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Americans United for Life

With the Supreme Court handing abortion control back over to the states, this low-profile but influential antiabortion group is shifting into high gear.

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OK, you're sick of abortion. The mere mention of "prochoice" and "prolife" is enough to make your eyes glaze over. You've read too many stories, heard too much of the endless debate. You know more than you want to know. So the answer to this one little question should be easy:

Which of the following statements best describes the legal outcome of the Roe v. Wade decision?

Abortions are:

(a) Illegal.

(b) Legal only during the first three months, and only when the mother's life or health is threatened.

(c) Legal during the first three months, regardless of a woman's reason for wanting one.

(d) Legal for the duration of the pregnancy, regardless of a woman's reason for wanting one.

(e) Not sure.

If you answered anything but (d), you're among the nine out of ten Americans who don't have a clue about abortion practices in this country, one of the many apparently oblivious to the 1.6 million unborn babies snuffed out right under your noses each year. And your supposed ignorance shines like a beacon of hope to the people posing the question.

Who's asking? The brain trust of the right-to-life movement known as Americans United for Life, or AUL. This little-known, single-issue organization has been fighting for nearly two decades to overturn Roe v. Wade in the courts, operating most of that time from a nondescript headquarters in the Fisher Building on South Dearborn. Now, with victory in the courts almost at hand, with the Supreme Court handing abortion control back to the states, AUL is turning their attention from the justices to the general public. They think if they educate you, they'll win you over, and they're gearing up to do it.

If you've never heard of AUL, it's not surprising. Though it is the oldest national right-to-life organization--it's been around since 1971, two years before Roe--and has had a hand in most of the nation's antiabortion legislation, it's kept a low profile, shy of the press, which it considered biased against any antiabortion effort. Functioning as a nonprofit law firm, the small AUL staff has worked behind the scenes and in the courts on behalf of right-to-life politicians and activists, including Chicago's most visible antiabortion demonstrator, Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League.

AUL's style is the antithesis of Scheidler's placard-carrying, chain-yourself-to-a-building theatrics. Its approach is intellectual, its demeanor coolly professional. But behind their unflappable veneers, these buttoned-down, briefcase-toting young lawyers, flacks, and fund-raisers are crusaders, every bit as committed as the street activists. Out to protect natural life from conception to death, they have an agenda that goes beyond abortion: they are also opposed to right-to-die initiatives and any birth control method that takes effect after conception, including low-dose birth control pills, IUDs, and the French abortion pill, RU 486. They've been active in all 50 states, drafting antiabortion bills, helping to get them passed, then defending them all the way to the Supreme Court. They orchestrated 30 of the 45 right-to-life briefs submitted to the Court in the 1989 Webster case, which gave the states more freedom to regulate abortion, and conferred with the Justice Department on its recent successful defense of the gag rule (Rust v. Sullivan), which prohibits any talk of abortion in government-supported clinics. They sponsor local and national meetings, publish a raft of well-edited newsletters and books, and function as a legal resource, clearinghouse, and strategic planning center for the national right-to-life movement.

Lately, they've begun showing up more often in the news. It was an AUL attorney who argued in a much-publicized local case last fall that 82-year-old Sidney Greenspan--six years in a vegetative state--should be kept alive by feeding tubes. And when the gag rule decision came down in May, another AUL attorney, Edward R. Grant--a local boy only a few months on the Washington scene--turned up on the network newscasts, giving and receiving congratulations.

This new, higher profile is the work of Laurie Anne Ramsey. She joined AUL in 1986 to head up its public affairs department, and set to work convincing her colleagues that if they avoided publicity it only looked like they had something to hide. Since then, Ramsey herself has become AUL's most frequent spokesperson. An alum of Wheaton College in Illinois (as are a number of other AUL staffers), she cut her professional teeth working for Paul Weyrich's ultraconservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington. At AUL, she hired political strategist Chris Robling as a media consultant, and forged an active relationship with the press designed to build credibility for both the organization and its cause.

Ramsey's media strategy is one aspect of the expanded role AUL is readying itself to play. Since 1988, it has doubled in size. It now takes up an entire floor of the south Loop building where it used to occupy only a small suite. It employs a full-time staff of 31, including eight lawyers, and reports a 1991 budget of $2.5 million, raised from 6,000 individual and foundation donors through its own direct-mail and personal-solicitation program. In the last year it's made two strategic additions to the team: it opened a four-person Washington office headed by Grant, and spun off an expanded education department from its public affairs arm. While AUL's lawyers continue to draft legislation and battle in the courts, the education department, using sophisticated marketing and hard-sell techniques, will be working through church groups and other grass-roots organizations to build a winning case with the public. According to AUL's patriarch and chairman, Northwestern University law professor Victor Rosenblum, this kind of activity takes the organization back to its roots.

In some ways, Rosenblum is an odd leader for this group--a self-described liberal, Democrat, and Jew, among its many New Right Republicans and conservative Christians. Like Laurie Anne Ramsey, part of his value to the organization lies in what he symbolizes. Ramsey, who looks like a cross between Snow White and the Total Woman, is proof that prolifers can be smart, young, female, and sexy; Rosenblum, the venerable academic, is evidence that there are more than right-wingers, fundamentalists, and intellectual lightweights involved. Personal PAC founder and chair Marcena W. Love, who says AUL aims to put women back in the kitchen and keep them pregnant, also thinks they've become "very sophisticated in terms of who they have as nominal leaders."

But Rosenblum is more than a token spokesman. He was there when AUL was created, and has been part of the antiabortion movement since the days before the Roe v. Wade decision. His involvement dates back to 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued a headline-grabbing encyclical restating the church's ban on any kind of "artificial" birth control, including pills, diaphragms, condoms, and abortion. Liberals inside and outside the church were aghast, but when a reporter called Rosenblum at the time for comment, the professor (and father of eight) was surprisingly mellow. "It's not all bad," Rosenblum remembers saying. The next thing he knew, he was in demand as a speaker at meetings of doctors and other professionals alarmed about the increasing tolerance of abortion, about the "abortion juggernaut" they saw coming down the road.

AUL grew out of those meetings. It was incorporated in Washington two years before Roe as a propaganda machine. It consisted of a tiny staff and a mostly male board of directors that would eventually include the likes of U.S. Congressman Henry J. Hyde and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. Rosenblum says the intention was to make it clear that "people from all walks of life--but especially academics and professionals--were united around life issues." Another founding member, retired Fisk University Medical School professor Dr. Joseph Stanton, recalls that "when all of academia, liberally sprinkled with foundation money, seemed to be going the other way, we wanted to show that it wasn't just yahoos who opposed abortion."

But it was hard to raise money in the early 1970s, and AUL, with a relatively amorphous mission, floundered. People were complacent, Rosenblum says; most found it "unthinkable" that abortion would be legalized on a nationwide basis. He winces when he recalls that only six briefs were submitted from the antiabortion camp when Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court. Once Roe was decided, however, AUL found its focus; it was transformed into a prolife law firm, and a young attorney--Patrick Trueman, now with the Justice Department's Obscenity Enforcement Unit--was hired to head it up. In 1975 the office was moved to Chicago, where Rosenblum and a number of other board members lived.

The fledgling law firm struggled along for the better part of a decade with a tiny staff, a shoestring budget, and a reputation as fanatics. Lois Lipton, a lawyer for the ACLU Reproductive Rights Project in the late 70s and early 80s, says AUL, in its first attempts to defend laws that would restrict abortion, "had very inexperienced lawyers in the lower courts, in many instances so blinded by their zealous beliefs they made statements that were laughable." Her successor at the ACLU, Colleen Connell, has faced off against AUL numerous times, and says their tactics continue to "leave something to be desired." As an example, Connell cites a case in which AUL not only lost but was scolded by the court for "recalcitrance" and--adding injury to insult --was forced to cough up $235,000 for the ACLU's legal fees.

It wasn't until 1980 that a case came along that gave AUL credibility in the legal community, Rosenblum says. Williams v. Zbaraz dealt with the legality of the Hyde amendment, which denied the use of federal money for abortion. Argued before the Supreme Court, it turned out to be an intramural event for the Northwestern University Law School, with Rosenblum appearing for AUL and Robert Bennett (now dean of the school) representing the ACLU. Rosenblum prevailed, the Hyde amendment went into effect, and AUL racked up its first major victory.

There's no secret about the master plan by which AUL has charted its course. It was laid out in two papers, one by Rosenblum and former AUL staff member Thomas Marzen, the other by Case Western Reserve University constitutional-law professor Richard S. Myers. (Both are available in Abortion and the Constitution, published by Georgetown University Press.) In large part, it is the civil rights strategy developed by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in their fight to end school segregation. Since prolife forces see their mission as a battle for the civil rights of the fetus, this makes perfect sense. It may be that a significant number of their constituents in the south were on the other side of the school segregation struggle, but no one's talking about it.

Like the NAACP strategy, the AUL plan was incremental. It was devised to begin chipping away at Roe at a time when the Supreme Court was less conservative than it is now and a frontal assault might have produced a judicial backlash. As spelled out by Rosenblum and Marzen, the strategy broke down into four basic steps: draft "core" legislation (laws challenging the basic assumptions of Roe); get it introduced in "key" states (those with enough antiabortion legislators to pass it); wait for the inevitable legal challenges, then defend the legislation vigorously; and push the cases through the court system on appeal so that a "willing Supreme Court can begin the reversal process."

For years, AUL pursued this gradual strategy and preached its merit to antiabortion colleagues itching to charge full speed ahead to an immediate and total ban on abortions. Now, however, the "willing" Supreme Court appears to be in place. Cases that could do Roe in are in the pipeline (from Guam, Utah, Louisiana), and the Webster decision flashed the states a green light on more restrictive abortion laws. In this new and friendlier climate, AUL is daring to advocate stronger legislation in conjunction with greatly stepped up grass-roots activity. AUL's 37-year-old president, Guy Condon, describes the effort as "working to erect a legislative cathedral to shelter the unborn," supported by the "flying buttress of public conviction." The ultimate goal is protection for the fetus under the U.S. Constitution, which would in effect turn Roe on its head, producing a national ban on abortion and perhaps on postconception birth control methods as well.

The first stone in Condon's "flying buttress of public conviction" is the multiple-choice question on what Roe v. Wade made legal. It is one of some 200 questions in an Abortion and Moral Beliefs survey AUL designed and had the Gallup Organization conduct in 1990, and is hyping this year. Along with the question on Roe and many others, the survey included queries about the circumstances under which respondents do or do not approve of abortion. AUL is offering the results as proof that Americans don't know what's going on--and that if they did know, they wouldn't approve and would want to change things. Condon says the survey shows that the American people are "grossly deceived" about abortion, "victims of the most powerful propaganda campaign ever experienced in our national history." Writing in a recent AUL newsletter, he said people who consider themselves prochoice actually have "pro-life convictions," and "if Americans simply knew the truth about abortion, we would experience a transformation in public attitude overnight." AUL says the survey is "the most comprehensive and ambitious study of public opinion on abortion ever released," and will be used to "map the prolife movement's educational and legal strategies for years to come."

The survey has given rise to some questions of its own, however. Although it has been perceived (and presented by the Washington Times and others) as a Gallup poll, the Gallup Organization has backed away from it. Gallup's Dr. Harry Cotugno says, "We've taken pains to distance ourselves. At the very least, we would not have called it a poll, since the Gallup poll is a service to the news media." In fact, Gallup handled only the most mechanical aspects of the survey--pulling the sample, conducting the interviews, and tabulating the results. It attached a disclaimer to the AUL-written executive summary that says "Gallup played no part in selecting the questions to be asked in the survey, nor in reporting, analyzing or interpreting the survey findings."

Those aspects of the survey are just what trouble Illinois NARAL executive director Patricia L. Dougherty. Not only were the questions loaded, Dougherty says, but AUL failed to discuss all of the data it collected, including some that shows a strong majority of Americans believe that government should have little or no role in a woman's decision on abortion. As for AUL's claim that most Americans don't understand the outcome of Roe, Dougherty says it's bogus. "None of the possible answers [given for that question] accurately reflect the decision," she says. "Under Roe, the decision about whether to have an abortion is between a woman and her physician, but late in the pregnancy the state can restrict abortion, unless the woman's life or health are in danger. They make it sound like late-term abortions are prevalent and frivolous, when in fact only a tiny proportion--less than 1 percent--are performed after 20 weeks."

AUL's third annual Legislators Educational Conference gets under way today, August 2, at the Palmer House. About 125 prolife activists and state legislators from all over the country will attend, most on scholarships that pay expenses and half their transportation costs. Last year the group heard Woody Jenkins of Louisiana tell how antiabortion demonstrators encircled the Louisiana capitol, chanting an incantation that could be heard through the building's foor-foot-thick granite walls while the senate deliberated about overriding a gubernatorial veto of a total abortion ban. That particular effort failed, but in June Louisiana passed a law that forbids abortion except to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest reported to the police within a week after the incident takes place.

This year, the legislators will hear from Condon and his staff about how the Abortion and Moral Beliefs survey results can be used to get antiabortion laws passed in their own states. (The Supreme Court has already cited a "shift in attitude against the elimination of unborn children by abortion" as a justification for censoring speech in the gag rule decision.) They'll hear that 90 percent of Americans don't know what Roe legalized, and that a large majority do not approve of the reasons given for 95 percent of abortions now performed. But, though they danced around it, one question the AUL never asked outright in their survey was whether all, or even most, abortions should be outlawed. If there's a gap between what Americans disapprove of and what they want to make illegal, AUL simply aims to close it. "The idea of a civil right to life is ignored," Condon says. "There's a disconnect out there that really has to be reconnected."

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