Anti-Abortion Activists Refine Messaging in Wake of Electoral Defeats

Screenshot of Students for Life of America’s postcard featuring rape and incest arguments

After two GOP Senate candidates saw their campaigns implode when they made controversial comments about abortion and rape, Republicans like Sen. John McCain have been asking their party to just shut up about abortion.

But anti-abortion movement leaders disagree. Faced with polls saying that eight in 10 Americans think abortion should be legal when a pregnancy results from rape, these activists are actually pushing for more public discussion of the issue. It’s part of a long-term campaign to try to change Americans’ minds and to bring the country closer to banning abortion in nearly all cases.

One part of the plan is to train politicians how to answer difficult questions about the issue while also attacking pro-abortion-rights politicians. Another is to emphasize the humanity of the rape survivor and her unborn baby.

On a webcast two days after the election, Billy Valentine — the policy director of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion rights candidates — lauded failed Senate candidates Todd Akin (who said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”) and Richard Mourdock (who said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen”) as being “courageous.”

“What Todd Akin and what Richard Mourdock said, what they meant was not wrong,” Valentine said. “In fact, they were taking a very courageous stand. But it’s how they said it. So one thing we’re going to be working on is making sure that candidates the pro-life movement gets behind are well-versed in our messaging and know how to answer the tough abortion questions.”

A day earlier, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser made a similar point during a speech in Washington, D.C.

“We’re going to relook at how we endorse and train candidates,” Dannenfelser said. “From now on they will not be sent in the field with our support without knowing how to actually discuss the issue with compassion and love and to exploit the other candidate’s extremes.”

Part of the group’s strategy is to recruit more women candidates. The SBA List has celebrated Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer’s election to the Senate, which, says Valentine, makes her one of two pro-life female senators. “It was clear with some of the messaging problems we had on our end that had we had more women candidates, we wouldn’t have those problems,” he said.

Another group that has been particularly vocal about the rape exception issue is Students for Life of America, which was founded in the late 1970s for the purpose of training high school and college students to engage in anti-abortion activism and advocacy.

One of the things SFLA currently does is sell postcards that “explore rape and incest arguments for the unborn” for anti-abortion advocates to distribute. “Can you tell which child has a criminal father?” the cards read. “Should a child die for his or her father’s crimes?”

A couple of weeks after Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment went viral, SFLA President Kristan Hawkins wrote a blog post explaining why her pro-life stance has evolved to opposing abortions in all circumstances, even in “those most awful of circumstances, rape and incest.”

“As pro-lifers, we believe that all human life should be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what your parentage may be,” she writes. “If my father goes out today and commits an act of mass murder, does that justify someone killing me? If the mother, a victim or rape, chooses to carry her child through her pregnancy and then decides at age 2 that the child reminds her too much of the rapist, should she be then allowed to kill the toddler?”

Personal testimonials

On Nov. 15, SFLA sponsored a rape-focused panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. The discussion, which was broadcast online, featured Rebekah Berg, a rape survivor. Berg said that after briefly considering abortion, she decided to parent her child who was conceived as a result of the rape. The panel also included Ryan Bomberger, an anti-abortion activist conceived in rape and placed for adoption. Berg gave a tearful testimony about how her son helped her heal from the trauma of being raped. Bomberger argued that abortion does not help rape survivors.

“Abortion doesn’t unrape you,” said Bomberger, who co-founded the Radiance Foundation, a marketing nonprofit that creates ad campaigns criticizing abortion. Some of the group’s billboards and videos, which are displayed on TooManyAborted.com, suggest that Planned Parenthood targets African-Americans for abortion, with messages like “The #1 killer of black Americans is Planned Parenthood and the abortuaries that target us” and “Stop Planned Parenthood End the Genocide.”

Bomberger often speaks at anti-abortion conferences about his birth mother undergoing a traumatic pregnancy and allowing him to be adopted into a happy family with 15 kids, as he did last week, at a press briefing held by anti-abortion movement leaders in Washington, D.C., ahead of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade next month.

After the briefing, Bomberger told me the anti-abortion movement should be using people’s personal stories when addressing the rape exception issue.

Okay, but should women have the option to have an abortion if they have been raped? I asked.

“See the problem is that’s not really the issue, though,” he told me. “The issue really is that 99 percent of all abortions have nothing to do with this act of violence, with rape, incest, or the physical endangerment of the mother. So it allows too often, I think, politicians like Mourdock and Akin to be taken off track and away from the reality. The reality is we have 1.21 million abortions, and 99 percent plus have nothing to do with the act of rape.

“I’m always called a rapist’s child,” he added. “Well, I’m also the child of my mother, and many women believe that that child has been their only healing grace, their only redemption. So I think any time we talk about this issue, we have to talk more about what happens beyond the act of rape.”

Denver abortion protester (Tomasic)

This type of personal appeal was also employed last year, with the “Rape Victim’s Child Tour,” an event sponsored by a national group pushing Mississippi’s failed “personhood” amendment, which would have outlawed abortion by defining a fertilized egg as a person.

While abortion-rights groups seek to expose lawmakers and candidates who oppose abortion even in the case of rape and incest, anti-abortion advocacy groups are trying to figure out how to sell the argument that abortion should be banned.

But some, like Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas at Minneapolis, thinks most Americans are not ready to ban abortion without rape exceptions.

And public opinion polling tends to agree with her.

In late August, shortly after Akin’s comments, a nationwide poll produced by CNN and ORC International found that 83 percent of Americans polled said abortion should be legal “when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.” Periodic polling from Gallup since 1996 has found that between 75 and 78 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in the case of rape or incest.

Collett spoke at a recent anti-Roe lecture at Harvard University that was co-sponsored by Law Students for Life, an affiliate of SFLA. She suggested that most women who become pregnant through rape do not choose abortion. She cited a study published in the late 1970s, often promoted by the anti-abortion community, “that found that 75 to 85 percent of those choose against abortion.”

However, a longitudinal survey published in 1996 in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology — which estimated that more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape annually — found that about 50 percent of pregnant rape victims chose abortions, 32 percent opted to keep the baby, 6 percent opted for adoption, and 12 percent miscarried. Overall, 32 percent of the rape victims did not discover they were pregnant until the second trimester.

In her talk, Collett explained why the majority of Americans believe abortion is acceptable in the case of non-consensual sex. As an example, she brought up South Dakota’s recent attempts to ban abortion, beginning in 2006, when the state legislature passed a bill that banned all abortions except those to save the life of the mother. That law was overturned by a referendum.

“At the time that Roe versus Wade was decided, though, many abortion bans contained a rape exception,” Collett said. “And Roe struck that down. That certainly would be a law that I believe, were we to try to pass a ban, politically, as they did in South Dakota, a majority of Americans would require that there be an exception for victims of rape, and yet that would affect only 2 percent of the abortions in this country. Only 2 percent.”

She went on to say that many Americans who are against abortion believe in the rape exception because “they have an innate jurisprudential sense that law is about requiring people to live up to their duties more than it is about affirming people’s rights.

“And so they believe that when women have consensually engaged in sexual intercourse, the natural consequence is, on occasion, pregnancy, and there is no injustice in forbidding them in terminating that pregnancy. But where a woman has not consensually engaged in the activity that we know can result in pregnancy, that we ought to at least allow her some window of opportunity.”

“Not arguing for it,” she added. “I’m trying to explain why so many of our fellow citizens, who even self-identify as pro-life, think the rape cases are different, think the responsibility of people who did not even engage in the activity they know could be procreative should be excused for some brief period of time. Although even among those who would support a rape exception, I question whether they would accept it after the fourth or fifth month. There’s some sort of idea that you’ve waited long enough, you’ve made your decision.”

After the lecture, one audience member asked a question apparently related to rape exceptions.

“No, I think there will always be a rape exception,” Collett responded.

“I think that is likely, just politically,” agreed Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Steven Aden.

“I think that’s sad,” Collett added, “but we saw in South Dakota … it was unsuccessful.”

“As you saw Professor Collett’s stat that most women who are subjected to rape decide to keep the baby,” Aden said. “And those babies provide joy and fulfillment to other couples. But until there’s a place in the heart in this society for every person, even those conceived in horrible, indefensible circumstances, I think that politically perhaps there always will be.”

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Sofia Resnick

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