This article is reprinted from Campus Progress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.
Reaching for a muffin, I quite literally bumped into GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback this morning at the Family Research Center. He was about to speak to the Blogs4Life conference on the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and was gamely circulating among attendees in front of the continental breakfast buffet. “Hey there,” he said to me, widely smiling. “Let me just get out of the way here.”
For a second, I was charmed. Brownback’s pastel yellow tie was a perfect fit for his sunny, earnest persona. But the senator’s smile morphed into a slit-eyed scowl just a few minutes later when I asked how he could advocate traditional conservative “limited government” while simultaneously making interference with a woman’s medical decisions a cornerstone of his platform. “Murder is not a small government, big government dichotomy,” he told me sternly, making eye contact. “People are people and they deserve protection.”
To be clear, by “people” Brownback meant “embryos.” By “murder,” he meant “abortion.” And the fact that I framed my question in terms of women’s rights gave me away as a liberal in a heartbeat—if no one had already caught a glimpse of the Campus Progress sticker on my notebook, the New Yorker folded under my arm, or my disappointed look when I learned the event’s free lunch had been catered by Chick-fil-A—a fast food joint not known for its vegetarian options.
I had hoped Blogs4Life would give a glimpse into how anti-choicers hope to use technology to increase support for their movement. But apart from speaker Jill Stanek, there was little discussion of online writing or organizing, and few members of the mostly-male, mostly-middle-aged audience seemed to be bloggers. Unlike other live-blogged conferences I’ve attended, this one had only one audience member tapping away on a laptop. I did meet six Louisiana State University students who stopped in at the conference on their way to the annual March for Life in downtown Washington. Feminist groups at LSU have “like two members,” said Jim Fontaine, a junior, and “are frowned upon by a majority of campus.” Freshman Alyssa Matthews told me that despite the large male presence at Blogs4Life, in her experience, the anti-choice movement was about equally composed of men and women. “Sometimes when women hear ‘pro-choice,’ they think that’s about them,” Matthews said. “But in my group, it’s women and men working together.”
That kind of feel-good talk shows that the anti-choice movement has, quite wisely, taken its critics to heart. The new anti-choice rhetoric isn’t about sin, sex, or salvation; the buzzwords are “community,” “love,” and “healing.” Women who’ve had abortions aren’t cruel, autonomous decision-makers, they are “wounded” victims deserving of “compassion.” Brownback was the most brilliant speaker of the morning when it came to responding to progressive critiques of the “life” movement without openly acknowledging he was doing so. “Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned. It’s going to be a great day for liberty and for freedom,” he predicted. “It will give us back our moral voice around the world �???? give back the nature and human dignity of everyone in the world, the person in poverty, the man in prison.”
Of course, after he described himself as a traditional “limited government” conservative and a tax-cutter, it was hard to imagine a President Brownback prioritizing programs to reduce poverty—beyond meaningless “pro-marriage” initiatives, that is. Indeed, Blogs4Life was filled with such contradictions. Every speaker intoned against “activist judges” while simultaneously holding up the Civil Rights Movement as the model for the struggle to outlaw abortion, even though judicial rulings were key to making progress on civil rights . A slide show by attorney Peter Samuelson, president of Americans United for Life, featured multiple vague, de-contextualized quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by photographs of smiling African American little boys. Samuelson compared Roe v. Wade’s impact to the notorious three-fifths compromise in the United States constitution that counted African American slaves as less than fully human, and to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that institutionalized segregation. Brownback too likened the deaths of weeks-old embryos to the enslavement and subsequent segregation of generations of African Americans who were actually born. As Ann Friedman writes on Feministing about the event:
See, if you ask Sam Brownback, one of the problems with America is that we treat fetuses as second-class citizens, much like African Americans were treated in the pre-civil rights era. Does this seem more than a little insulting to anyone else? Saying that black people and fetuses (and really, embryos) should be considered “equally human”? Wow.
During a break, David Ferguson, a University of Alabama senior who’s taken time off from school to launch the American Conservative Student Union, was kind enough to get me a bottle of water, even though he knew I was a pro-choice Campus Progress editor. I asked Ferguson whether states-rights social conservatives saw any contradiction in using the federal government to impose anti-abortion laws on blue states like New York and California if a future Supreme Court overturns or guts Roe v. Wade. “Well, that’s what’s great about America,” he told me after thinking for a minute. “You can choose where you want to live.”
Of course, all choice is relative. No one knows that better than the 34 percent of American women who live in a county without an abortion provider, or the 50 million Americans without health care, or the more than a third of American high school students who receive no information about contraceptives in their sex-education classes. In perhaps the most disturbing moment of the conference, Samuelson suggested that the anti-choice movement was opposed to the Enlightenment values of individual autonomy and reason itself. “Is our dignity dependent on our cognitive capabilities?” he asked, arguing that even the most undeveloped fertilized egg is “part of our community.”
The message of Blogs4Life was that if you happen to be a woman, you better not even think about using your fully developed mind to make a dignified personal choice. The government will do that for you, thank you very much.