Who Is 'Heartbeat Bill' Author Janet Porter?

May 18, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to talk more about the legislation that's moved through a number of state legislatures that would impose tough new restrictions on access to abortion - in most cases, outlawing abortion six weeks after gestation. The legislation is based on a proposal that's been pushed for years by a woman named Janet Porter and her organization called Faith to Action. For more on this, we've invited Guardian health reporter Jessica Glenza, who's followed Janet Porter for years now and met with her back in April. Jessica, thanks so much for talking to us.

JESSICA GLENZA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So we're talking about the so-called fetal heartbeat bills. That is what supporters call it. And of course, critics say this is itself medically inaccurate and intentionally misleading. So with that being said, who is Janet Porter, and how did she get on your radar?

GLENZA: She came to my attention as I was working on a story about another group called The Family Leader. The Family Leader, similarly, is opposed to gay marriage and opposed to abortion rights. And it surprised me to see that the author of this bill, the fetal heartbeat bill, Janet Porter and her organization Faith to Action, had met with Mike Pence. And that was something that just came up in my research.

So as these bills sort of started to, once again, be introduced in state legislatures this year, the first thing on my agenda was to speak to Janet Porter and basically talk to her about why she felt this bill was important and why she was advocating for it.

MARTIN: And what did she say?

GLENZA: She said that she felt the bill was important because, as its intended effect, it would outlaw the vast majority of abortions. And more importantly, it would give the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to reinterpret Roe v. Wade.

I think many people are familiar with Roe v. Wade, but just in the event that they are not, Roe v. Wade provides women with the constitutional right to an abortion up to the point of what's called viability. And that's when a fetus can survive outside the womb. It's generally understood to be about 24 weeks. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks.

So these bills and the ability to get an abortion at about six weeks. That's before most women know they're pregnant. And the strategy from Porter is to get it before the Supreme Court, and give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reinterpret the standard by which Roe v. Wade was decided.

MARTIN: So can you just tell me a little bit more about her? Like, what motivates her? Where do her ideas come from?

GLENZA: Janet Porter started as a very establishment anti-abortion activists working for Right to Life in Ohio. And she pushed forward things like the late-term abortion ban - so-called in Ohio - the laws which required parental consent for minors to obtain an abortion. And after that, she took the experience that she had in Ohio Right to Life and went down to the D. James Kennedy Ministry, where she was the architect of a gay conversion therapy campaign.

From her time in the D. James Kennedy Ministry, she then returned to Ohio, where she started her own organization called Faith to Action and started advocating on behalf of this so-called heartbeat bill or the six-week abortion ban.

And I just want to point out that Janet Porter's approach was not considered mainstream until very, very recently. In fact, it was opposed by Ohio Right to Life and not supported for a long time even within Ohio.

MARTIN: So what changed? I mean, is it that her allies in the movement disagree with her philosophically? Or is that - it's just a more favorable political environment. Is that it?

GLENZA: Yes. The way I think about what has changed that allowed these laws to start to move forward is not that Janet Porter moved into the mainstream or moved to become more centrist. It's that the entire political reality shifted around her. And so you had this long time institutional work on behalf of Republicans to get more socially conservative judges confirmed, which, of course, the Trump administration has been very successful at that, to get justices likely to restrict abortion onto the Supreme Court, which, of course, with Brett Kavanaugh was a huge win for the Trump administration. And at the same time, gerrymandering has allowed much more extreme legislators to come into state legislatures.

MARTIN: You've said in your reporting that more mainstream conservatives would prefer not to claim her. They are, in fact, adopting her strategy, right? It seems to be moving across the country. Does she see herself as successful? And what is next for her?

GLENZA: I certainly think that she views this effort as successful, and so do her supporters. I asked her what the next piece of legislation she intended to lobby on behalf of would be. But she declined to answer that question, although she later said that she believes life begins at conception. So I think the most likely next push from activists like Porter would be for a life at conception bill.

MARTIN: That's Jessica Glenza. She's a health reporter for the Guardian telling us about her reporting about Janet Porter, who's an influential figure in the current wave of legislation sweeping the country seeking tougher restrictions on access to abortion. Jessica Glenza, thanks so much for talking to us.

GLENZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.