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The Saleswoman

One pro-life leader’s savvy strategy.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the Virginia legislature proposed a new law that would require a woman to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. Many noted the measure would require women to have a transvaginal probe—and a national outcry followed. But the Virginia law was merely the latest in a recent onslaught of state-level anti-abortion measures. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 2011 saw 92 anti-abortion provisions enacted in 24 states. (The previous record was 34 in 2005.) Among the anti-abortion measures passed last year were ultrasound laws, bans on abortions beginning as early as 20 weeks, onerous rules mandating the size of exam rooms and hallways, and restrictions on insurance coverage of abortion—just to name a few.

While these laws were pushed by numerous pro-life activists, one group—Americans United for Life (AUL)—seemed to be playing an especially prominent role. According to the AUL, its lawyers consulted on, or provided the model language for, 28 state laws that were enacted in 2011. Meanwhile, when the Sunlight Foundation recently compared a prototype ultrasound law drafted by AUL to ultrasound bills circulating in state legislatures, it found that “the AUL bill has instances of text matching with all 13 bills to which we compared it”— including the bill in Virginia.

AUL appears to have two key things going for it: first, a pragmatic philosophy about how to restrict abortion (“We must address our culture as it is and not as we would like it to be,” declares the group’s mission statement); and, second, its charming, attractive, charismatic president, Charmaine Yoest. Watching Yoest debate the Virginia law on PBS, I was struck by the way she framed her arguments. She did not talk about fetuses. She didn’t cast abortion in moral terms. Instead, she talked about how ultrasounds protect women’s health and empower them.

On a Monday in early March, I interviewed Yoest in her spacious, light-filled office in downtown Washington. As soon as I arrived, she gestured for me to sit down at a table and help myself to a large bowl of salad. One of the nice things about working in an office full of women, she told me, is being able to order the kind of food that women like. Over her desk hangs a poster with a quote from Dr. Seuss’s cartoon elephant Horton, “A PERSON’S A PERSON NO MATTER HOW SMALL”; and on her bookshelf is a copy of The Feminist Papers. Unlike most Washington professionals I interview, who generally seem eager to get to their next appointment, Yoest gave the impression that she would happily speak to me for hours. As we talked, our interview felt less like a professional grilling and more like a woman-to-woman discussion about the moral implications of abortion. It reminded me of conversations I’ve shared with friends, late at night, over the question of whether we would ever consider having an abortion. In spite of my pro-choice views, I found myself liking her.

FOUNDED IN 1971, AUL is the main legal arm of the pro-life movement. Its strategy is to chip away at abortion rights through state laws and court cases. AUL’s research helped prompt the congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood, which, in turn, the Susan G. Komen foundation cited when it temporarily decided to stop funding the organization. Such efforts have earned Yoest affection from conservative politicians. Representative Joseph Pitts from Pennsylvania, who has known Yoest for “many years,” offered a glowing endorsement via an e-mail from a spokesperson. So did Michele Bachmann.

Yoest, who holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Virginia, does not seem like a stereotypical conservative culture warrior. In a book she co-authored with her aunt, she openly expressed the ambivalence she once felt about motherhood. “I’m part of the career generation, and I soaked up all the superwoman messages like a sponge,” she wrote, describing the time before she became a mother. “So even when I was pregnant, I still wasn’t all that eager to become a mom. I was excited about the baby, sure. But not about the mom thing.” Her attitude toward motherhood changed dramatically after the baby came—she is now the mother of five—but Yoest’s willingness to discuss her careerist instincts was refreshing. In 2008, while she was traveling with Mike Huckabee as a senior adviser, her husband shouldered child care duties.

In many ways, these feminist credentials make her an ideal representative for the pro-life movement. “Pro-life activists have been caricatured as male and backward,” explains Donna Harrison, the chair of AUL’s board. “But that is really out of touch with where the pro-life movement is. ... This isn’t about turning the clock back.” People on the other side of the debate recognize this as well. “People like Charmaine are part and parcel ... of weakening the choice movement’s claim that these are a bunch of men who just basically want to keep women barefoot and pregnant,” says Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for Choice.

But, while Yoest is personally compelling, it is obvious that many of the things she says are part of a carefully crafted campaign. Indeed, even as I found myself enjoying our conversation, it became clearer to me the longer we spoke just how thin a veneer her focus on women’s health and empowerment really is. When I asked Yoest whether she thought Planned Parenthood—an organization that provides sexually transmitted infections testing, breast exams, and cervical cancer screenings, in addition to abortions—did anything of value, she said, “I don’t think that is the relevant question.” When I raised the issue of birth control, she said, “We don’t actually take a position on contraception.” Later, over the phone, I asked whether she thought abortion should be illegal in cases of rape and incest or when the life or health of the mother is at risk. She wouldn’t say yes or no explicitly, but her positions seemed clear. “There are many women in the pro-life movement who brought babies to term who talk about the importance of not adding another tragedy to a tragedy, so that is the way we look at it in the cases of rape and incest,” she told me. “Deal with the perpetrator in that crime, not the innocent lives caught up in that crime.” Meanwhile, she dismissed cases involving the mother’s life as a “red herring.” “We believe that the baby is a human being from the moment of conception, so, when the woman is pregnant, you have two patients, so that should be your guiding principle,” she said. “Medical ethics are very well-developed on how you make decisions when people are in health crises. Those are very different cases than elective abortion.”

IN RECENT WEEKS, Democrats have been giddy over the growing numbers of women expressing dissatisfaction with the conservative line on abortion. Jokes about transvaginal ultrasounds on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” have made the GOP seem hopelessly out of touch and retrograde. A recent New York Times article contained interviews with Republican and independent female voters across the country who said they may vote for President Obama on account of the GOP’s recent focus on abortion and contraception.

But, underneath the recent noise, Yoest and the AUL may quietly be winning. The types of incremental measures the group supports—waiting periods, requiring the doctor to give patients certain information, parental consent—are favored by the majority of Americans. It doesn’t hurt that such stances can often be persuasively sold with moderate-sounding language about empowering women to protect their health.

In Virginia, women were spared the most invasive version of the ultrasound requirement, but a bill mandating external ultrasounds did eventually become law. And, even if such state-level laws are someday deemed unconstitutional, it could take years for the courts to undo them all. In the meantime, more and more abortion providers may have to shut their doors, and a generation of women will find it increasingly difficult—and maybe even impossible—to get an abortion.

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.