OTI Online
Volume 13, 1989

Stranger in a Strange Land,
Attending a Right To Life Conference
by Eleanor J. Bader

Several days before the Supreme Court gutted the historic decision in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case which gave women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, more than 1500 members of the National Right to Life Committee (NRTLC) met in Minneapolis. Heady with anticipation of a court victory, they set out to discuss tactics and map strategy for the coming year. From planning what they hope will be a massive April 28th "Rally for Life", to organizing legislative lobbying in the 50 states, they bolstered one another's morale, taught concrete skills and provided a theological and political framework to support their agenda.

The all-white, (there were no more than five people of color, two male rabbis and three members of the Hari Krishna sect) largely female crowd included a large number of Catholic priests and nuns alongside the leadership of the many NRTLC chapters and affiliates. More than 100 "Teens for Life" held a simultaneous convention.

Far from being polyester-clad fanatics, they demonstrated themselves to be formidable foes and intelligent, able strategists and planners

The NRTLC has, since its founding in 1973, been considered the most staid organization in the anti-abortion movement. Their work takes place in Congress and the statehouses and reflects a penchant for legislative wrangling and electoral involvement. On the grassroots level, they organize letter writing and petition drives, visit elected officials and provide direct service help to pregnant women and girls through the (non-deceptive) Catholic church sponsored group, Birthright. While some of their members may be involved in Operation Rescue and other "militant" organizations, the NRTLC keeps a marked distance from the largely evangelical, Fundamentalist Christian rescue movement. Religious, tactical and stylistic differences keep the disparate components of the anti-abortion movement at arms length; not surprisingly, the leadership of Operation Rescue, the American Life League and Joseph Scheidler's Pro-Life Action League of Chicago were nowhere to be seen at the NRTLC convention.

In fact, James Bopp, NRTLC counsel, explicitly criticized these groups before a packed press conference. "It is our policy to pursue only lawful means in creating an abortion-free America," he said. "The appropriate way for us to reach our goal is to operate within the legal system of the United States. Others have been motivated by other rationales. If they commit unlawful acts that are violent we condemn them. We condemn violence in all forms, whether it is the violence of abortion or violence against property."

NRTLC president John C. Willke and executive director David O' Steen were quick to point out that they both oppose capital punishment. Willke also said that on a recent trip to the Middle East he told Israeli government officials that that country would be better served if women in the military carried pregnancies rather than guns. Although Willke was unclear about his reasoning - does he think women are unsuited for the military and capable only of mothering, or does he oppose the Israeli military and support a two-state, negotiated peace? - his past support for ex-president Ronald Reagan and current man-in-the-White House George Bush, cast doubt on his pacifism and respect for women's capabilities.

Nonetheless, the fact that the NRTLC is not a monolithic lot was continually underscored. Feminists for Life, a secular group whose members support the ERA and a host of other pro -women, progressive positions, wore stickers urging the government to "eliminate human problems, not human beings".

At the same time, members of various Knights of Columbus chapters, Lutherans and Presbyterians for Life and Columban Fathers and Sisters were on-hand with misogynist, anti-choice messages about love, marriage, sexuality and family life.

Although many of the conferees were traditional Catholics, when discussions veered from the subject of abortion there were questions and disagreements. Nowhere was this clearer than in the seemingly tireless push from NRTLC staffers to broaden the movement agenda to include infanticide and euthanasia. While not new, this emphasis resulted in confusion about organizational priorities that was never completely resolved; virtually everyone seemed to agree that the three are linked, yet, they never ironed out strategic plans for legislative and legal actions and expressed uncertainty about how to do this.

But that did not matter. The supposed link between the "three evils" was hammered home repeatedly, as though getting the ideology out, and not setting an actual action plan, was the goal of the 1989 conference. "The charter of the NRTLC says that we seek protection under the law for all living humans," said James Bopp. "This means that we oppose abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. The denigration of human life has dulled our consciousness in this society. The very same rationale - inconvenience - that leads a woman to kill an unborn child can lead to the killing of unwanted Aunt Mary or a handicapped baby."

"Euthanasia violates justice," added John Dolan, a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota. "Judging a life as not worth living is what the Nazis did. It contravenes the demands of common decency. A doctor or nurse should not decide if a person is worth saving. Their job is to save them." Examples were given: a selfish daughter, estranged from her mother for 25 years, reenters the picture and says that she wants the elderly woman unplugged from life support systems. Is the mother ready to die? asked the speaker. Of course not, the conferees agreed. If God wanted her to die, she would die while hooked up to the machinery. But what about a terminally ill patient who has decided, for him or herself, that s/he wishes to die? Do we honor living wills? asked Dolan. Can death ever be perceived as a friend, or must it always be an enemy, to be fought and hated?

Many in the crowd nodded in horror as Dolan posed these ethical dilemmas, visibly angry that human beings are making decisions they deem appropriate for God, and God alone.

Dolan then threw an unexpected curve to the plenary crowd. In opposing what he called "institutional heartlessness", he made some concrete proposals that merit looking at. "We need to ask why people are so in need of desperate measures like assisted suicide," he said. "We need to develop crisis critical care centers." He also recommended lobbying for pay hikes for those working in the caring professions, the nurses, nurses aides, orderlies and recreational therapists who "are the lowest paid and least respected". Lastly, he cautioned against using loaded, offensive language; referring to people as vegetables or as defective, he said, "reflects a corruption of moral attitudes".

The crowd's humanity and moral soundness was reinforced again and again. "We must lead the nation," said NRTLC executive director David O'Steen. "There is no organizational opposition to these practices out there. The burden is on you to turn the nation around and restore sanity." This so called burden infused the conferees with a sense of purpose, putting them on the side of God, the angels and political correctness.

Details were unnecessary as the "high moral ground" unified the crowd, at least on the surface. But while abortion and euthanasia - and the allegedly horrible social consequences of them - were discussed in detail, infanticide was barely mentioned. No one referred to the highly publicized case of Rudy Linares, the young man who unplugged his infant son after watching him lie hopelessly in a hospital bed for months. Nor did they cite other instances of the practice.

Instead, they allowed Debbie Petrie and her four-year-old son Trent to tell their story in the exhibit hall. A mother of four, Petrie told anyone who would listen that "I knew there were problems with my last pregnancy from the very beginning. The doctor said everything was okay. Then one day I felt something really wrong and I returned to the doctor. I was dilated at the time of the exam. They gave me medicine to prevent contractions and the doctor kept saying that if the baby was born now he (sic) would not survive. I was 20 weeks pregnant. The doctor never mentioned the neonatal intensive care unit. Luckily a nurse asked me if I wanted someone from intensive care to come and see me. I said yes." Once the 12-ounce, 10-inch-long baby was delivered, he was resuscitated and put in the unit where he gained weight and began to develop. Although Trent is blind, Petrie is outraged that "there would have been no legal problems if we did not choose life supports for him." Her emotional, heartfelt presentation, aided by Trent riding his tricycle around the exhibit space, was gauged to elicit both sympathy and empathy and force us to conclude that her brave decision was the only compassionate option. Since no one was on hand to counter her experience and offer testimony about the agony of watching a terminally ill child hang on to life supports without any sign of improvement, or to discuss the impact of such a decision on other children or the household unit, Petrie's one-dimensional saga was meant for the heart, not the head, and attempted, once again, to impose an absolute moral standard on the rest of the world.

But not everything was presented as a moral absolute. A particularly eye opening workshop on Project Rachel described Catholic church efforts to create a "pastoral ministry of reconciliation for women who have had abortions". Victoria Thorn, of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, helped create Project Rachel in 1984 because she felt that it was possible for women "traumatized by abortion to move beyond the point of guilt and intense grieving". Project Rachel trains professional counselors and clergy to work with Catholic women who wish to put the abortion experience behind them.

Although hardliners within the church have lambasted Rachel for weakening the papal stand on abortion and making grave sins permissible by removing the long-term penalties for them, Thorn sees it differently. "To be healed after an abortion is a way of encountering the Lord," she said. Father Joseph Nauman, a St. Louis priest associated with Project Rachel calls it an injunction to "hate the sin, love the sinner". Despite his expressed compassion for women experiencing unplanned pregnancies, his virulent opposition to abortion shed a different light on the Project. For him, Project Rachel is a way to bring wishy-washy priests to the anti-abortion cause.

Since pastoral counselors affiliated with Rachel only see women whose emotional problems were exacerbated by abortion, the evidence points to the practice as hurtful and damaging. In addition, since they counsel only Catholic women who grew up believing abortion to be the sin of sins, they never hear witness from women who were raised differently and who have little or no remorse following the termination of an unwanted pregnancy.

Rachel does not exist in every diocese nationwide. Thorn's program was set up as a model. But why some diocese have jumped at the chance to do this ministry and others have not is unclear. And while it is certainly possible that some diocese have unpure motives - perhaps they are hoping against hope to lure lapsed Catholics back into the fold by appealing to their desire for compassion, forgiveness and pluralism - it is also clear that Project Rachel is filling a service gap for countless women and their mates.

The pro-choice movement's task, then, is to be aware of all efforts, Rachel included, that take advantage of emotional fragility and tell women' that they should feel guilty or bad. Discussion among pro-choice activists is urgently needed to forge a strategy to deal with Rachel. One option, of course, is to run our own counseling programs. For if the Supreme Court or the states overturn Roe, it will reinforce the doubts of women who ambivalently chose abortion and who, months or years later, are still not sure they made the right decision. The government's implicit statement that 'we were wrong, but now we're righting ourselves,' could open the floodgates of confusion, sorrow and regret. We need to be there, for if we are not, Project Rachel will be the only place to turn for counseling and assistance.

Our job is also to make pastoral counselors listen to women who are not "victims of abortion", but molders and shapers of their own destinies. At the same time, it is essential to break the misogynist theological stranglehold that keeps women in line by controlling their sexuality and their options. Not to do this leaves an enormous number of people vulnerable to the arguments of anti-abortion forces.

For it is the unorganized that the NRTLC seeks to convert. Conceding that about 25 percent of the American populace is unequivocally pro-choice, the NRTLC wants to go for the center, the people whose positions are unformed or who are "personally opposed" to abortion, but think it should remain legal. Another target population is teenagers, and veteran organizer and teacher Molly Kelly was on-hand to train delegates in speaking to youth. A fast-talking, funny and charismatic speaker, Kelly boasts of addressing 300 school groups in 21 states and three Canadian provinces during the 1988-89 school year. "Abortion is so controversial some schools will not let you in," she says. "You can get in on the chastity issue because of AIDS. It's now seen as a healthy option and if more people embraced chastity before marriage there would be less abortion."

Kelly makes no bones of the fact that she sees her job as "entertaining kids and conveying the fact that I love you, I care about you and I need you in the pro-life movement...We need to reach our teens. They are the most important ingredient in the pro-life movement. We will win. We have God on our side, but the timing of the victory depends on the involvement of our youth."

She then went on to describe how to teach, exhorting the crowd to motivate, activate and freely communicate. Describing a blend of folksy humor and concrete, factual material, she urged the potential educators in the audience to "affirm our young people. Respect engenders respect. If you treat young people like animals, they'll act like animals. Answer their questions. Send them out on a high. Don't be judgmental. No 'why don't you' or "Why aren't you'. Touch their hearts. Tickle their funny bones. Make fun of yourself. Elevate them, lift them, energize them with your enthusiasm and enlist them in the pro-life movement."

When debating someone who is prochoice, she said, it is imperative that you be direct and clear. She cited a recent situation in which the moderator asked a pro-choice speaker to discuss when life begins. The woman answered glibly, telling the group "that doesn't matter. It's irrelevant." This, smiled Kelly, gave her an opportunity to go for the jugular. And she did. "Always identify the problem. Identify the solution and identify which side you are on. Interject yourself in the talk. Tell them why you're doing this work. Verify your information. Be truthful. If they catch you in a lie it's all over."

Kelly's fire and passion are contagious, and even if you vehemently disagree with her conclusions, she is clearly a leader to be learned from and perhaps emulated. The fact that more than 100 teens attended a simultaneous "Teens for Life" conference is largely due to her efforts. While many of the youths in attendance were the daughters and sons of anti-abortion leaders, it is significant that they are not rebelling by rejecting religion or finding separate spheres for activism, but rather, are marching to the same tune as mom, dad and Molly Kelly.

In blue jeans and tee-shirts, miniskirts and tank tops, the teens did not conform to stereotypes about antichoice, fanatical young people. They rallied, told personal stories, honed debating skills, ate pizza, swam in the hotel pool and elected officers. For them, abortion and sexuality are simple matters - the choices are between right and wrong, morality and immorality, good and evil. Sixteen year-old Karen Gloe of Watertown, SD, for example, said that she is antichoice because "I just adore little kids. I don't see how anyone could ever not give a child a chance, how they could kill a baby." A lot of her peers, said Jennifer McNearney of Rosemont, MT, have been forced to abort "because their parents aren't ready to be grandparents yet", something she sees as both disrespectful and unfair. Wearing, "I'm worth waiting for" buttons to indicate their preference for chastity before marriage (if there is any option save heterosexuality, any choice but marriage, these young women are oblivious to it) these devout Catholics are surefire candidates for the services of Project Rachel should they ever weaken and get unintentionally pregnant.

"Teens for Life" is training its membership in the rudiments of grassroots, community organizing. By the time they are out of high school, members will have participated in electoral work, lobbied their legislators, participated in walk-a-thons and marches, organized rallies, designed leaflets and brochures, gone house-to-house discussing the issue and distributing material, sold literature and buttons, held fundraising events and led discussions and debates. Some of them will undoubtedly go on to become seasoned, skilled organizers for this or other movements.

While the teens, seemingly equally divided between females and males, shared information and got to know one another, the adult conferees attended plenary sessions and workshops on everything from working with state legislators, to debating abortion in the media and making links with antichoice activists from around the world. They questioned each other, argued, shared resources and experiences, laughed, cried and planned for the future. A 54-person board was elected (38 of the members are women) as were officers (five men, four women). Uniting them throughout the three days of sessions was a fierce belief in the ecclesiastical Tightness of their mission. Prodding them is government, and a videotaped welcome from President George Bush made them giddy with pleasure and gave them confidence that they will win this battle. Far from being polyester-clad fanatics, they demonstrated themselves to be formidable foes and intelligent, able strategists and planners. With 50 separate battles looming in 50 state legislatures - and a Supreme Court perched to winnow away the right to abortion - the pro-choice community has its work cut out for it. It will not be easy.

Attending the National Right to Life Committee convention was, as you might expect, like being a stranger in a very strange and extremely frightening land. Reasonable, smiling, friendly people were everywhere, expressing earnest and passionate anti-abortion sentiments. Their dedication was palpable, as was the sense of moral purpose which keeps them in the thick of the issue.

With one exception, they expressed tremendous empathy for women caught betwixt and between. A large and growing network of homes where unmarried pregnant women (they cannot seem to fathom an unwanted pregnancy in a nuclear family) can live for free while pregnant and for up to a year after delivery, addressed the charge that the anti-abortion movement cares only for the fetus.

But there was an exception that broke the mood of caring and nurturing and revealed an insidious, misogynst undercurrent. John C. Willke, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, reported on a story he read in the Knoxville Journal. According to the article, he said, a zealous reporter tracked down the 19-year-old daughter of Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. (McCorvey had attempted to get the courts to allow her to have an abortion. When her request was denied, she was forced to bear the child and decided to put it up for adoption.) Aided by an adoption counselor, "the reporter went to Seattle, located the child, took her to a restaurant and told her that she was the daughter of Jane Roe. She did not know who Jane Roe was. The reporter explained the Roe v. Wade case and handed the young lady a People magazine story about Norma McCorvey. She looked at it, threw it down and ran out of the room," said Willke. The hushed crowd was clearly delighted with the tale, cheering Willke's perverse recounting of the interaction. "Imagine your mother not wanting you so much she went to the Supreme Court to have you aborted," he thundered. "The young woman was shaking all over and crying."

Surely not surprising. What was surprising, however, was the fact that the audience seemed impervious to the obvious cruelty and hostility such an interview was laced with. Caring? Prolife? I shuddered to contemplate the consequences.

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