They pledged to “Bring life to the heart of America and bring the heart of America to Life.”
In 72 workshops, five plenaries, and three worship services, more than 500 members of the National Right to Life Committee gathered in Kansas City, Missouri in June to discuss strategies, celebrate victories, and plot tactics to winnow away at Roe and reduce the number of abortions both in the United States and throughout the world.
The mood was upbeat. Barely two months after the Supreme Court handed anti-abortionists a victory by outlawing dilation and extraction procedures (aka partial birth abortions), Right to Life activists seemed giddy. Executive Committee member Wanda Franz mirrored her members’ feelings, opening the three-day gathering by gleefully celebrating “the end of court-imposed radical feminism.”
“Justice Blackmun must be spinning in his cold grave,” she laughed. “Why, it’s enough to give pro-abortionists the vapors.” Her words thrilled the crowd and many not only tittered but popped out of their seats to give her the day’s first standing ovation.
Spirits got an additional boost from a Republican Presidential forum in which three hopefuls spoke - crowd favorite Sam Brownback, the Kansas Senator; former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Each promised to propagate the Right to Life Committee’s agenda if elected.
Romney opened by admitting the error of his former ways and likened himself to George Bush, Sr. and Henry Hyde. “I took a prochoice position once and I was wrong,” he said. “The anti-life threat to our culture is real and I will fight to ban abortion, embryo farming, and cloning. I will fight to define life as beginning at conception. I support abstinence education. I oppose gay marriage. I do not favor bilingual education.”
Despite Romney’s warm reception, it was Brownback who captured the audience’s hearts. The chair of the Senate Values Action Team, this lifelong ultraconservative dubbed abortion “the great moral sin of the day” and confessed that he hopes to be “the President to appoint the Supreme Court judge who will overturn Roe.” Like Romney, he vowed to “push for life to be sacred at all stages, from conception to natural death.”
But how to do this? Workshops taught the rudiments of community organizing - how to chair a meeting, fundraise, and use technology - and discussed substantive political issues.
Some workshop themes rang familiar: lambasting Planned Parenthood; restricting teen access to abortion by imposing parental consent and notification requirements; working at the United Nations on international “pro-life” policy issues; publicizing “Post Abortion Syndrome”; pushing the abortion-breast cancer link (despite the National Cancer Institute’s warnings that there is no such link). Others were new: developing outreach programs for “male victims of abortion” and introducing legislation to require women considering abortion to view sonograms of the fetus before surgery.
Ancillary issues were also touched upon, from the need to oppose the newly reintroduced Equal Rights Amendment (which could render anti-abortion restrictions discriminatory to women), to opposing U.S. ratification of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW]. The agenda also included fighting cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia - dubbed human efforts to “replace God.” What’s more, efforts to develop universal health coverage were slammed as “un-American” incursions into the free market.
Nonetheless, abortion received the lion’s share of the activists’ attention and while it was clear that everyone wished they could click their heels and undo Roe, most speakers emphasized realism. This meant sticking to the gradual approach of eroding abortion access. James Bopp, Jr., National Right to Life Committee’s General Counsel, a member of the Republican National Committee, and Mitt Romney’s Special Advisor on Life Issues, spoke at a workshop on Abortion Law Developments. “Is Roe going to fall?” he asked. “The answer is no, emphatically no.” Instead, Bopp called the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey paramount. “Casey promised that there could be reasonable regulation of abortion as long as it did not impose an undue burden on women. In April, a five-member Court majority found that banning partial birth abortion did not impose an undue burden. This proves that the Court is serious and all reasonable regulations will be upheld.”
Bopp believes that the Supreme Court will support mandatory ultrasound exams for women seeking abortions. “Women contemplating abortion should see their unborn child,” he said. “They should hear the beating heart.”
Bopp further urged the conference goers to build on existing restrictions by introducing parental consent and/or notification requirements; waiting periods; mandatory counseling on pro-life options; and funding bans in states that don’t have them.
As for newer strategies, a workshop on Lost Fatherhood cast a spotlight on “male victims of abortion.” Speakers Gregory Hasek and Dave Wemhoff offered emotional testimony about getting their girlfriends pregnant and sanctioning their abortions only to be haunted by feelings of guilt and shame years later. Hearing them speak is unsettling because it is impossible to tell someone that their feelings are illegitimate.
Hasek was particularly eloquent. A licensed marriage and family therapist at a Christian counseling service in Oregon, he works with male sex-and-pornography addicts. “These guys are in crisis,” he begins. “For men, unresolved pain comes out in symptoms. They don’t hold up signs saying, ‘Hi, I’m post abortion,’ but one of the pains in their lives is abortion. God created the need for men to get up and care for women and children. Women look to men for decisions. Women often equate sex with love and choose love from a man over having a child.”
His presentation is a savvy blend of Promise Keepers and New Age spiritualism, with a salting of psychological concepts tossed into the mix. “Men use anger as a way of processing grief,” he continues. “Abortion makes a lot of men angry and the men who are kept out of the decision are the angriest. They need to talk about what it would have meant for them to have had the child.”
To hear him and Wemhoff tell it, the country is filled with men longing to be fathers, and it is as if deadbeat dads are rare birds. “We are our brother’s keepers,” Wemhoff says. “We need to make a bigger deal of how abortion affects us. There are men out there who are willing to raise their child, but this right is denied by abortion. That’s hurt a lot of guys. It’s our nature to protect and provide, to build a family, to care for women and children. This is the Natural Law, the will of God.”
Wemhoff ‘s words visibly impact his audience as, one after another, men rise and confess that they, too, once participated in an abortion. “It is important for men to acknowledge that what they did was a sin,” Wemhoff counsels. “When we do that we can find healing from God.”
God’s mercy was also front and central in Anne Dierks’ workshop, From Tears to Triumph: Abortion Aftermath. The Director of an eleven-week post-abortion counseling program sponsored by the Archdiocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, Dierks sees women who she says are grieving and guilt-ridden.
While this is obviously a self-selecting demographic - who else chooses the Roman Catholic Church for post-abortion counseling? - Dierks cautioned conferees to withhold judgment. “Twenty five percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 will have abortions. This means 25 percent of the women sitting next to you at work, on an airplane, or in church. They’re there and we need to offer them the words of Jeremiah: ‘Rachel mourns for her children because her children are no more. But the Lord told her to dry her tears, that there is hope for her future.’”
This injunction notwithstanding, Dierks repeatedly referred to the women she counsels as “mothers of dead children.”
And therein lies the contradiction. For all the talk of love, compassion, and forgiveness, most speakers were unable to resist the lure of rhetorical overstatement. CNN was repeatedly referred to as the Clinton News Network and Hillary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were caricatured as Joan of Arc-like Amazons. The Right-to-Life Committee’s Hispanic Outreach Coordinator, Raimundo Rojas, a frequent lobbyist at the U.N., couldn’t help but bemoan the representatives appointed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “The delegates used to dress in Prada and Gucci and were always elegant,” he said. “Then Chavez comes into power and we have hairy-legged feminists in burlap who won’t talk to us.”
Planned Parenthood was similarly smeared. Dr. Angela Franks, a young Boston College theologian, described one of the group’s websites, Teen Wire, as pornographic. It “promotes teen sex play, mutual masturbation, oral sex and cyber sex,” she said. As an antidote, Franks developed www.pphurtsgirls.org. The site denounces Planned Parenthood as a purveyor of disease and immorality.
While Franks’ message was shrill, her delivery was not. She calmly urged listeners to tarnish Planned Parenthood’s image by publicizing Margaret Sanger’s ties to eugenicists. She also urged parents to organize boycotts of companies that donate to the organization and monitor teens who use their services. Taking a page from discredited former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, she hammered home a tired message: “Planned Parenthood covers up child abuse and statutory rape. We know that 70 percent of underage girls who get pregnant have been with predatory adult males who impregnate them. Planned Parenthood should be a mandatory reporter. We need to publicize that they are protecting child abusers.”
Although Kline’s successor eventually threw out the charges against Planned Parenthood, saying staff had done nothing wrong, Franks seems to think that if you denounce Planned Parenthood often enough, the message will stick.
In addition to workshops and plenaries, conference goers had a chance to mingle and shop. Bumper stickers and tee-shirts put forward clear messages: You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat; A person is a person no matter how small; Former fetus opposed to abortion; I vote pro-life; Abortion hurts women.
While some disagreements were voiced - Gregory Hasek, for example, shocked his audience when he said that abstinence education cannot work because “the cry for relief from emotional pain, the cry for love, is always louder than the cry for God” - it is opposition to abortion that glues National Right to Life Committee members together.
This is important since the group is no longer as homogeneous as it once was. Although most members are white and middle-aged-to-elderly, the organization has moved beyond its original Roman Catholic base, with Protestants prominently involved. At least one rabbi attended the 2007 confab.
As far as politics, the National Right to Life Committee is less radical than antiabortion groups like Operation Save America, and most of its members favor a gradual approach to restricting abortion availability. They’re content to lobby their representatives and work behind the scenes, rather than in front of clinic doors. Given their electoral successes and their Supreme Court majority, they see their star ascending and they couldn’t be happier.
“Abortion has nothing to do with privacy,” Presidential candidate Ron Paul told them. “The issue is whether the fetus is human and deserves the protection of law.”
The thunderous ovation greeting his statement made words unnecessary.