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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:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.

The last bit caught me off guard. I looked around the room. The movement had seen it fit to amend the pledge with "born and unborn?" My neighbors glanced suspiciously at my badge.

The morning was occupied by two sessions, one featuring a testimonial by Teresa Teomeo, the former "radical feminist" news anchor-turned-syndicated Catholic radio personality. Having "been there," she was qualified to warn us of the dangers of women who pursue careers and of the liberal bias of mainstream media. She plugged her books on teen chastity and the "groupthink" of dominant newspapers and news channels. Our youth were being brainwashed, she told us.

She gave the stage up to David Prentice of the Family Research Council. With his greased-back hair, stiff mustache and unkempt navy suit, he could have walked off the set of a comedy skit.

He played his talk on the "holocaust" of stem-cell research straight though, infusing the room with animated horror at the institutionalized killing of potential babies. In other company, I might have snickered through his PowerPoint proof that in the cold depths of laboratory freezers resided not the cure for pancreatic cancer but the next Beethoven.

At the lunchtime break, 18 reticent teenagers emerged from nowhere and were hustled off to a side room, amidst great fanfare. They were the future of the "pro-life" movement, and "pro-life" was not going away, just down the hall for special teen instruction. When I popped my head into the room, I found that it reeked of free pizza and hormones. They were playing "Baby In Jeopardy," without Alex Trebek.

"Umbilical cord?" offered one hesitant, long-haired girl in answer to a blinking square on the projector screen. "Please phrase your answer as a question," encouraged the enthusiastic Trebek stand-in.

I returned to the ballroom after lunch to find Schindler standing near my table with a pair of middle-age women in pastel jackets, long skirts and sensible shoes. They were staring at him adoringly, hanging rapturously on his words. When he was called away, the women bounced on their toes and held their hands to their mouthes, giggling.

Schindler is a hero in the "pro-life" community, a rock star for "life," and in the wake of his father's recent death, the head of the determined Schindler family, which had worked tirelessly for years to prevent the "torturous killing" of Schiavo at the hands of her greedy, cheating husband, Michael.

Terri Schiavo, in this movement, is now referred to as Terri Schindler Schiavo or simply as Terri; an attempt to remove Michael Schiavo from Terri's celebrated, saintly afterlife.

Schindler was introduced, but a nun with a present delayed his ascension to the stage. In an oversized brown suit that extended his shoulders and piled in folds at his wrists and ankles, Schindler bowed his head in humility as he approached the podium. The crowd applauded thunderously.

During the description of "Terri's fight," Schindler said, "I am not a hero," as if emasculated by his inability to save his sister. The deep circles under his eyes accentuated his large, dark Italian features; perpetual mourning had extracted from him all vitality and joy.

Terri's persistent-vegetative-state diagnosis was wrong, he told us. His family had been denied the chance to care for their sister and daughter until her natural death. I pitied him in his unresolved grief. He was given a standing ovation.

"I don't even know where I'll find time to read all this stuff," said one of the women at my table as she shuffling glossy fliers and handouts. "What do you do?" she asked, turning to me.

"I'm a writer," I replied. "And you?"

"I was a fifth-grade math teacher," she said.

"It must be wonderful to teach math to students at that age," I said, "Because it's absolute."

"Like absolute truth," said the other woman, shaking her head and placing her hand on mine. A beat.

"I don't believe in absolute truth," I said, my exasperation at the day's content and its smug, self-righteous delivery coming through. Her face was blank. "I think truth is a cultural construct," I continued, relishing my outbreak. "I think religion is a cultural construct, too." Her mouth hanged still and open.

"Have a safe drive home," I amended and hustled out of the ballroom, skirting the tables as I made for the exit. A young girl stood at the top of the steps.

"Would you like a Precious One?" she asked, pushing a rubber fetus into my hand. "It's the real weight and size of a 12-week-old unborn baby." The look and feel of the object made me shudder. I shoved it into my pocket.

I drove back to New York City through sheets of rain realizing that I had not spent the day in "middle America" or even conservative America.

Fringe America was in that Hilton Hotel ballroom, surrounded by cross-stitched banners and slap-dash PowerPoint presentations, too engrossed in one simple message -- "We Love Life!" -- to allow complications like poverty or quality of life, suffering or unsentimental ideas to intrude on their sense of righteous community.

As the city skyline came into view, I acknowledged that I was a little jealous. I missed righteous community and absolute truth. Like math, both came with the security of right answers.

But I also knew I didn't miss them enough to give up the other messy, ugly, glorious, beautiful, non-absolutes of life. I had come to relish another kind of self-righteousness, making up my own answers and framing them as questions.

Ann Neumann is writing a book about death, grief and travel. She lives in Red Hook in Brooklyn, N.Y. She authors the blog
 
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