When North Dakota’s Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law in March, Bette Grande was thrilled. The Republican state legislator had spent months lining up support for a bill that makes it illegal for women to end a pregnancy because the fetus is shown to have Down syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. Set to take effect in August, the law also bans abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks.
Anti-abortion activists praised Grande’s work. “It’s the right thing to do,” she says. “I don’t worry about the political fallout; I worry about the life of the unborn child.” Yet she concedes the campaign wasn’t quite homegrown. She didn’t come up with the legal justification for the legislation or all the arguments to persuade fellow lawmakers to sign on. A lot of that was provided to her by a group of activists 1,500 miles away in Washington. Americans United for Life gave Grande a cut-and-paste model bill it had drafted, along with statistics and talking points—“good, factual information regarding abnormalities and the discrimination that occurs inside the womb,” she says. “My colleagues didn’t need a whole lot of persuasion after that.”
Familiar in Washington for its 40-year effort to make abortions harder or impossible, Americans United for Life is now having more success outside the capital, offering itself as a backstage adviser to conservative politicians trying to limit state abortion rights. The group’s leaders say they hope Grande’s success will give encouragement to lawmakers in other places, including Texas and North Carolina, that are debating anti-abortion bills AUL is helping to promote. “Our organization has attempted to inject, if you will, a bit of competition between the states,” says Daniel McConchie, vice president for government affairs. The group ranks states by how much they’re doing to reduce abortions (Louisiana ranks first; Washington, 50th). “People come to us and say, ‘What else do we need to do to boost our ranking?’ ”
So far this year, 17 states have enacted a total of 45 new restrictions on abortion, many of them with AUL’s help. The group is explicit about its larger goal: to provoke a Supreme Court challenge to one or more of the state anti-abortion laws, giving the court’s conservative justices a chance to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. “In order for the court to actually reconsider Roe, it has to have an active case before it,” says McConchie. “So we work with legislators to pass laws that will essentially spark the right kind of court challenge and give them the opportunity to reconsider the question.”
To increase the number of laws—and therefore potential test cases—the group publishes a 700-page anti-abortion field guide called Defending Life, which contains 48 pre-written bills politicians like Grande can copy. Among the most popular is a bill to limit or outlaw abortions after 20 weeks. That’s one of the restrictions Texas Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis temporarily derailed on June 25 with her pink-sneakered filibuster.
Republicans are acutely aware of the political risk in pressing for new abortion laws. The GOP is already struggling to make up lost ground with women voters, who increasingly favor Democrats and are more likely to regard abortion as a top voting issue. In Defending Life, AUL suggests one way around this problem is to emphasize women’s health when talking about abortion laws. “Legislative and educational efforts that only emphasize the impact of abortion on the unborn are insufficient,” the book says.
AUL is putting this advice into practice. In June, the group circulated six proposed anti-abortion bills on Capitol Hill, including the one barring most abortions after 20 weeks and another imposing federal restrictions on abortion clinics. The measures were similar to those AUL has been pushing for years, only now they go by a new name: the “women’s protection package.”