three months later, Georgia Right to Life announced that it was forming the National Personhood Alliance, a new national organization of anti-abortion rights groups committed to a “no exceptions” strategy. In a press release announcing the group’s formation, he laid out the alliance’s philosophy, including a thinly veiled attack on NRLC. “Compromise is not possible,” he wrote. “This is not like roads or highways or agricultural subsidies; when we compromise — someone dies.”
The group later renamed itself the "Personhood Alliance."
In a policy paper in June, Jay Rogers of Personhood Florida laid out the new alliance’s strategy. It would not oppose incremental measures like the 20-week ban, but it would oppose any measure that “identifies a class of human beings that we may kill with impunity.” That is, it would only support efforts to restrict abortion rights that contain no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the pregnant woman.
Becker announced that the group’s interim president would be another anti-choice activist who had broken ranks with National Right to Life over strategy — in this case, over LGBT rights. Molly Smith, the president of Cleveland Right to Life, had earned a rebuke from NRLC when she said her group would oppose the reelection of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman after he came out in favor of marriage equality, citing his openly gay son. NRLC blasted Smith for opposing the staunchly anti-choice senator and taking on “an advocacy agenda that includes issues beyond the right to life.”
The new Personhood Alliance won early endorsements from prominent Religious Right activist Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, popular conservative talk show host Steve Deace, and the Irish anti-abortion organization Life Institute.
But it also displayed ties to more fringe activists, boasting of an endorsement from infamous abortion clinic agitator Rusty Lee Thomas of Operation Save America, who blames the September 11 attacks on legal abortion. Jay Rogers, who wrote Personhood Alliance’s manifesto, is a longtime ally of Operation Save America who once assisted the group by administering a website showing the locations of Florida abortion providers’ private homes.
Another founding member of Personhood Alliance was Les Riley, who spearheaded Mississippi’s failed personhood amendment in 2011. Riley is a one-time blogger for a group that advocates Christian secession from the U.S. and a current officer with the theocratic Mississippi Constitution Party. Georgia’s Constitution Party also sponsored a booth at the Personhood Alliance’s convention.
Becker himself has a history on the more radical, confrontational fringes of the anti-abortion movement. In 1992, while running for a House seat in Georgia, Becker gained national attention when he helped pioneer the strategy of using an election-law loophole to run graphic anti-abortion ads on primetime television.
Personhood Alliance hasn't only set itself up against the rest of the anti-choice movement; it's directly competing with the group that brought personhood back in to the national political conversation.
In 2007, 19-year-old Colorado activist Kristi Burton teamed up with attorney Mark Meuser to push for a ballot measure defining “person” in Colorado law as beginning “from the moment of fertilization.” Keith Mason, another young activist who as an anti-choice missionary for Operation Rescue had driven a truck covered with pictures of aborted fetuses, joined the effort. Soon after the Colorado ballot initiative failed in 2008, he joined with Cal Zastrow, another veteran of the radical anti-choice “rescue movement” to found Personhood USA.
Personhood USA has raised the profile of the personhood movement by backing state-level ballot initiatives and legislation modeled on Kristi Burton’s. None of the group's measures has become law, but the political battles they cause have drawn national attention to the personhood movement’s goals.
In 2010, Mason’s group led the effort to again place a personhood measure on the Colorado ballot, eventually garnering just 29 percent of the vote (a slight uptick from 27 percent in 2008).
Following that loss, the group announced a “50 state strategy” to launch a personhood ballot petition in every state. The group focused its organizing on Mississippi, where an amendment made it onto the 2011 ballot but was rejected by 55 percent of voters after a strong pro-choice campaign centered on exposing the risk the amendment posed to legal birth control. In 2012, the group tried again in Colorado, but failed to gather enough signatures to get a personhood amendment on the ballot. The same year, a personhood bill in Virginia was passed by the state House but defeated in the Senate. In 2014, it got measures on the ballot in Colorado and North Dakota, both of which failed by wide margins.
As it expanded its mission, Personhood USA’s fundraising boomed. According to tax returns, in 2009 the group brought in just $52,000. In 2010, it raised $264,000. In 2011, when it was fighting in Mississippi, it brought in $1.5 million. But after the Mississippi defeat, the group’s fundraising faltered, falling to $1.1 million in 2012. The funding of the group’s nonpolitical arm, Personhood Education, however, continues to expand, going from $94,000 in 2010 to $373,000 in 2011 and $438,000 in 2012. In the process, it built a database of a reported 7 million supporters.
Despite its electoral setbacks, the group continues to have national ambitions: in 2012 it hosted a presidential candidates’ forum in Iowa attended by four Republican candidates. In what can be seen as another sign of the group’s success in raising the profile of the issue, in 2012 the Republican Party added to its platform support for a federal constitutional amendment banning abortion and endorsing “legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
Personhood USA has also quietly become involved in international efforts to restrict abortion rights. In its 2012 tax return, the group’s political arm reported a $400,000 grant to an unnamed recipient in Europe, representing more than one third of its total spending for the year. When Buzzfeed’s Lester Feder asked Mason who and what the grant went toward, Mason declined to comment. In 2014, Personhood USA’s Josh Craddock was granted consultative status at the United Nations, where he participated in the December, 2014, “Transatlantic Summit” of anti-choice, anti-LGBT advocates from around the world. The same year, Mason was scheduled to participate in an international social conservative forum at the Kremlin in Moscow. In January 2015, a Personhood USA representative reported having delivered a presentation at the U.K. parliament.
Personhood USA initially supported the Personhood Alliance and backed Becker — a former Personhood USA employee — in his battle against NRLC. But in September 2014, Personhood USA announced that it was cutting ties with Becker, accusing him of “trying to replace Personhood USA by using our structures and intellectual property” including the word “personhood.”
But it isn't just the right to the word "personhood" that divides the two groups; they also differ sharply and publicly on strategy.
When Becker launched his group, he took with him Gualberto Garcia Jones, a top Personhood USA official and key thinker in the personhood movement, who says he drafted the failed Colorado personhood initiatives in 2010 and 2014. A few weeks later, after statewide personhood ballot initiatives promoted by Personhood USA in North Dakota and Colorado went down in flames, Garcia Jones wrote an op-ed for LifeSiteNews explaining that while he had hoped to see those measures succeed, he believed that “the statewide personhood ballot measure is dead for now.” This was a direct repudiation of the strategy of Personhood USA’s strategy of introducing these measures or legislative alternatives in all 50 states.
Garcia Jones wrote that the struggling movement needed to engage in “asymmetrical tactics” by pushing through municipal personhood measures in rural areas where the movement can “control the battlefield”:
These initial years of the personhood movement have taught us a lot. I believe that we now know how to fight to win against Planned Parenthood. And the key is being able to control the battleground.
When you look at electoral maps of the country, it is readily evident that majorities in almost every metropolitan area of the country are opposed to our worldview. These metropolitan areas are also the major media centers and accumulate large percentages of the voting population in every state.
Right now, fighting the abortion industry at the state level is akin to having lined up a battalion of colonists against the well-trained and well armed redcoats. We need to start engaging in more asymmetrical tactics, and this means engaging the enemy in municipalities and counties that we know we control.
This can be done at the legislative and political level, as Georgia Right to Life and other groups have done by the endorsement of state officials, or it can be done by engaging in municipal ballot measures.
Jones noted that such municipal ordinances could affect the “many [local] powers that touch upon the personhood of the preborn, from local health and building codes to local law enforcement such as child abuse prevention.” And he hopes that, in the long run, municipal-level victories could lead to greater things. Becker has told blogger Jill Stanek that he hopes municipal measures will provoke legal battles that will accellerate a reconsideration of abortion rights in the courts.
Personhood USA, meanwhile, took credit for the municipal resolutions strategy and said it supported it, but noted that its state-level activism had been successful in mobilizing the grassroots and as an "educational tool that simultaneously provides a pro-life standard for lobbying and candidate endorsements."
Will the personhood movement’s strategy work?
Polling shows that the level of support for abortion rights in the U.S. depends on how you ask the question. And Gallup has found that Americans are pretty much evenly split between those who call themselves “pro-life” and those who choose the label “pro-choice.” But behind the labels is an entirely different picture. A large majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under all or some circumstances; only 21 percent want the procedure to be completely banned. Similarly, Pew found in 2013 that only three-in-ten respondents favored overturning Roe v. Wade.
These numbers don’t bode well for the personhood movement. Voters in states as conservative as Mississippi and North Dakota have been turned off by personhood’s clear goal of banning abortion in all circumstances as well as the threat it poses to contraception and fertility treatments.
At the same time, the more successful anti-choice groups have managed to work within current public opinion to push through scores of state-level measures restricting access to abortion in an effort to slowly undermine Roe. These measures, many based on model legislation from Americans United for Life, restrict abortion access by such means as imposing waiting periods for women seeking care, requiring hospital “admitting privileges” for abortion providers and then banning public hospitals from providing such agreements; or even regulating the width of the hallways in clinics.
The Guttmacher Institute has calculated that between 2011 and 2014, states enacted 231 abortion restrictions, meaning that half of all reproductive-age U.S. women now live in a state that the Institute categorizes as “hostile” or “extremely hostile” to abortion rights — all without passing outright bans on abortion or establishing fetal “personhood.” The anti-choice group Operation Rescue, which keeps detailed records on abortion providers in its effort to shut them down, reports that the number of surgical abortion clinics in the country has dropped by 75 percent since 1991, with 47 such clinics closing permanently in 2014. This can be partly attributed to the increased frequency of medication abortion, a practice that anti-choice groups are targeting with new restrictions. In 2005, even before the closures of the last few years, 87 percent of U.S. counties had no abortion provider.
Even as voters reject moves to ban abortion outright, anti-choice groups have found less resistance to this strategy of chipping away at abortion rights with the same goal. This contrast played out in the 2014 election, when voters in Colorado and North Dakota rejected personhood measures when they were clearly told could end legal abortion, while voters in Tennessee approved a measure giving the state government sweeping new powers to curtail abortion rights without outright ending abortion rights.
In fact, by loudly proclaiming its end goal, the personhood movement may be inadvertently helping the incrementalists who are using a different strategy to achieve the same ends. By proudly embracing the no-compromise extremes of the anti-choice agenda, the personhood movement has allowed the incrementalists to portray themselves as the political center, giving them cover for a successful campaign to undermine the right to choose. In 2014, Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest told Time, “Most people want to see abortion restricted in some way, even if they don’t call themselves pro-life … We’re the ones occupying the middle ground.” She might not be able to make that statement if the personhood movement was not loudly and proudly occupying the absolutist, no-compromise stance that her group believes to be too politically risky.
Even as the personhood movement provides political cover to groups like AUL, it also serves as an ever-present reminder of the goals of the anti-choice movement as a whole. While the more visible anti-choice groups may find a total, immediate ban on legal abortion politically unfeasible, the personhood movement is a constant reminder that this is what they want to achieve — one way or another.