On the final day of the National Right to Life Convention, the handmaids arrived.
They milled around the lobby of the hotel in downtown Milwaukee, clad in red habits and white caps; their faces veiled, they spoke only to tell passersby, “Blessed be the fruit.”
The protest on Saturday capped a three-day event featuring sessions that may not have seemed out of place in Margaret Atwood’s misogynist dystopia—from “Pro-Life Concerns About Girl Scouts” to “Defeating Planned Parenthood’s Abortion Empire.” Speakers included Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and a host of other state politicians, as well as David Daleiden, who faces ongoing prosecution in California for his covert filming of Planned Parenthood officials.
At least year’s convention, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)’s political arm had yet to endorse presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who once declared himself “very pro-choice.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But this year, even as Trump faced a public firestorm for what some considered among his most offensive social media posts to date, officials made it clear how firmly they have embraced him.
“He’s doing an amazing job,” NRLC President Carol Tobias told Rewire in an interview. “For the pro-life movement, of course, I think the highest priority for everyone [was] the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.”
Tobias also cited Trump’s expansion of the Global Gag Rule; his elimination of U.S. funding to the U.N. Population Fund; and his commitment to defunding Planned Parenthood, a provision contained in a Republican health-care bill sputtering its way through the Senate.
“We’re just very pleased with President Trump and what he has been doing,” Tobias said.
Pressed by Rewire on some of Trump’s other positions, including his refugee and visa order— also known as the Muslim ban—and recent Twitter attack on MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski, Tobias declined to comment.
“I’m not going to get into it,” Tobias said of Trump’s Thursday post claiming Brzezinski was “bleeding badly” from a facelift, even as the backlash flashed on TV screens in the hotel lobby.
Among other victories for the anti-choice movement, Trump signed an executive order in May to gut the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt organizations like churches from making political endorsements or electioneering for candidates.
“There is so much that we can already do, but now the presidential administration, as well as our friends in Congress, are making it even easier for us,” the Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life told attendees of one panel on mobilizing churches for the anti-choice cause.
Pavone, who has been among Trump’s most vocal defenders in the anti-choice movement, told Rewire he had not yet seen the most recent round of sexist tweets. But he outlined a pragmatic approach to Trump, comparing him to an auto mechanic.
“If I ask the question, do I want everybody to be virtuous? Yes, I do,” Pavone told Rewire. “But if I’m going to get my car fixed, I’m not there to clean up the guy’s language, I’m there to get the car fixed. If you can do it, I choose to pay you, I’m hiring you to fix my car. That’s what we’re doing with the president.”
“Rewire Is Part of the American Pravda”
It’s difficult to plan ahead right now, David Daleiden acknowledged.
Speaking to a conference attendee who approached him within earshot of Rewire about organizing a visit to Kentucky this year, Daleiden cited the unpredictability of his schedule. He faces civil lawsuits and an ongoing prosecution in California for secretly filming abortion providers while posing as a representative for a fake company. He and his front group, the Center for Medical Progress, edited the videos to make it seem as if Planned Parenthood was profiting off fetal tissue donations. A series of investigations have found no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.
Addressing the convention Friday, Daleiden was greeted with thunderous applause and standing ovations, hailed by mistress of ceremonies Pam Rucinski as “one of the heroes of our time.” He touted efforts by states to strip funding from Planned Parenthood following the videos’ release.
“And now the U.S. Congress is on the brink of sending a bill to President Trump to sign to stop forcing taxpayers to prop up Planned Parenthood’s abortion empire with hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” Daleiden said to a cascade of applause.
After his speech, Rewire asked Daleiden about the impact of his videos and whether he intentionally violated a court order by releasing more of them in May.
“Rewire is part of the American Pravda,” Daleiden said, referring to the Russian newspaper that was once the official paper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “You guys are very fake news. I’m not going to talk to Rewire.”
His words reflected a general tenor of anti-journalism throughout the conference, as speaker after speaker condemned and mocked outlets from the New York Times to the Washington Post to CNN; here, again, they seemed in lockstep with Trump, who posted a video on Twitter Sunday that showed him pummeling a figure whose head was replaced by the CNN logo.
“We Attempt to Keep It Extremely Single Issue”
The convention came on the heels of projections from the Congressional Budget Office that 22 million people could lose their health insurance over the next ten years under the Senate health bill—the Better Care Reconciliation Act. The NRLC has focused its lobbying efforts on the bill’s anti-choice provisions, including defunding Planned Parenthood for a year and blocking tax credits for plans that cover abortion.
During NRLC Legislative Director Jennifer Popik’s panel on health reform, an audience member asked why Obamacare shouldn’t just be left to collapse on its own, as some Republicans claim it will.
“We don’t want people going without coverage, I think, as pro-lifers,” Popik responded. “We do want people having access to health care, life-saving health care.”
But pressed by Rewire on whether the organization has raised these concerns as part of its lobbying efforts—and whether the bill can be considered “pro-life,” given its projected effect—Popik demurred.
“We try to be careful, in terms of, we’re very single issue,” she said, while voicing skepticism about the 22 million number. “I guess the point here is that we attempt to keep it extremely single issue, but we do have that concern high in mind.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has backed Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s opposition to the Senate health bill, calling for changes to protect the system in the state, where Walker has rejected federal Medicaid expansion money but still managed to cover everyone living at the poverty level using state funds and another Obamacare provision.
Speaking to Rewire after his address, Walker seemed confident the Senate bill will ultimately pass, following adjustments.
“I think they’re going to get it through,” Walker said.
Asked about Trump’s attack on Brzezinski, Walker said, “I’ll leave that for [Trump and the White House] to comment on.”
Walker was among several state anti-choice politicians—including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Rep. Glenn Grothman, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel—who appeared at the convention to advertise their anti-choice bona fides. Ryan did so via video message.
Science From the Book of Genesis
While the political landscape has shifted seismically, much of the content at this year’s convention was recycled from previous years, including its reliance on junk science.
“Here we are talking about abortion and breast cancer again,” endocrinologist Joel Brind said, noting he has been speaking about the topic at this conference since 1993.
Brind continues to promote claims of a link between abortion and breast cancer, relying on a shadowy conspiracy theory about the National Cancer Institute suppressing evidence of the link. Rewire has debunked his claims in our “False Witnesses” series.
Brind also delivered a lecture titled, “We’re All Blobs of Tissue Now! How the Culture of Death Has Corrupted the Science of Life.” It featured a slide of the molecular structure of sex hormones, which he seemed to suggest made a case for the immutability of gender and the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib.
“You get this amazing sequence that is right out of the Book of Genesis,” Brind said. “You take a regular scientist, someone who does not give any credence to the scriptures, and they would never think of this, because they would dismiss it.”
Brind acknowledged he teaches this material, as well as the purported abortion-breast cancer link, to students in his classes at Baruch College, the flagship school of the City University of New York, one of the nation’s leading public universities.
Handmaids Asked to Leave
The handmaids didn’t linger for long in the lobby of the convention’s Hyatt Regency, because they were swiftly kicked out by a hotel manager. One of the handmaids, who spoke to Rewire on condition of anonymity, said the manager told them she was “pro-life” and they were offending her. The manager, who identified herself to Rewire only by her first name, Maria, denied expressing her personal opinions, saying the women were told to leave because their outfits were scaring children.
“I asked them if they could change; they’re more than welcome to stay on property and express their opinions, they just need to change, so as not to intimidate my guests,” Maria told Rewire. “They refused, and that’s why they had to leave.”
The women had rented a room at the hotel.
The imagery of the handmaids has found new resonance following the presidential election and in combination with the new TV series based on Atwood’s 30-year-old novel. Similar actions have cropped up in the Texas state legislature and at the U.S. Capitol.
“It shows a future where women’s bodies are just vessels for producing children and that they don’t have rights, that it’s controlled by the state,” the protester told Rewire. “It’s not even that dystopian anymore, this is literally happening right now.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify which Wisconsin lawmakers were in attendance. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner was scheduled to speak at the convention, but was replaced by Rep. Glenn Grothman.