Dr. Charmaine Yoest is president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), mother of five, and “public enemy #1” to many in the pro-abortion community.
For abortion foes, the state victories are a balm after a long period of frustration. “In eight years of Bush, we saw almost no movement,” one anti-abortion organizer told me. But now? “The way we’re gathering momentum is just amazing,” says Charmaine Yoest, the president of Americans United for Life. Her group offers state lawmakers 32 pieces of model legislation, and its approach is to chip away at the protections of Roe v. Wade rather than challenge it outright. Taken together, these new state laws are hugely effective — incrementalism on steroids.
Abortion opponents have a new voice -In the often heated debate over abortion, a less confrontational, more pragmatic force is behind a record number of antiabortion laws and pro-choice’s ‘bad year.’
This mother of five – who is not a physician, attorney, or lawmaker – has set the stage for sweeping antiabortion victories at the state level on the strength of her seeming candor, warmth, and camera-ready smile.
But beside the undeniable political advantage, there’s something else afoot, something Yoest embodies. She represents the changing face of the antiabortion movement. No longer are ideologically driven men necessarily the dominant spokesmen.
Despite her career in Republican politics, notable most recently for a stint as communications director on Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, it’s harder to peg Yoest in the traditionally one-dimensional caricature of an antiabortion advocate. She is not shrill, rigid, or somehow provincial in values or experience. She is not a fire-and-brimstone finger wagger, though faith is a centerpiece of her life.
In fact, Yoest has many of the attributes of a feminist – her career is a point of obvious pride and focus, and it has at times also dictated family moves and priorities – though she would strongly insist she has none of the sentiments. She holds a doctorate of philosophy in government from theUniversity of Virginia, a degree she achieved after 10 years of study while raising her children. She is the daughter of two PhDs – a Fulbright-awarded economist father and a mother who specializes in communication theory. She is a breast cancer survivor, a marathoner, and the mother of an athlete on the Junior National World Development Rowing team.
But there’s another woman who deserves equal credit: Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest. It’s her group that issued a report last fall, “The Case for Investigating Planned Parenthood,” that led to a probe by the Energy and Commerce Committee. And it’s that investigation that puts Planned Parenthood in violation of Komen’s new policy that bars funding of groups under investigation.
Yoest has run Americans United for Life for three years. She came to the group from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, and before that, served as the Family Research Council’s vice president for communications. She moved to Washington in the 1980s to work in the Reagan administration. But she counts this as perhaps her biggest victory.
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.
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.
Yoest says her focus is on a “post-Roe nation” in which states will again be the sole arbiters of when, where, and whether women can get abortions. “The real question is what do the states do,” she says. “And so in a sense, we’re leapfrogging over [Roe].” She believes AUL’s growing body of state laws will set precedents with the potential to eventually change federal abortion law. As she explained to National Catholic Register, “We don’t make frontal attacks. Never attack where the enemy is strongest.”
But making abortions all but impossible is only half the battle. Ultimately, AUL would like to see the Supreme Court legally enshrine its restrictions—all in the name of protecting women. “It’s really, really critical that we start establishing this in the legislative record,” Yoest tells me. “Repeatedly, the Supreme Court has turned away from the threat that abortion poses for the baby, because the Supreme Court has said repeatedly they’re concerned about the woman. So we basically want to say to the court, ‘We share your concern for women. You need to look at the fact that abortion itself harms women.'”
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.”
But religious conservatives and more ardent abortion opponents who have not been included say Mr. Obama is trying to have it both ways. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an advocacy group, said that if the president really wanted to forge consensus, he would advocate rules allowing parents to be notified if their teenage daughters sought an abortion and banning the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. As an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama voted “present” on such initiatives, enabling their defeat.