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Pro-life movement making a comeback

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 12:21 p.m. MDT

Albert Stecklein III, a pro-life activist with Defend Life from Bethesda, Md., attends a rally on Capitol Hill in April. (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images) Albert Stecklein III, a pro-life activist with Defend Life from Bethesda, Md., attends a rally on Capitol Hill in April. (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images)

OREM — Nothing about the small clinic in Shawnee, Kan., made it stand out in Melinda Oberhelman's mind.

Looking back, all she remembers from that sultry June day in 1975 is going into a room with a nurse who kept using the word "tissue" as she explained the procedure.

The specifics slipped by. The terrified 25-year-old had no idea what she was doing or why her boyfriend hadn't come back with the money.

As Oberhelman lay on the table, she remembers several whimsical posters on the ceiling and walls. She can't recall if the male doctor even spoke to her, but she does remember the noise. And the pain.

And then it was done.

"They talk about it being a matter of choice," said Oberhelman, now 61. "From my own experience and others I've known who have had an abortion, it's really not a choice. It's when you feel like you don't have a choice. You feel that there is nothing else available to you."

Planned Parenthood supporters walk to a women's rights rally held in early April on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.   (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images) Planned Parenthood supporters walk to a women's rights rally held in early April on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images)

For decades, Americans have argued over the morality and legality of abortion, in an emotionally heated and often intellectually clouded debate.

Yet this debate has reached a new intensity thanks to a wave of Tea Party and conservative Republicans who were swept into the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures last November.

Once in office, the new class of pro-life legislators, emboldened by victory, immediately began flooding their session with bills aimed at undermining and overthrowing Roe v. Wade. Thus far, 427 abortion-restricting bills have been introduced in senates and houses across the country — a huge jump from last year's 174. For the first time in more than a decade, the pro-life movement is making a comeback. And it's coming back strong.

While some applaud this pro-life resurgence, others wonder if it will drive the wedge further into the pro-life/pro-choice divide.

Anti-abortion activist Albert Stecklein III, left, attends rally opposing Planned Parenthood.  (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images) Anti-abortion activist Albert Stecklein III, left, attends rally opposing Planned Parenthood. (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images)

The issue has become so divisive it nearly shut down the government, as a polarized Congress struggled to agree on budget issues — namely whether or not to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, a family planning and abortion clinic. While the shutdown was averted, the abortion issue is still hot.

"Efforts to have people working together … have been eclipsed by this fight that's become part of our politics, no holds barred," said Mary Jacksteit, program manager at the Watertown, Mass.-based Public Conversations Project, a non-profit group that helps facilitate dialogue on contentious issues. "(Politicians are) just throwing grenades and anything to win."

Where we are

On March 2, two pregnant women stretched out on tables before Ohio legislators, discreetly covered while technicians probed to find the heartbeats of their unborn children, 9 and 15 weeks old.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 07: Albert Stecklein III (R), an anti-abortion activist with Defend Life from Bethesda, Maryland, attends a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood on Capitol Hill on April 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Planned Parenthood supporters also held a rally in support of women's rights. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images) WASHINGTON - APRIL 07: Albert Stecklein III (R), an anti-abortion activist with Defend Life from Bethesda, Maryland, attends a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood on Capitol Hill on April 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Planned Parenthood supporters also held a rally in support of women's rights. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) (Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images)

Images of the tiny beating hearts and amplified thub-thub-thubs served as background visual and audial aids as Republican Rep. Lynn Wachtmann defended his bill, which would outlaw abortion after the first viable heartbeat of a fetus — as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Branded a circus act by pro-choice Democrats, H.B. 125, the "heartbeat bill" was carried by the pro-life Republicans out of committee but is undergoing additional scrutiny before it moves forward.

It's one of the strictest anti-abortion pieces of legislation proposed in the country, though it may never pass Constitutional muster.

Most states have laws preventing abortions after "viability" at 24 weeks, though Ohio lawmakers have also proposed an abortion ban after 20 weeks if a doctor believes the fetus could survive outside the womb.

Planned Parenthood supporters rallied last month, while anti-abortion activists opposed the group's federal funding.    (Mark Wilson, Getty Images) Planned Parenthood supporters rallied last month, while anti-abortion activists opposed the group's federal funding. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

"There are people who oppose abortion who've said if they cannot make it illegal, they will … do everything they can at a federal level and state legislatures to make abortion care inaccessible for most women," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers in North America.

Yet Tom McClusky, senior vice president of Family Research Council Action, sees the situation differently and praises the work being done in this "building year" — in which 427 abortion-restricting bills have been proposed, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"The states are now a microcosm of what we'd like to see on the federal level," he said.

In Arizona, the governor recently signed a bill prohibiting "telemedicine" abortions, or abortions where the woman can receive abortion-inducing medication and counseling via videophone. The state has also tightened restrictions on abortion clinics and now requires that an ultrasound be done so a woman can hear a fetal heartbeat at least one hour before an abortion procedure. Arizona was also the first state to ban abortions performed because of the race of the fetus and one of the few states to ban abortion based on the fetus' gender.

Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975.  (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

More than 15 states have proposed fetal pain bills, which would outlaw an abortion after roughly 20 weeks, because around that point, advocates believe the fetus can feel pain. And South Dakota lawmakers have drawn significant attention for their new 72-hour-wait law, which requires women who want an abortion to see a doctor, receive counseling at a pregnancy help center and then wait three days before being eligible for the abortion.

While pro-life advocates always want to get additional protection on the books, the speed and timing of the bills makes this year different, said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee.

"Often times the abortion issue is put off until the end of session because it's controversial," she said, "but in states this year, bills were (introduced) very quickly."

Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975.  (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

On a federal level, lawmakers tried to cut nearly $317 million from family planning through the Title X program, of which Planned Parenthood is a beneficiary, though none of those funds have ever been allowed to pay for abortions. The slashing of the program's funding was removed at the last minute, but it's unknown how the program will fare as Congress approaches the 2012 budget.

The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" would permanently impose regulations that prevent Medicaid and other federal funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

The bill would also deny tax credits or federal subsidies to companies and individuals whose insurance plans cover abortions.

Normally, the procedure for introducing legislation is to do so gradually and in small steps, so as to not ruffle feathers or set off counteractive lobbying, said University of Utah political science professor Thad Hall. On a controversial topic like abortion, most pro-life legislators would pick an existing law and tweak it slightly, adding in an extra rule here or a few hours for the waiting period there — small steps, but ones that over five or 10 years add up to significant progress.

Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, had an abortion in 1975. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Yet this new wave of politicians isn't taking it quite so slow, Hall said. Instead, they're more willing to "push the envelope a bit," by introducing increasingly bold legislation, with a goal of attacking, eroding and even overturning Roe v. Wade.

Utah Rep. Carl Wimmer (R-Herriman) doesn't hide his disgust with the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed women a constitutional right to have an abortion.

"Roe v. Wade is historically one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court has ever made," Wimmer said. "It's absolutely my intention, as well as the intention of others in the legislature, to continue to push back against it and continue to chip away at it as often as we can."

If Roe v. Wade were overturned, individual state legislatures would determine what would and wouldn't be allowed.

Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, sorts through baby clothes in the Orem facility's basement.   (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Melinda Oberhelman, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley, sorts through baby clothes in the Orem facility's basement. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

States like California, where abortion regulations are nearly non-existent, would likely become even more lax. Other states like South Dakota, or even Utah, would likely become far more restrictive, perhaps outlawing abortion completely.

Moving toward that end, Wimmer introduced three bills in the just-completed session to increase the oversight on abortion clinics, expand conscience protections to medical providers who refuse to participate in abortions and prohibit government health plans from covering abortions. All three passed.

"Anytime you have a chance to protect the life of the unborn and to protect women from the exploitation of the abortion industry, I think that's a good thing," Wimmer said.

The bills didn't surprise Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, except for the initial lack of the words "rape, incest or health of the mother" when describing abortion-restriction exemptions, said Melissa Bird, vice president of public affairs for the association. It was the first time those words had been missing, so the group worked diligently with legislators to get them back into the insurance bill, though they weren't added to the conscience bill.

Melinda Oberhelman sits in her Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley office in Orem. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Melinda Oberhelman sits in her Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley office in Orem. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Bird knows Utah is a conservative state, but like other pro-choice advocates, sees overturning Roe as a terrible decision because of how it would affect a woman's ability to make her own private health-related decisions.

Patrick Whelan, a doctor at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and president of Catholic Democrats, said he's met many people, including leaders in his own faith who believe the "only moral approach is to focus on reversing Roe. V. Wade." He disagrees and points to other countries, like Brazil, where abortion is illegal and the percentage of women getting abortions is much higher than in the U.S.

"Just because you make it illegal," he said, "doesn't mean it's not going to happen."

Whelan said the focus should be on studying why abortion is happening in the first place.

"We both care equally about the issue," he said of the two competing sides. "The question is how do you best get to the right place?"

Seeing the problem

For Melinda Oberhelman, abortion was an escape.

Despite growing up in a Midwest Baptist home, Oberhelman became a "rebellious teen" in her 20s after a divorce left her emotionally vulnerable and reaching out for love.

When drug use and a series of bad relationships left her in an unimaginable situation, she frantically looked for ways to justify her decision to end her pregnancy.

Her boyfriend already had a child and wasn't ready for another one. He encouraged her to get the abortion and talked about how they'd marry soon after.

Because she was working and paying most of the bills she figured it was better this way.

Besides, this pregnancy was different than her first one when she had been married. She was sick all the time now, and told herself something had to be wrong inside.

But her abortion didn't solve the problem.

After dropping her off at the clinic, Oberhelman's boyfriend cleaned out their duplex, swiped her emergency cash and never came back.

For years, Oberhelman was haunted by low self-esteem and continued to make a series of bad decisions until she met some friends who helped her center her life on Jesus — assuring her that He could and did forgive her. She joined post-abortion support groups, started a home for unwed mothers and slowly began to love herself again.

Today Oberhelman tells her poignant story matter-of-factly, no tears or excuses. She sees her situation through the lens of maturity, and offers that clarity to other women in similar situations.

As the executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Utah Valley in Orem, she has talked to hundreds of women who, like her, are desperately searching for answers, some even considering abortions.

While the pro-life clinic doesn't provide abortions or abortion referrals, Oberhelman answers their questions directly and honestly, trying to provide as much information as she can. And when they ask about abortion, she tells them about the price she paid.

Not in money, she quickly adds, but in years of emotional pain, the loss of a potential sibling for her daughter, the feeling of having disappointed her God and the physical damage from an incorrectly done abortion, which later necessitated a hysterectomy.

It's been decades, but the consequences are still there.

"No matter what a woman says," Oberhelman said, "I haven't met a woman yet who really is OK with the fact that she had an abortion."

Yet, nearly 35 percent of women will have had one before they reach 45 — almost half of them unmarried women.

Statistics from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy show that of the nearly 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States, half are unplanned. And because unplanned often becomes synonymous with "unwanted," nearly 1.3 million of those pregnancies end in abortion.

"The conversation about abortion is an unfortunate conversation because it means we haven't adequately had the conversation about preventing unwanted pregnancy," said Utah Sen. Ross Romero (D-Salt Lake City). "Abstinence should be first and foremost our suggestion, but we need to realize that for those who are sexually active, as most individuals will be during the course of their life, understanding how to prevent that unwanted pregnancy is an important part of the conversation that often is overlooked."

That important conversation is often overlooked because the two sides can't agree on where and how it should begin. Pro-choice groups usually want to emphasize contraception or medical options like the "morning-after pill," while pro-life advocates focus on teaching abstinence and promoting adoption.

While the number of teens having sex is dropping — 51 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys in 1988 to 42 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys today — there are still plenty of sexually active adolescents who could use education about contraceptives and preventing pregnancy.

Yet "contraception" is being increasingly, and unfairly, seen as a synonym to "abortion," said Bill Albert, spokesman for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"I think some of the opposition to contraception is really a marker for other, important, serious issues that people have concerns about," he said, citing trends of unplanned pregnancies among single women and children born outside of marriage. "I think folks are right to discuss these issues and be concerned about them. But what happens is that expresses itself in simple opposition to contraception."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists family planning, aka birth control, as one of the top 10 Great Public Health Achievements of the last century, along with motor-vehicle safety, fluoridated water and vaccinations.

In fact, 99 percent of women have used a contraceptive at some point in their lives, 82 percent of them using the Pill, according to the CDC. Yet Republican lawmakers want to axe Title X, which provides comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services to women and families, specifically those with lower incomes.

In 2009, more than five million women and men — 70 percent below the poverty level ($18,310 for a family of three) — received services at one of more than 4,500 community-based Title-X funded clinics around the nation.

These clinics, which include Planned Parenthood, provide contraceptives and counseling, as well as breast and pelvic examinations; breast and cervical cancer screenings, prevention education, counseling and testing and referral regarding STDs and HIV, and pregnancy tests and counseling.

Title-X-funded sites also conducted more than 2.1 million pap smears last year, with 12 percent of tests indicating a precancerous or cancerous condition, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Family Planning Annual Report from 2009.

However, "by law, Title X funds may not be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning." Planned Parenthood and clinics that do provide abortions must use private funds, not federal dollars.

Yet pro-life advocates say funneling any federal money toward programs that support or provide abortions, even with other funds, is irresponsible and immoral.

"We shouldn't be using federal taxpayer dollars to support, condone or promote abortion," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah), who was one of the 103 co-sponsors of the Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, and is someone who is "clearly opposed to abortion and the funding of abortion," he told the Deseret News.

Still, many worry about the immediate effect on women and families if Title X is axed.

"For many clients, Title X clinics provide the only continuing source of health care and health education," the 2009 report states.

In 2008, contraceptive services from Title X-funded clinics helped women avoid 973,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 406,000 abortions — a cost savings of nearly $3.4 billion, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.

In Utah, Title X-funded clinics served nearly 29,000 women who avoided 5,900 unintended pregnancies. Without such services, Utah's abortion rate would be 69 percent higher, costing the state nearly $23 million.

Yet many dismiss the idea that contraceptives can prevent abortions, pointing out that methods often fail, and can even promote increased promiscuity due to a feeling of security.

When asked about the potential for abortions to increase if Title X funding is eliminated, Chaffetz dismissed it as a "scare tactic."

"I don't believe it to be true," he said. "I just disagree with that assessment."

Bridging the divide

Far too often the abortion debate descends into bickering about "us versus them" or "good against bad." And as soon as the conversation turns to name-calling or unfair labeling, the potential for progress is gone.

"In the heat of really polarized debate, then it's … sort of Armageddon," says Jacksteit with the Public Conversations Project, adding that each side often focuses in on winning because they believe the other side is "so terrible."

"(But) coming to decisions about important issues requires some compromise, some accommodating," she said. "There's no simple answer, no one answer, no group of bad people or good people."

Consider the fact that 65 percent of Americans agreed with the statement in a Pew Research Center survey that it's a good idea to reduce the number of abortions in the country. And another 76 percent said they favor the requirement that a minor needs her parents' permission before an abortion — positions seen by many as pro-life.

Then consider that while many Americans, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe that abortion for the sake of personal convenience is wrong, they follow the church's stance that abortion should be available in rare instances such as rape, incest, health risk to the mother or a fatal fetal condition — thus making that large group of Americans pro-choice in a limited sense. (see box)

Yet, in today's vernacular, it would seem inappropriate to call a woman who believes in fetal rights "pro-choice" just because she believes that abortion should be available only in rare instances.

And a women's-rights advocate may agree with some rules and restrictions, but wouldn't want to be labeled "pro-life" because of what that has come to connote.

Thus stepping away from the labels and their attached assumptions is one of the first steps toward having a constructive and polite conversation.

"Resorting to name-calling is counter productive," said Spaulding Balch with National Right to Life. "If I start yelling at them, I've failed before I even started.

"My whole framework is to try to understand what their concerns are and to express my response in such a way that they can understand what I'm understanding. Unless we're listening to each other, we're never going to move this issue forward."

No one knows exactly what "forward" looks like, and neither side will ever completely embrace the other, but there have been positive steps in that direction.

In 2008, the Democratic Party amended their platform to reflect the need to reduce abortions, not simply guarantee the right to one. (see box)

And in May 2009, President Barack Obama stood before the graduating class of one of the nation's most prestigious Catholic universities and called for "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words," when discussing abortion.

"Maybe we won't agree on abortions but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually," he told the students at Notre Dame. "So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term."

Echoing the call from his speech, scholars and advocates on both sides gathered at Princeton in October for "A Conference on Life & Choice in the Abortion Debate," which Jacksteit attended and called "astonishing."

"Because it was something that would have never happened in the past," she said.

Jean Reith Schroedel, dean of the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. has encouraged such discussions for years, especially since her book, "Is the Fetus a Person? A Comparison of Policies Across 50 States" came out in 2000.

"I argued that we needed to work on finding the common ground," she said. "When we talk about fetal life, let's not talk simply about abortion. Let's talk about the total ramifications."

She mentions reducing prenatal drug exposure and drug use by male partners as well as preventing battering of pregnant women and domestic violence.

"(Because) if we believe that women shouldn't be allowed to have abortions under X number of circumstances, then we as a society have a responsibly to assist her and that child."

That responsibility is what motivates Oberhelman to go to work each day. She knows what it's like to feel terrified, alone and out of options. Her job is to provide love and support to these women, who are often just children themselves.

And while she doesn't believe abortion is the right choice, she understands why some women chose it.

For her, this isn't about labels, politics or rhetoric. This is about helping people.

"If I had talked to a woman, and tried to … help her see that there are options for her, and if she said, 'You don't understand, I have no choice,' and she went ahead and went in (the abortion clinic), when she came out, I would be there for her," Oberhelman said.

"I would want to take her home and take care of her and love her, because I believe that's what God would do."

email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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