“We’re having a party,” Charmaine Yoest tells me when I arrive for a lunch meeting at her office on a sweltering summer day in Washington, DC. I’d expected a one-on-one interview with the charismatic president and CEO of Americans United for Life, the legal arm of the pro-life movement, but she’s brought along four other women: AUL’s vice president of external affairs, two staff attorneys, and her 19-year-old daughter, Hannah.
Everyone is charming and chatty; they ask me about my wedding a few days earlier. There’s salad all around, which seems to be AUL’s lunch of choice when female reporters are invited over. It’s all part of the girls club environment that Yoest and her colleagues cultivate, distancing AUL from other, largely male-dominated pro-life organizations.
Outside Yoest’s fourth-floor corner office hangs a large print that could pass for a Mondrian in black and white. She informs me that it depicts a human DNA sequence. “We wanted to do something that was nonbaby,” she says. Keeping things nonbaby is one of Americans United for Life’s main strategies for promoting anti-abortion legislation, and it’s made AUL one of the most effective anti-abortion organizations in the country, even though its $4 million budget is less than half that of the National Right to Life Committee. No pictures of infants decorate its headquarters, and the bloody fetus posters common at anti-abortion rallies are conspicuously absent. The only obvious nod to the unborn is a Dr. Seuss quote on the wall above Yoest’s desk: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Understated rhetoric aside, AUL’s mission is to end all abortions in the United States. Founded in 1971 by a Unitarian minister from Harvard Divinity School, AUL first focused on reversing Roe v. Wade flat out, but in the 1990s it turned its attention to rolling back reproductive rights incrementally at the state level. Lately, it’s been chipping away at abortion access at an ever-faster pace. Its team of lawyers has written dozens of model bills, which are collected in a playbook, Defending Life, and delivered to every state and federal legislator.
All told, 92 anti-abortion restrictions were passed throughout the country last year, an all-time record; AUL can claim credit for 24 new laws. So far in 2012, 17* laws promoted by AUL or based on its model legislation have been passed. Invasive vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia? That was AUL’s bill. Trying to shut down all the abortion clinics in Kansas? That was AUL, too.
“Our model legislation enables legislators to easily introduce bills without needing to research and write the bills themselves,” AUL’s website boasts. The organization’s foes see it as the pro-life equivalent of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate legislation mill. “It’s troubling when you see the same bill language introduced in 27 states that you know came out of an anti-abortion think tank in Washington instead of coming from the concerns of the sponsor or that particular state,” says Jordan Goldberg, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is trying to block AUL-backed laws in Arizona, Kansas, and Texas.
Yoest says her focus is on a “post-Roe nation” in which states will again be the sole arbiters of when, where, and whether women can get abortions. “The real question is what do the states do,” she says. “And so in a sense, we’re leapfrogging over [Roe].” She believes AUL’s growing body of state laws will set precedents with the potential to eventually change federal abortion law. As she explained to National Catholic Register, “We don’t make frontal attacks. Never attack where the enemy is strongest.”
The Supreme Court opened a critical avenue in its 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which upheld Roe while giving states greater leeway to regulate abortions. Echoing AUL’s women-centered approach, the group’s bills often cite the court’s finding that the government “has legitimate interests from the outset of pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman.” Its Women’s Ultrasound Right to Know Act clearly aims to prevent women from terminating pregnancies. But its framing—that a woman deserves to know what’s inside her body and must give her “informed consent”—centers on the mother rather than the fetus. A controversial version of this prefab legislation was introduced in Virginia this spring. Only after abortion rights supporters pointed out that it could effectively require doctors to stick a wand in pregnant women’s vaginas did its Republican sponsors amend it to require abdominal ultrasounds.
Then there’s AUL’s bill for banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy—often performed when tests that can only be done at this stage reveal severe birth defects. Though bans on late-term abortions are often pitched on the medically dubious premise that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, AUL’s model bill, the Women’s Health Defense Act, emphasizes the potential harm to women, citing the health risks as well as potential “emotional complications” such as depression and anxiety. Arizona passed a version of the bill earlier this year; AUL consulted on a similar law passed in Georgia.
Another AUL bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, places tight restrictions on the physical offices in which abortions are performed, asserting that abortions are “distinct from other routine medical services” due to their potential health and psychological effects. The version of the law that passed in Kansas in April 2011 was so onerous (it even mandated specific room temperatures at clinics) that it threatened to shut down every abortion provider in the state. (A court has blocked it.)
When I ask Yoest about her favorite model bills, she promptly mentions telemed abortions. In 2010, AUL first proposed banning such abortions, wherein a physician prescribes the drug RU-486 via a video connection. Since then, eight states have passed laws prohibiting doctors from remotely administering RU-486; never mind that there were no clinics actually doing this in those states at the time (PDF). “This is Planned Parenthood’s new business model, because they’re having such a hard time finding doctors to do abortion, for all kinds of good reasons,” Yoest says.
Indeed, AUL’s greatest success may be its push to take down America’s largest abortion provider. In July 2011, AUL released “The Case for Investigating Planned Parenthood,” a 174-page report detailing dozens of alleged abuses, ranging from poor patient care to the misuse of federal funds. Two months later, the House Energy and Commerce Committee started looking into Planned Parenthood’s “compliance with federal restrictions on the funding of abortion.” A spokesman for Rep. Cliff Stearns, the Florida Republican heading the investigation, confirmed that the AUL report was a contributing factor in the decision to launch the probe. (AUL’s legislative arm gives Stearns a 100 percent pro-life vote rating.) Stearns’ investigation, in turn, inspired Susan G. Komen for the Cure to cut funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Komen reversed its decision amid public outcry, but the cumulative impact of AUL’s efforts has abortion rights advocates worried. In 2000, the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research nonprofit, rated 13 states as “hostile” to reproductive rights; in 2011, it gave 26 states that designation. “We’re seeing states that go in and make their laws worse, and we’re seeing states that are adopting more extreme, more onerous, and more creative laws,” says Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher’s state issues manager. By putting up more hurdles for women who want abortions and the doctors who provide them, “at some point, someone will cry uncle.”
But making abortions all but impossible is only half the battle. Ultimately, AUL would like to see the Supreme Court legally enshrine its restrictions—all in the name of protecting women. “It’s really, really critical that we start establishing this in the legislative record,” Yoest tells me. “Repeatedly, the Supreme Court has turned away from the threat that abortion poses for the baby, because the Supreme Court has said repeatedly they’re concerned about the woman. So we basically want to say to the court, ‘We share your concern for women. You need to look at the fact that abortion itself harms women.'”
*This number has been updated since the article originally appeared in our September/October 2012 print issue.