Abortion Rites

Like the commuting towns of Gatsby’s Long Island, the great stretch of highway-enabled civilization beyond Dallas-Fort Worth is less fashionable as you move west, toward Denton, while the eastern jewels of Plano and Carrollton and Richardson glitter in Dallas’ reflected light. The varieties of abortion politics in the west and in the east are accordingly distinct.

Farms still border Denton, some thirty miles north of Fort Worth, and the citizens who leave their plows to serve on the Denton County Commission still find time to debate philosophical matters – as they did last year, when two commissioners (including young Scott Armey, son of Representative Dick) successfully advanced a resolution declaring that life begins at conception. For several years now, Denton has been the scene of an abortion war conducted in the traditional fashion: one doctor, Mary Smith, and her practice, Denton Health Services for Women, have been under siege by Life Dynamics, an anti-abortion group led by a former salesman named Mark Crutcher. Smith suspects it was through Crutcher that her picture, her vital statistics, her phone number and address, her family members’ names, and her church name and address were posted on the gruesome “Nuremburg Files” anti-abortion website, under the heading, “The blood red rose of Texas.”

Life Dynamics is known nationally for offering to provide expert witnesses, research, video animation exhibits, and other assistance to lawyers who file abortion malpractice lawsuits, and for distributing tasteless joke-books to medical students in a harebrained effort to discourage them from performing abortions when they become doctors. Locally, the group has gained a certain notoriety for its picketing at Smith’s office, at her church, and on Interstate 35, as well as for its distribution of “Mary Smith is an abortionist” postcards and Wanted-style posters.

Such behavior would never do in Plano – among its well-secured homes and corporate complexes, street visibility of any sort would be a dubious achievement. Plano’s state Senator is Florence Shapiro, who runs an advertising agency during the legislative offseason, and who knows well how to appeal to her political target audience. She carefully advocates the sort of “limited government” in which the meting out of punishments, restrictions, and fines knows no bounds; presumably this vision is pleasing to those Planovians who just want to be left alone in a penal colony of mirrored office parks. Her stance on abortion is likewise tailored to the Republican suburbs: she has stated in the past that she supports “abortion by choice in the first trimester [along with] restrictions that I believe in,” but almost never mentions the choice while championing the restrictions. Shapiro is the sponsor of the parental notification legislation approved 23-8 by the Senate March 17, which would require doctors to inform a parent at least forty-eight hours before performing an abortion on a minor. The bill will almost certainly pass in the House, and Governor Bush will sign it.

On March 10 Shapiro’s Senate Bill 30, along with three other parental notification or consent bills, underwent the ceremonial public hearing before the Committee on Human Services; much of that hearing was given over to the standard game of victims’ one-downsmanship. A woman in her thirties recalled how she was seduced by her high school teacher and taken by him to the abortion clinic after she became pregnant: she was in favor of parental notification. Another woman told of how, after her parents discovered she was pregnant, she was shipped off so that she could secretly have the baby and then give it up for adoption: registering against.

A woman from Houston said she’d come to speak on behalf of “my granddaughter Tasha,” who was “thirteen weeks in utero” when an older boyfriend took her pregnant fifteen-year-old daughter to have an abortion. Her daughter, she said, “continues to cry for the picture that she saw on the ultrasound that the doctor showed her, and hears the turning on of the evacuation machine prior to the removal of Tasha.… My child became a victim, I became a victim.” A woman who’d been raped spoke bitterly of being shown pictures of fetal development when she was seeking an abortion. A woman whose father had been alcoholic and abusive told of trying to give herself an abortion at age sixteen. And so on. Three minutes apiece of anger and sorrow, after which the speaker, usually shaken, would leave her seat before the microphone and be embraced by either the pro-choice huggers or the pro-life huggers, depending on which side had enlisted her.

While there were doctors and activists and law professors who presented testimony as well, the women-as-victims were the most prominent, and the most likely to get into the newspapers the next day – which was after all the point of the exercise, insofar as there could be said to be a point. Everyone present in the room had of course made up her mind long ago.

Shapiro herself seldom asked questions of the speakers. She is a petite, groomed woman, from Dallas originally, with the demeanor of a hostess who knows how to boss the caterers around a little, and how to listen tolerantly-but-not-too-tolerantly to someone’s dull brother who came to the party uninvited. Those testifying against her bill got the dull brother treatment, with a few exceptions: when a San Antonio doctor stated that 75 percent of minors who have abortions tell their parents, the raspy-voiced Senator challenged him to produce a source for that statistic. He demurred, but said that the figure seemed about right to him based on his experience as an abortion provider. “I think we can find that out on the Alan Guttmacher Institute website probably,” he said, referring to the research and policy organization that tracks abortion-related statistics.

“I’ll bet you’re right, thank you,” Shapiro said, smiling icily.

Senate Bill 30, which passed out of committee later that afternoon, requires a doctor to notify a young woman’s parent, either in person or by phone, at least forty-eight hours before performing an abortion. Alternately, the patient may present an “application” to a judge (consisting of a statement that she is pregnant, unmarried, under eighteen, and wishing to have an abortion without parental notification, as well as a statement of whether or not she’s hired a lawyer – if she hasn’t, the court appoints one for her). Then, within two business days, the judge issues his determination as to “whether the minor is mature and sufficiently well informed to make the decision to have an abortion performed without notification, or whether the notification would not be in the best interest of the minor.” The minor may appeal if her request is denied.

Two days before the committee hearing took place, on Monday morning, it poured down rain in Denton. The small group of protesters that assembles every Monday outside Denton Health Services for Women was undeterred. Two of them stood solemnly under umbrellas, while a third – a woman in her thirties who, worrying a string of rosary beads, identified herself as Lupe – approached the women headed into the small house on Elm Street where Mary Smith has her office. At the arrival of each patient, Tanya Cross, a D.H.S.W. volunteer from the University of North Texas Women’s Collective, scrambled down from the porch to greet her as well, and escorted her inside.

“This group today, they’re pretty decent,” Cross told me, indicating the protesters. “They say, there’s help for you, there’s a women’s clinic next door” – where Life Dynamics has opened the Susan B. Anthony Women’s Centre [sic], one of whose missions is to discourage women from having abortions. “As far as protesters go, I like their approach.” (At one point, she called out to them: “Is the rain a little much today?” They didn’t hear, and she shouted, “Is the rain a little much today?” They laughed and agreed, and then everyone returned to their posts.)

Smith performs abortions on Mondays and Fridays, and “the group that’s here Friday, they say things like, ‘You know you’re a murderer’; some get very hostile,” said Cross, who has been repeatedly informed by Friday protesters that she’s going to hell.

A car pulled up and dropped off a young Hispanic woman. Cross ran down to take her inside, but the woman and Lupe had already begun speaking in Spanish, which Cross doesn’t speak. The three of them stood there in the rain, coming down now in sheets. Lupe gave the woman some pamphlets, and they continued to talk, until at last the woman pulled away, and she and Cross went inside.

“I heard something about the baby, and God. That’s the first time I’ve ever had that problem,” said Cross afterward. “I think she [the patient] was saying she already had kids and can’t have another.” Inside, the waiting room of Smith’s office was warm, and all the lamps were lit – the blinds are kept drawn to block the view of the protesters. A half dozen young women, most of whom appeared to be teenagers, were waiting for their appointments; a couple with their mothers, some with boyfriends. The Hispanic woman earlier detained outside, who looked to be in her twenties, was the only one by herself.

Mary Smith is about the same age as Florence Shapiro, and the similarities end there. She’s been in private practice for twenty-one years, working out of her Elm Street office for the last fifteen, and when she says she won’t be chased off by the likes of Mark Crutcher, it’s not hard to believe her: tall and subdued and quietly sarcastic, Smith seems about as rooted as they come. “I don’t think he [Crutcher] realized that I was going to be this thorn in his side, because you can’t get rid of me. I’m not normal, I guess. I’m the kind of person, you tell me, ‘Don’t do it,’ I’ll just keep on doing it forever,” she says. Having finished medical school in 1971, when abortion was still illegal in Texas yet available to some, “my experience was that the private patients, they had to get three or four doctors to say they could have an abortion, so they would come in on the weekends and have one, and the poor people filled up the gynecology wards with complications [from botched procedures].”

“I was a minister’s daughter; I hadn’t even heard the word sex, much less abortion, growing up. I sort of formed an opinion then that that was wrong.” Following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, “We were all excited,” says Smith. A doctor in Dallas trained Smith to do the procedure, “and I’ve been doing them ever since.” She worked at clinics in Dallas for a few years, then started her own practice.

Smith had seen her share of Operation Rescue protests in Dallas, but her little office in Denton had never been targeted until a few years ago, when Crutcher moved to town from nearby Lewisville. Crutcher, who founded Life Dynamics in 1992, is the author of a manual for anti-abortion activists called “Firestorm,” and his harassment of Smith – the wanted posters, the targeting of her Methodist church – conforms to the model he laid out in that manual.

“Two or three years ago was their first big campaign,” Smith says of Life Dynamics, “they did the posters, and they were hanging them on overpasses, and there are people now who will stand out by the mall with a huge picture of me, and sometimes I’m coming home from Dallas and they’re standing out beside the freeway with a huge picture of me.” In February of 1997 Life Dynamics – which is headquartered in a fenced-off building on the east side of town – opened the Susan B. Anthony Women’s Centre in the building next to Denton Health Services. “They’ve gotten some of the patients in there before they’ve actually gotten here, and do a whole song and dance. They’ll say that they’re us, take their urine, give them a pregnancy test, and then start talking to them,” Smith says. A writer for Glamour magazine visited the Women’s Centre just after it opened, posing as a someone who thought she might be pregnant, and was treated to a long and erroneous lecture on the supposed health risks of abortion. (The Centre staff has since become more cautious: on the day I was in Denton I walked in and asked the woman who greeted me whether this was the women’s health services office; she said that it wasn’t, and when I asked where it was she stammered, “I can’t help you.” When I said, “Well, I thought it was right around here somewhere,” she was speechless for a moment, gave an aggressive shrug, and finally said, “Sorry.”)

In its front yard the Centre has planted a large sign, visible to women leaving Smith’s office: “Injured by Abortion? You Have LEGAL RIGHTS. In Denton Call 387-4030.” And the Centre does still manage to waylay some of Smith’s patients or potential patients – even though the Denton Health Services staff does its best to warn everyone it can about what’s next door, some first-time clients don’t call ahead. “It gets them very upset. You really have to work with them to get them calmed down…. [The women are told] they’re going to die, they’re never going to get pregnant again, you’ll lose your uterus, that kind of stuff,” Smith says.

Crutcher’s group doesn’t seem to be making much progress either in scaring off Smith’s clients or in turning Denton against her. “They’re not gaining any ground, and they’re getting more and more strident,” Smith says, particularly as people in the community who are sick of driving by gory fetus images while taking their kids to school, or seeing wanted-style posters stuck to trees, are beginning to look more closely at Life Dynamics. Last fall Donna Fielder, a columnist for the Denton Record-Chronicle, obtained copies of Life Dynamics’ 990 tax forms, and in so doing discovered that Crutcher is also the president of another nonprofit called National Lifesource. (“You’re all sons of bitches!” Crutcher told her after she requested the information and discovered several irregularities – such as the fact that National Lifesource is listed as the owner of various recent-model cars that Crutcher and his small group of colleagues drive, and that National Lifesource and Life Dynamics exchanged hundreds of thousands of dollars back and forth in 1997.)

Yet whether or not Life Dynamics is on its way down, there are other Crutchers out there, some violent, and what ultimately worries Smith is not Crutcher’s particular shenanigans but the climate of harassment which discourages medical students from becoming abortion providers. (The number of U.S. doctors performing abortions has fallen by a third since 1982, from 2,908 to 2,042.) No one is eager to enter a political minefield, she says, and for younger doctors who didn’t see what it was like before Roe v. Wade, “there’s a complacency…. People think it [abortion access] is always going to be there. I think it’s going to be chipped away at: regulated and more regulated.

“Parental notification, that just sounds nice. I wish all children could [tell their parents] but I know how parents are. Some do the song and dance… you’re going to leave home, you’re going to hell.”

In Denton, the absurdity of Florence Shapiro’s attempt to reduce the politics of abortion to a nice matter of opening channels of family communication becomes apparent. And what’s at least as alarming as any hypothetical link between, say, talk radio rhetoric and clinic violence is the relationship between Plano and Denton, between Florence Shapiro and Mark Crutcher. The rich, suburban, pro-choice Republican who courts the middle class Christian right vote is a frightening creature indeed, ready to risk the well-being of a few young girls (who can’t tell their parents and are intimidated by the judicial procedure) for the sake of the pro-life constituency.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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