Last year was a good one for pro-life politics in America’s state capitals
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NEBRASKA, KANSAS, OKLAHOMA, and TEXAS—Mia McCord told her boss, Texas state Sen. Kelly Hancock, that she’d have her baby after the 2013 legislative session ended in May. With a July 17 due date, that seemed like a safe promise.
But in early April doctors diagnosed her with severe preeclampsia. Her life and the child’s life were at risk. They needed to deliver the baby. Mia was 26 weeks pregnant.
Born last April 10, John Mark weighed 1 pound, 4.8 ounces and measured 11.5 inches. He could fit into the palm of your hand. His own hands were the size of thumbnails. Doctors let Mia get a glimpse of her son before taking him to the neonatal intensive care unit at University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin.
Half a mile from that hospital sits the Texas state Capitol. There, weeks after John Mark’s birth, state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered for 11 hours against a series of pro-life bills. While journalistic publicists obsessed over the pink tennis shoes Davis wore during her marathon abortion speech (prompting Barack Obama to tweet, “something special is happening in Austin tonight”), Sen. Hancock posted on Twitter pictures of John Mark fighting for life.
“Tell me this child is not viable,” Hancock tweeted. “Tell me this child is not worth standing up for?”
In 2013, as the federal government grew more pro-abortion with the advent of Obamacare, Hancock and other legislators around the country enjoyed unprecedented pro-life success in state capitals. Last year 24 states passed laws limiting abortion, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute. These laws are yielding results: A record 87 abortion clinics shut down in 2013.
Pro-life state laws now include bans on human cloning, sex-selection abortions, and wrongful birth lawsuits. States are holding abortion businesses to higher medical standards and requiring them to display ultrasounds and provide better documentation. Judges now have a harder time bypassing parental notification requirements when a minor seeks an abortion.
Last year North Dakota banned abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as soon as six weeks, and passed the nation’s first prohibition on abortions for genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome. Arkansas lawmakers overrode a governor’s veto and passed their own heartbeat protection act. Florida approved a measure saying infants born alive during an abortion are entitled to the same rights as a child born in a natural birth.
Courts are often setting aside such legislation as they wait for new U.S. Supreme Court guidance, but in states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas lawmakers are acting like the “lesser magistrates” in Christian political theory and speaking out on pro-life issues rather than pre-emptively surrendering to judges or Washington officials.
“We don’t have to beg for scraps,” said Jonathan Stickland, a Texas state representative. Referring to personal offenses, he noted that “as Christians we are taught to turn the other cheek.” Public policy issues like abortion are different, though: “We can grab our sword and fight.” In Lincoln, Topeka, Oklahoma City, and Austin, legislators are doing just that as they prioritize pro-life bills.
WANTING TO SEE for myself this new mood, I started in Nebraska, where in 2010 lawmakers passed the nation’s first ban on abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s the current time medical technology shows babies in the womb can feel pain.
Julie Schmit-Albin, the executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, took me to a gray concrete-block building on a busy road in the city of Bellevue. The building looks like a squat, medium-security prison. Cameras peer down from roof corners, and windows of thick glass are not made for looking out or looking in.
“You’d question any medical care you’d be getting in there,” Schmit-Albin said. “It looks like a veterinarian clinic.” But it’s not: The building houses what remains of LeRoy Carhart’s late-term abortion business.
Not long after Nebraska lawmakers passed the law protecting unborn children capable of feeling pain, Carhart decided to take the bulk of his abortion business to Maryland. Nebraska law now bans abortionists from using mental health as an exception for late-term abortions and requires abortionists to report the gestational length, weight, and age of every baby aborted—two more reasons Carhart opened up shop elsewhere.
During the first six months after the fetal pain law went into effect, the abortion rate dropped 14 percent in the Nebraska county housing Carhart’s center. Overall, Nebraska’s abortion rate dropped to a 20-year low of 2,229 in 2012 compared to more than 5,600 in 1992. One of Carhart’s Maryland patients died during a late-term abortion procedure last year.
ABOUT 150 MILES SOUTH of Bellevue sits Topeka, the capital of Kansas, a state once known as the home of late-term abortionist George Tiller and pro-abortion Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (now a beleaguered Washington defender of Obamacare). Kansas has become a state with a pro-life legislative supermajority: “It’s unacceptable to be pro-choice in Kansas and win an election,” said Jacob LaTurner, a new Kansas senator who, at 25, is an example of the pro-life youth movement in state capitals.
Pro-life leaders who came to the governor’s mansion for a bill signing in 2011 had never been inside the building before. Now, though, Gov. Sam Brownback stops by unannounced at the Kansans for Life office in Topeka, bringing his own lunch and sitting at a table to chat. Kansans for Life activists move freely about the state Capitol where lawmakers and their staffs know their names.
During one recent visit, Kansans for Life senior lobbyist Jeanne Gawdun made unscheduled calls on lawmakers who invited her in to chat. She now has numerous bills to frame, something she never had to do under Sebelius. But state court judges, often selected via secret vote by a lawyer-dominated committee, have halted some laws, so judicial reform has become a pro-life priority in Kansas: Many pro-lifers want the governor to nominate and the Kansas Senate to confirm judges.
One reason for the legislative momentum is evident at the Pregnancy Crisis Center of Wichita. The use of 3-D and 4-D ultrasound imaging is turning once shadowy pictures into something so clear that mothers bond with their babies. At the center a big screen TV, mounted on a wall, faces the ultrasound examining table.
The window into a womb that was invisible when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 is transforming the hearts of voters and lawmakers. The technology is becoming more affordable, allowing pregnancy centers like the one in Wichita to purchase laptop-sized machines that can be taken around the city.
Advances are not just changing what we see of the unborn, but what compassionate doctors can do with them. Neonatal intensive care units and in-utero surgery are moving the point of viability outside the womb back from 24 weeks to as early as 20 weeks. Even before delivery, babies are now treated as separate patients: Anesthesia is administered directly to them during surgery performed in the second trimester.
As more people have personalized stories of premature births, the pro-life poll numbers tick up. Today 64 percent say abortion should not be permitted starting in the second three months of a pregnancy, and 63 percent of women support bans on abortion when the unborn can feel pain.
THOSE NUMBERS LEAD to the election of pro-life lawmakers. No one knows that better than long-time Oklahoma activist Tony Lauinger. For decades Lauinger daily drove the 106 miles from his home in Tulsa to the state capital in Oklahoma City when the legislature was in session. He spent most of the 1970s fighting to get a pro-life position into the state’s GOP platform. Then he battled to get lawmakers to act on pro-life issues. Lauinger says “country club, fiscal Republicans” dithered and crumbled whenever crunch time came for pro-life bills during a legislative session. Most bills died in committee.
But Lauinger began to understand how the law could serve as a teacher. Realizing the movement did not have the votes to end abortions with one bill, he and other activists started chipping away. This piecemeal tactic educated voters on the realities of abortion. Lauinger compared it to reeling in a big fish with a small line, “jerk too hard and the line breaks and you lose everything.”
When abortion groups fought bills that appeared responsible to the public, such as measures improving the medical standards of clinics, abortion groups claiming they are for women’s health revealed their hypocrisy. Clinic licensing bills would take money from abortionists’ pockets.
"They've been able to do things in secret for so long. Now the light is shining on them." — Pam Peterson
No issue advanced the pro-life cause more than the 15-year debate over partial-birth abortions. From 1995, when Ohio passed the nation’s first state ban on partial-birth abortions, until 2007, when the Supreme Court reversed lower courts and upheld the ban, pro-abortion advocates battled to preserve this practice through presidential vetoes and lawsuits. This turned off many Americans.
Gallup’s most recent values poll found that 48 percent of Americans call themselves pro-life while 45 percent call themselves “pro-choice.” In 1996, the year of then President Bill Clinton’s first veto of the partial-birth abortion ban, 56 percent said they were “pro-choice” while 33 percent regarded themselves as pro-life.
Changing attitudes, the adoption of term limits, and a pro-life sermon (see “Still-silent shepherds”) have changed Oklahoma’s legislature. Brian Crain now chairs a state Senate health committee, and it was a pro-life sermon he heard in his Tulsa Baptist church that led him to wonder, “At what point are we as Christians being co-conspirators by not doing anything?” Crain replaced a term-limited state senator who had been there 24 years. He tracked down Lauinger and told him he wanted to sponsor pro-life bills. Pro-life lawmakers gained a majority in the Oklahoma House in 2004 and the Senate in 2008. Pro-life bills soon followed.
Last year’s coverage of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia further exposed abortion’s seedy underbelly. His conviction on three counts of first-degree murder and sentence of life in prison without parole came after charges that he performed illegal abortions and killed patients under his care, including newborns killed after being born alive during attempted abortions. The revelations boosted the call for greater clinic regulation.
“They’ve been able to do things in secret for so long,” said pro-life Rep. Pam Peterson, the Oklahoma House of Representatives majority floor leader (and controller of the bill calendar). “Now the light is shining on them.”
AT MY FINAL STOP, Texas, the freshmen class of legislators includes pastors, a former NFL player, a nurse, an oil businessman, a financial investor, a neurosurgeon, a former Air Force fighter pilot, and a constitutional lawyer. They all came to Austin sharing a pro-life commitment.
The lawmakers began strategizing about pro-life bills before being sworn into office, but it was still a struggle to get measures up for a vote. Senior Republicans said the bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks, and thus protect children clearly capable of feeling pain, wasn’t a priority, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the legislators back for a special session last summer. The pro-life push was back on.
Abortion supporters stalked the Capitol wearing burnt orange shirts. Some sat in the hallways and cast spells. Some printed “wanted” posters with the faces of pro-life lawmakers and smuggled jars of feces and urine to throw at them. When pro-life lawmakers huddled in the Capitol rotunda to pray, abortion supporters surrounded them, leaned into the prayer group, and yelled directly into their ears.
“Hail Satan,” some chanted. While abortion backers cursed God, pro-life advocates sang “Amazing Grace.” Jonathan Stickland, the Texas House member who no longer has to fight for scraps, recalls, “There were times when I thought, ‘there are probably demons in this room.’”
Pink-shoed Wendy Davis, the filibustering abortion figurehead who is now campaigning to be governor of Texas, asked abortion supporters to send in stories she could read on the Senate floor. Stickland, whose wife during the legislative session miscarried 25 weeks into her pregnancy, spent a sleepless night trying to find a way to symbolize the voices of the babies who would never be able to tell their own stories. The next morning his staff drove to 14 paper stores and spent $850 to buy enough blue and pink paper to represent the roughly 80,000 babies aborted in Texas in 2011. Six people rolled the paper down to Davis’ office.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, a nurse turned legislator, displayed fetal models in her office and used them to discuss the issue with abortion backers. They told her the models were offensive. Klick replied, “A baby is offensive?”
Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, author of the preborn pain bill, spent 36 hours on the House floor defending the bill and beating back amendments offered to weaken it. Opponents, angry that a female lawmaker was the face of the bill, brought coat hangers and rape kits onto the House floor to suggest the bill would lead to back-alley abortions. Laubenberg countered by placing onto the speaker’s podium a pair of white baby shoes.
Other pro-life female legislators silently surrounded Laubenberg as she answered volleys of hostile questions. “I knew God would prevail,” Laubenberg said: “I was on the side of life and the other side was death. It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.”
The omnibus bill banning abortions after five months passed. It also requires abortionists to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and makes clinics follow FDA guidelines and the medical standards of ambulatory surgical centers. On the same July day, Gov. Perry signed the bill into law, Planned Parenthood announced the closing of three of its Texas centers.
After passing the measure, pro-life lawmakers walked out of the House chamber to yells. “Shame on you,” abortion supporters shouted. “Shame on you!”
But Matt Krause, a freshman legislator who as a sixth-grader wrote about his hope that abortions would end, was unfazed: “I would much rather pro-abortion individuals yell, ‘Shame on you,’ and the Lord say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
The Texas battle continues. Pro-abortion donors waving green dollars will try to drive out of the legislature Stickland’s blue and pink paper and Laubenberg’s white baby shoes. Laubenberg’s 2014 likely general election opponent, funded by Planned Parenthood, recently bought a house in the district just to run against her.
And the war goes on in other states. Last year California approved a law allowing nonphysicians to perform surgical abortions, and Barack Obama became the first president to ever speak at a Planned Parenthood event.
JOHN MARK McCORD, the tiny baby born prematurely during the 2013 legislative session, proved to be strong, once pulling out his own breathing tube. His parents spent hours watching a blue line on a computer screen showing their son’s oxygen saturation levels.
On May 3, 23 days after her son’s birth, Mia got to hold him for the first time. She eventually returned to work. Whenever John Mark’s vital signs dropped, nurses called her. She’d rush over to the hospital from the Capitol and hold her baby next to her heart. His vital signs always improved.
He is living at home now. Sometimes he comes to the Capitol with his mother. State Sen. Hancock gladly turns his office into a nursery. “There is no telling what he will do in life,” Hancock mused. “We will get to find out now. [With] how many other babies will we not get to find out?”
Alissa Robertson contributed to this story.
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