One Woman’s Heart: From Pro-life to Choice

English: Pro-lifers from the 2004 March for Life.

English: Pro-lifers from the 2004 March for Life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This guest post chronicling Claire Conner’s time in the “pro-life” movement was adapted by the author from a chapter in her book,  Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (disclosure: this is MOMocrats’ affiliate link on Amazon). Claire Conner will be our guest on this week’s edition of MOMocrats MOMochat.

I was a pro-life crusader before the label “pro-life” was coined. For twelve years, I worked feverishly to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision. Then, in 1984, I bucked my church, ignored every pro-life endorsement and did the unthinkable—I voted for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, two pro-choice Democrats. Four years later, sixteen years after I’d embraced overturning Roe as the cause of my life, I walked away from the pro-life movement entirely.

This is my story.

I was a cradle Catholic raised in a strict Catholic home and educated in Catholic schools.  On the day after Christmas in 1966, I married my college sweetheart in a traditional Roman Catholic ceremony. Several months later, when my always erratic menstrual cycle stopped entirely, I wondered if I could be pregnant.

I knew nothing about pregnancy other than a basic knowledge of how it happened, so I placed absolute trust in my doctor, a Catholic obstetrician practicing on the north side of Dallas, Texas. In March of 1967, my doctor confirmed my pregnancy and offered guidelines for the next seven months: smoking—okay, drinking—okay, weight gain—no more than twenty pounds. He patted me on the arm, assured me that I was healthy and sent me home to rest.

A month later, when I complained about unrelenting morning sickness, I was given a prescription to stop the nausea and sent home with the assurance that everything was perfectly normal. That night I awakened from a sound sleep, sweating. Under the glare of the bathroom light, I realized that my nightgown was soaked with blood. My husband pressed a towel between my legs, replaced my gown with a clean one, and wrapped me in a blanket. We raced to the hospital.

The emergency-room staff tried to slow the bleeding. A young staff doctor poked, prodded and pushed before announcing, “You haven’t lost the baby.” He proceeded to talk about things I’d never heard of before: dilatation and curettage, cervix and placenta, spontaneous miscarriages, and trimesters.

Today, young mothers pore over pregnancy guides and websites, but in 1967, few resources were available. One, Pregnancy and Birth by Alan Guttmacher, was not recommended to me. Dr. Guttmacher favored contraception—an absolute no-no for Catholic women—and his book would never be suggested by a Catholic doctor. I know this is hard to believe, but in the world of pregnancy and childbirth education, 1967 was still the dark ages.

While this young doctor tried to educate me, I was totally focused on “you . . . haven’t . . . lost . . . the . . . baby.”  I rubbed my belly and willed my child to live.

My concentration broke when the doctor said, “While I’m struggling to save your baby, there are women paying doctors to kill theirs.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“These women don’t want to be pregnant, so their doctors end their pregnancies,” he explained. “It’s happening all over, maybe even in one of the ORs in this hospital tonight.”

“What happens to the babies?” I asked.

“They’re cut into pieces and thrown in the trash.”

“I could never do that,” I swore. “Never.”

I was sent home with strict orders to stay in bed. On the third afternoon, I awakened from a nap with severe cramps. A few minutes later, I passed a mass of blood and tissue which I carefully gathered in a towel. Tears poured down my cheeks while I said the words of Catholic baptism—“I baptize you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”—words reserved for a priest, except in an emergency. I carried the towel with the remains of my baby to the hospital.

After a D & C to scrape any remaining tissue from my uterus, I was pronounced young and healthy. “You’ll have other babies,” the doctor told me.

“I don’t want other babies,” I said.

Like so many women who’ve miscarried, I grieved alone. I held the memory of that tiny being in my heart, and I believed I had sent a new saint to Paradise. While I mourned the life I’d lost, I nursed my outrage toward those women who deliberately killed their babies.

In September of 1969, my first son was born, the most wonderful creature I’d ever seen and absolutely perfect. Before I left Dallas for Wisconsin, my obstetrician reminded me of the abortions occurring in hospitals all over the country. “All loyal Catholics must do their part to stop this,” he told me.

My church taught that human life begins at the instant the sperm and the egg unite and God infuses a soul into a new being. Destroying that innocent life is a most terrible sin, one punishable by an eternity in Hell. I knew all of that, but I had a brand new baby. I was too busy to take up the anti-abortion cause.

Then, in the fall of 1972, I met Dr. Charles E. Rice, professor of law at Notre Dame Law School and a friend of my parents. Over dinner, Rice delivered a passionate argument against abortion—punctuated with a vivid description of a vacuum machine ripping the developing baby out of the womb and turning it to mush. That evening I lost my appetite and my neutrality.

The next day, I called a group of my Catholic friends. Together we launched an anti-abortion committee aligned with Wisconsin Citizens Concerned for the Unborn, the organization that became the Wisconsin Right to Life Committee.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Roe v. Wade decision. The sweeping decision, supported by a 7–2 majority, removed all restriction on abortion in the first trimester. Restriction in later pregnancy had to allow abortion when the life or health of the mother was at risk.

The feminists celebrated, and I girded for war. It would take a national movement to overturn Roe, and I intended to be part of it. I was positive that the Court had made a terrible mistake, but I didn’t focus only on stopping abortion.

I saw myself as a crusader for justice; justice for those not yet born and justice for those who were in need. Guaranteeing the basic necessities of life to those in need was an essential part of reducing the demand for abortion. I was positive that all pro-lifers, regardless of political party or ideology, would agree.

In the summer of 1976, my parents offered a clue that I might be wrong. “You can’t stop abortion with government programs,” Mother said.

“Government is never a solution,” Dad added. “Private charity is always the answer.”

I disagreed, pointing out that private charity alone never worked. Government was part of the solution, too.

Mother and Dad, the first two members in Chicago of the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, brought out the latest John Birch Society Bulletin, a special edition to honor America’s Bicentennial. In it, Birch founder Robert Welch surveyed the highlights of American history, focusing on those aspects that the right wingers favored—freedom and tiny government.

Of the early twentieth century, Welch wrote about what he called “a healthy kind of poverty” offset by freedom from all government interferences and programs.

“So,” I said to Mother, “you want women and their newborn babies to enjoy that same healthy kind of poverty, free from interference by the government?

“There you go with those bleeding-heart liberal tendencies,” she answered me.

“Government never fixes anything,” Dad added. “It only destroys liberty.”

It took me awhile, but I finally figured out that too many politicians agreed with Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. The push to “reform” welfare—the bailiwick of the Republican Party—worked so well that child poverty rates steadily increased from a low of around 14% in the Johnson administration to a Reagan administration high of 21%. Much of this was accomplished by politicians who were 100% pro-life.

For the most part, pro-life movement leaders weren’t one bit bothered when their 100% pro-life politicians embraced steep cuts and demanded even more. No consciences were pricked by cuts to federal nutrition programs that took food out of the mouths of women and their babies. No one seemed to care when cuts to medical programs left poor women without access to basic care.

I began to wonder about good “pro-life” folks who slapped a “Choose Life” bumper sticker on their cars, but cared less what happened once a baby was born.

At the beginning of the 1980s, it was clear that the anti-abortion movement had undergone a major transformation. The collection of local groups like the one I headed had been amalgamated into a national structure with growing political savvy and political clout.

Early leaders of the National Right to Life Committee had realized that the movement had to move beyond its Roman Catholic roots. Help arrived when Francis Schaeffer, a well-respected evangelical Christian, took up the pro-life mantle and told American evangelicals that God wanted them to be involved in the political process. Schaeffer empowered other leaders who shaped, defined, and controlled the pro-life movement: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.

Together, these folks created the “religious right,” and helped forge the pro-life movement into a one-issue, one-party political operation with opposition to abortion as the litmus test.

A political candidate could be pro-death penalty, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-war, pro-guns, anti-aid to the poor, anti-healthcare, anti-food stamps, anti-civil and still be heralded as 100% pro-life. This contradiction bothered me as much as the fact that almost every candidate the pro-life movement endorsed was a Republican and a man.

For many years, I had led my local pro-life group, served on the board of the state organization, debated members of the National Organization for Women, appeared on local media and written scores of letters. But nothing mattered more to me than talking to high school students. Armed with slides of babies developing in the womb and plastic models of the fetus at different stages of pregnancy, I argued that abortion was the deliberate taking of a human life and should never be legal.

In every class, someone asked about abortion in cases of rape. I shared the findings of Dr. John Willke, the chairman of the National Right to Life Committee who held that the “psychic trauma of assault rape” made pregnancy unlikely. I quoted the section in Handbook on Abortion, where Willke claimed that 3,500 cases of rape in the Minneapolis-St Paul (Minnesota) area revealed “zero cases of pregnancy.” In later books, Willke calculated that fewer than 300 pregnancies per year resulted from rape.

It was a shock to me when I learned that these figures were wrong. According to the Guttmacher Institute and other experts, the actual number of pregnancies from rape was closer to 25,000 every year.

Questions about rape usually lead to the question of incest. The pro-life movement relied on the argument that the perpetrator should be punished but the unborn child had committed no crime, but that never satisfied me. I worried about the girl who was forced to carry her father or uncle’s child. What happened to her?

I argued that abortion of “defective” children would lead to the systematic elimination of defective or ‘inferior’ people as a matter of government policy. It was years before I read the heartbreaking testimony of mothers who face an excruciating choice when their unborn babies are diagnosed with fetal anomalies incompatible with life. Then, I learned about the dilemma of pregnant women battling cancer who had to abort and continue their chemotherapy, or leave their cancers untreated and hope they’d survive the pregnancy.

I began to wonder about the fate of desperate women if Roe v Wade were overturned. Would they be forced back into the illegal, underground abortion business that had flourished before 1972? Seeing no political will to offer real help to those in need, I knew the answer was yes.

I started re-thinking my pro-life involvement.

Ronald Reagan—who had signed California’s 1967 law permitting therapeutic abortions—found his pro-life conviction in time to run for president in 1980. No matter how many pro-life leaders kissed Reagan’s ring or how often he declared himself to be pro-life, the actions of his administration proved otherwise. In the first term, his budget cuts for social programs exceeded $128 billion dollars.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that these programs served poor women and children; the cuts meant real pain for real people.

Once again, while pro-life politicians slashed programs that helped sustain poor women and children, the pro-life movement said nothing. My “pro-life” days were over; I knew I no longer fit in the movement I’d helped build.

I’d love to tell you that my story is ancient history. I’d love to tell you that pro-life politicians have realized their misplaced priorities and taken up the cause of poor mothers and their born children. I’d love to tell you that the Republican Party has stopped its attacks on the constitutional rights of women and embraced policies that guarantee basic necessities to all citizens. But, I’d be lying.

The Republican Party and the pro-life movement have locked arms. They intend to stop all abortions, even in cases of rape, incest, fetal anomalies and risk to the life of the mother. They limit access to contraception, mammograms, pap smears and STD treatment basic health under the guise of blocking government funding for abortion. They’re all in with slashing food stamps, Head Start, Medicaid, and any other government program they’ve designated as “welfare.” They’re leading the parade that wants a fertilized egg to have the same rights under the law as a woman.

Since I left the pro-life movement, it’s grown more aggressive in its tactics and more dogmatic in its legislative proposals. But this reality remains the same: pro-lifers love zygotes and fetuses. But, once you’re born, you are on your own.

Claire Conner, the author of Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (Beacon Press, 2013), was 12 years old when her parents dove into the world of paranoid politics and joined the John Birch Society. She became a member at age 13. Her book offers keen insight into the impact of extremism on one woman, her family and, if unchecked, on our country. Claire holds a degree in English with honors from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. She lives in Dunedin, Florida and speaks widely on the John Birch Society and the danger of the radical right.  

Disclosure: The link to the book above includes our Amazon affiliate code.

Be sure to listen to our interview with Claire on Wednesday, 9:00 am Pacific/11:00 am Central/12 noon Eastern on BlogTalkRadio here.

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