Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group whose 2008 anti-Hillary Clinton film led to the 2010 Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns on First Amendment grounds, is now promoting fetal personhood laws through a new film narrated by Mike Huckabee.
The film, The Gift of Life, premieres tonight in Des Moines, and is sure to spur additional discussion among Republicans over tactics to reverse Roe v. Wade. In the film, Huckabee expresses support for personhood bills, and is even shown speaking in favor of the failed Mississippi personhood amendment.
The Gift of Life also promotes the strategy of pursuing federal legislation that would enshrine civil rights for fetuses on the grounds that their equal protection rights are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This argument, recently endorsed by Newt Gingrich, was injected into the campaign by Princeton professor and conservative Catholic activist Robert George during a candidate forum in South Carolina in September. By arguing that fetuses are people, and therefore entitled to the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, they hope to bypass the more onerous process of amending the Constitution with a long-sought human life amendment.
But the basis for such policy is nothing more than a series of emotional, personal vignettes extrapolated into larger cultural narratives. As with other Citizens United films, such as Gingrich’s agitprop against Islam, America at Risk: The War with No Name, the experience of a single person is turned into the exemplar of the only just and moral compass. In America at Risk, Zuhdi Jasser was portrayed as the “good” Muslim sounding an alarm that his fellow Muslims were easily duped into extremism by the ready availability of radical islam and a scarcity of moderate voices like his. In The Gift of Life, a physician, a photographer, a former abortion provider, and adult activists who were conceived as a result of rape are held up as prototypes of the “right” decision to complex moral questions. They are quasi-biblical figures, and for a movement claiming adherence to biblical bases for law, guideposts for legislation and policymaking.
In addition to promoting the notion that from the moment of conception there is exists a person “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” the film employs other narratives that are quickly, along with personhood, becoming the movement’s predominant themes: that abortion is a deadly, profit-driven “industry;” that doctors and other staff involved in providing abortion are redeemed by experiencing a change of heart that leads them to Christ, to abandon their work and speak out against abortion; that survivors of rape are blessed by God for carrying a resulting pregnancy to term; that fetuses experience pain, requiring protection through bans on abortion.
Dr. Anthony Levatino, interviewed at length in the film, is an OB/GYN who formerly performed abortions. Levatino and his wife had fertility problems and were seeking to adopt a child; at one point he describes his regret as he was performing a first trimester abortion while he and his wife were undertaking that process. They eventually adopted a child who was later tragically killed after being hit by a car. Levatino describes a second trimester abortion he performed after the death of his daughter, after which he concludes about his patient, “I didn’t see her wonderful right to choose and I didn’t see what a great doctor I was helping her with her problem pregnancy.”
The Gift of Life draws on Levatino’s personal tragedy to portray his decision to stop performing abortions as a policy answer, rather than an individual, understandable response to grief. Dr. Daniel Grossman, senior associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, told me, “It is true that abortion providers often have conflicting feelings about the work we do.” But, he went on, “most of us have those feelings and are able to separate our personal feelings from those of our patients and what they need and want to do with their current pregnancy.”
Dr. Douglas Laube, Board Chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, echoed this view, describing Levatino’s reaction as “normal” given his circumstances, but noting that his patient’s reaction was not discussed. “I see it as a disconnect,” said Laube. “It does not connect logically with a reason not to support the right to choose. It’s his feelings versus her right to choose.”
Lisa Harris, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, argued in a 2008 article in the UK journal Reproductive Health Matters, that the pro-choice movement avoids discussing the second trimester abortion procedure, which accounts for 10% of abortions in the U.S. “This silence,” Harris concluded, “is harmful to individual providers, to the abortion rights movement itself, to public opinion around abortion, and perhaps most importantly, to the women and couples who need our services.”
Harris illuminates the reasons women choose second trimester abortion, including adolescence, substance abuse and addiction, poverty, difficulty in accessing money to pay for an abortion. These varied factors “are all part of the texture and complexity of women’s lives, complexity that the pregnant woman herself best understands.” Harris argues for a “gradualist” approach that helps “to focus the terms of the abortion debate on women themselves, in the contexts of their lives. The gradualist perspective allows us to simultaneously acknowledge the value of early human life and be woman-centred, an ideal position for a second trimester provider. Knowing that we help a woman navigate the complexities of her life is the great reward for doing what might otherwise be overly burdensome work.”
In The Gift of Life, though, answers do not take the complexities of the woman’s life into account. The film presents lengthy interviews with the motivational speaker and pro-personhood amendment activist Rebecca Kiessling and the televangelist James Robison, both conceived as the result of rape. They describe themselves as a blessing to their mothers, speak of abortion as a second violation compounding the rape, and dismiss the possibility that anyone could reach another moral conclusion. Robison describes the question of abortion in the case of rape as being over the “personal right of a little child.”
The film irresponsibly peddles the falsehoods that abortion providers try to maximize the number of procedures they perform in order to profit, and that fetuses feel pain. The anti-choice activist Carol Everett claims she once worked for an abortion provider that aimed to perform three to five abortions on 13-18 year old girls so they would be accustomed to using abortion as a birth control method into adulthood. Dr. Laube called these claims “pure nonsense,” “pure fiction,” and “really a stretch.” He noted that abortion comprises 3-5% of Planned Parenthood’s budget, and that abortion is “certainly not a money-maker. At best, it’s a break-even.” Regarding fetal pain, the film discusses at great length a notorious 1999 picture taken by the photographer Michael Clancy which Clancy maintains shows a fetus, at 21 weeks of gestation, reaching out of the womb to grasp the finger of a surgeon performing an experimental surgery to repair spinal bifida. The photograph, Clancy says, has been used in support of abortion bans around the country based on claims of fetal pain.
A fetus at that gestational age, said Dr. Laube, “does not have a hand big enough to grasp the surgeon’s finger.” The reaching of the hand, he said, was, at best a “reflex arc.” What’s more, there’s no scientific evidence that a fetus at that gestational age can feel pain, he said. “The corpus callosum, the part of the brain underneath the two cerebral hemispheres, is nnot connected yet, and that part of the brain’s anatomy has to be intact before pain can be perceived.”
Huckabee’s film doesn’t break any new ground for the anti-choice movement, or offer the GOP presidential hopefuls many new themes for the campaign trail. But it does, in what has become a signature for Citizens United films, exploit raw emotion over rational policy. And that’s why it will likely provide fodder for the GOP candidates in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses.