A Pro-Choice Texan’s Dispatch From the National Right to Life Convention

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Commentary Abortion

A Pro-Choice Texan’s Dispatch From the National Right to Life Convention

Andrea Grimes

Throughout the convention, I expected to feel rage or anger. I expected to steam, to struggle to hold my tongue. Instead, I felt sadness and, to a small degree, pity.

Two months ago, when I signed up to attend the National Right to Life Convention (NRLC) in Grapevine, Texas, I could not have known that it would kick off the morning after Wendy Davis’ epic filibuster. Two months ago, the media was hailing a legislative session of compromise in Texas, with lawmakers reportedly agreeing to an ostensible truce on the abortion issue, focusing instead on restoring funding to family planning in my state. That was before Gov. Rick Perry pulled a bait-and-switch on progressives who’d had the bad sense to take the Republican Party at its word.

But there I was, in the lesser of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s two Hyatt hotels, stepping off the elevator with two men in priestly garb, their waists cinched with rope. I arrived a few minutes after registration had closed for the day, but a nice lady took pity on my tardiness and handed me my badge and a thick packet of programming notes and baby-plastered propaganda.

I milled around that evening visiting sparsely supervised vendor booths stocked with t-shirts and DVDs before happening upon a deeply unsettling table full “Umbert the Unborn” cartoons. It seems that “the world’s most lovable baby hasn’t even been born yet!” Umbert is a “pre-born infant of yet undetermined gender,” but of course the poster fetus of the National Catholic Register nevertheless prefers male pronouns; his “mother’s womb is his private universe, playground and think-tank from which he can anticipate life and the world that awaits him.”

My outlook was perhaps less sunny than Umbert’s. Despite Tuesday night’s resounding pro-choice victory, during which 500 people chanted Republican Lt. Governor David Dewhurst into cowed frustration in the state Senate chamber, I had no illusions about what came next: a second special session, with abortion legislation at the top of the agenda. I came to NRLC ready to find myself surrounded by fired up right-wingers revved up with the glory of their God.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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Instead, I found a few hundred unfailingly polite white people, mostly middle-aged or older, shuffling sedately from conference room to conference room. It was, in a word, jarring. These were the people who would see Texans die behind legislation that would put 800 miles between a pregnant person and an abortion provider?

Sometime that first night, a flyer appeared under my hotel room door. It warned me: “National Right to Life Cannot Be Trusted.”

Alright, I’m listening.

Between phrases like “radical homosexual agenda” and “Mitt Romney’s assault on liberty,” I was able to gather that the NRLC is not nearly right-wing enough for the personhood crowd, who consider Ann Coulter and Billy Graham to be inveterate baby-killers. I did enjoy discovering, after visiting a suggested website, that the authors of this flyer consider Donald Trump to be a “Republican pretender.” Common ground in the unlikeliest of places.

The next morning, I found a back-row seat in the morning general session, looking forward to the party that was sure to begin with the arrival of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who out-Tea Partied David Dewhurst into a D.C. seat earlier this year. Cruz delivered, but the crowd didn’t, giving a surprisingly tepid standing ovation when Cruz called for the abolishment of the IRS.

But then he got to the good stuff, quoting a friend who remembered the glory days of 1969 when “women still thought aborting a child was a terrible thing to contemplate.” No doubt they did; in America’s pre-Roe v. Wade era, I can’t imagine any woman relishing a visit to a dirty motel room and a cash payment in exchange for bodily autonomy.

The ultimate result of the proposed legislation that Cruz championed, and that has been promoted in Texas’ second special session, is this: Abortion facilities will have to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, effectively shutting down 37 of Texas’ 42 existing abortion clinics. No abortion providers will exist west of Interstate 35, leaving the whole of west Texas—half of the second-largest state in the union—without abortion providers. Doctors who provide abortions will be forced to gain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of those remaining providers, a challenging task considering most hospitals don’t want to deal with protestors lining their sidewalks. And medication abortions—the two-dose regimen that Texans can administer themselves at home—will become a thing of the past.

With that on my mind, I spent the afternoon in seminars; the program listed social media training courses, advice on “overcoming pro-abortion opposition within a congregation,” and one very tempting offering called “We Are the Sheep … Where Are the Shepherds?”

But I didn’t want to hear people talk the talk. I wanted to see them walk the walk. That’s how I ended up in a session on international adoptions of special needs kids, led by a single mom named Joleigh who told us, “My significant other turned out to be a short, swarthy special needs child.”

She said that her toddler, a mouthy little girl from Bulgaria who had begun calling her prosthetic leg “Leggy,” was just one of untold thousands of children across the world housed in orphanages offering varying degrees of safety and care. These are the world’s discarded children, sometimes diagnosed with conditions like Down Syndrome and spina bifida, others simply thrown out because of their racial backgrounds.

I am a child-free person, and during that seminar, even I found myself wondering: Could I give a home to one of these kids? My heart broke when I saw the slideshow of photos of terminally ill children in need of a safe, loving home and welcoming family with whom to spend their final weeks, months, and years.

That seminar was meant to address a favorite refrain of anti-choice folks: that there is no such thing as an unwanted child. But certainly the website Joleigh directed us to, RainbowKids.com, and the overflow of kids in foster care here in the United States, show that there are many, many unwanted children in search of what Joleigh called “unfound families.” There are simply not enough folks who are answering that call, and I found myself walking out of the room with a profound sense of respect and admiration for a woman who had, as a single person, given a forever home to a child without one.

Of course, for all the good it does and is, adoption is not an alternative to pregnancy. It is an alternative to parenthood. That adoption seminar was a brief relief; the next thing I heard, in another dim, brown room in the basement of the Hyatt, was that Right to Life was largely unconcerned with making adoptions—domestic, specifically—easier for Americans. Indeed, RTL is singularly focused on forcing all people (let’s please remember that cisgender women are not the only people facing pregnancy, whether unplanned, unwanted, or otherwise) to carry their pregnancies to term.

In the next seminar I attended, titled “They Don’t Care,” National Right to Life president Carol Tobias spent 40 minutes hitting the highlights of accumulated anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric before taking questions from attendees. One attendee asked precisely the question I had on my mind, even if it wasn’t phrased precisely the way I might ask it: If anti-choicers care so much about babies, why not work harder to make adoption easier and cheaper? Her response: “We certainly promote it, but we haven’t gotten into the specifics of that. We just think it’s a good thing.”

Adoption may be “good” in the eyes of the Right to Lifers, but for Tobias and her supporters, forced pregnancy and the dismantling of a social safety net are the top priority. I mustered the gumption to raise my hand, asking Tobias to elaborate on a comment she’d made early in her presentation about abortion as a “huge money-making industry.”

I wondered, aloud, if she could give me some examples of what to say to people who don’t believe Planned Parenthood employees are lining their pockets with gold-plated fetuses?

Everyone in the room turned around to stare at me. That moment in school when you fear you’ve asked the dumbest question of all time, and the A-group is going to mock your knock-off Doc Martens mercilessly until Christmas break? That was this moment.

Tobias told me that if Planned Parenthood really cared about women, its doctors would do abortions for free. This was supposed to be the big burn I could present to “opponents,” as if certain health-care providers—targeted as they are, by violent and murderous anti-choice zealots—should automatically be expected to work gratis. A woman in the row in front of me handed me a flyer detailing Planned Parenthood’s reported income and funding sources from 2010. The look she gave me was a mix of “Oh, honey” and “Prepare to have your mind blown.”

The flyer demonstrated little more than the fact that Planned Parenthood derives its support not from Satan’s heinous minions, but from funds that are a mix of private contributions, government grants, and patient payments. Breaking news, this wasn’t. Mind blown? Not hardly. No, that came later, courtesy of HBO.

I retired to my room in time to watch the original Proposition 8 plaintiffs get married live on the Rachel Maddow Show and stayed up late to finish Magic Mike on premium cable, a luxury I do not afford myself at home in Austin.

Thusly refreshed, I rose the next morning anxious to hear what Lt. Gov. Dewhurst had to say to the gathered sort-of-masses. I watched as he posed goofily with devotees standing to the side of a flag-lined dais, paying not a whit of attention to the NRLC counsel informing a somewhat riveted audience of the government’s plan to summarily kill them all with end-of-life legislation that had nothing to do with pain but with less worthy, in her mind, reasons that included “loss of dignity” and “loss of autonomy.” Pain: important when discussing fetuses, irrelevant when discussing living humans with mixed-up priorities about how they’d like to meet their maker.

I was excited for the Dewhurst show. What would he say to tireless supporters who hadn’t been in that room on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning? Would he double down on his promise to punish reporters who he believed had incited what he called an unruly mob? Would the crowd welcome him with 15 minutes of sustained applause?

They did not. They clapped, they stood, and they sat the hell down, ready for instructions. It is no wonder, I thought, that Dewhurst interpreted Tuesday night’s uproar as a mob—if this is as excited as Right to Lifers get, I could see why Dewhurst became overwhelmed by some raucous clapping in the senate chamber.

But we have to remember that David Dewhurst suffers from a terminal lack of self-awareness. On Tuesday night, as the minutes and seconds ticked down toward midnight, and the gallery resonated from end to end with a righteous uproar, he actually told people to quiet down so he could take a vote on the very bill everyone was there to oppose.

David Dewhurst told people to shut up so he could take their rights away.

That morning in his NRLC speech, he blamed Planned Parenthood, the International Socialist Organization, and the Occupy movement for whipping SB 5 opponents into a frenzy. This man, who literally told people in one sentence how they could prevent him from taking a vote on a bill that was guaranteed to pass, blamed his own failure on his constituents, who he believes are so profoundly stupid that they would blindly do the bidding of whatever scrub-clad, speculum-wielding demon bitch he imagines pulls the delicate brainstrings of Planned Parenthood’s ignorant devotees, slaves as they are to affordable cancer screenings and contraception.

“We got the bill passed at midnight only to see that time ran out to sign the bill,” Dewhurst explained to the crowd, conveniently omitting the fact that state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) had been making the media rounds that night, telling reporters that the 12:02 a.m. vote on June 26 was perfectly legal. This despite the fact that the special session had ended at midnight, shooting Wendy Davis into political stardom. This despite the fact that 180,000 people watched the midnight deadline pass on the Texas Tribune’s live feed.

I might feel bad for David Dewhurst if he didn’t so perfectly embody the bizarre combination of haplessness and malevolency that has come to define the flailing right wing in this country.

Probably the newly filed second special session legislation, which mirrors SB 5, will pass. I have very few illusions about that, despite my excitement about seeing thousands descend upon the capitol this week to make their voices heard in support of reproductive justice.

But if and when this legislation passes, it won’t be because anti-choice groups are better organized, more energized, and more representative of average Texans who are reasonable, pro-medicine, pro-science people who respect bodily autonomy. That much was apparent at the NRLC. No, if and when it passes, it will be because Republican politicians want to win primaries and have, over the past decade or so, very successfully capitalized on public fear—of a non-white America, of foreign terrorist threats, of empty gun racks. Those issues have conveniently aligned with an anti-choice base that is happy to piggyback on a party that thrives on the intersection of their anti-woman, pro-patriarchal ideals with the larger message, which is: Screw everyone who threatens my wholly unearned privilege.

In that decorous applause for Cruz and later Dewhurst, what I heard was a deafening smugness, emanating from hundreds of people who believe, deeply and passionately, that they know what’s best for others, not just in terms of reproductive rights, but in many ways. At Carol Tobias’ seminar on Planned Parenthood, a question about whether anti-choicers only care about people when they’re in the womb was answered, blithely, with the solution that individual Christians could do nice things for other people sometimes.

What the NRLC taught me is that there is a disconnect between the people who attended that convention and the politicians who claim to speak for them.

David Dewhurst, the consummate stooge, could not have spoken more dispassionately or with less conviction and charisma. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, oozed with a well-oiled D.C. slickness. And Rick Perry opened the convention by speaking, as he always does, with the confidence of a man who hasn’t heard the word “no” in decades. More than the fact that these men don’t know what it would be like to face an unplanned pregnancy, they plainly do not care.

nrlc photoThroughout the convention, I expected to feel rage or anger. I expected to steam, to struggle to hold my tongue. Instead, I felt sadness and, to a small degree, pity. Maybe I was hanging out at the wrong seminars, but the people sitting in those dimly lit brown rooms weren’t rage-inducing. They were versions of my grandparents. They were people whose faith—however misguided in my eyes, and however predicated on a fear of autonomous female sexuality—had been co-opted by affluent men looking to secure a seat of power.

After racing back down I-35 to Austin, eager to put sticky, searing Texas pavement between myself and 500 people with a collective fetus fetish, I met my best friend for mimosas. I never drink mimosas, but orange is a color that’s happening in my life these days. I tried to describe, for her, my feeling of sadness and pity. But I could see the skepticism in Carrie’s face. It’s hard to feel pity for people when Texans, desperate to end their pregnancies, will die because of the legislation they support.