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Fetus-Shaped Potatoes? Going Undercover Inside the Weird World of Right-Wing Abortion Foes

I went undercover to a Pro-Life Federation conference. What I found there was not "middle America" or even conservative America. It was fringe America.
 
 
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Crossing the lobby outside the Scranton (Pa.) Hilton Hotel ballroom required passing through a phalanx of tables that displayed bloody pictures of aborted fetuses; glossy flyers on the dangers of abortion, condoms, same-sex marriage and euthanasia; a scrubbed russet potato in the shape of a fetus; and a 3-by-5-foot poster of Terri Schiavo in her wedding dress.

It was 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and I had come to attend the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation's annual conference, this year titled, "Lighting the Way for Life in the Electric City."

From the doorway I estimated that the ballroom held about 300 patient and pale-white attendees, all quietly sitting at round tables that had been covered with white cloths, each adorned with a water pitcher. The group was predominantly made up of seniors, although I did spot a handful of women and men not yet white-haired.

Taking a seat at a table near the front, already occupied by two retired couples, I was irrationally fearful of being detected as an outsider. I am white, female and 40. But I am also a divorced, childless feminist who writes about religion and end-of-life issues.

I was in Scranton on an assignment of sorts: to hear Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo and a full time "pro-life" activist, speak about the "culture of death" and the "brutal killing" of his sister. As one of the more dominant voices against what conservatives call euthanasia, Schindler has spent the nearly five years since his sister's death working tirelessly to keep persistent-vegetative-state (PVS) patients on life support.

But my foray into the "pro-life" conference circuit was also a kind of homecoming. I had spent a number of my idealistic high school and college years as a member of various student "pro-life" groups, handing out anti-abortion tracts on street corners.

My family were Mennonites from Lancaster County, Pa.; I had been steeped in conservative values, and I had chosen to go through Catholic catechism in college. Yes, because of a boyfriend.

When I found sex, at the seemingly late age of 20 in a university dorm room to the tunes of Led Zeppelin, all my absolute ideas about religion, moral certitude and God's jurisdiction over my body went right out the open window.

Polite greetings with my neighbors at the table were interrupted by the county commissioner, A.J. Munchak, a self-described "pro-life, Polish politician from Pennsylvania," chastising his fellow local politicians for declining to speak that day.

"Pennsylvania is 'pro-life' country," he blared into the microphone from a stage festooned with pots of chrysanthemums, fake fall leaves and a white-and-green cross-stitched banner. It must have taken many months to stitch all those little Xs. "I never use the word fetus," Munchak said, "I use 'babies.' "

"Aww," sighed the crowd around me. I quickly learned that this was the appropriate response to any mention or image of babies.

With meaty hands waving, he told us we were there to get educated, get rejuvenated and to pass on the pro-life message to "the people who are, I don't want to say it, ignorant." He tossed his hands in the air; the crowd applauded.

Michael Ciccocioppo, the CEO of Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the oldest of 15 children, cautioned us to wear our badges at all times so that disruptive, unregistered outsiders wouldn't wander in, then invited us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

After sitting stone-faced through the hokey introduction jokes and baby "awws," I felt able to participate. With hands on hearts, the group and I chanted with one voice:

 
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