What happened with women’s reproductive rights following the publication of The Wichita Divide in April 2011 was unexpected and monumental. The assassination of Dr. Tiller two years earlier seemed to unleash a new boldness in the anti-choice forces across America. In 2010, state legislatures introduced more than 600 measures designed to limit access to abortion and 23 of them passed. That year’s mid-term elections saw 45 new anti-choice candidates win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania) announced that Congress was now “more pro-life than it’s ever been.” In 2011, 49 state legislatures wrote more than 900 bills seeking to curtail abortion. Eighty of them became law.
With the steady reduction of abortion providers around the nation, Planned Parenthood had begun playing an increasingly significant role in women’s lives. The organization offered nearly 2.5 million low-income women family-planning counseling as well as screening for sexually-transmitted diseases, diabetes, and various cancers. Planned Parenthood received no taxpayer money for abortions, but did fund its own abortion services. In April 2011, the GOP pushed the federal government to the edge of a total shutdown in an effort to cut the entire $317 million Planned Parenthood program of family planning aid. In response, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) called the latest wave of anti-choice activities the biggest assault on women’s rights “in our lifetime.”
In South Dakota, GOP state representative Phil Jensen sponsored a bill expanding the definition of “justifiable homicide” to include a killing done to prevent harm to a fetus — a piece of legislation that some interpreted as legalizing the assassination of doctors who performed abortions. House Bill 1171passed out of committee on a 9-3 vote, but hasn’t yet become law.
In October 2011, I was invited to talk to a Houston women’s group about The Wichita Divide. Also speaking that evening was Texas State Representative Carol Alvarado, whose own legislature had recently introduced a bill requiring women seeking an abortion, in certain circumstances, to get a vaginal probe ultrasound. Because Rep. Alvarado did not think that her male colleagues understood what this measure physically entailed for women, she decided to demonstrate the probe on the Texas House floor. The men were shocked to learn that this was not the “jelly on the belly” ultrasound that many pregnant women had experienced — and many expectant husbands had witnessed — but a highly invasive procedure. Other states introduced bills similar to the one in Texas, and by early 2012, pundits and politicians were calling all of these anti-choice measures a “War on Women.”
When legislators from nearly every state in the nation became focused on — or obsessed with — women’s reproductive organs, something new was unfolding in America, something that went beyond a recitation of the above statistics. Nearly 30 years earlier, with the Denver assassination of Alan Berg in 1984, I’d begun studying the link between extreme religious convictions and domestic terrorism. Since first venturing into this subject, I’d found myself returning to one thought again and again, and the same thing happened during the flood of anti-choice activities in 2011 and the 2012 presidential election cycle. Those who opposed women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, and the expansion of fundamental liberties on the grounds of their religious beliefs reflected a very real discomfort with the recent speed and amount of change in our society. Their reaction to this change often came out in political or religious rhetoric and manifested as racism or sexism or other forms of bigotry, but it struck me as something deeper: an almost biological response to so much new stimuli in their environment. Their real message was that they didn’t want to adapt to this new world or didn’t know how to or didn’t think they could (and of course many well-known commentators were strongly encouraging them not to). What better way to push back against all of this change than to attack women who were striving to manage their own biological destiny?
In March 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped into this issue when addressing a global audience: “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe but even here at home we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us because America needs to set an example for the entire world.”
The “even here at home” reference was to Rush Limbaugh who’d just called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, a “slut” and “a prostitute” because she’d testified to Congress that contraceptive coverage in health care programs was important to women. On the radio, Limbaugh claimed that Fluke “wanted you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex…as many times and as often as they want, with as many partners as they want.”
Following Limbaugh’s outburst, for the first time ever women (and men) throughout the nation vehemently protested his remarks — until advertisers started fleeing his show. Another round of protests had erupted when the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure had decided to stop providing grant money for breast exams to Planned Parenthood because of its connection to abortion services. The outcry over this was so harsh that the Foundation quickly dropped this policy and continued the grants, but the organization’s reputation had been damaged. Then Mitt Romney, the leading GOP presidential candidate in 2012, stated that he wanted to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood. The “War on Women” had reached the highest level of American politics.
The most provocative and revealing statements of all came from former U.S. Senator and current GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. On March 6, after winning primaries that evening in Tennessee and Oklahoma, he addressed his supporters on national television, stating that the rights of human beings came from “the Creator” and not from government. It was more or less a throwaway line from Santorum. He said these kinds of things all the time on the stump now, but it took a while for the magnitude of what he was claiming to sink in. Had anyone in his position ever made a comment that was so blindly ahistorical? The rights of African-Americans, of women to be able to vote, of gay people to be treated as equal to other U.S. citizens, had all been won not through divine intervention, but through concrete political struggle.
No Creator had handed any of these people their rights, and in the case of African Americans, they’d been secured through bloodshed and years of warfare. Human courage and sacrifice and conscious moral choices made by later-assassinated figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King had brought about these changes and pushed the U.S. closer to providing its people with “liberty and justice for all.” Santorum’s remarks were not simply un-factual. They were a denial of the American experiment in self-governance and of what we’ve collectively achieved by moving past the notion that human beings had to live under the divine rule of kings or dictators.
Santorum also said that John F. Kennedy’s promise, when he was running for president as a Catholic in 1960, to maintain an absolute separation between church and state, “makes me throw up.”
If a handful of comments could sum up the new civil war Americans had been fighting against one another throughout the past few decades, Santorum had delivered them from the highest perch of our political life. His words spelled out that the battle over abortion (or other social issues) wasn’t simply a matter of one side being pro-choice and the other anti-choice. Rather, it went to the foundation of the United States being constructed on the concept of keeping religion and politics separate. The Founding Fathers had been adamant about having government involved in the public policy arena, but staying out of people’s private lives and their faith. The first sentence of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Rick Santorum felt otherwise about America and to his credit he did not try to hide his convictions or soft-peddle them. He was the full flowering of the all the efforts of many of his fellow citizens over the past 40 years to alter the basis of our government. He wanted to bring religion into the realm of public life in the United States, and ending legalized abortion was just one way of doing this.
In Kansas during the first decade of the new millennium, Attorney General Phill Kline had attempted to do a similar thing while harassing and investigating Dr. Tiller and his medical practice. As the state’s head legal official, Kline felt that he could impose his Christian beliefs on the Tiller situation and that these beliefs trumped the rule of law. For years Kline was allowed to operate in this way, but in October 2011 a Kansas disciplinary panel recommended that he be indefinitely suspended from practicing law because of ethics misconduct in his pursuit of abortion clinics. As of this writing, the recommendation is still under consideration by the Kansas Supreme Court. The end result of Kline’s behavior speaks for itself, and investigating his time in office was the main reason I felt compelled to write this book. What other recent American story so clearly demonstrates the danger of supplanting our legal system with an individual’s religious convictions?
Placing one’s faith above the Constitution and the laws of the United States was precisely what the Founding Fathers were trying to prevent (because they’d lived under a king and wanted something better). The story of Dr. Tiller graphically shows what happens when “respectable” and powerful people place themselves above the governmental system we’ve agreed to live by. The Wichita Divide does not chronicle the theory of what can happen when religious dogma becomes the driving force behind a society built on a multitude of faiths, races, beliefs, and creeds. The book documents the danger first hand — and underscores what those who created America and its rights were hoping to avoid.
Instead of absorbing the consequences and lessons of what Kline’s time in office represented in Kansas, segments of the Republican Party have lately run headlong toward mimicking the former AG. They too want their religion to pervade our politics, no matter the cost. The divisions in our country are now wider than ever, and the intrusions into the private lives of Americans have only grown more personal and painful. Who knows where all of this will lead? In 2012, nearly a century after women won the right to vote and decades after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, it’s astonishing and disheartening to watch the country rip itself further apart over the issue of women’s health. Fanatical beliefs and convictions have now become part of the mainstream, and people have been paid and promoted exceptionally well to hammer these cultural and religious wedges between our citizens. No one should any longer be naïve about what this can mean for our future.
As abortion doctor Warren Hern has said, “Wake up, America.”