As they gathered Tuesday for a national strategy session, anti-abortion activists faced an unexpected revolt in their own ranks.
Some of the biggest groups in the movement, including Focus on the Family and National Right to Life, are under attack from fellow activists who accuse them of turning the cause into a money-grubbing industry.
Those groups have raised tens of millions of dollars and trumpeted victory after incremental victory in the 34 years since Roe v. Wade legalized abortions. But nearly a quarter of all pregnancies in the United States still end in abortion.
Deeply frustrated, several small anti-abortion groups have launched a campaign to force their movement to an absolutist position: no more compromises, no more half-steps, just an all-out effort for an all-out ban.
They are making their position clear in full-page ads that will run in conservative publications during the next few months. They are urging donors to stop contributing to anti-abortion groups that focus on making it more difficult – but not impossible – for women to obtain the procedure.
“The broader movement is claiming that we’re saving lives, and we’re not,” said Brian Rohrbough, one of the dissident activists. “It can’t get any worse than that.”
Tension between the incremental and absolutist camps has existed in the anti-abortion movement from the beginning. It’s bursting into the open in part because of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.
In April, the justices upheld the federal law banning a rare mid-term procedure that involves partly delivering a live fetus, then crushing its skull. The ruling was striking for several reasons. For the first time, the Supreme Court approved a restriction on abortion that contained no exceptions, not even for the health of the woman. And the justices adopted anti-abortion rhetoric in key portions of the majority opinion.
However, the ruling also explicitly endorsed other methods of abortion; at one point, the justices explained that physicians could avoid prosecution by killing the fetus with a lethal injection in the womb before suctioning out its brain.
To Rohrbough, president of Colorado Right to Life, that decision was nothing short of evil – an endorsement of murder. He was appalled that his fellow activists not only claimed the ruling as a victory but also used it as a fundraising tool, appealing to donors for more money to keep the momentum going.
“We’ve been promised for almost 40 years that the strategy of electing Republicans would get us a Republican Supreme Court that would end abortion, and that has not happened,” Rohrbough said. “If we raise money to do the same thing over and over again … we will never, ever establish personhood for all (unborn) children.”
The partial-birth ruling “gives us the most powerful example we’ve ever had of how morally bankrupt this strategy is,” added the Rev. Bob Enyart, of Denver Bible Church.
Enyart and Rohrbough wrote a long public letter of rebuke to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and other anti-abortion activists who applauded the Supreme Court decision.
That letter was turned into ads that have run in the Washington Times and in Dobson’s hometown paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and will appear soon in other publications, Enyart said.
The anti-abortion absolutists have far less clout than the more established groups that met this week in Washington, D.C., to plan legal and legislative moves. But they have a few big names backing them, including former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes and activist Judie Brown of the American Life League. Several pastors, Christian radio hosts and bloggers are in their camp.
“We’re not finding any core, mainstream (anti-abortion) groups that are anything other than political hacks. … You don’t even hear these guys talking about ending abortion anymore. So you’ll see our rhetoric sharpening,” said David Brownlow, who runs a lobbying group in Oregon called Life Support.
Abortion rights advocates view the splintering with some alarm: “It may mean we’re fighting on more fronts,” said Janet Crepps, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
But there’s also a measure of satisfaction on the left. “Whenever your opponents squabble among themselves, it’s a good thing,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Daniel McConchie, a top anti-abortion strategist and vice president of Americans United for Life, said the internal feuding could tarnish his movement’s image a bit: “It can have some negative backlash.” But he does not expect any falloff in fundraising.
In general, organizations committed to an incremental strategy take in far more money than the absolutist groups. Rohrbough’s group runs on a budget of about $150,000 a year. By contrast, the National Right to Life Committee raised more than $9.7 million last year, according to IRS filings. Americans United for Life raised $1.9 million.
At the daylong meeting Tuesday, academics, Supreme Court experts, lawyers and strategists from conservative lobbying groups such as Concerned Women for America laid plans for their next offensive – one that builds on the incremental approach. Their goal is to reduce the number of abortions, estimated at 1.3 million a year by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood.
“We’re looking at a whole gamut of ideas,” McConchie said. “We’re very confident we’ll be able to pursue the next stages without a huge amount of dissention.”