Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine profile of Charmaine Yoest — the PR-savvy anti-choicer whose advocacy group, Americans United for Life, is responsible for roughly one-third of the 92
fetus love letters abortion restrictions passed by state legislatures in 2011 — is both excellent and frustrating.
It’s an important piece because Yoest is one of the most productive leaders of the anti-choice movement, thanks to her reputation for being more reasonable than fanatical. She’s intelligent (Yoest has a PH.D in politics from the University of Virginia), charming (as Bazelon points out, “She’s the one making the case against abortion on the PBS ‘NewsHour.’”) and effective; as stated above, the A.U.L has championed a record number of bills that’ve made it next to impossible for women across the country to retain control over their uteri, and the group was also behind the report called “The Case for Investigating Planned Parenthood” that inspired the congressional investigation that helped convince Komen to stop financing Planned Parenthood. I mean, for fuck’s sake: Yoest once wrote an awesome-sounding dissertation called “Empowering Shakespeare’s Sister,” about the effects of paid parental leave on breaking the glass ceiling. Doesn’t she seem like a lady you could have a sensible conversation with?
She does, but — judging from Bazelon’s repeated attempts at engaging her in rational discourse — you really, really can’t do it. Yoest says her ideas about abortion are driven by science but is insistent that abortion causes breast cancer, a claim that every legitimate medical organization has rejected roughly 32498274982938 times over. She looooves talking about how much she cares about “women’s health” but refuses to actually say anything about the positive effects of contraception on women who are larger than embryo-size. Some specific examples:
Why Yoest won’t talk about reducing abortion rates by increasing access to birth control: “It’s really a red herring.”
When I asked what she thought about a study, published in October, which found a 60 to 80 percent drop in the abortion rate, compared with the national average, among women in St. Louis who received free birth control for three years, she said, “I don’t want to frustrate you, but I’m not going to go there.” “It’s really a red herring that the abortion lobby likes to bring up by conflating abortion and birth control,” she said when pressed on PBS last year. “Because that would be, frankly, carrying water for the other side to allow them to redefine the issue in that way.”
Why Yoest won’t talk about Akin and legitimate rape: “It’s a distraction.”
When I asked what she thought about Akin’s reliance on bogus science, she said, “I’m not going to answer that.” Though Yoest agrees with Akin that abortion should be illegal in every circumstance, she said that talking about “the minutiae of the rape exception is not where it’s at at all.” It was as if Akin had undone all her careful framing. “It’s a distraction. It’s not relevant to the discussion.”
Why Yoest won’t talk about the scores of doctors and scientists who say abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer:
Yoest would only refer back to the pro-life obstetricians she trusts and later declared that the scientific establishment “is under the control of the abortion lobby.”
Her sticky-sweet refusal to talk about anything she doesn’t want to talk about reminds me of the day I spent with Lila Rose in D.C., the up-and-coming anti-choice activist who told me that Yoest was one of her role models. Bazelon describes Yoest almost exactly how I described Lila: “…especially good at sounding reasonable rather than extreme. She never deviates from her talking points, never raises her voice and never forgets to smile.”
My trip to D.C. (I would link to my piece here if I could, but, alas, I can’t. Miss U, servers!) was one of my most frustrating reporting experiences because I couldn’t get Lila to deviate from her talking points for even half a second, rendering most of my notes useless. It’s such a disconcerting experience to spend hours with someone who seems open but is, in fact, impenetrable. It starts to seem pointless.
And that’s clearly Yoest’s deal, too: she practically just covered her ears with her hands and yelled “NANANANANANANA I’M NOT LISTENING NANANANANNANA” throughout the entire interview process. It’s so easy to parrot on about “women’s health” and “the life of the child” without actually delving even the slightest bit into what those phrases literally mean. But it’s also such a pathetically obvious strategy — and a thin one too, judging from Yoest’s inability to have a conversation that goes beyond her control.
Yet it works so well, and that’s why Yoest is so dangerous: because her goal isn’t to actually make things better for women, as she loves to claim, or to lead a moderate discussion on reproductive choice. Her goal is to make abortion illegal (without any exceptions), ban birth control options that she thinks “has life-ending properties” (like the IUD) and, overall, prioritize the embryo before the living, breathing woman. There’s nothing cheerful nor charming about any of that.
(Image via AP)