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Insights & Opinions | August 8, 2012

One step at a time

Q&A

Pro-life incrementalism, says activist Charmaine Yoest, is proving to be a successful strategy across the country

Handout photo

Charmaine Yoest is the president and CEO of Americans United for Life, the legal arm of the pro-life movement. She worked in the Reagan White House and later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She, her husband Jack, and their children live in northern Virginia.

In high school you were both a National Merit Finalist and a cheerleader, an unusual combination. My family emphasized academics, but I really enjoyed being out under the Friday night lights.

Second unusual combination: Gaining a Ph.D. while bringing up five children. I did graduate seminars at the University of Virginia two days a week-often a three-hour class in the evening-so it took a long time. My advisor was very supportive of my being a mother: I feared that my academic scholarship would be cut off, because you're supposed to finish a Ph.D. in seven years, but he went to the dean and said, "She's making good progress-you should allow her to take a longer time to do it."

Third item: Two-and-a-half years ago you were diagnosed with breast cancer, so you were taking chemotherapy and lost your hair, and your husband and two sons all went bald. That's a moment in my life I'll never forget. I always had chemo on Thursdays so those were bad days. I'd come home from the hospital and be in bed asleep. I remember waking up and I didn't have my contacts in so I couldn't see really well, and all of a sudden these three bald heads come into the room.

How are you? I'm doing well. God's been really gracious. I had tremendous doctors and remarkable support from my family.

This gets me thinking about an analogy. For decades we've been hearing about "cures" for cancer: Someone would make a discovery and the problem would go away. What's developed instead has been an incremental approach: Little by little, people have found ways to fight various kinds of cancer, to extend lives. We haven't found a universal cure, but the success rate is much, much higher than it was a generation ago and millions of lives have been saved. You can see where I'm going with this ... . I've never had anyone make that analogy, but it is a good one, and let me draw it out. Our culture needs to get used to the idea of a world without Roe v. Wade. We have to help people move along. We focus on parental notification, informed consent, bans on partial-birth abortion, clinic regulations: These are all approaches to abortion that the vast majority of the American people support. When you pass these kinds of legislation, you can dramatically reduce the rate of abortion in a state. If I can go and talk with a mother who flat-out disagrees with me about abortion as a whole, but she doesn't want her daughter being taken for an abortion-a major medical procedure-without her knowing about it, we can establish a connection and make a difference.

The pro-life movement 20 years ago moved away from an all-or-nothing position that wasn't accomplishing much-a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, or nothing-to an all-or-something position: We'd like an amendment but we can't get it now, so let's save as many lives as we can. We've already established that I'm a football fan, and my 16-year-old son is a quarterback, so I'll mix metaphors: Sometimes you go for that "long bomb" pass, but you've got to get those 10 yards for a first down, so a lot of times it's a ground game of moving that ball relentlessly down the field. Our goal is a touchdown, but you get it by moving the ball little by little.

And are we doing that? In this past year's legislative sessions, 28 pieces of pro-life legislation passed across this country that were based on our model legislation. We are seeing a downward trend in the overall number of abortions: We can't point to one specific reason why, but pro-life legislation at the state level is part of why you're seeing this downward trend.

What legal changes have been the most helpful? The research of Michael New (U. of Michigan-Dearborn) has found that depending on whether you have parental notification or parental consent, and parental consent that is one-parent or two-parent, on that continuum you can guess there's a 12-to-25 percent decrease in abortion in a particular state.

Is defunding Planned Parenthood important? Why does abortion persist in this country so long when most Americans are against it? One million dollars per day of our tax dollars subsidizes the world's largest abortion provider. Our attorneys put together what we called "The Case Against Planned Parenthood," a report this summer that showed what Planned Parenthood has been doing with its funding.

What about women being able to see their babies on sonograms? Informal studies show decreases in abortion associated with ultrasounds, and the people working in pregnancy care centers see that they can be extremely effective.

Clinic regulation? The story broke earlier this year in Philadelphia of a doctor facing the death penalty for murdering babies after birth. The American people were horrified when they heard of his clinic conditions, but in plenty of other clinics across this country exactly the same thing is going on.

What about the personhood amendment that lost in Mississippi? There is not a pro-lifer out there who does not believe that the unborn baby is a person, but there are different strategies for defending life in law. My AUL colleague Clarke Forsythe (see WORLD, Jan. 29, 2011) was the intellectual architect of fetal homicide laws, now passed in 38 states across the country. They are a very effective way of establishing the personhood of an unborn baby.

The Mississippi amendment would have defined an embryo as a person from the moment of fertilization, but it was very broadly written. That made it easy for the other side to come in and make really wild allegations about what it would do. We are working to educate people, who are energized by the idea of defending the personhood of the unborn, that there are several different ways of going about it.

Twenty years ago pro-life leaders were asking whether younger people would be pro-life. What are you seeing now? The data are clear: This generation of young people is much more pro-life than their parents were. Part of the reason is that we're on the side of science, of technology. This is the post-sonogram generation. The first baby picture in their baby books is a sonogram picture. Sonograms are not just getting stuck on the refrigerator, they're getting put on YouTube and set to music, linked on Facebook, shared via Tumblr and Twitter, and sent all the way around the world in the time it takes to finish the sentence. I love being on our side of the issue!