Absolutists turn against other foes of abortion

Times Staff Writer

As they gathered Tuesday for a national strategy session, antiabortion activists faced an unexpected revolt in their own ranks.

Some of the biggest groups in the movement, including Focus on the Family and National Right to Life, are under attack from fellow activists who accuse them of turning a godly cause into a money-grubbing industry.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 7, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Abortion: An article in Wednesday’s Section A about a rift in the antiabortion movement stated that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act contains no exceptions. There is an exception permitting the procedure if the woman’s life is in danger, but not if her health is at risk.

Those groups have raised tens of millions of dollars and trumpeted victory after incremental victory in the 34 years since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortions. But about 1 in every 5 pregnancies in the U.S. still ends in abortion. Deeply frustrated, several small antiabortion groups have launched a campaign to force their movement back to an absolutist position: No more compromises, no more half-steps, just an all-out effort for an all-out ban.


They are making their position clear in full-page ads that will run in conservative publications over the next few months. They are urging donors to stop contributing to groups that focus on making it more difficult -- but not impossible -- for women to obtain abortions.

“The broader movement is claiming that we’re saving lives, and we’re not,” said Brian Rohrbough, one of the dissident activists. “It can’t get any worse than that.”

Tension between the incremental and absolutist camps has existed in the antiabortion movement from the beginning. It’s bursting into the open now in part because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.

In April, the justices upheld a federal law banning a rare midterm procedure that involves partly delivering a live fetus then crushing its skull. The ruling was striking for several reasons. For the first time, the Supreme Court approved a restriction on abortion that contained no exceptions, not even for the health of the woman. And the justices adopted antiabortion rhetoric in key portions of the majority opinion.

However, the ruling also explicitly endorsed other methods of abortion; at one point, the justices explained that doctors could avoid prosecution by killing the fetus with a lethal injection in the womb before suctioning out its brain.

To Rohrbough, president of Colorado Right to Life, that decision was nothing short of evil -- an endorsement of murder. He was appalled that his fellow activists not only claimed the ruling as a victory, but also used it as a fundraising tool, appealing to donors for more money to keep the momentum going.


“We’ve been promised for almost 40 years that the strategy of electing Republicans would get us a Republican Supreme Court that would end abortion, and that has not happened,” Rohrbough said. “If we raise money to do the same thing over and over again we will never, ever establish personhood for all [unborn] children.”

The partial-birth ruling “gives us the most powerful example we’ve ever had of how morally bankrupt this strategy is,” added the Rev. Bob Enyart, pastor of Denver Bible Church.

Enyart and Rohrbough wrote a long public letter of rebuke to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and other antiabortion activists who applauded the Supreme Court decision. The last line: “Please repent, Dr. Dobson.”

That letter was turned into ads that have run in the Washington Times and in Dobson’s hometown paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and will soon appear in other publications, Enyart said.

The antiabortion absolutists have far less clout than the more established groups that met this week in Washington, D.C., to plan their next legal and legislative moves. But they have a few big names backing them, including former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes and activist Judie Brown of the American Life League. Several pastors, Christian radio hosts and bloggers are in their camp.

They vow to keep escalating their attacks.

“We’re not finding any core, mainstream [antiabortion] groups that are anything other than political hacks.... You don’t even hear these guys talking about ending abortion anymore. So you’ll see our rhetoric sharpening,” said David Brownlow, who runs a shoestring lobbying group in Oregon called Life Support.


Abortion-rights advocates view the splintering with some alarm: “It may mean we’re fighting on more fronts,” said Janet Crepps, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

But there’s also a measure of satisfaction on the left. “Whenever your opponents squabble among themselves, it’s a good thing,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The rift has already begun to play out in the political arena.

This spring, South Dakota’s Legislature considered new restrictions on abortion after voters rejected a ban that contained no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

Republican state Sen. Jason Gant argued for a ban with narrow exceptions, to appease voters who had been queasy about the earlier approach. “When you can stop 90% of abortions, that’s pretty good. We can try again at a later date to get the other 10%,” Gant said.

But the state’s Right to Life group opposed the exceptions, arguing that “babies conceived of rape and incest deserve to live too,” said Lena Jones, the organization’s office manager.

The deadlock killed the ban before it came to a vote in the state Senate.

Daniel McConchie, a top antiabortion strategist and vice president of Americans United for Life, said the internal feuding could tarnish his movement’s image a bit: “It can have some negative backlash.” But he does not expect any falloff in fundraising.


In general, organizations committed to an incremental strategy take in far more money than the absolutist groups. Rohrbough’s group runs on a budget of about $150,000 a year. By contrast, the National Right to Life Committee raised more than $9.7 million last year, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. Americans United for Life raised $1.9 million.

At the daylong meeting Tuesday, academics, Supreme Court experts, lawyers and strategists from conservative lobbying groups such as Concerned Women for America laid plans for their next offensive -- one that builds on the incremental approach. Their goal is to reduce the number of abortions, estimated at 1.3 million a year by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood.

Among their proposals: Laws requiring women to be told in more detail how fetuses die in abortions. State-funded public-health campaigns warning women that abortions could cause psychological trauma. And requirements that abortion doctors report detailed demographic and medical information about their patients to the state.

They have not decided which campaigns they’ll pursue first -- or in which states -- but they promise an aggressive year, perhaps including a drive for state bans on other mid- and late-term abortion methods.

“We’re looking at a whole gamut of ideas,” McConchie said. “We’re very confident we’ll be able to pursue the next stages without a huge amount of dissention.”