WASHINGTON — With one of the most pro-abortion administrations in the White House, the possibility of mandated coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations, and conscience rights being threatened, it’s easy for pro-lifers to get discouraged these days.
Not Charmaine Yoest.
“One of the most exciting things is looking back at where we were in 2008, when there was such desperation in the pro-life movement, and comparing it to now, when we are seeing a tidal wave of pro-life victories,” said Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life.
“On the state level,” she said, “we have been able to bring about a number of victories. There was a huge upswing in the number of pro-life representatives at the state level with the mid-term elections in 2010. This didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.”
Two years after the election of what she calls “an aggressively pro-abortion” administration, Yoest says the pro-life movement is thriving. Indeed, an August article on Yoest in the Christian Science Monitor observed that “AUL and other like-minded groups have caught their adversaries flat-footed; some 22 states have enacted a record 86 new [pro-life] measures in 2011.”
A mother of five, Yoest was praised in the Christian Science Monitor for her “easy laugh and ample charm,” but the piece also took note of Yoest’s “rising influence” in the pro-life movement. Just because Yoest is able to charm a reporter from the mainstream media doesn’t mean she is soft.
“It’s not too difficult to imagine that somewhere in some major pro-abortion organization there’s a bull’s-eye with Charmaine’s face in the middle,” Gary Bauer, who was Yoest’s boss at the Family Research Council, told the Monitor.
Americans United for Life focuses on eroding Roe v. Wade with smaller restrictions, which is controversial in the pro-life movement, where some believe that a more frontal assault is all that matters. “For us, it’s very much a military strategy,” says Yoest. “We don’t make frontal attacks. Never attack where the enemy is strongest. We don’t want to re-create Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. We pick our battles. What we do is very much under the radar screen and not very sexy.”
AUL is a nonprofit law firm that was founded in 1971 and has been a participant in the forefront of almost every significant pro-life battle since it filed amicus briefs opposing Roe v. Wade. AUL was involved in passing a Texas law that requires a woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram and be given descriptive information about her unborn baby — and in creating stringent clinic regulations that may close abortion businesses in Kansas. Yoest, who is not a lawyer, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of government from the University of Virginia.
But why is the pro-life movement chalking up victory after victory in what should be a hostile environment? Yoest puts forward several reasons, starting with what she perceives as overreach on the part of the Obama administration. “It’s always dangerous to believe your own press releases,” said Yoest, “but this president interpreted his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania as a pro-abortion mandate.”
One of Obama’s first acts as president was to sign a January 2009 executive order ending the “Mexico City Policy,” a Reagan-administration ban on financial support for family-planning organizations that perform abortions. “He did this immediately after being inaugurated and the same week as the March for Life,” Yoest said. “That’s just one element of the president’s overreaching.”
“There has been a reaction to this aggressively pro-abortion stance of this administration,” she continued. She says that this is because public opinion is simply not in synch with the administration, which has pushed far beyond the public’s comfort zone on the issue.
A CNN poll from September bears out Yoest’s contention: It found that 62% of the American public wants all or most abortions made illegal. At opposite ends of the spectrum, 25% would like to see all abortions legal, while 21% would like to see all abortions illegal.
Yoest thinks that the Obama administration made a tactical error in advancing policies — including such policies as lifting a rule that let health-care workers opt out of giving abortion counseling if it violated their consciences — that run counter to where the data places the majority of the public. She says that in recent years more people have become willing to identify themselves as being pro-life.
Although pro-lifers have been critical of federal funding of Planned Parenthood for many years, Yoest thinks that the movement to defund the abortion provider may now be gathering momentum. The reason? The bad economy.
“The economic crisis gives traction for people to pay attention to how much money Planned Parenthood is getting from the government,” she said. “While the mainstream media may have the talking points about the need to support Planned Parenthood, economic concerns are real. Planned Parenthood gets $363 million a year. That’s a million dollars a day, and that’s an economic issue. We have nearly 10% unemployment, and we are subsidizing Planned Parenthood?”
Defunding Planned Parenthood
AUL is trying to hammer home the economic aspect of support for Planned Parenthood during a period of economic hardship. When Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado tried to prevent Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns of the Energy and Commerce Committee from obtaining documents about Planned Parenthood’s use of federal funding, Yoest put out a release calling their effort “misguided partisanship that is replacing fiscal responsibility.”
Although the Obama administration may have unwittingly triggered a pro-life reaction to its policies, and the economy isn’t helping those who want to support Planned Parenthood with taxpayer money, Yoest doesn’t see these as the only factors in the pro-life resurgence. She thinks that another key element is simply that the pro-life movement is learning to make its points better.
Yoest has always felt it is important to be able to get to the roots of the pro-life argument. To that end, fresh from serving as an intern and staffer in the Reagan White House, she went to Oxford University in England to study under bioethicist David Cook. Her first assignment was to write a paper arguing the pro-abortion position.
“The brilliance of his approach was forcing me to see where my arguments worked and didn’t work,” Yoest said. “He really challenged my viewpoint.”
Yoest says she has always been pro-life, but the experience of having a miscarriage strengthened her commitment to the cause.
“I was surprised to discover how deeply my miscarriage affected me,” Yoest recalls. “Because I have never had an abortion, going through this helped me to understand biologically how women respond to the loss of a baby. People want to treat an early abortion as a non-event. My miscarriage occurred early in my pregnancy and yet an almost physical grief overcame me. You ignore this normal human reaction to the loss of your baby at your peril.”
Another factor in the increasing success of the pro-life movement: Yoest says that the pro-abortion side is not able to make philosophical arguments, especially after the advent of the sonogram.
“I love to refer people to an article [pro-choice feminist writer] Naomi Wolf wrote in the 1990s,” said Yoest. “She said that the feminist movement would have to come to terms with the fact that there is a real death involved in every abortion.”
Wolf took a lot of criticism, but ultimately she did not convince feminists to face the reality of abortion, Yoest said, and instead of confronting the issue, the feminist movement sought to get around it by such evasions as developing “grieving cards” for women who have had abortions. “Any time you push them on the philosophical underpinning of the abortion issue, they shift, weave, dodge and refuse to address the issue,” she said. “They have no intellectual argument. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
There is also a growing youth component in the pro-life movement. Yoest calls them the “post-sonogram generation” and notes that, for many, their first baby picture was a sonogram proudly displayed on the refrigerator.
And then there’s the 2012 presidential race.
Yoest and her husband, Jack, a management consultant and adjunct professor at The Catholic University of America, were active in the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign in 2008. She was a senior advisor to Huckabee. The Yoests attend an Anglican church in Virginia.
Yoest is asked about the idea that the life issues should take a back seat in 2012. “The race will be between a president who has a radical abortion agenda and what will most likely be a pro-life nominee on the Republican side,” she said. “You see a lot of establishment Republicans who are afraid of the issue. Our mission as pro-lifers is to educate them about what the majority of the American people believe about abortion.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.