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Passage of fetal heartbeat bills by 13 state legislatures has created momentum and unity for the pro-life cause and forced Planned Parenthood to rethink their strategy for the future; but in Missouri (and other states), one of the unintended outcomes has been distrust between the National Right to Life Committee's Missouri affiliate and an unofficial cooperative of grassroots organizations in the state.
National Right to Life is the largest and oldest pro-life organization in the United States. Their state affiliates have tremendous power to set the pro-life agenda in each state. Missouri Right to Life was promoting an incremental approach to pro-life legislation that would, for example, ban abortion in cases where the baby tested positive for Down Syndrome or when sex selection was the motive for abortion.
A group of more aggressive Missouri pro-life activists informally banded together and decided to promote a fetal heartbeat bill, setting the stage for a showdown between the Missouri Right to Life incrementalists and those who hold the conviction that pro-life laws must acknowledge life from conception.
Missouri Right to Life opposed the heartbeat bill because the organization claimed it was unrealistic and unconstitutional, and that legislators would never go for it. As soon as the pro-life groups broke ranks and took opposing positions, legislators were confused — and that is never a good thing.
Since only one piece of life legislation is allowed to go forward per session, Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr solved the problem by fusing the two legislative approaches into one bill: HB 126, "Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act." This eliminated the confusion created by the conflicting lobbying efforts and ultimately disproved the claim that legislators would never support a heartbeat bill.
Once the bill passed, Missouri Right to Life was celebrating the victory even though, right up to the end, they had opposed the heartbeat portion of the law.
Lisa Pannett, a St. Louis-based, independent, pro-life activist who aggressively promoted the heartbeat bill, learned of Missouri Right to Life's opposition when a Missouri legislator showed her the materials Missouri Right to Life had dropped off at his office.
Pannett was shocked. She could not understand the opposition. "You'll never find me lobbying against any pro-life legislation," she told Church Militant.
Missouri Right to Life told state legislators in their leave-behind materials:
NOTE REGARDING LEGISLATION KNOWN AS "HEARTBEAT BILLS": Missouri Right to Life understands the scientific fact that a baby's heartbeat begins between 18–21 days of gestation. Missouri Right to Life also knows that the courts have ruled that every one of these bills as written and passed in other states are unconstitutional. ... Missouri Right to Life seeks passage of pro-life legislation we know will be held to be constitutional.
Deacon Sam Lee, who serves in the St. Louis archdiocese, is director of Campaign Life and an independent pro-life lobbyist. He has been a participant observer of the pro-life movement since 1978. He is not surprised at dueling strategies among Missouri's pro-life groups.
"Abortion is a complex social issue that is naturally going to produce factions on both sides," he told Church Militant. Among pro-life activists, "it always comes down to 'my legislation is going to save more babies than yours will.'"
We know, for example, from the recent ouster of Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen that the pro-abortion giant has had its own internal strategy divisions. Wen wanted to place the organization's emphasis on women's health issues more broadly conceived. With Wen's removal, Planned Parenthood signaled that it's hitching its wagon to abortion and making overall women's health a secondary issue.
Ed Martin, president of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles and another veteran of the abortion wars, warns about the dangers of working in the political arena, pointing to Paul Ryan as a disappointing example.
"Former speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, didn't think we could go all the way and ban abortion outright," Martin told Church Militant. "That was going to be too hard. Instead he supported the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act."
Because of his leadership role in the Republican Party, the major players in the pro-life movement fell in line behind that approach, essentially letting the lawmakers drive the agenda. But it didn't work.
Martin said, "Ryan couldn't get it done. He managed to get a tax cut passed, but he couldn't save the babies."
What does lack of unity cost the pro-life movement? "It just slows down the process," said Martin. "It takes more time to bring people along."
Even though Pannett is a seasoned lobbyist, she too is, nevertheless, wary of putting all of one's eggs in the legislative basket.
"One of the ways politicians keep pro-life activists at bay is by keeping them on a hamster wheel," she told Church Militant. "They don't really want to end abortion. They want to keep the issue open so they can maintain a loyal bloc of voters."
Because of the compromise inherent in our country's legislative process, there are factions of the pro-life movement, such as the American Life League, who will not support any legislation that does not acknowledge that life begins at conception or that contains any exceptions to a total ban on abortion. The organization's Marian Blue Wave campaign, endorsed by Cdl. Raymond Burke and other noted clerics, focuses on spiritual weapons, including the Rosary, to fight abortion.
Pannett thinks that's a great idea and takes the debate one step further: "Rescue the embryos!"
Church Militant contacted Missouri Right to Life for comment but received no response as of press time.