Egg-as-Person State Law Campaigns Attract New Faces, Old Radicals

Wendy Norris

The so-called "personhood" movement promoting constitutional rights for fertilized eggs got a fresh shot in the arm in recent days with ballot initiatives gearing up in Florida and renewing efforts in Colorado and Montana. And a host of familiar nationally-known and emerging local activists from hard line anti-abortion groups are leading the new charge to ban abortion, contraception, and other comprehensive reproductive health care.

The so-called "personhood" movement promoting
constitutional rights for fertilized eggs got a fresh shot in the arm in recent
days with ballot initiatives gearing up in Florida and renewing efforts in
Colorado and Montana. And a host of familiar nationally-known and emerging
local activists from hard line anti-abortion groups are leading the new charge
to ban abortion, contraception, and other comprehensive reproductive health
care.

 

Pat McEwen, a veteran of Operation Save America clinic
blockades, is a co-sponsor of the ballot initiative under the aegis Personhood
Florida. She now works with Life Coalition International led by Rev. Keith
Tucci, a close associate of anti-choice zealot Randall Terry.

Tucci is most notorious as Terry’s hand-picked successor to
lead Operation Rescue after his own inner-circle attempted to oust him. Under
Tucci’s command, the group staged a six week long intimidation campaign
targeting Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kan., in the summer of 1991
that resulted in more than 1,700 arrests. In a 1993 letter to the group’s
supporters, Tucci reportedly wrote, "It is
your God-given right to destroy
any man or woman calling themselves
doctors who willingly slaughter innocent children."

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With Operation Rescue facing federal racketeering charges
Tucci left in 1994 turning it over to another long-time Terry associate, Rev.
Flip Benham, who renamed the group Operation Save America and expanded it to
fight pornography, gay rights and Islam.

When Tiller was assassinated on May 31 by Scott Roeder, an
associate of Troy Newman’s rival Wichita-based group Operation Rescue West, McEwen wrote a vicious press release for Operation Save
America
blaming Tiller for his own death.

McEwen has also been long associated with the Population Research Institute, a virulently
anti-family planning organization that purports to debunk global overpopulation
issues while smearing United Nations Family Planning (UNFPA) and U.S. Agency
for International Aid (USAID) reproductive health programs.

Despite McEwen’s deep associations in the antiabortion movement,
Personhood Florida has an uphill battle. The Tampa Tribune reports that the
group will need to "collect 676,811
petition signatures by Feb. 1
for its proposal to make the 2010
ballot."

Prominent state politicians are already distancing
themselves from the proposed state Constitutional amendment that would define a
person as "from the beginning of the biological development of that human
being."

The group is expected to file the measure with the Florida
Secretary of State following a Sept. 11 kick-off rally in Tallahassee.

By all accounts, the Florida group appears to be mimicking
its Colorado personhood forerunner last year — build a coalition from a
tight-knit group of people who oppose comprehensive reproductive health care to
lead the drive and count on the American Life League to bankroll the effort.

And already those purse strings appear to be getting
stretched quite thin. 

Personhood USA, the national coordinating campaign, claims
it has launched 27 state initiatives, including a second try to radically
change the Colorado Constitution. At the same time, the Statesman notes that
the 2010 Colorado personhood ballot is aiming to run as an all-volunteer
effort
— a curious and politically risky strategy considering how much
money the national groups, like ALL, have proven they can raise.

The latest Colorado attempt also includes the newly tweaked
language avoiding the term "fertilized egg" for the more ambiguous
"from the beginning of biological development" that was suggested to
the foiled 2008 activists by Georgetown U. bioethicist Dianne Irving.

After inexplicably kicking off the petition drive Aug. 25 at
a non-descript Denver post office, the group has since fanned out at the
heavily-trafficked Colorado State Fair and popular "Taste of
Colorado" festival to begin collecting 76,000 valid petition signatures by
the Feb. 15 deadline.

While the two co-sponsors of the Colorado proposal, ALL’s
former legislative analyst Gualberto Garcia Jones and Colorado Right to Life
activist Leslie Hanks
were previously profiled by Rewire, the
Montana proponents whose Constitutional ballot language was approved Sept. 3
have a much lower national profile.

Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, president of the Montana
ProLife Coalition, will be going it alone with support from the Personhood USA
mothership. The Great Falls Tribune reports that Montana Right to Life, Montana
Catholic Conference and other anti-abortion groups oppose the statewide
personhood strategy
as an overly broad and ineffective legal tactic for
ending abortion.

Like its Rocky Mountain neighbor Colorado, the Montana group
will also not employ paid petition circulators to collect the approximately
40,000 voter signatures needed by July 2010 to qualify for the ballot. Its
first all-volunteer effort in 2008 to change the state Constitution, fell
nearly 50 percent short of its signature goal.

But the first real test of the new-and-improved personhood
movement will occur in Mississippi where activists are working to beat an Oct.
1 deadline to collect 90,000 petition signatures. How the campaign is
progressing is anybody’s guess.

There’s been a virtual news blackout of the group’s efforts
since late July when it was reported by state bloggers that Personhood
Mississippi had just one-third of the total signatures needed. Even Jackson,
Miss., evangelical activist and father of nine Les Riley, who’s heading up the
group, stopped writing about the petition drive on his own blog months ago. His
more pressing interest now seems to be organizing and speaking at conservative
Tea Party protests.

In a wide ranging interview Colorado
Personhood supporter and Christian talk show host Bob Enyart
— whose
long-running feud with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson for not being
anti-abortion enough is the stuff of local legend — talked to Riley in April.

Said Enyart to Riley, a
one-time ultra-conservative Constitution Party candidate, "So many
pro-lifers over a period of 30 years have been taught, by example National
Right to Life. ‘Don’t mention God. Don’t quote the Bible. We’re going to win
this on the laws of science.’ But the problem with that, Les, is the laws of
science don’t use the terms right and wrong. By the laws of science, you can’t
prove that the Holocaust was wrong. So right and wrong come from God."

Look for more state updates on
the personhood movement in the coming weeks.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

Analysis Politics

Koch Brothers Move to Influence Congressional and State Races

Ally Boguhn

The Kochs are poised to play a momentous role in financing hundreds of candidates across the country and launching attacks on those who oppose their goals. Given their network’s penchant for funding anti-choice politicians and causes, that's something that should deeply concern reproductive rights advocates.

Over the weekend, Charles and David Koch’s network of ultra-wealthy donors and the politicians they fund convened in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to strategize about how to push their message across the countrya meeting that should signal cause for alarm for those concerned with big money in politics.

At the event, Charles Koch, joined by at least 300 donors who had each committed at least $100,000 annually to the network, reportedly outlined plans to get those with similar political ideologies elected to office and to “cultivat[e] conservative leaders at the state level,” according to the Washington Post.

During the 2012 election cycle, the Kochs’ network raised an estimated $407 million to influence races. As the Post‘s Matea Gold noted in a 2014 report, that level of funding gave the Kochs and their supporters expansive and almost unparalleled room to try to exert political influence.

As Adele Stan reported for Rewire in 2013, such influence extended in part to anti-choice groups, who received millions from Koch-connected organizations during the 2010 midterm and 2012 presidential election cycles. In addition, Koch-linked organizations gave tens of millions of dollars to candidates who were almost entirely opposed to abortion rights.

“The resources and the breadth of the organization make it singular in American politics: an operation conducted outside the campaign finance system, employing an array of groups aimed at stopping what its financiers view as government overreach,” explained Gold in another article. “Members of the coalition target different constituencies but together have mounted attacks on the new health-care law, federal spending and environmental regulations.”

In 2015 the Kochs revealed during their annual winter donor retreat that their network planned to spend up to $900 million on the 2016 election cycle, according to the New York Times—a number so high that it “would put [the network] on track to spend nearly as much as the campaigns of each party’s presidential nominee.” Conservative news outlet National Review, however, reported in May that the billionaires had intended to scale back the scope of their electoral funding, instead “steering their money and focus away from elections and toward a slew of the more intellectual, policy-oriented projects on which they have historically lavished their fortune.”

Still, the Kochs are poised to play a momentous role in financing hundreds of candidates across the country and launching attacks on those who oppose their goals. The extent of their contributions is carefully concealed by the web through which they funnel money—consisting of political action committees, issue-advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, and the like—but what has been reported thus far offers a small glimpse into their political influence.

Though the allocated total spending was downgraded, the Koch network is nevertheless on track to spend almost $750 million this election cycle, with about $250 million going to politics and the Koch groups that work on policy issues, including Americans for Prosperity and the Freedom Partners Action Fund.

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“The [Koch] network is and will continue to be fully engaged in 2016’s political and policy battles. We want to maximize the number of freedom-oriented Senators,” James Davis, a spokesman for the Koch network, told the Hill in June amid news that the network was moving to spend $30 million on ad buys. “We see that on a number of issues, particularly free speech, the current majority is far preferable to the alternative.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, which provides a comprehensive record of federal campaign contributions, the dark money group Americans for Prosperity—a 501(c)(4) that focuses on “citizen advocacy”—has spent at least $2,422,436 thus far on federal elections this cycle, investing in key Senate races in Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Most of that money, more than $1.9 million, has been spent in Ohio to oppose the state’s former Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in his race against incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R). The two politicians have been locked in a tight battle for a critical seat that could help determine which party takes control of the Senate. The Koch-backed group launched a seven-figure ad buy last August focusing on Strickland’s tax policies as governor of Ohio.

Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC founded by the Kochs in 2014 to which they have directly given $6 million so far this cycle, has invested even more into opposing Strickland, spending more than $9.4 million in independent expenditures, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer. As was the case with Americans for Prosperity’s spending, much of that funding went directly to gigantic television and digital ad buys, again hitting Strickland’s tax policies.

In Wisconsin, Americans for Prosperity has spent $66,560 in opposition to Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold in his race against incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Freedom Partners Action Fund’s spending in that same race, meanwhile, totals $2,102,645 in independent expenditures to oppose Feingold. The latter group also spent another $5,500 in support of Johnson.

However, just after Johnson spoke at the Republican National Convention in late July, Freedom Partners Action Fund pulled the $2.2 million worth of airtime they had reserved for the candidate. The ads were slated to begin airing on August 3.

James Davis, speaking on behalf of the organization, claimed the decision did not mean the group was no longer backing Johnson. “We are realigning our television advertising strategy to ensure maximum impact across key Senate races,” Davis told the Huffington Post. “We will continue direct citizen outreach through our grassroots activists, volunteer phone calls, digital media and direct mail. Last weekend alone Network grassroots organizations made almost half a million contact attempts to targeted audiences.”

Americans for Prosperity has thus far spent $63,233 in Pennsylvania’s key Senate race opposing Democratic candidate Katie McGinty, who is running against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R), while Freedom Partners has spent $3,518,492 in independent expenditures doing the same.

And in Nevada, Americans for Prosperity has spent $16,074 opposing Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running against Republican Rep. Joe Heck for the seat being vacated by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D). Freedom Partners Action Fund has thus far spent $3,899,545 there opposing Cortez Masto. The group used much of that money pushing ads which were deemed by fact-checkers to be “mostly false,” alleging that as attorney general of the state, Cortez Masto had killed jobs by “driving” Uber out of Nevada. In truth, said Politifact, Uber only left temporarily and the ad “takes things out of context.”


Though the Kochs have seemingly failed to put much effort into House races thus far through Americans for Prosperity and the Freedom Partners Action Fund, there have been a few notable exceptions.

In early July, Americans for Prosperity geared up to launch a campaign aimed at aiding the re-election of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), according to the Washington Post. The organization is reportedly not investing in paid media for the race, but it will be sending hundreds of staffers out to spread its message door to door. The Post reported that the 501(c)(4)’s goal in Colorado is to “help preserve the Republican majority by targeting districts where [Americans for Prosperity] already has staff and resources and can most efficiently affect voting outcomes, according to the group.” The group expects to spend six figures in the Colorado race.

Americans for Prosperity has already spent $62,384 thus far opposing the Democratic candidate for the House, state Sen. Morgan Carroll, in her race against Coffman.

The nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, which analyzes U.S. House, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns, rates the Colorado 6th Congressional District as a toss-up, though it leans Republican.

Earlier in the year, Americans for Prosperity also spent $190,973 to defeat Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) in her failed bid for re-election. Ellmers lost her primary race for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District in early June to her Republican colleague Rep. George Holding after redistricting in the state led the two to run against each other. Her defeat came amid targeting from anti-choice groups looking to unseat the representative despite her opposition to abortion, for reportedly speaking out against language in the House of Representatives’ 2015 20-week abortion ban that would have required rape victims to formally report their assault to police in order to be exempted from the law.

Koch Industries Inc. Political Action Committee (KOCHPAC), the political action committee for Koch companies, has invested almost all of its $1,209,900 in contributions to House Republican candidates. In total, the PAC has given $1,050,900 to 165 Republicans running for House seats and $8,500 to Democrats. The group has also given a total of $181,500 to 23 different Republicans running for the Senate, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Rand Paul (KY), Sen. Roy Blunt (MO), and Sen. Mike Lee (UT).

What was outlined above is probably just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to other Koch-connected groups not listed here, there are likely also other forms of spending by the groups discussed that has gone undisclosed.

Take, for example, some of the Kochs’ state-level work. As the Brennan Center for Justice explained in a recent report on money in politics, “it is at the state and local levels that secret spending is arguably at its most damaging,” and that is where the Kochs are now shifting some of their attention.

Though “dark money” 501(c)(4) groups, including Americans for Prosperity, are not required to disclose all of their spending, media reports indicate that the organization’s affiliates are investing in local races. According to the Brennan Center’s analysis of six states with available spending data, “on average, only 29 percent of outside spending was fully transparent in 2014 in the states we examined, sharply down from 76 percent in 2006.”  Yet, the report notes, “dark money surged in these states by 38 times on average between 2006 and 2014.”

Exact numbers may be elusive, but there is no doubt the Kochs will have major influence on the 2016 election cycle. According to Rewire‘s analysis, spending from just three of the key Koch groupsFreedom Partners Action Fund, Americans for Prosperity, and KOCHPAChas already occurred in congressional races in 43 states across the country. Given the network’s penchant for funding anti-choice politicians and causes, that’s something that should deeply concern reproductive rights advocates.

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