On January 21, 2015—one day before the 41st March for Life—pro-life activists were met with what Jill Stanek called “a slap in the face.” After weeks of promising that a vote on a bill that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation—H.R. 36, the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”—would take place on January 22, House Republican leadership delaying a vote on the bill.
That decision left pro-life Americans in political shock. Political consultant and radio host Erick Erickson had perhaps the strongest reaction, in a post declaring that “the pro-life movement must stop being the whores of the Republican Party.”
House leadership quickly brought up H.R. 7, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” for a vote, where it passed handily. Yet the damage was done, in the eyes of many pro-lifers; once again, Republicans were playing pro-life Americans for fools. And to many, the vote’s delay was proof that the Beltway-based pro-life groups are less effective than they would have us believe.
So what can pro-life Americans learn from this debacle, and how can we be more effective advocates for life in Washington? This piece will make five points:
- As a movement, we must pick better candidates. Those who falsely claim the pro-life mantle must face the consequence they care most about: losing in the voting booth.
- Grassroots activists should change the role we allow the Beltway life groups to play in the battle for life.
- The GOP’s party platform claims the pro-life mantle, yet the party often declines to move on our issues. This latest disaster is just another example of the cowardice on life issues among GOP leaders.
- Media bias is a reality, as was shown in the lead-up to the delay of H.R. 36. It’s long past time for pro-lifers to stop complaining about it, and deal with it in a pro-active fashion.
- The silver lining here is that a better, more life-saving bill was passed by the House, and now awaits a vote in the Senate.
Make Elections Matter
Since January 21, a prime target of pro-life voters has been Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC). Ellmers campaigned on pro-life principles in 2014, only to lead the small group that derailed the 20-week ban. Furthermore, her opposition to what she said was too narrow a rape exception—the bill required any woman who wants an abortion after being raped to report the rape to police—is in direct contradiction to her 2013 vote for a ban with the same exception.
However, getting Ellmers out of office is easier said than done, and what it will take to defeat her is the same kind of strategic, sustained effort it will take for pro-life Americans to win across the country. As Peter Roff wrote in his U.S. News & World Report column last week, incumbency begets influence, the bully pulpit, fundraising capability, and media exposure that insurgent primary opponents must overcome.
In short, pro-life activists have a bit more than a year to do what conservatives tend to be very bad at: recruiting, organizing, and backing a candidate who has the money, the training, the philosophical beliefs, and the support to overcome Ellmers and then defeat whoever the Democratic candidate is in 2016.
The abortion industry excels at this. It has decades of experience, an infrastructure dedicated to electing candidates who are beholden to its interests, and enormous media support. Furthermore, the dollars-for-death groups send enormous dollars to their candidates, while the pro-life movement’s Beltway funding is limited.
Because of these advantages, the abortion industry often simply overwhelms conservatives who would rather work productive jobs, raise families, and send their money to crisis pregnancy centers to directly save lives. But as the H.R. 36 debacle shows, pro-lifers can’t simply rely on the National Right to Life Committee, the Susan B. Anthony List, and other D.C.-based pro-life groups to get the job done.
Make no mistake: This won’t be easy. It will require opening wallets, making phone calls, and losing sleep. But right now, Ellmers and others like her clearly don’t fear the consequences of crossing the pro-life grassroots—or H.R. 36 would be awaiting a Senate vote right now.
Re-evaluating the Role of Beltway Groups
The Susan B. Anthony List, National Right to Life, and other Beltway-based pro-life groups are some of our movement’s most powerful weapons. They help defeat anti-life incumbents and candidates, and do the difficult work inside D.C. that is required to effectively challenge the Culture of Death.
Yet they clearly missed the boat on the 20-week ban, despite telling everyone to fall into line because they supposedly knew the situation in D.C. They knew what could pass, and could not, and the rest of us ought to listen to them, we were told.
But as is often the case, having D.C. expertise does not always translate to electoral or policy victories, and often compromise is the first step Beltway life groups make, rather than the last. Certainly, the H.R. 36 experience makes it clear that the D.C.-based pro-life organizations can no longer demand grassroots pro-lifers simply send checks and let them do their work.
Yet neither can the pro-life movement merely condemn SBA and the rest. After all, where are the rest of us? Where were the pro-life dollars for pro-life candidates in 2014? SBA, which raises and spends the most amount of campaign money by far in the pro-life movement, was dramatically outspent by Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the abortion industry. In 2014, Planned Parenthood donated nearly $575,000 to House and Senate candidates, whereas SBA spent less than $180,000 on the same. Abortion giant NARAL donated over $260,000.
Where were Personhood USA or The Personhood Alliance, who claim to be the heart and soul of our movement, prior to a week before the vote took place?
The answer is: screaming from the sidelines when it was too late to matter. And as such, the grassroots pro-life voice never really had a chance to influence the discussions in the Beltway.
If pro-life activists really want SBA, NRLC, and the rest to change, to hold the line, we must give them reasons to do so. We must have a seat at the table when the negotiations are happening in Congress, not complaining after the die has been cast.
Christ’s warning about the log in our own eyes definitely applies to many of the groups and individuals who engage in this behavior—including Georgia Right to Life’s Dan Becker, who falsely insinuated that “grassroots pro-life groups” were responsible for the 20-week ban debacle three weeks ago.
As is the case with Ellmers, pro-lifers must open their wallets in addition to becoming invested in the political process. This is a two-way street, however—SBA and NRLC should rely on local pro-life groups to find excellent candidates with even better principles, not come in and endorse candidates at odds with local groups.
Trust is a two-way street. Grassroots pro-lifers are not know-nothing Neanderthals, but nor are Beltway groups the enemy. Perhaps it’s time for some intra-movement truces and meetings for mutual understanding and for the benefit of the unborn we’re all trying to save.
The GOP Must Earn Trust of Pro-lifers
To be fair to the Beltway life groups, it’s difficult to win a fight in Congress when one party is financially incentivized to oppose you and the one that says it backs you prioritizes winning elections over preventing the murder of babies.
Republicans have plenty of excuses, of course, when pro-life legislation fails to pass or doesn’t come up for a vote—and some of them are legitimate in other circumstances. But none of them are relevant to what happened on January 21. After all, this was a bill that passed through the House less than two years ago, and enjoys the support of most Americans.
Plainly speaking, the GOP leadership in the House blinked. In light of attacks by the media, Democrats, and the abortion industry—the three-headed beast of Death—the GOP caved at the first whiff of controversy.
And this was a fight that could have been won! Again, as David Harsanyi pointed out at The Federalist, a majority of the American people oppose late-term abortions. The GOP could have easily pointed to this as they moved forward with a vote, asking Democrats if they really want to keep supporting a procedure that tortures the unborn and is opposed by the American people.
The GOP also could have ignored Ellmers, had the vote, and told the media that while a few women opposed the bill, many more supported it. This would have changed how the media reported the “even GOP women oppose late-term abortion bill” narrative.
The GOP also could have cited Save the 1, a pro-life group made up of women who bore their rape-created children, and those who were conceived in rape. Save the 1 opposed the rape exception, but the GOP could have used them as a counterweight to Ellmers and Co., noting that a looser rape exception was opposed by women who have been raped.
Likewise, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network encourages those who have been raped to report their assailants to the police.
When the GOP does none of these, the pro-life movement must pick up the slack. Otherwise, babies and their mothers lose, as we saw shortly after the H.R. 36 debacle, when Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the rape exception in his forthcoming version of H.R. 36 will be loosened.
Again, betrayal by the GOP is nothing new. Ellmers probably thought that her seat was safer if she criticized H.R. 36, and many of the GOP’s leaders failed to note how much help pro-lifers gave them during the 2014 elections.
So, like the first two points, this is going to involve a lot of hard work by pro-lifers. We must remember that for most politicians, their willingness to support controversial policies is directly related to the support they get from constituents.
So let’s support the GOP when it does the right thing. When it passes bills we want, they should get resounding praise. But when it fails on its stated principles, the party should hear from us.
A lot of this praise and condemnation should be directed at your representative and senator. In addition to finding replacements for inferior politicians, those who are even nominally supportive of creating a Culture of Life should be bolstered by phone calls, e-mails, letters to the editor, and attendance at town hall meetings. Members of Congress need to know that when they do good, they’ll be supported—and when they fail, they’ll reap the consequences.
How to Deal with Media Bias
Media bias is real. In my opinion, it was the single greatest factor in the debacle over the 20-week bill. But for too long, pro-life leaders I have spoken with—as well as conservatives in general—have decided that the bias is too significant to change.
If we are ever to win over average Americans to the side of life, this attitude must not prevail. It is the mainstream media that informs Average Joe American, and so pro-lifers must engage in those battlefields. As a media and public relations consultant, I am confident even this fight can be won.
First, it is important to recognize that part of the strategy has already been taken care of for us. Outlets like LifeSiteNews (I am their D.C. correspondent), The Daily Caller, Breitbart.com, and TheBlaze, as well as talk radio, report favorably on our issues. It is important that those outlets hear our stories, our points of view, to help promote accurate information into the mainstream media.
Second, as with anything, start locally. Meet with your local, regional, and state reporters and editors. Buy them coffee, get to know them, and let them know you want to help them get their stories right. They may disagree with you, but they will likely come to consider you a resource when reporting on the issue of abortion.
Likewise, write letters to the editor and op-eds in your local papers. Put out press releases. Be a resource that they will come to know through your high standards of professional and engaging writing.
Third, understand that media exposure takes time. Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, has appeared on CNN and been profiled by The Washington Post. These didn’t happen overnight—she had to work hard, for many years, for them to take her seriously.
Editors look for three things when it comes to providing exposure: Timeliness, quality of what is being reported/written, and who the source is. If you are an unknown in any field, you’ll likely be ignored, even if you have the right timing and a great piece.
All is Not Lost
As in any defeat, however, there is a silver lining. While I don’t want to take that line of thinking too far—House Republicans should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and pass both H.R. 36 and H.R. 7—the passage of H.R. 7 should provide hope for pro-life Americans. This is especially true because, at least in my opinion, it is a better bill than the 20-week ban.
Consider the comparative benefits of H.R. 36. It implements a gestational limit on abortions, which would require legislation, defeat of a filibuster, and a presidential signature to overturn. It also, according to an activist who spoke with Crisis Magazine, could be key to overturning Roe v. Wade if it was challenged to the Supreme Court.
These are all good things, in addition to saving as many as 18,000 babies and their parents from abortion.
But H.R. 7 has other benefits, and none of the weaknesses. For starters, it doesn’t use pain as its reason for passage—an emotional argument that could become a Pyrrhic victory for the pro-life movement. It also appeals to fiscal conservatives, thus broadening the potential support for its passage, and it has more unifying support among pro-lifers.
And while funding can be more easily added than legislation can be repealed, consider the number of lives saved by defunding. H.R. 36 could save as many as 18,000 unborn children. Eliminating federal funding for abortion could save many times that every year, through partial defunding of Planned Parenthood and the effects on the Affordable Care Act alone.