The Abortion Debate Resumes

Even after all the decades since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court the abortion debate still rages, but we’ve noticed in recent years that it rarely shows up on the front pages of the newspapers or the top of the cable and network news broadcasts. The upcoming battle over the appointment and confirmation of a replacement for retiring Supreme Justice Anthony Kennedy is bringing the long-simmering battle back to the figurative front-burner of American politics, however, and we’re already dreading what will ensue.
Here in our usually placid hometown of Wichita, Kansas, the abortion debate has always been especially acrimonious. The very interesting mother of a very interesting high school friend of ours was picketing on the sidewalks outside a local Wesleyan hospital even before the Roe v. Wade decision was passed, and the abortion debate has played an outsized role in local and state politics ever since.
Although Wichita and Kansas are unusually church-going and conservative places by modern secular standards, the state somehow wound up with the most permissive abortion laws outside of China and its one-child policy, and the city was long home to one of less than a handful of doctors in the entire world willing to perform the third-trimester abortions that even the Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict, which our many years of Republican legislatures and Republican governors somehow never got around to restricting. The massive gulf between public opinion and public policy enflamed passions on both sides even more than in the rest of the country, and things got unpleasantly heated around here.
Back in ’91 the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to town for a “Summer of Mercy” that involved physically blocking access to the city’s three abortion clinics, all owned by the doctor who performed those internationally controversial third-trimester abortions, and we still remember it as the hottest summer ever around here, notwithstanding the higher temperatures of other summers. Hundreds of church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens willingly went to jail the cause, hundreds of other church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens stopped talking to their neighbors and longtime friends as a result, and we know of at least one marriage because of all the acrimony, and countless Wichitans with no strong feelings about abortion were inconvenienced by the traffic tie-ups next to the main clinic along the crucial Kellogg Avenue freeway on their way home from work.
We were reporting for the local newspaper at the time, which still had a wide readership at the time, and despite our best efforts to be objective and factual about what was going on the sidewalks of Wichita we and our equally objective and factual colleagues wound up incurring the wrath of people on both sides of the debate. Journalists from around the country and the entire world wound up sharing a beer with us at a tavern next door do the clinic on Central Avenue, as the protests brought unexpected attention to Wichita from pretty much everywhere, and they all had the same complaints about how their determinedly objective and factual accounts were received.
In the end, though, Operation Rescue’s radical stand against abortion and its civil disobedience tactics got the worst of it both here and around the world. The most enthusiastic supporters of abortion rights were predictably outraged, the more mainstream anti-abortion groups distanced themselves from Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics, and Congress wound up passing and President Bill Clinton wound up signing some tough laws about access to abortion clinics that those church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright Wichitans did not dare defy. Despite Republican legislatures and Republican governors, that internationally controversial Wichita abortionist continued to perform third-trimester abortions next to Kellogg Avenue in Wichita.
The anti-abortion forces did succeed in making opposition to the practice a litmus test for any Republican candidate seeking any sort of office, no matter how he strident he might be about a tax cuts or deregulation or any other Republican position, but despite Republican majorities in the legislature and Republican governors they somehow never did succeed in imposing the constitutionally permissible ban on third-trimester abortions. That matter was instead settled when a radicalized anti-abortion activist came down from Kansas City and shot Dr. George Tiller in the head during a worship service on a sunny Sunday morning in ’09 at a lovely Lutheran church way over on East 13th Street.
All of the mainstream anti-abortion groups denounced the assassination, and all of the world press we met while covering the trial on a freelance basis seemed slightly disappointed that a church-going and conservative Wichita jury found the assassin guilty after an hour’s deliberation after a trial where the defendant freely admitted his guilt, and since then there have been no third-trimester abortions performed in Wichita. State law somehow still allows any doctor to do so, but no one has dared to do so, and since then Kansas has been more involved in debates about tax cuts and voting regulations and trade policies and other desultory matters.
Since then a majority of Ireland has voted to repeal that very Catholic country’s strict anti-abortion laws, and Mississippi and a couple of other proudly Protestant southern states have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws that press against the limits of the Roe v. Wade decision, but here and around the world the the abortion debate has gotten less ink and airtime than those desultory debates about tax rates and trade policies and the “Russia thing” and the latest outages about President Donald Trump and all the rest of it. As maddening as it all is, we preferred it to the abortion debate.
Justice Kennedy’s retirement and Trump’s power to appoint his replacement brings all the abortion issue acrimony back to the front burner of American politics, though, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Back when Trump was a Democrat he was staunchly in favor of abortion rights, even unto that third trimester, and our guess is that the first abortion bills that passed Trump’s desk were quickly paid, but ever since he decided to run for president as a Republican he’s been even more stridently anti-abortion than even the mainstream anti-abortion groups, and by now one side is hopeful and the other side is fearful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The contrarian Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is somehow a conservative hero for defending Trump in the “Russia thing,” but he’s worried that five-to-four Trump majority on the Supreme Court will result in an opinion banning all abortions on the grounds of a constitutional right to life at the moment of conception, and the better bet is that Trump’s pick will result in all 50 states arguing about abortion without any constitutional restraints.
We don’t see that ending well for anybody, and especially the Republican party. To this day we’re too objective and factual to declare any moral stand on the abortion issue, although we’re still guilt-ridden about the third-trimester abortions of viable fetuses that occurred in our hometown and the cold-blooded  murder of the doctor who performed them, but we can’t see how it’s a winning play for the proudly adulterous Trump or his family values Republican party. Our long and desultory experience of the abortion debate around here tells us that nobody is ever persuaded by any argument the other side might make, that the debate is inevitably murderous no matter which way you look at it, and in the end most of America is just hoping for an easy drive home from work.

— Bud Norman

Abortion at the Bottom of the Page

Strolling down to the bottom of The Washington Post’s opening web page, we happened upon a story about Mississippi enacting the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. The law bans most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, allowing exceptions for risks to the mother’s life or “bodily function” but not for cases of rape or incest, which is as far as you go from anybody’s reading of the Roe v. Wade decision, and once upon a time that would have been at the top of everybody’s front page.
A lawsuit was filed within an hour of the governor’s signing of the bill by the last remaining abortion clinic in the state, and the activists on both sides of the issue paid rapt attention, but we couldn’t help noticing how little attention was paid by most of the media and the public at large. The absence of coverage was conspicuous to us, as we well remember a time a when abortion was the most heatedly debated issue in America.
Especially around here. Wichita, Kansas, was once the very epicenter of the abortion conflict, to the point that it often tied up traffic and turned neighbor against neighbor and even hastened the end of a couple of marriages we know of. Kansas is a conservative and church-going state that somehow has the least restrictive abortion laws almost anywhere, and people used to fly in to Wichita from around the world to have very late-term abortions from one of the few doctors willing and legally able to perform the grisly procedure, so it was bound to happen.
Back in ’91 an anti-abortion organization called Operation Rescue came to town and rallied support for acts of civil disobedience to shut down the city’s last remaining abortion clinics, all of which were by then owned that internationally-known late-term abortionist. Their “Summer of Mercy” turned out tens of thousands of supporters at the local university’s mostly unused football stadiums, several hundred God-fearing and tax-paying and lawn-mowing types who were willing to be carried on to a police bus and be booked at the county jail for the misdemeanor of blocking public access by effectively shutting down the business. It was not only the big story of that very hot summer around here, as one of the clinics was inconveniently located on busy Kellogg Avenue and everyone had a unique opinion about all the ruckus, it was above the fold on newspapers everywhere and at the top of the hour on the nascent cable channels.
We were on the job for the local newspaper at the time, and wound up having burgers and beers at a bar next door to one of the abortion clinics with reporters from some of the biggest and swankiest newspapers. They were an OK lot, as far as we were concerned, and when we read or watched their accounts of the weird happenings in Wichita we couldn’t dismiss them as fake news, as it was pretty much what we’d witnessed, but they never quite conveyed the local viewpoint. They weren’t steeped in the history of “Bleeding Kansas” and its abolitionist zeal, which is still the state’s greatest boast, and they didn’t seem church-going types, and they didn’t understand what it’s like to live in an otherwise peaceable time with a bunch of church-going and very fine people and a doctor who has performed very late abortions for women from around the world. They understood that there were a whole lot of locals who are grateful for the abortions he provided at a more legally-protected and arguably more morally point in the pregnancy, which is worth noting, but their work didn’t have that discombobulating imbalance the story required..
Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics polled badly, just as we predicted to all those big city newspaper types, and as it faded into obscurity the more mainstream anti-abortion organizations went into retreat. The abortion issue dropped to the back pages for a while, but we were having burgers and beers with the big-city newspapers again after a women came down from Oregon and unsuccessfully tried to kill that late-term abortionist. We were second string on that story to a woman who wound up writing a non-fiction bestseller about the radical anti-abortion movement, but we scored an exclusive interviewer with a protestor outside the courthouse who was supporting the accused assassin’s actions as justifiable homicide, and when we asked him why he hadn’t killed an abortionist he replied “Well, maybe I will.” About a year later all the papers were running the photos of a guy who’d shot and killed a couple of abortion clinic workers in Pensacola, Florida, and we immediately recognized the mug shot. That also polled badly.
The next time we ran in to the big city newspaper writers was when someone came down from the Kansas City suburbs and assassinated that local late-term abortionist. He walked into a lovely Lutheran church over on East 13th and shot the abortionist as he routinely attended services, shot his victim in the head, and didn’t deny it. All the big city newspaper writers asked worriedly ask if the the defendant would get off, given what a conservative state and city this is, and we correctly predicted that it’s the kind of conservative state and city where you’re not going to get away with walking into a church service and shooting a guy in the head, no matter what tate guy did for a living. Elsewhere the shooting polled even worse.
Since then the abortion issue hasn’t been so prominent here or elsewhere. Around here there’s still no Republican who dares run in a primary without taking a staunch anti-abortion stand, but they’re no longer expected to stress it, and most of our fellow church-going Republican types are presently more concerned with making excuses for their recently pro-life president’s apparent tawdry affair and hush payments with a pornographic video performer. The pro-abortion rights crowd has grown complacent after so many years of retreat by the anti-abortion side, too, and probably won’t be much aroused by a setback in a state such as Mississippi. Last year that lone Mississippi abortion clinic performed 78 abortions after the 15-week gestation period, which in most cases would have been obtained in neighboring states, and in the grand scheme of things that’s not such a big deal as President Donald Trump’s latest “tweet” or any the rest of the top-of-the-page news.
Abortion is a damned complicated issue, for both those personally involved and the public at large, and it involves complicated issues of law and liberty and a higher morality, and we can well understand why most people would rather not talk about it. Most of the right that scoffs at the notion you can prohibit firearm ownership also holds that you can effectively prohibit abortions, most of the left holds that can guns be eliminated but abortion cannot be, and at the moment neither side has much to gain from raising this uncomfortable topic.
Abortions and the abortion debate will continue, of course, and there will be setbacks and victories on both sides, depending on what red or blue state you live in. We’re still not sure where we stand on the issue, although we’re sure it’s not at either extreme, and we’re not at all eager for the next opportunity to talk about it.

Bud Norman

Seizing the Means of Counter-Production

The violent protests at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s campaign rallies are not only continuing but escalating their level of violence, and with each new outrage we expect the protestors are nudging their hated nemesis a bit closer to the presidency. Such is always the counter-productive nature of all protest movements driven more by rage than reason.
We’ve seen it often over our lifetimes, starting way back in our childhood when the hippies and the yippies got their hated nemesis Richard M. Nixon elected president on a “law and order” platform. The Weather Underground and other outright leftist terrorist organizations, along with the general craziness of the bra-burning and free-love counterculture out to undermine the extra-legal social arrangements, also helped to make the reliably anti-communist but otherwise not very conservative Nixon seem palatable to an understandably nervous America. Even then we were able to see that the anti-war crowd’s best bet to end the war early was to go “Clean for Gene” and knock on middle America’s doors and make a polite pitch with a clean-cut appearance for the candidacy of anti-war but otherwise boring Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Riots and bombings were more emotionally satisfying, though, even if the war was thereby prolonged for several more years before the commies foreign and domestic were at last able to secure a victory.
Since then we’ve seen the same mistake made several times on both the right and the left. The borrowed-from-the-left “direct action” strategy of the radical anti-abortion Operation Rescue movement not only shut down the local abortion clinics but also the essential Kellogg Avenue artery of our hometown back in the ’90s, and we well recall how the anti-abortion polling numbers went down even in this church-going and instinctively anti-abortion community. When a bunch of a drag queens dressed as nuns starting shutting down Catholic worship services in San Francisco a short while later, and shutting down some nearby thoroughfares as well, their polling numbers went down even in that unchurched and libertine metropolis. The radical anti-government terrorists who wound up blowing a gaping and deadly hole in downtown Oklahoma City helped re-elect the bossy government of President Bill Clinton and discrediting its most principled and non-violent critics, that less deadly but appallingly un-hygeinic “Occupy Wall Street” movement helped elect the current Republican majorities in Congress, and we can’t think of any protest movement that has ever succeeded on a platform of blind rage.
These anti-Trump riots seem likely to become the definitive example of the phenomenon. Trump’s rise to the status of presumptive Republican presidential nominee has largely been the result of his arguably xenophobic and undeniably blunt if nonetheless carefully vague pronouncements about illegal immigration, all fueled by a suspicion that there’s a revanchist Latino afoot, and a bunch of protestors waving Mexican flags as they violently disrupt a perfectly legal American political rally is unlikely to allay those already well-founded suspicions. If they at least succeed in forcing his just-as-awful Democratic opponent to embrace their unabashedly revanchist ambitions and violent methods they’ll be doing even more of a favor to their hated for the nemesis, as we read the momentary demographic moods, and they would have been far better off going clean for Hillary.
Their hated nemesis has his own record of encouraging violence at his rallies, and there really is arguably something xenophobic about the shifting policies he’s proposed that could be well defended without any resort to xenophobia, and there’s an unmistakably lawless and disordering ring to his Nixonian appeals for “law and order” and simultaneous promises to shake everyone thing up, but the video of Mexican-flag-waving thugs creating chaos will surely make it palatable to a perhaps-decisive portion of the electorate. At the moment the only likely alternative seems Hillary Clinton, whose long-planned coronation by “the man” will also be attended by such riotous behavior, and probably none of those anti-Trump protestors will ever realize how very counter-productive their righteous rage proved to be.
Trump’s unlikely status as the presumptive Republican nominee has been driven more by pure rage than reason, too, and against the same ill-defined “establishment” that the incoherent opposition on the left claims to be railing against, so we can’t predict any happy outcome no matter who prevails. Nothing good came out of any of those rage-driven protests movements we’ve ever seen, and neither of these seem at all promising.

— Bud Norman