The nation’s oldest and largest grassroots pro-life group, the National Right to Life Committee, has broken ties with a Cleveland affiliate over its stand against same-sex marriage. The move signals a new political strategy in an era when politicians may be pro-life but untraditional in their view of marriage.
In this case, the untraditional politician is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who in March declared his support for same-sex marriage, a reversal of his previous position. The flip-flop caused some Ohio conservatives to drop support for Portman, who has otherwise been a consistent pro-life ally in the U.S. Senate. Portman is a co-sponsor of the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill that would ban abortions in Washington, D.C., after 20 weeks of gestation.
Like the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), Cleveland Right to Life denounces abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in its mission statement. On June 24, after a year and a half of discussion, Cleveland Right to Life announced it had updated its mission statement to include same-sex marriage as a practice “contrary to ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’” The group added it would “consider any political candidate who does not support the right to life of the unborn child and marriage as only between a man and a woman to be unworthy of representing the rights and well-being of all of their constituents.”
Soon after, on July 5, Cleveland Right to Life president Molly Smith, along with a board member, met with Portman to discuss his views on same-sex marriage. They thanked the senator for his pro-life record but explained his support for gay marriage conflicted with the views of Cleveland Right to Life and its membership. The hourlong meeting was cordial, according to a press release at the time.
Smith told me the two sides left the meeting “agreeing to disagree. … There was no animosity.” But two weeks later, on July 17, NRLC sent out a letter, addressed to Smith, asking her to “remove from your website the claim that you are affiliated with NRLC.” The letter chided Cleveland Right to Life for adopting “an advocacy agenda that includes issues beyond the right to life,” and said it had “issued public criticisms of and implicit political threats against a U.S. senator who has supported the right-to-life position on every vote … and who is a sponsor of major NRLC-backed bills.”
Smith said NRLC sent a copy of the letter to other Ohio pro-life groups as well. Although NRLC claims it has “more than 3,000 local chapters,” Smith said the term “chapter” is incorrect because the ties are informal and indirect: Like other local Right to Life affiliates, Cleveland Right to Life has its own IRS nonprofit status, bank account, and board of directors. It is, however, formally affiliated with Ohio Right to Life, which in turn is an affiliate of the national group. (Cleveland Right to Life remains in good standing with the state affiliate.)
In response to the letter, Smith said her group removed from its website a claim that it was an “affiliate” of the national organization.
Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, another large pro-life group in Ohio, disaffiliated itself with Ohio Right to Life several years ago over strategy disputes. Smith said the national group is losing support among grassroots pro-lifers, and she thinks it’s “crazy” to disaffiliate itself from its base.
Smith said Cleveland Right to Life’s own grassroots base has been “overwhelmingly supportive” of its stand against same-sex marriage. In her group’s view, being pro-life goes hand in hand with being pro-family. She said her supporters had previously worked to help get Portman elected, when he ran on a platform supporting traditional marriage: “We were out there in droves, which will not happen again.”
A spokesman for Portman, Jeff Sadosky, told me on Tuesday, “Neither Rob or his staff were involved in the disaffiliation letter.”
NRLC did not respond to specific questions from WORLD, but provided a statement from Carol Tobias, the organization’s president: “The success the right-to-life movement has experienced over the past 40 years has depended on maintaining our single-issue focus on life. By focusing on the single issue of life, we have been able to bring together a broad base of people—who may disagree on other important issues in our country, but who are dedicated to ensuring that the protection of our laws are extended to the most vulnerable members of society: The unborn, the elderly, the medically dependent, and persons with disabilities.”