|Founded||April 1, 1968|
|Founder||National Conference of Catholic Bishops|
|Carol Tobias, President|
Bishop James T. McHugh
The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is the oldest and largest national grassroots anti-abortion organization in the United States with affiliates in all 50 states and more than 3,000 local chapters nationwide.[N 1]
In 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) asked (then Rev.) James T. McHugh to begin observing trends in the reform of policy on abortion. The National Right to Life Committee was founded in 1967 as the "Right to Life League" to coordinate its state campaigns under the auspices of the NCCB. To appeal to a more broad-based, nonsectarian movement, crucial Minnesotan leaders proposed an organizational constitution that would separate the NRLC from the direct supervision of the NCCB, and by early 1973 NRLC Director (then Rev.) James T. McHugh and his executive assistant, Michael Taylor, proposed a different plan to move the NRLC toward independence from the Catholic Church.
The national organization of National Right to Life comprises the:
In 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) asked (then Rev.) James T. McHugh to begin observing trends in the reform of policy on abortion. At the time then Fr. McHugh was Director of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) Family Life Bureau, and later became the Bishop of Camden and then of Rockville Centre. The NCCB asked Fr. McHugh during its annual conference in April 1967 to organize the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and fund the established NRLC with $50,000 to "initiate and coordinate a program of information" with state affiliates that would inform stakeholders of the wave of proposed state legislation to liberalize statutes prohibiting abortion.
The National Right to Life Committee was formalized in 1968. McHugh hired executive assistant Michael Taylor to help with the day to day needs of the organization. In October 1968, they published the first NRLC newsletter formally introducing the organization and providing information on the efforts to change abortion laws. On the state level, independent right to life organizations were beginning to form and began to rely on NRLC for direction and information. The newsletter lasted until 1971.
NRLC held its first meeting of nationwide anti-abortion leaders in Chicago, Illinois in 1970 at Barat College. New Jersey attorney Juan Ryan served as the first President of NRLC. In the following year NRLC held its first convention at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The NRLC was formally incorporated in May 1973, in response to the Roe v. Wade ruling of the US Supreme Court and the desire to separate from the Catholic Church to attract more Protestants to the organization. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a campaign to amend the United States Constitution by enacting a Human Life Amendment that not only invalidated Roe v. Wade but also prohibited both the US Congress and the States from legalizing abortion in the United States. Its first convention as an incorporated organization was held the following month in Detroit, Michigan. At the concurrent meeting of NRLC's Board, Ed Golden of New York was elected president. Among the founding members was Mildred Jefferson, the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Jefferson subsequently served as president in 1975.
In 1978, NRLC found itself $100,000 in debt after Jefferson's presidency. Rather than acknowledge her record, she left the organization to form the Right to Life Crusade.
On April 1, 1979, the American Life League (ALL) was founded by Judie Brown, former public relations director of NRLC, and 9 others after a schism within the NRLC. Within less than a year of its foundation, ALL had 68,000 members and received assistance from Howard Phillips, publicity from Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of Heritage Foundation, and the benefits of extensive lists of membership provided by the direct mail specialist Richard Viguerie.
Since its incorporation, the NRLC prioritized its politics over getting publicity due to its concern of being portrayed in a poor light and lack of funds. But by 1980 NRLC's annual budget increased to $1,600,000 and retained a membership of 11 million, allowing the organization to invest in media strategy and established its media department in 1984. The organization worked quickly and in 1985 had a communications department that produced and distributed a radio program, media campaigns, and maintained press connections. Its media strategy worked to create a public image that differentiated the NRCL from allies by using medical professionals, including its president and primary spokesperson Dr. John Willke, to lend legitimacy and hiring a young African-American woman. One hallmark of their media campaign was utilizing the slogan "Love them Both" which embraced claims of women's rights and welfare through compassion to gain the support of those ambivalent on the issue.
In 1995, the NRLC coined the term "partial-birth" abortion to describe a new medical procedure also known as "dilation and extraction," or D&X, and "intact D&E" in which the fetus is removed intact from the uterus after 20 weeks gestation. The organization illustrated and published drawings of the procedure in booklets and paid newspaper advertisements to create public opposition of both the procedure and abortion in general. The NRLC was later critical of President Clinton's 1995 veto of a bill that would ban the procedure. The phrase was later used in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.
Efforts paid off and in 1992 and 1998, Fortune magazine recognized the NRLC as the most publicly recognized and politically effective anti-abortion organization. In 1999, Fortune ranked them as the 8th most influential public policy group working in Washington, DC.
In 1984 the Committee co-produced the documentary The Silent Scream on abortion with Bernard Nathanson. In 1985, following 2 years of a boycott of a product of the Upjohn Company that NRLC coordinated, the Company ceased all research on abortifacient drugs. Three years later, NRLC joined other anti-abortion organizations in notifying drug companies that if any company sold an abortifacient drug the millions of Americans who opposed abortion would boycott all the products of that company.
In the 1990s the NRLC began a nationwide grassroots lobbying campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act, and announced a boycott of the French pharmaceutical company Roussel Uclaf and its American affiliates for permitting its abortion drug, mifepristone, into the United States. The U.S. National Right to Life Committee announced a 1994 U.S. boycott of all Hoechst pharmaceutical products including Altace, targeting the abortion pill RU-486.
According to Keri Folmar, the lawyer responsible for the language of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the term "partial birth abortion" was developed in early 1995 at a meeting of herself, Charles T. Canady, and NRLC lobbyist Douglas Johnson. The phrase elicited strong negative reactions from a focus group and became a key phrase in NRLC's attack on abortion.
In 1978, James Bopp was hired to serve as legal counsel and the NRLC began to have more involvement in elections to further influence state and federal legislation to advance their anti-abortion position. In 1980, the National Right to Life Political Action Committee (NRL PAC) was founded to support anti-abortion and almost exclusively Republican candidates. Also that year, Bopp led a walkout of conservative delegates from a White House Conference on Families and defended the NLRC's 1980 presidential election voter guides from legal challenges of improper electioneering by a nonprofit.
By the 1990s, the NLRC became a major player in campaign financing through its $2 million campaign contributions in the 1996 presidential election. In 1999, the NLRC aggressively lobbied against the 1999 Shays-Meehan bill, which later became the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), because it would reclassify many of its and other nonpartisan groups' ads as campaign contributions. A bipartisan group of legislators including John McCain, Ronnie Shows, and Zach Wamp criticized the organization for getting involved in issues that did not affect the unborn. Legislative Director Douglas Johnson defended the NRLC's involvement in campaign financing, saying that the bill "would cripple the prolife movement."
In 2003, Bopp filed a lawsuit on behalf of the NLRC against the Federal Election Commission about whether BCRA violates the First Amendment in its prohibition of the use of "soft money" in campaign financing. On May 1, 2003 the district court issued judgment on the case and the NLRC appeals to the Supreme Court. Later that year, the case was consolidated along with eleven other lawsuits into McConnell v. FEC. In the ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the control of soft money and the regulation of electioneering communications in BCRA.
The death of Justice William Rehnquist and retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor changed the Supreme Court to a conservative majority and in 2007 NLRC's affiliate Wisconsin Right to Life brought a case against the FEC again challenging BCRA provisions. In FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., the justices held that issue ads may not be banned from the months preceding a primary or general election.
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