COLUMBUS, Ohio — Anti-abortion activists have recently conducted hidden-camera stings at clinics, put up a billboard declaring abortion the No. 1 threat to blacks, and on Wednesday performed ultrasounds on pregnant women in front of Ohio legislators.
Emboldened by new Republican majorities and a political climate they see as sympathetic, abortion foes are mounting a renewed assault on Roe v. Wade – and employing some in-your-face tactics to do it.
"They're trying to find a way to reframe this issue, and using this imagery is the way they're trying to do this," said Thad Hall, a political scientist at the University of Utah and author of a recent book on abortion politics. "It's very rational political behavior. There is survey data to suggest that when people see these images, it does affect how they view the viability of the fetus."
At the Ohio Statehouse, the anti-abortion group Faith2Action unveiled its "heartbeat bill" to outlaw abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat. If passed, it would be the most restrictive abortion law in America, affecting pregnancies as little as six weeks along.
Though it is almost certain to be challenged as unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade, which upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks, nearly half of the GOP-controlled House has signed on to it. Its prospects are not clear in the Senate, where Republicans also hold a majority.
Faith2Action rounded up two women early in their pregnancies and gave them ultrasounds before a packed House Health Committee hearing so legislators could see and hear the fetal hearts.
At the front of the hearing room, each woman, wearing a concealing gown, had her belly rubbed with a conductive gel, and a nurse then rolled the wand over it to produce the ultrasound image. The grainy, ghostly, black-and-white picture was projected onto a big screen, with the quivering heart highlighted in vivid colors. The gentle lub-dub of the heart could be heard over the room's sound system.
Ducia Hamm, executive director of a pregnancy counseling center in Ashland, Ohio, highlighted the picture with a laser pointer.
At one point, a spectator stood up and flicked the lights off for a better view of the image, now a common sight to most expectant parents.
Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat who opposes the bill, nevertheless thanked Hamm for bringing back memories of her own pregnancy.
Hamm said lawmakers could have simply listened to testimony on the stages of fetal development, "but we all know that words are great, but pictures are worth a thousand words."
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said the presentation turned the hearing into a "circus."
"I have to hand it to our opponents on this: They're really good at getting attention," she said, "but they're really not good at paying attention to the needs of Ohio women."
The shock-value strategy is by no means new. Imagery designed to tug at heartstrings or disturb viewers is familiar to anyone who has driven along a highway and seen anti-abortion billboards featuring pictures of fetuses or smiling infants. On the other side of the debate, abortion rights activists have handed out coat hangers or used pictures of them to symbolize the dangers of back-alley abortions.
But the anti-abortion movement has recently upped the ante in large cities including New York City and Atlanta, where billboards recently went up saying, "The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb."
Many blacks complained that the billboards were offensive and perpetuated stereotypes, and Planned Parenthood called it a "condescending effort to stigmatize and shame African-American women." The advertising company pulled the New York billboard last week.
In recent weeks, the California-based anti-abortion group Live Action released undercover video taken at a half-dozen Planned Parenthood clinics in New Jersey, New York and Virginia to make a case against the organization.
The videos show a man posing as a pimp and a woman posing as a prostitute seeking health services for underage sex workers. Planned Parenthood fired a clinic manager who offered advice to the visitors. Planned Parenthood accused Live Action of "dirty tricks" and complained to the FBI, but the videos contributed to a push in Congress and some states to cut off funding for the women's health organization.
Last fall's elections gave the anti-abortion movement political gains by installing more allies in Congress, legislatures and governor's offices. In many states, legislators are now pushing to do such things as outlaw abortions earlier in a pregnancy, require ultrasounds before a pregnancy is terminated, and prohibit abortion coverage in insurance plans.
"I think the pro-life movement has probably had the upper hand in the last several decades in the production and dissemination of these images. I'm not sure I can say why," said Ziad Munson, associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University and author of "The Making of Pro-Life Activists. "I would assume many in the pro-choice movement would agree with me. They haven't been as successful at marshaling these images to their advantage for whatever reason."
The heartbeat bill's author, Janet Folger Porter, executive director of Faith2Action, defended Wednesday's demonstration against complaints it was a circus.
"What we saw today was the beating hearts of these babies, in hopes that these legislators will allow these babies' hearts to continue to beat," she said. "That's the point. So there were no three rings."
One of the women who took part in the presentation, 25-year-old Erin Glockner, who is nine weeks pregnant, said she wasn't embarrassed or hesitant.
"I just think every child has a right to life whether their parents want to keep them for themselves or give them to a family that wants them," she said. "That's why I think it's important. They can't speak for themselves, so somebody's got to."