Family Research Council: The Extreme Anti-Choice Group Molding Trump’s Reproductive Rights Policy

The Family Research Council has ingratiated itself with the administration, which could mean devastating consequences for the country's most vulnerable people.

[Photo: Tony Perkins gestures with his hand as he delivers remarks at the opening of an event.]
Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins was a member of Trump’s anti-choice advisory council during the 2016 presidential race. Since Trump’s election, numerous people affiliated with the group have been installed into powerful positions within the administration to help mold his health policy agenda. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Since its establishment in the 1980s, the Family Research Council (FRC) has actively worked to build support for its conservative and extreme positions. The Trump administration has welcomed it with open arms—and the results have been disastrous for reproductive rights.

FRC has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in large part because it routinely demonizes the LGBTQ community. The organization opposes marriage equality as well as laws addressing hate crimes, and many of its supporters on social media have embraced white nationalism and neo-Nazism. But FRC is also committed to undermining reproductive rights, promoting a deeply anti-choice agenda long before Trump got to the White House.

For example, FRC President Tony Perkins was a member of Trump’s anti-choice advisory council during the 2016 presidential race. Since Trump’s election, numerous people affiliated with the group have been installed into powerful positions within the executive branch to help mold his health policy agenda.

Alice Huling, counsel for the nonprofit watchdog organization Campaign for Accountability (CfA), has researched FRC’s connections to the Trump administration. “Now that they’ve sort of infiltrated this administration, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in particular, they appear to be using their power there … to really push that particular ideological viewpoint,” she told Rewire.News.

“Specifically within HHS, what they’re pushing in their agenda is not really about providing health care,” she continued. “It’s about limiting women’s access to health care.”

The Trump administration has so far enacted a number of policies targeting reproductive health and rights. It has appointed two anti-choice justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and more than 100 judges to the federal courts; reinstated and expanded the global “gag rule” and issued a rule that would establish a similar policy domestically; attempted to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its birth control benefit; prevented pregnant detained girls and women from getting abortions; and erased reproductive rights from the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, to name some of the most egregious actions.

With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to track the ways prominent anti-choice groups ingratiate themselves with the Trump administration, affecting policy in and out of the spotlight. FRC has done just that—and it could lead to even worse consequences for vulnerable people in the United States.

Family Research Council on Abortion

FRC’s animus toward reproductive rights is clear. On its website, the group advocates for “equal protection under the law” for zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. In practice, this kind of “personhood” policy would outlaw and criminalize abortion and certain kinds of birth control. FRC also opposes over-the-counter contraception (including hormonal birth control and the morning-after pill); advocates allowing health-care providers to claim religious objections to providing essential care to patients; opposes fetal tissue research; claims (with no evidence) that “motherhood in the context of marriage promotes positive health outcomes for women”; and supports crisis pregnancy centers that lie to patients. FRC President Tony Perkins also has a longstanding personal history of attacking reproductive rights and autonomy.

Really, FRC’s take on Roe v. Wade sums it all up: “We look forward to the day when this grave error will be corrected.”

On the Campaign Trail

In June 2016, Trump hosted a gathering of more than 1,000 anti-choice conservative Christian leaders with the help of FRC President Tony Perkins. Soon after, he announced the formation of an “evangelical advisory board” made up of 25 leaders with far-right views. FRC founder and board member James Dobson—who also founded FRC affiliate Focus on the Family—was on that advisory board, along with FRC board member Michele Bachmann. It continued to meet with the president and influence policymaking in the wake of the election, reportedly advising White House staff on issues including “taxes, health care and judicial appointments.”

That September, Trump’s campaign established another far-right advisory group, this time specifically focused on anti-abortion ideology. This anti-choice advisory council included Perkins and FRC Senior Fellow Ken Blackwell, along with other anti-choice heavies tasked with recruiting leaders to convince their followers that Trump’s back-and-forth on abortion rights had landed squarely in the “against” zone.

First Year of Presidency

In January 2017, Marie Meszaros began working at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as senior policy advisor for the Office of Health Reform. Meszaros has a long history of promoting far-right agendas, including working for a year and a half as director of research, operations, and projects for the Palmetto Family Council, a far-right Christian group affiliated with FRC and Focus on the Family. Trump’s foundation gave $10,000 to the Palmetto Family Council in 2011, and during a February 2016 Republican presidential forum hosted by the organization, Trump sent a surrogate who “spoke out against abortion rights,” as Rewire.News reported.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, Meszaros’ position at HHS allows her to “influence the country’s health and social service policies and programs. For example, she was involved in coordination between Trump appointees at HHS and Alliance Defending Freedom, an extreme anti-choice hate group, to target Planned Parenthood through attacks on the Medicaid program.”

“We look forward to the day when this grave error will be corrected.”

– Family Research Council on Roe v. Wade

That April, Trump named prominent anti-choice leader Charmaine Yoest assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Yoest worked as an FRC policy analyst for three years in the early 1990s before later becoming FRC’s vice president. She then served as the president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), which creates anti-choice copycat legislation.

In February 2018, Yoest moved from HHS to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, where she remained for the next year as associate director before leaving the administration for her current role at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

A month after tapping Yoest for HHS, Trump appointed Teresa Manning as deputy assistant secretary for the department’s Office of Population Affairs (OPA). The OPA is tasked with overseeing the Title X program, which the Trump administration has actively worked to gut. This, in turn, would leave reproductive health care out of reach for many low-income families. In her position, Manning advised senior HHS staff on reproductive health topics including teen pregnancy and contraception.

Manning previously worked as a legislative analyst for FRC and as a lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee. Despite evidence to the contrary, Manning was involved in editing an FRC policy paper that claimed “the [psychological] effects of abortion are very similar to the effects of rape” and falsely claimed in a 2003 interview with NPR that “contraception doesn’t work.” In a press release applauding Manning’s appointment to HHS, FRC’s Perkins called Manning “an expert on the dangers of the abortion drug, RU-486, and morning-after pills” (though these medications are overwhelmingly safe) and said she will use this role to “help HHS offer real help for women—not just taxpayer-funded abortion masquerading as health care.” In January 2018, Manning left her position with HHS. According to the Washington Post, she resigned and was escorted out of the offices by security.

In the fall of 2017, yet another FRC alumna, Cathy Deeds, was appointed as senior advisor for special initiatives at OPA in HHS. Deeds’ history of anti-choice work includes time at FRC as its deputy director of government relations. At OPA, Deeds had oversight of national reproductive health policy, including the Title X Family Planning program. She left her position at HHS in April 2018.

“We don’t see a lot of daylight or difference between the policies that have been advocated for by … Family Research Council and the policies we’re seeing come out of HHS.”

– Equity Forward Executive Director Mary Alice Carter

While the most significant attacks on the Title X family planning program have happened since Deeds and Manning left OPA, the ball was set in motion during their tenure.

That year, the administration also installed Shannon Royce as the director of HHS’ Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives—tasked with building partnerships between government and faith-based and community organizations. Royce has a longstanding history of anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ work, including time as FRC’s chief of staff.

The insidious FRC influence on the executive branch went beyond these appointments. In 2017, during his first year in office, President Trump was the “first sitting president” to address FRC’s annual conference, the Values Voter Summit. While introducing Trump, Tony Perkins applauded his anti-choice efforts and policy changes: “As a candidate, he promised to restore the sanctity of life and protect the unborn. What has he done? Within 72 hours of taking office, he not only reinstated the Mexico City Policy to protect U.S. taxpayers from funding abortion, but he expanded it.”

“What we are seeing is a wholesale restructure of programs that are supposed to be advocating for and expanding on rights for people,” Mary Alice Carter, executive director of the reproductive health watchdog project Equity Forward, said in an interview with Rewire.News. “We’re seeing a radical change and restructure of organizations that were supposed to be protecting all people equally. And they’re using it to dial back access to rights and [promote] denial of health care for specific groups of people.”

The Influence Continues

As 2018 began, Perkins told Politico that he and other evangelicals were willing to overlook Trump’s flaws and past problems so long as his (presumably pro-evangelical ideology) policy continues. Sure enough, in January, HHS announced the creation of its new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division—something FRC and others had lobbied for—to focus on the concerns of conservative Christians.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) then appointed Perkins in May to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which makes policy recommendations based on religious freedom violations abroad. Former FRC President Gary L. Bauer was also tapped to serve alongside Perkins. Three months later, Trump hosted a dinner with 100 evangelical leaders at the White House; Perkins, unsurprisingly, was in attendance.

In October, the Trump administration released a flurry of anti-choice rules targeting reproductive health access. The two key rules widened exemptions to the ACA’s birth control benefit. The move, Rewire.News reported, came at the urging of Perkins and other representatives of anti-choice groups.

McConnell appeared as a speaker that September at FRC’s 2018 Values Voter Summit. His conservative voice was one among many rallying support behind Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, despite details emerging regarding sexual assault allegations against the nominee. McConnell emphasized at the summit that he and others would make sure Kavanaugh was confirmed. Former FRC president Gary Bauer said in his summit speech, “The left is scared to death that at some point there might be five justices on the Supreme Court that will actually make a ruling that could save a few babies,” according to Rewire.News.

So Far This Year

FRC’s influence on U.S. policy has continued despite the constant churn of Trump administration personnel. During the 46th Annual March for Life in January, HHS Secretary Alex Azar appeared on a panel with Perkins at ProLifeCon. In his tweet about the appearance, Azar promoted March for Life and the “important pro-life work this administration is doing.”

A Guardian article a few weeks later published excerpts from Azar’s comments at ProLifeCon that further alluded to the extremist influence at HHS: “‘We are the department of life,’ Azar told Perkins, ‘from conception until natural death, through all of our programs.’ He then rattled off victories – new policies that make it difficult to obtain an abortion, including allowing healthcare workers to refuse to treat patients based on moral objections. ‘The right of conscience is as foundational as the right to life.’”

“We are the department of life.”

– HHS Secretary Alex Azar to FRC President Tony Perkins

FRC has been spearheading a campaign promoting the myth of “born-alive” abortion, a falsehood that President Trump has himself repeated with increasing hyperbole. Most recently, FRC hosted Regent University law school professor Lynne Marie Kohm to advocate for the parental right to deny gender-affirming treatment to children. HHS mirrored this language on parental rights in its “moral conscience” rule finalized a week later—further displaying the connection between FRC and health-care policy.

“We don’t see a lot of daylight or difference between the policies that have been advocated for by groups like Family Research Council and the policies we’re seeing come out of HHS,” Equity Forward’s Mary Alice Carter told Rewire.News.

The Trump administration’s and FRC’s anti-choice agenda has not been confined to a domestic context. An HHS senior adviser and other administration officials attended a “Make Families Great Again” event promoting motherhood at the Hungarian embassy in March, and the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that month spent much of its time “quietly building an international anti-choice coalition.”

Days later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a further expansion of the global gag rule. This expansion, according to Pompeo’s statement, includes a refusal “to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry.” Immediately after the statement’s release, Pompeo appeared on FRC’s radio program, Washington Watch, to discuss it with Perkins.

“Tony Perkins seems to have the ear of President Trump, and certainly Vice President Pence and even Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo,” said Huling.  “That’s also a sort of direct channel … to really be influencing their views on things and … feeding a particular religious point of view.”

FRC’s work has been ongoing for decades, and its connection to the White House did not begin with the Trump administration. But this president’s term has seen a steady infiltration of people and agendas that are changing policies and structures in real, long-term ways, especially for reproductive rights. Much of the “pro family” mission that Perkins and FRC have been working toward since the organization’s inception is now within reach—and the web of influence that has gotten them to this point continues to grow.