“We’re making progress”: Pro-life legal summit looks at victories and remaining challenges

Speaking at the annual Law of Life Summit before a roomful of law students, lawyers, and pro-life activists, Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life (AUL) addressed the ongoing scandal of the Planned Parenthood videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). When the videos came out, Yoest observed, “The very first thing that Planned Parenthood said was ‘We’ve broken no laws.’ They’re still insisting that they’ve broken no laws. And I’m here to tell you that the evidence suggests otherwise.”

The videos, which show undercover investigators arranging to purchase the remains of aborted infants from various Planned Parenthood facilities, provoked a veritable maelstrom around the abortion provider. The videos’ creator, David Daleiden, is being sued by three groups appearing in the videos—StemExpress, the National Abortion Federation, and Planned Parenthood itself. Meanwhile, Congress is investigating whether Planned Parenthood is guilty of legal wrongdoing.

These legal battles are the latest in the pro-life movement’s decades-long attempt to challenge abortion in the US. The Law of Life Summit, founded in 2011 by Royce Hood—then a student at Ave Maria School of Law—is both a reaction to the legal battles and an attempt to strategize for the future. The summit operates in conjunction with the annual DC March for Life, and was sponsored this year by AUL. Part history lesson, part call to action, and part networking and strategy session, the summit encourages students and activists to focus on pro-life litigation and legislation.

Lawyer David Mancini (Seyfarth Shaw LLP) urged his listeners at the summit, “Seek your dreams, but let them be God’s dreams. That’s what’s going to be the best version of yourself. That’s what’s going to make you the happiest.” Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society pointed to the current “gig economy” as a way for pro-lifers to serve the legal movement “on a volunteer basis, or on a part-time basis.”

The summit also featured visits from representatives of several activist groups, including Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Priests for Life, and Save the One, a group devoted to championing the rights of “the hard cases,” such as children conceived in rape. 

Save the One president Rebecca Kiessling, accompanied by vice president Darlene Pawlik, spoke of how their organization works to defend the lives of those who, like themselves, were conceived in rape.  Their legislation allowing victims to terminate the parental rights of rapists was signed by President Obama this past June—the only pro-life legislation he has signed to date. 

The summit continued a tradition of honoring activists who have suffered for the pro-life cause with the Nail Award. This year a former recipient of the award, John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews.com presented the award to an unsuspecting David Bereit, one of the founders of 40 Days for Life.

While supporting the work of activists like Bereit or Kiessling is one aspect of pro-life law, speakers at the summit also emphasized the importance of preparing the way for pro-life legislation through avenues such as medical research, journalism, and the arts.

Jason Jones (Movie to Movement; Bella) made a heartfelt case for pro-lifers to work with unfamiliar allies. “Let people in who are weirdoes. Let anyone in who wants to be in the movement. We need every single voice.”

Dr. Monique Chireau (Duke University) pointed to the need for greater emphasis on the medical aspects of abortion, drawing attention to familiar but alarming facts: that abortions are most common among minority women, that maternal mortality decreases in abortion-restricted countries like Poland and Ireland, and that the link between breast cancer and abortion demands further investigation. Addressing a common concern that “overturning Roe [will] turn back the clock to the Dark Ages,” Chireau argued that “we live in the dark Ages, socially, morally, and sexually. … What we are trying to do is to set the clock to the right time.”

Chireau’s speech was one of several highlighting the summit’s 2016 theme, “Abortion on Demand: The Real War on Women.” While the idea of abortion as anti-woman might surprise abortion advocates, it has a long pedigree. The first US law banning abortions passed in Connecticut in 1821; by 1860, 20 states had laws limiting abortion. In the 1870s suffragette Susan B. Anthony, along with many other proto-feminists, spoke out against abortion.

But the rise of eugenics and contraception altered social attitudes, and in 1965 the Supreme Court struck down a state law prohibiting contraceptives, calling it a violation of privacy. The next decade saw the overthrow of numerous laws restricting abortion, culminating with universalized abortion rights with Roe and Doe in 1973.

Meanwhile, pro-life forces had not been inactive. The National Right to Life Committee was also formed in 1973, and the following year the first annual DC March for Life was organized by Nellie Gray. In 1976, the same year abortion clinics and providers were awarded legal standing to challenge abortion laws, Congress passed the first version of the Hyde Amendment, which restricted the use of taxpayer dollars for abortions.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s the legal seesaw between advocates and opponents of abortion continued. In 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey confirmed much of Roe, but allowed limited restrictions on abortion access. In 1995 Congress passed the first nationwide ban on partial birth abortion, vetoed by President Clinton in 1996; additional bans failed in 1997 and 1999, before President George W. Bush finally signed a 2003 ban, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.

Currently, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole indicates a significant advance for the pro-life legal movement: it is the first time in nearly a decade that the Court has agreed to hear arguments on a pro-life bill.

At the Law of Life Summit, speakers expressed hope that the Court might also revisit the thinking behind earlier decisions like Casey. Clarke Forsythe (AUL) noted that Casey relies on the unprecedented “reliance interest notion,” a complex concept which he described as “a Matrix overlay over an Inception overlay over a National Treasure scenario.” The reliance interest notion boils down to a claim that abortion is “relied on” by women—a claim which, Forsythe argued, is neither proven in Casey nor supported by recent research.

Whether or not Casey’s theories are revisited, activists will continue use the incremental approach to challenging abortion—David Daleiden’s exposure of practices at Planned Parenthood clinics being the famous recent example.

Daleiden spoke at length during the summit, recounting aspects of his investigation, and emphasizing the centrality of the profit motive amongst the abortion workers with whom he spoke. Planned Parenthood workers are, he said, focused on “clinic flow…the rate at which you’re processing patients through the abortion center. … Obviously, the more efficient your clinic flow is, the more patients you’ll be able to process that day, and the more [the financial profit].”  

Daleiden also spoke of a yet-unpublished video containing further evidence of the importance of profit to Planned Parenthood. The video includes remarks from a February 2015 meeting of the Planned Parenthood Medical Directors Council. During the meeting, one Planned Parenthood representative allegedly urged attendees to push hormonal birth control from Afaxys, since demand for Afaxys products had dropped to the point where Planned Parenthood might lose its scale discount with the company.

“That’s a video that hasn’t been released yet,” Daleiden said, “but it will come out soon. And [the Afaxys push] was one of the moments that I was really shocked and my jaw dropped open.”

Following Daleiden and wrapping up the Summit, AUL president Charmaine Yoest sounded a note previously touched by Forsythe and Chireau, speaking of abortion as antithetical to women’s wellbeing and dignity. Pointing to the congressional investigations, Yoest highlighted their chances of success. “For those of you who might be a little bit discouraged about the fact that the defunding bill met its end with the president’s veto pen, don’t be. Don’t be. We’re making progress.”

In the words of Thomas Brejcha—founder of Thomas More Society, and one of Daleiden’s lawyers—“Planned Parenthood, Grendel, the monster, has come out of the cage, and we said, game on! The monster is vulnerable.”

About Sophia Feingold 0 Articles

Sophia Feingold is a freelance writer and a PhD student at CUA. She blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.