Inside the conservative organization undermining abortion access one state at a time

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This year, a record number of six-week abortion bans, dubbed “heartbeat bills," were introduced at the state level. The goal of these restrictive measures was ostensibly to “protect the lives of the unborn” — as well as to issue a sneaky challenge to existing law set by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which says abortion is legal in all 50 states. The bans rely on the bogus claim that a vaginal ultrasound can detect a fetal “heartbeat” six weeks into pregnancy, giving pro-life advocates a foundational claim to fetal personhood.

In reality, these “heartbeats” are not any real sign of sentient life. But the movement is successfully restricting access to abortion in large part because of the activism of one woman: Ohioan Janet Folger Porter, who uses her organization, Faith2Action, to lobby for and proliferate such legislation.

While Faith2Action sticks to the term “heartbeat bill,” news reports call the proposals six-week abortion bans. The ACLU on the ground in states like Georgia and Ohio goes a step further, referring to the legislation as effectively a total abortion ban, because the possibility for a legal termination will often end before a person even knows they are pregnant. (Porter did not respond to Mic’s requests for comment.)

Ohio introduced the first heartbeat bill in 2011, and though it didn’t pass, two years later Arkansas and North Dakota enacted similar legislation. Iowa followed suit in 2018. This year alone, though, nine states passed heartbeat abortion bans, including Utah, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia — and Ohio, at long last.

Despite Porter’s and Faith2Action’s efforts, abortion remains legal on the federal level. In those states that have passed abortion bans, there are pending court battles. While they haven’t put a nationwide kibosh on the procedure, what these bills have done instead is enact a sort of shadow abortion ban, where the severe restrictions on the procedure essentially achieve the same outcome. The ACLU of Ohio has already seen that the fearmongering and disinformation proffered by such legislation has made it harder to get abortions in the state, Freda Levenson, the branch’s legal director, tells Mic. The goal, Levenson says, is not to stop abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, like the bills suggest, but to stop abortions altogether through ambiguity and menacing language.

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It is nearly impossible for a person to realize they’re pregnant, confirm their pregnancy with a doctor, and schedule and undergo an abortion within six weeks. That’s why six-week bills end up morphing into de facto abortion bans, Levenson says, which criminalize doctors and vilify mothers to boot.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe, anti-abortion activists have organized to undermine the principle that a patient has a legal right to have an abortion. In 2010, the midterm elections proved to be disastrous for Democrats at the state level, leading to a number of red-state legislatures that created the right atmosphere to push anti-abortion legislation. That same year, Porter and anti-abortion lawyers began to draft the heartbeat bill that would be introduced by former Ohio state Rep. Christina Hagan in 2011. The bill passed through the Ohio House in 2011, but did not clear the state’s Senate.

Six-week bills end up morphing into de facto abortion bans, which criminalize doctors and vilify mothers to boot.

Still, Porter used that morsel of momentum to drive Faith2Action to other states. Through her work in Ohio, Porter connected with a number of other anti-abortion activists around the country. Mark Gietzen, founder and chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life, tells Mic that he and Porter had been friends for several years before they attempted to introduce the legislation.

“I’m a supporter of hers and she's a supporter of mine,” Gietzen says. “Pro-life leaders get together.” He explains that anti-abortion activists routinely discuss state legislation that has the potential to pass, so after the anti-abortion lawmakers in the Ohio legislature had some success with their heartbeat bill, he and Porter decided to try their luck in Kansas.

For that effort, John J. Jakubczyk of the Southwest Life and Law Center was tapped to help. Jakubczyk tells Mic that Porter called him in about 2010 or 2011 to enlist his help in crafting the anti-abortion measure.

Part of Porter’s strength in curtailing abortion access nationwide is that she is able to build a network of organizations, groups, and committees across different states, says Jakubczyk, a former president of Arizona Right to Life, a pro-life organization. The pro-life movement is a very diverse network throughout the country. If you get on the right train, you can move a piece of legislation through the legislature,” he explains.

The Faith2Action website makes it easy for legislators to co-opt Porter's language, offering a “model bill” whose influence is obvious when compared side-by-side with the anti-abortion legislation introduced in states like Michigan, Alabama, and Kansas. If a state legislator wants to introduce their own heartbeat bill, they can simply download the template from the Faith2Action website. The document includes blank spaces and instructions for where legislators should add their own state-specific language.

After a heartbeat bill is introduced in a statehouse, religious legal organizations with ties to Porter will often intervene to defend the legislation when it is inevitably challenged in court. While defending against these anti-abortion laws can cost a state hundreds of thousands of dollars, conservative legal firms looking to uphold pro-life measures have offered their services pro bono to right-leaning states. One such organization is the Liberty Counsel, which got involved in Georgia’s battle earlier this year. Its co-founder, Mat Staver, is listed on Faith2Action’s website as a supporter of heartbeat legislation. (The Liberty Counsel declined to comment to Mic for this story.)

Anti-abortion legislators understand that, at this stage, their movement is more tidal wave than earthquake. Rather than a ground-shaking federal edict, it's a series of smaller victories on the state-level that are systematically buffeting legal access to the medical procedure. And while they anxiously await a Supreme Court ruling revoking pregnant people's right to abortion nationally, lawmakers in statehouses across the country are watching each other to glean how best to stamp out that right at home.

Iowa state Rep. Tedd Gassman tells Mic that his fellow Republican legislator Sandy Salmon, who sponsored the heartbeat bill that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed into law in 2018, was “probably watching that type of legislation in other states.” Gassman specifically remembered the Arkansas bill, he says, which made its way through the state legislature there in 2013. “Some of the language [in the Iowa bill] must have come from that one,” Gassman says.

And of course, the Arkansas bill can be traced back to Porter. The law was a direct result of Porter’s work in Ohio, said state Sen. Jason Rapert during a press conference in 2017. “I ran across some legislation from Janet Porter and those in Ohio that drafted it and we filed that bill in the state of Arkansas.”

Gassman is open about the overarching goal of heartbeat bills: to challenge the legality of all abortions, not just the morality of those that take place after six weeks of pregnancy. “I don’t think a woman has the right to take the life of her baby,” Gassman says.

Gassman is open about the overarching goal of heartbeat bills: to challenge the legality of all abortions.

Perhaps most troublingly, heartbeat bills rely on a highly questionable understanding of medical science. Among the Republican state legislators Mic spoke with, it was a trend to note that some variety of scientific advancements had indicated that fetal life extremely soon after conception. It's not a sound claim.

But Stan Gustafson, for example — another Republican in the Iowa statehouse — argues that “the medical profession has made tremendous strides over the last 50 to 60 years.” “Once you get that kind of knowledge," he tells Mic, it's "easy to recognize that life does begin earlier than we may have thought.”

Gustafson says that heartbeat laws are natural responses to modern medical advancements that show fetuses are viable much earlier than previously thought. But the science does not agree with claims like Gustafson's. Per the Mayo Clinic, even two weeks after conception, the "fetus" is rather a bundle of rapidly dividing cells; three weeks after conception, the embryo is developing, but still no organs have formed. Four weeks after conception — the sixth week of pregnancy, the benchmark most heartbeat bills adhere to — vital organs have only just begun to develop and are far from fully formed.

The brain does not start growing until week seven. Still, the false idea that the bundle of cells that exists at six weeks is a viable life form is propagated frequently by heartbeat bill advocates.

Kansas state Rep. John Bradford, who co-sponsored a fetal heartbeat bill in the Kansas House, believes too that advancing ultrasound technology has showed an accelerated timeline of fetal viability. “Back when Roe v. Wade was passed, we didn't have the 3-D sonogram, you could not look inside the body and see the formation of the baby,” he tells Mic. “Now, we've got 4-D systems, and you know it's a live baby.”

But a fetus is not a "live baby" until it is delivered. And per the University of Utah Health network, fetuses delivered before 24 weeks are generally not considered "viable." The ACLU’s Levenson adds that “no one can argue that an embryo is viable [or] that it can live outside the womb at six weeks.”

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At the end of the day, though, the dispute isn’t really about science. Bradford, like Gassman, Parker, and Porter before him, acknowledges that the chief goal of incremental legislation like heartbeat bills is to put an end to all clinic-administered abortions. In a press conference, Rapert said it clearest, stating that he believed the introduction of the six-week ban at the federal level was the “beginning of the end of abortion in America.”

However, activists, lawyers, and physicians note that banning physician-administered abortions doesn’t prevent all abortions. It simply forces pregnant people to self-administer, look elsewhere for termination services, or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term — all of which can be dangerous or even fatal. The Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco noted that "delaying or effectively blocking abortion care puts women’s health at risk," including by prompting pregnant people to stay with abusive partners, attempt to self-induce through unproven or harmful methods like herbal supplements or abdominal trauma, or gamble on later-term abortions, when "major complications are more likely."

Chillingly, the anti-abortion movement Porter started and sustains through Faith2Action is being carried on by several power brokers. Gerrymandering in battleground states like North Carolina makes it easier for Republicans to retain control at the state level, where they can undermine the national right to abortion by making it nearly impossible to access the procedure within state lines.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion advocates wait for a new Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Donald Trump won the 2016 election thanks in part to the unwavering support of evangelical voters, who backed a thrice-married man with multiple personal scandals due mainly to his promise to appoint justices to the high court who would do just that.

Thanks to Porter, anti-abortion warriors in statehouses across the country can go to Faith2Action’s website and begin the process of stripping the right to abortion from anyone who gets pregnant in their state. Whether her campaign to outlaw the procedure will be successful nationwide remains to be seen.