For almost 50 years, Americans United for Life (AUL) has chipped away at women’s reproductive rights—both within the U.S. and abroad. AUL’s president, Charmaine Yoest, has described the organization as the “legal architect of the pro-life movement,” pursuing “a military strategy,” “under the radar screen,” and “leapfrogging” over Roe by pushing state-by-state abortion rights restrictions. As of 2015, the group operated with a total revenue of over 4 million dollars.
AUL was founded in 1971 by a group of conservative Catholics, most prominently L. Brent Bozell. Bozell had recently been arrested for organizing an anti-choice march on (and demonstration at) a university hospital, where one speaker referred to “sterilized murder factories.” Bozell’s increasingly militant anti-abortion ideology and tactics earned the criticism of former close colleague and brother-in-law William F. Buckley—but in the face of Roe, Americans United for Life quickly turned to the less controversial legal strategy it pursues today (with AUL Action providing a political advocacy arm since 2008).
In 1979, AUL took credit for its “pivotal role” in amending Ireland’s constitution to ban abortion. The next year, the organization helped cut off low-income American women’s access to abortion by successfully defending the constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding (such as Medicaid) from being used toward abortion coverage. Americans United for Life is also active in Latin America, where abortion rights are already severely restricted.
In 2011 alone, AUL tallied up credit for the passage of 92 anti-abortion laws, through its active promotion or drafting of “model bills” for state legislators. This is the same low-visibility tactic used effectively by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). After Trayvon Martin’s murder, ALEC came under scrutiny for its promotion of “Stand Your Ground” model bills, and the ALEC Exposed project continues to monitor the actions of the corporate-funded right-wing think tank. Yet, despite exposés of AUL by Mother Jones, The Progressive, Alternet, and Raw Story in mid-2012, the anti-abortion organization has slipped back out of the spotlight.
AUL’s involvement in legislation has actually been increasing even while awareness of their actions is decreasing. In 2013, AUL was involved in about 17% of measures enacted and/or resolutions adopted that worked to decrease abortion rights. In 2015, that number increased to 30% of legislation passed, and AUL’s influence continues to grow. From 2011 to January 2018, they took credit for about one hundred bills supporting their pro-life position that were passed into law.
AUL stretches its four million dollar budget by operating largely behind the scenes and by trying to distance itself from anti-abortion “fringe” organizations like Personhood USA. The strategy is proving effective: The Christian Science Monitor hailed AUL as the “new voice” of abortion opponents, writing that “a less confrontational, more pragmatic force is behind a record number of anti-abortion laws and pro-choice’s ‘bad year.’” Yoest, who worked in the Reagan administration and for Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, is lauded as the movement’s “kinder, gentler face …winning not just the legal war but the spin game at the moment.”
This PR strategy extends to AUL’s involvement in advancing state-level anti-abortion legislation. Legislation proposed by AUL often boasts innocuous names like the “Women’s Ultrasound Right to Know Act,” “Women’s Health Defense Act,” and “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which play up the right-wing frame that abortion causes harm to women. Translated, those bills would require unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, an invasive procedure constituting a serious violation of women’s bodies; a ban on abortion after 20 weeks; and a slew of absurd restrictions on clinics that even mandated room temperatures in Kansas. Fortunately, some of AUL’s bills have been modified and/or or held up in court for constitutional violations and the most recent anti-abortion bill, the “Pain Capable Unborn Children Protection Act” passed in the House but failed on January 29, 2018 to pass in the Senate.
When you take a look at the substance of AUL’s proposed legislation, the terms “kinder,” “gentler,” and “moderate” are far from accurate. In 2011, AUL got caught pushing legislation that would “expand justifiable homicide statutes to cover killings committed in the defense of an unborn child”—in other words, legalizing the murder of a doctor who performs abortions. In a less than convincing response, AUL attempted to deny that was the bill’s purpose.
The idea of presenting a “kinder, gentler” Christian Right movement is reminiscent of the promotion of ex-gay therapy as a “compassionate” approach toward LGBTQ people. But as Exodus International, the most prominent ex-gay organization in the United States, expressed upon announcing its closure in 2013, that pretense of kindness has been deployed effectively to do serious harm to individuals and their human rights.
In 2012, Notre Dame law professor, and then-board member of AUL, Gerard Bradley admitted that he supports criminal penalties for pregnant women. Bradley also equated domestic violence perpetrators with women seeking to obtain an abortion (a departure from AUL’s propaganda portraying reproductive health care restrictions as benefiting women).Two of AUL’s current board members are affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), which, in 1996, helped bring together 45 anti-abortion and Christian Right leaders to adopt a manifesto opposing abortion.
In 2014, the EPPC’s American Religious Freedom Program organized “religious freedom caucuses” in state legislatures in conjunction with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the same organization leading the Hobby Lobby lawsuit to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
The connections between “religious liberty” advocates and anti-abortion activists are unsurprising, and have been described in detail in the 2013 PRA report, Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights, by Jay Michelson. These connections and collaborations are ongoing. In 2014, AUL filed an amicus brief supporting the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, which Yoest claims is not about employees’ rights to health care, but rather “about freedom of conscience, it’s about fundamental American liberties.” More recently, in June 2017, the AUL continued to advocate for anti-abortion legislation under the name of religious liberty by filing an amicus brief with other pro-life organizations such as Heartbeat International to overturn Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.
In 2014, the homepage of AUL’s website prominently featured a clip of Yoest defending the importance of Hobby Lobby on Fox News, as well as a video created by AUL about “the con”: the Obama administration’s “contraception con,” which the video says mandates coverage of abortion-causing drugs and violates First Amendment rights (complete with a quote from Thomas Jefferson). Meanwhile, the organization continued its anti-choice activities on the state level, launching an updated packet of model bills misnamed the “Women’s Protection Project” at the end of 2013, and touting initiatives and victories in Mississippi, Indiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska in the first few months of 2014.
Toward the end of 2016, AUL published a report called “Unsafe: How The Public Health Crisis in America’s Abortion Clinics Endangers Women,” which argued that abortion is “dominated by dangerous, substandard providers.” It opens with 11 cases of women who died from complications due to abortions, and proposes more legislation limiting abortions as the solution.
In January 2018, the “Ultrasound Informed Consent Act” was reintroduced into Congress. Forced ultrasound laws, which are based on a model bill authored by AUL, force people wanting an abortion to see images of an ultrasound while doctors to simultaneously explain what it is depicting.