A Day in the Right to Life
My instructions finally came in the mail on an early winter morning when no one else was in the house. That was good. The papers said I shouldn’t share this information with anyone.
I looked over everything, and when I felt that I had a handle on what had to be done, I walked upstairs to the master bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Here was the bulk of the problem, at least in my house. According to the list I was holding, almost every product on my shelves was helping women get abortions.
I’d just have to suffer through my hangovers because the Tylenol Extra Strength was out, along with the Rolaids. Allergies were going to be a lot worse without the Benadryl and the Sudafed. These got tossed into a stainless-steel wastebasket now full of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals — Pepcid, Zyrtec, Imodium. If I hadn’t kicked cigarettes in December, I’d have to lose the Nicorette, too. Damn. Even the Neosporin? Hello, gangrene. I can always learn to type with hooks.
The 16-page boycott list was the first thing that arrived in the mail when I joined Kansans for Life, one of dozens of anti-abortion groups around the country. It named every business and nonprofit supposedly ready to take my money and hand it over to Planned Parenthood. If a corporation was new on the list, it was helpfully identified with a frowny face next to its name.
The list was put together by Life Decisions International, a Front Royal, Virginia, group that, on its website, describes its mission as “exposing and opposing the agenda of Planned Parenthood, the world’s primary advocate of legal abortion.” The group spends a lot of time watching charitable contributions on both sides of the debate. Among its other publications is a list of celebrity enemies; titled “The Culture of Death,” the pamphlet lists Bea Arthur (R.I.P.), Alec Baldwin and Beau Bridges, among others. I figured I had the gist of it before I made it to the C’s.
Next up: dental hygiene. Listerine prevents tooth decay, but it also ends 1.3 million American lives in the womb every year. So I should’ve suspected — the American Association for Dental Research was on there, too, right next to the American Cancer Society, the Audubon Society and the Children’s Defense Fund.
If I had a kid, I wouldn’t be able to treat her with anything from Johnson & Johnson. Entertainment would also be a problem, with Walt Disney and DC Comics on the list. Apparently, Superman really stands for truth, justice and the right to terminate a pregnancy.
On Sunday morning, May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller woke up, put on a good suit, and went to usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. He looked like the dermatologist he’d studied to become before taking over his father’s clinic, but he was a veteran in every other sense. In June 1986 after his practice was fire-bombed, he rebuilt and put out a sign that read, “Hell no, we won’t go.” In August 1993, he was shot five times in his car and survived.
Even with all that, it’s hard to believe that anyone expected Scott Roeder to walk up to him and shoot him through the eye in the middle of services.
Roeder was arrested two days later, tried and eventually sentenced to 50 years in federal prison. Groups on both sides of the debate publicly denounced the murder. Others said Roeder’s act was one of righteous vengeance.
One year later, in an election year, conservative politicians have started the usual begging to secure the backing of anti-abortion groups. And even though the doors are permanently closed at Tiller’s clinic, Kansans for Life is still connecting the dead doctor’s name to every sympathetic politician in the state.
It seemed like a good time to check on the movement.
The boycott list came in the mail two weeks after I sent an e-mail asking to be added to Kansans for Life’s rolls. I also received a form letter thanking me for my help and requesting a donation. Also included was a pocket version of the boycott list, cross-referenced by product types, that I could carry with me to keep from accidentally supporting abortion.
Folded into the papers was a fact sheet about Planned Parenthood in Kansas. Not content to list something as mundane as how many pregnancies are terminated each month, the yellow paper also told me that Planned Parenthood targets black babies, and sex education is a cover for promoting fornication.
The only thing that surprised me was the list of aborted fetal pieces that they said Planned Parenthood profited from. It was printed with ages and parts and prices, like a menu for gourmet cannibals. Eyeballs and spinal columns come cheap. If I really wanted to impress my friends, I needed to scratch together almost $1,000 for an 8-week-old brain (30 percent off if significantly fragmented). The budget-conscious could always settle for a $500 intact torso, minus the limbs.
I looked at my plastic grocery bag that was full of toiletries. Eventually it had all been too much for the wastebasket, and I needed a more pliable container. I hadn’t even started on the clothing or the DVDs.
Could all this be true? If it was, could anyone live without paying into the corporate-abortion complex? Is Scott Roeder an embarrassment, or is he a martyr?
I’d start to understand better two months later on a golf course in Kansas.
It cost me $100 to enter the May 18 tournament at Painted Hills Golf Course in Kansas City, Kansas. That bought 18 holes and the knowledge that my check would support the KFL Education Foundation; the Grace Center Maternity Home; and Alexandra’s House, a prenatal hospice in Kansas City, Missouri.
By the time I arrived, at 8 a.m., I’d already missed breakfast, and most players were picking out golf carts. There were a few dozen golfers, almost all middle-aged white men. Morning sunlight gleamed against their clean, beige golf bags.
When I checked in, I was handed a 1-gallon plastic bag full of used golf balls. An ichthus — the “Jesus fish” visible on many cars — had been drawn on each ball with what looked like Sharpie ink. As distinct as such a ball would be if I ever played golf again, at this event, with everyone using similarly marked balls, it just made finding my shot all the more confusing.
My partner was Dan. He had white hair and a soft voice, and if he didn’t smile so often, he’d be a ringer for Dick Cheney.
“It’s my first time on the course this year,” he told me. “You’ll have to bear with me. I’m not planning to play all 100 balls, if that’s OK with you.”
As we played and the dew soaked through my shoes and socks, Dan told me about his life. He spent his youth traveling with his wife, he told me, and he figured that he’d already used up his retirement. “We spent our time on the beach when we still looked good doing it,” he said. I liked him.
Now that he wasn’t working, he taught a Bible study group for people who had converted to Christianity late in life. He added that he avoided arguing with liberals as much as he expected any reasonable man could. He resented an interview he’d seen with President Obama in which the president said questioning when life began was above his pay grade. “If it’s above your pay grade, maybe you shouldn’t be making decisions about it,” Dan said.
“So what got you out today?” he asked me. We’d both just shot double bogeys on the fourth hole. “Well, I hate to say it, but in a way it was what happened with Tiller,” I told him, not dishonestly. “I have a lot of liberal friends, and I have conservative friends, and when they started arguing about it, I thought I should be a little more active.”
Dan shook his head and parked the golf cart next to the tee for the fifth hole. “That was a terrible thing,” he said. “That’s not us. I understand the frustration. We all wanted it [Tiller’s clinic] closed. But it doesn’t make us look good at all.”
On the next hole, three other golfers joined us: Jim and Tom and Tom’s son. They said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the local chapter of Kansans for Life, was Jim and Tom’s sister. No one talked about abortion much, but they did talk about classic muscle cars, and they dared one another to see who could hit the ball farthest using Adam Sandler’s running swing from Happy Gilmore.
There were men still putting when we reached the seventh hole, so we stood there at the tees making small talk. “Yahoo News is just so suspect,” Jim said, a driver slung over his shoulder, before starting to explain just how the site skewed sports and politics until black was white. Everyone agreed with this.
Jim was a history buff, too. He’d just seen a show on the History Channel about the science behind the Bible, explaining miracles reported by the Hebrews who escaped from slavery in Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years before finally arriving at the Promised Land. Jim said that sometimes strong gusts forced the Red Sea back just enough to create a land bridge across the water. The scientists rigged up a wind tunnel to re-create the conditions.
“Every time they tried it, it worked,” Jim said. “So you see how people would’ve called that a miracle.”
“Yes, but where did the wind come from?” Dan asked, arching one quizzical eyebrow.
“Ah, see, that’s the part they don’t like to talk about,” Jim said. He lined up and hit his drive. I shaded my eyes from the sun and watched the ball shoot up into the sky, turn and drop into the rough a short pitch away from the green.
After nine holes, everyone agreed that we had done all the good we needed to do for one day, and we abandoned the back nine in favor of the boxed lunch awaiting us at the clubhouse. I finished the day listening to Jim and Tom tell stories about being caddies when they were kids and joke about the boring sermons at St. Elizabeth’s.
In the wake of Tiller’s slaying, it was easy for me to picture anti-abortion groups redoubling their protests outside clinics, but my day on the links suggested that Kansans for Life wanted to avoid the politics of confrontation. The organization seemed to favor fundraising over winning new converts. To test my theory, I wrote to KFL’s state director, David Gittrich. I told him that I was new to the movement and wanted guidance.
“There are many things you can do to help further the pro-life effort,” Gittrich wrote me in an e-mail. He went on: “Distributing of pro-life literature door-to-door in your neighborhood. We have beautiful bulletin inserts that can be placed in doors OR we have bags of materials that can be hung on door handles. Setting up an educational presentation at your church. We have great speakers who can make a variety of presentations. For example, we can talk to the elderly about end-of-life decisions; to young people about abortion & fetal development as well as dating, modesty, STD’s, etc.; to adults about how to answer pro-choice slogans; to adults about what the Bible says about abortion; or a stem cell program titled, ‘Massive Cures vs. Massive Catastrophe.’ There are also excellent programs on the affects [sic] of abortion on women. You could always conduct an Essay or Poster Contest with the young people in your church. Give away some nice prizes (like free pizza for the family). One church took the winning poster and made it into a billboard which they displayed on their property. I’ve noticed we need some really good candidates to run for office. Many of the State Representatives in the KC area are in favor of abortion. If you know someone who might think about running for office, let me know. Prayer Chains of any type are very important. You could also assemble some pro-life literature for distributing outside the public high schools on public property. This would of course take place in the fall. Let me know what you think of these ideas, and which ones you might be interested in.”
I have to admit feeling pleasantly surprised that in that long list, he failed to instruct this: Stage a formal protest outside of the abortion clinic of your choice. Be sure to spray paint Jesus Fish on the hoods of the murderers’ cars, so we’ll know to ram them in traffic. But if Gittrich had put the list in order of importance, finding the right candidates for office probably would have come in ahead of prayer chains.
On the golf course, Dan had told me, “It’s hard to know who to vote for. People call themselves Republicans. They’re not really Republicans. They just use the title in Kansas because they know they need to be Republicans here to get elected.”
By that time, I’d also decided that the companies being boycotted were safe to buy from, but I still wanted to know how they felt about being targeted. I sent interview requests to about 25 companies named on the list, including Ralph Lauren and Texaco. Only one responded: Buffalo Wild Wings. A spokeswoman for the corporate sports-bar-and-chicken-wing chain told me the company had already been assured that it would be removed from the boycott list in the next update. She wouldn’t say why she thought Buffalo Wild Wings had been placed on the list.
Also reluctant to address abortion were the few clinics that remained open, none of which performed the late-term procedures Tiller had performed. None of them returned calls for this story.
Kansans for Life contacted me a month later to see if I had a Saturday open to work an information booth at Old Shawnee Days, an early summer carnival and fair in the Johnson County suburb.
It was the kind of celebration every town in the world has once a year. There was a tilt-a-whirl and a bounce house. Tables were laid in rows with someone at one selling old spoons made into jewelry; at another, gargantuan smoked-turkey legs that tasted like ham. A man played banjo before a sparse crowd. “How do you know how to tell the Lutherans from the Baptists at the liquor store?” he asked between warped twangs. “The Lutherans are the ones that say hello to each other!”
The event organizers must have had a sense of humor because the KFL booth shared a tent pole with the Kansas Democratic Party’s booth. This provided me with some entertainment as smiles of recognition (fellow Christians and protectors of life!) curdled into stares of loathing (coat-hanger death panel!) and vice versa, depending on one’s political views and which direction one was walking.
An older woman with dyed hair was handing out bumper stickers. She told me that her name was Norma. “Pamphlets and all the rest of the literature is free,” she said. “Stickers are $1, and the pins are $2.” She gestured toward a basket of gold pins; on closer inspection, I saw that they depicted very small pairs of feet. Each had a card attached, pointing out that the pin represented the size of a fetus’ feet at eight weeks in the womb. They’d have made decent cuff links.
“Do you see that woman in purple there?” Norma asked, pointing toward a woman draped head to toe in the color. “I want to tell you something about her, but I want to wait until she’s gone because I don’t know if she’d like it.”
The purple woman was looking at her. She nodded her head once, then turned and walked into the crowd.
“That woman knew the man who shot George Tiller,” Norma whispered. Her hands were flat on our table, as if she had to steady herself.
“She told me that the FBI came to her house and started questioning her after they arrested Roeder. She wouldn’t tell them anything. She knew something like this was going to happen, but she’d known Roeder so long, and he was her friend, and she didn’t know what to do. And the FBI just forced themselves into her house and tried to get her to tell them all about him.”
“Wow,” I said. I looked away, but the woman in purple was already gone. “What did you think of all that?”
“I was glad it happened,” Norma said without pausing to consider the question. “I know I shouldn’t say that, but I’m glad he was murdered. All those innocent babies. He got what he deserved. And I’m glad it shut down that practice for good. The state’s better off for it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just can’t get behind taking the law into your own hands like that,” I said.
“Normally I’d say that, too, but not this time. Tiller got what he needed to, and people will remember it.”
And there it was. Whether people, like Dan, were embarrassed by Roeder or, like Norma, they cheered for him, everyone with Kansans for Life was glad that the clinic was gone. No one was getting a late-term abortion in Kansas, and more people would be scared to resume Tiller’s work. Which is all Roeder wanted to accomplish. He won.
Republican campaign volunteers approached the table every so often to make their pitches for a Kansans for Life endorsement. I got the feeling that Norma liked the way they tried to sell her, as if she would duly return to headquarters, report in hand.
“I’ve worked on the campaigns on the Missouri side, and I think Kansas needs strong right-to-life candidates even more,” said one young man. “Even if you just put a sign up in your yard, it’ll help us,” he said.
“Oh, I’d love to, but I’m afraid I live in an apartment,” Norma said. In fact, she’d already settled on Kansas Senate candidate Dan Gilyeat. Under the table, resting against her thigh, were four signs for Gilyeat, who had wooed her in person earlier in the day as he stalked the fairground in his Marine dress uniform.
Most of the traffic at the KFL table was made up of these well-scrubbed, low-level campaign volunteers, who returned over and over to tell Norma just one more thing that they’d forgotten to mention about their candidate. Most of the rest were older women, who shook our hands and thanked us because, they said, they’d been adopted children. Did they mean to imply that their biological mothers would rather have aborted them (had abortion been legal at the time) than pass them on to an orphanage? I thought it might be rude to ask.
The main exception to this mix of politicians and orphans was a boy in a high school letter jacket flanked by two girls who stopped by.
“Oh, God, abortion is so gross,” one of the girls said. She was a brunette in a tight purple top and gray short-shorts. “If anything happens, I’m definitely keeping my baby.”
“Good for you, dear. That’s wonderful,” Norma said.
“They don’t even talk about it in school at all,” she continued. “They don’t tell you what happens or what it does or what happens after [an abortion]. It’s so crazy.”
“Yeah, and it’s, like, murder, ’cause it’s a baby in there,” the boy said. “Why don’t they teach that?”
“How about sex education? Are they giving you guys any information about birth control or anything like that?” I asked.
“We go to public school, so they don’t teach us anything,” the girl said.
“Thank God for that,” I said.
Norma was so pleased with them that she bought each one a pair of fetus feet. They turned around to leave. On the back of the gray short-shorts, in slanted 4-inch letters, was the word “Wow!!!”
As soon as my replacement came, I started to look for the woman in purple. I must have circled the grounds half a dozen times, but she had vanished.