SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California abortion providers are getting ready for the biggest increase in their industry, if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill allowing nurses and midwives to perform first-trimester abortions.
But the win for abortion providers in California contrasts sharply with the recent loss in New York, where an inventive alliance of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants and pro-life groups thwarted another popular Democratic governor’s plans to expand abortion in that state.
Ironically, for the Church in California and its pro-life allies, their only hope to defeat A.B. 154 is Brown, a former Jesuit who calls himself “pro-choice.”
And convincing Brown to veto the legislation is only a slim chance, admitted Carol Hogan, director of pastoral projects and communications for the California Catholic Conference (CCC).
“Everybody knows that we can’t stop it,” Hogan said. “This is going to be a huge windfall for Planned Parenthood.”
Passed by strong Democratic majorities in the California Legislature, A.B. 154 will allow nurses and midwives to perform first-trimester, vacuum-aspiration abortions. A companion bill passed by the state Legislature, A.B. 980, changes the building codes so first-trimester abortions can occur in primary-care clinics.
“Many people would not seek an abortion or an abortion clinic,” Hogan said. “But if you went to a primary-care clinic, then they could suggest an abortion right there.”
Hogan explained that the new laws will allow 90% of Planned Parenthood facilities in California, which qualify as primary-care clinics, to provide abortions and gain millions more potential clients.
Pro-Abortion Victory in California
In trying to beat back the abortion expansion lobbied by Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, the California Catholic Conference and pro-life groups waged a fairly traditional outreach campaign. Hogan told the Register that CCC held weekly meetings with state pro-life groups, testified at every hearing, brought citizen lobbyists to the State Capitol and sent out action alerts to its network urging supporters to take action.
“We have 100,000 people in our legislative network,” Hogan said. “Thousands and thousands of emails have gone out, but we have not prevailed.”
Hogan explained the challenge for the Church is that the Democratic Party, which dominates the state Legislature, is “the wholly owned subsidiary of Planned Parenthood,” and the legislature is also very “anti-Catholic.”
“It’s sometimes counterproductive for the Catholic Church to be seen leading an initiative,” she said.
However, Hogan said that not all pro-life activists were on the same page. Some were “working at cross-purposes” by promoting their own strategy of a legislative initiative: putting pro-life legislation on the general ballot.
Brian Johnston, executive director at the California Pro-Life Council, the state's National Right to Life affiliate, which collaborates with CCC, said the right-to-life group's strategy with these two bills — outside of potential litigation — was largely limited to the role of “Cassandra” — the mythic prophetess who foretold the doom of Troy and was ignored by her own people — because Gov. Brown would carry out the legislative priorities of Planned Parenthood enacted by the California Legislature.
“Even if no one will listen, we still are Cassandras; we still are saying this is madness,” he said.
Indeed, California and New York have key political differences. Although New York has been at the forefront of the push for abortion rights and the redefinition of marriage, the archbishop of New York — currently Cardinal Timothy Dolan — nevertheless can commend some respect from New York politicians, despite expressing the Church’s fundamental opposition to abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Church leaders in California, Hogan explained, get “zero deference.”
Both houses of the California Legislature have nearly veto-proof Democrat majorities, while New York has an state Assembly dominated by Democrats and a state Senate controlled by a Republican coalition with some independent Democrats. The New York Senate’s most outspoken pro-life leader is its sole pro-life Democrat, Sen. Ruben Diaz of the Bronx.
However, unlike California, New York’s abortion expansion in 2013 was led by its popular Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had succeeded in passing same-sex “marriage” legislation and enacting very strict gun-control laws after the Sandy Hook School shootings in Connecticut in December 2012.
At the beginning of January 2013, Cuomo looked unstoppable when he proposed his "women’s equality" bill, which included a massive expansion of abortion access. That’s when the New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC) tried something different.
Kathleen Gallagher, NYSCC’s director of pro-life activities, told the Register they moved into high gear immediately and built partnerships very early. But the NYSCC and Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of the Evangelical New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, struck on a brilliant idea: creating an umbrella group for all the churches, pro-life groups and any organization opposed to Cuomo’s abortion expansion.
They called it New Yorkers for Life.
“This organization helped us coalesce and stay on the same page,” Gallagher said. She added that the group also allowed the Catholic Church not to be the face of the movement.
But the move also allowed pro-life groups and churches to work together under the umbrella of New Yorkers for Life and defeat the abortion expansion, without compromising their own identities, agendas and legislative priorities.
“We weren’t separated by the things that divide us,” McGuire said. “We said: 'Let’s work together on this issue and do this.'”
Key in the strategy was message discipline for the coalition. Gallagher said they all agreed to call it “the abortion-expansion act” and stay on message in order to take charge of the state conversation. They also put the faces of young women leaders front and center to show the opposition was pro-life and pro-woman.
Social Media — New York’s Game Changer
If New York’s battle shaped up as David and Goliath between the newly created New Yorkers for Life and Gov. Cuomo and his political media machine, then social media turned out to be the great equalizer: the smooth stone that took down Goliath.
McGuire related that Dennis Poust, NYSCC’s director of communications, made the strategy clear from day one. Their success or failure in beating Cuomo depended on social media, he stressed.
“I don’t think we would have been successful without it,” McGuire said.
McGuire explained that social media “really helped amplify our message.” The central idea of New Yorkers for Life Twitter and Facebook pages was that every person with a computer, smartphone or tablet was a potential activist who could share the message, spread the word to their networks and create “an avalanche of opposition” to Cuomo’s abortion-expansion plans.
Gallagher said that, within six months, New Yorkers for Life had built 6,000 fans on Facebook, becoming a place for pro-life activists to get current information and find out what they could do to beat the abortion expansion. The group linked to letters to the editor, op-eds and news articles to spread the word, recruited activists to come to events at the State Capitol and their local areas. Social media also kept journalists informed following either Facebook or Twitter.
McGuire said social media itself is free, but promoting posts on New Yorkers for Life's Facebook page “for very little money” was key to maximizing the social-media campaign’s effectiveness and broadcasting the message to a wider audience.
The end result of the New Yorkers for Life strategy was that when Cuomo finally did unveil his 10-point "women’s equality" bill, state journalists kept asking about the abortion provision and why the governor would not remove it from the bill. The grassroots opposition they built guaranteed the Senate would not even bring the bill to the floor, effectively killing the abortion expansion that session.
“This was the first abortion fight in New York state in four decades,” Gallagher said. “I think we did an excellent job.”
New Yorkers for Life will go dormant for a while, but will stay active on social media, McGuire said, and be ready to go back into campaign mode if the governor tries to bring abortion expansion back to New York.
“This time it’s a constant campaign, and we’re not going away,” he said.
The possibility that California could create the kind of umbrella group that the Church in New York created with evangelical Protestants and other pro-life groups is an intriguing possibility.
The California Catholic Conference has a miniscule social media presence currently, especially compared with the New York State Catholic Conference, and most pro-life groups in the state are in a similar situation.
But Hispanics, who count for half the population of California, are the demographic group most engaged with social media. A 2013 Pew research study discovered 80% of Hispanics use social-networking sites, well above the 72% of Americans overall who do.
Astrid Bennett Gutierrez, spokeswoman for Hispanics for Life (Hispanos Pro Vida) and co-host of EWTN’s The Catholic View for Women, said Planned Parenthood is taking advantage of new media and social media to gain access to the Hispanic community and that the Church needs to respond. She pointed to East Los High, a teen soap opera available on Hulu and YouTube aimed at sending Planned Parenthood’s message to Latino teens.
Gutierrez said very few Catholic and pro-life materials are available in Spanish. And few sites, she observed, had an “Español” tab for Spanish readers. To address these problems, Hispanics for Life is trying to establish chapters in every parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, hoping not only to remedy the catechesis problem among some Hispanics about Church teachings on life issues, but also wake them up to abortion as a bigger problem than immigration reform.
“Hispanics are not rejecting the truth; they’re just not hearing it,” Gutierrez said. She is intrigued by what the Church and the pro-life movement did with New Yorkers for Life in stopping Cuomo’s agenda, and she said she would be excited to see California do the same.
Said Gutierrez, “I think if they did it in New York, we can do it here.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.