This week, Louisiana became the latest state to pass a strict abortion ban, in its case after six weeks of pregnancy, which the governor has said he will sign. It’s just the latest instance of a surge of laws restricting abortion access.
Why are these underway? The obvious reasons, of course, are the combination of conservative state legislatures and Brett M. Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court; many expect that his fifth reliably conservative vote will enable the court to undo Roe v. Wade. But look a little more deeply, and you’ll find that Americans United for Life has, over the past four decades, been quietly laying the groundwork for abortion restrictions that don’t attract the attention of the media and public.
Here's what you need to know about an influential group that has avoided the spotlight.
1. What is Americans United for Life, and what does it do?
AUL was founded in 1971, one year before the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, by a group of theologians and academicians who thought the nation needed a secular group that would protect the “unborn.” George Williams, Harvard professor of divinity and AUL chairman in 1972, described its initiatives as covering “the full range of arguments against abortion: biological, medical, psychological, sociological, legal, demographic and ethical” — conspicuously leaving out anything theological or religious. Organized as a nonprofit, AUL has no members, no dues and no fundraising events, and spends no money on grass roots lobbying. Funded by unnamed contributions and grants, AUL lists 11 staffers, including six attorneys, and highly credentialed boards of directors and advisers.
AUL’s attorneys, based in Arlington, Va., aim to be a resource for state legislatures on seemingly every issue under the “pro-life” banner: access to abortion, contraception, stem cell research, bioethics, assisted suicide and end-of-life decisions. AUL writes model legislation, data, and recommendations to help legislators introduce, pass and implement antiabortion statutes and work behind the scenes with interested state legislators in all 50 states. In addition, AUL staff submit amicus briefs on court challenges to abortion restrictions.
As James Druckman and other scholars assert, framing is an integral part of shaping public opinion. Political scientist Deana Rohlinger has examined how various groups working on abortion — including the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood Federation, Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee — use frames to shape the media coverage of abortion politics, introducing phrases like “pro-choice” and “partial-birth abortion” that shape audience perceptions. To mobilize mass action, abortion rights groups frame their arguments as advocating for a “woman’s right to privacy” and “reproductive rights,” while antiabortion groups frame theirs as advocating for morality, “the sanctity of life” and religion.
American United for Life’s goal isn’t to generate headlines or to energize advocates. Rather, it frames proposals that will be palatable to state legislatures, can be discussed in ways that will generate less political backlash and will appeal to the courts that will eventually have to review legislative intent and discussion. And so it argues that its proposals are “promoting health and safety” and “protecting women and infants.” AUL’s proposals and public commentary have no references to religion. Literature pictures women as mothers with babies, and offers none of the images of fetuses common with antiabortion groups.
2. AUL has a slow-but-steady strategy
AUL’s website describes its mission as being to “advocate the systematic, incremental adoption and implementation of life-affirming laws in the states,” and emphasizes that it works “deliberatively and strategically.” Clark Forsythe, AUL’s senior counsel, recently wrote in the National Review that the Alabama law was perhaps the “least likely to attract Supreme Court review” of all those likely to go up on appeal, although the provision that bans abortion once there’s a “fetal heartbeat” does not fit AUL’s approach.
AUL’s slow and subtle operation has been successful. It works at helping state legislators craft bills without needing to research and write those themselves, drawing instead on AUL attorneys’ expertise in legal language and constitutional precedent. Its model legislation and research are available online, including lengthy reports condemning Planned Parenthood and inventorying regulatory violations at abortion facilities. It does not, however, propose laws about transvaginal ultrasounds or criminal punishments for abortion providers, considering those inconsistent with its strategies.
3. AUL ranks the states comprehensively, not just on abortion but on a range of issues it considers “life-affirming.”
Its annual ranking of states’ record of “life-affirming” measures shows its influence in all 50 states. For 2018, AUL claims that one of its pieces of model legislation, the Abortion Reporting Act, directly influenced measures in Indiana, Idaho and Arizona. AUL also evaluates each state’s “pro-life environment” based on legislation introduced and passed, and on regulations governing a wide variety of issues, from abortion facilities to whether citizens can get “Choose Life” license plates. In 2018, AUL reported that it had successfully backed 19 pieces of enacted legislation, including Iowa’s requirements for fetal cremation, the text of which was consistent with, but not identical to, AUL’s language. This week, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law’s similar fetal cremation provisions.
Surprisingly, Alabama — which just passed and signed into law a bill banning abortion once there’s a fetal heartbeat, with no exceptions for rape and incest — ranked only 15th in AUL’s “State of the States” assessment, part of its Defending Life annual report. AUL recommended that, among other initiatives, Alabama pass its model legislation banning late-term abortion; adopt statutes against drug-induced abortions; and prohibit public funding for cloning and embryonic research.
AUL ranked Arizona first for its highly public abortion and abortion-related restrictions, such as ultrasound requirements 24 hours before an abortion procedure and comprehensive licensing for facilities. Rounding out the top five are Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. The state of Washington is ranked last for various reasons: not prohibiting cloning, allowing end-of-life decisions, and failing to protect health care providers who offer their religious or moral objections to abortion-related procedures or prescriptions. California, Vermont, New Jersey and Hawaii are ranked in the bottom five for many of the same reasons.
AUL’s strategic incrementalism has slowly shaped reproductive politics, from parental consent for minors’ abortions to requirements for abortion facilities. By including programs on end-of-life decisions and suicide prevention, AUL is now aiming to show itself as comprehensively favoring the protection of life — and lets us know what initiatives might be coming next, even if we find ourselves in a post-Roe nation.
Susan Roberts is professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina.