Beliefs Ethics Opinion

COMMENTARY: The abortion debate: people can change

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is the author of”Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy”(HarperCollins), and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today magazine.)

UNDATED _”It made me physically ill.” This line jumps out of the account of Ron Fitzsimmons’ admission he lied about partial-birth abortion. When Fitzsimmons fudged the figures on ABC’s”Nightline”a year ago, the topic of late-term abortion was making many people feel ill. A poster depicting the gruesome procedure _ scissors stabbed into a baby’s head _ had been displayed on the floor of Congress. That could turn anyone’s stomach.

But it wasn’t the procedure that distressed Fitzsimmons. It was the fact of his lie.”I told my wife the next day, `I can’t do this again,'”he is quoted as saying.

There is hope in such sentiments. Someone who feels so strongly about lying may well come to feel revulsion at the thought of mutilating babies as well.

I dare to hope that Ron Fitzsimmons is changing. A pro-life activist who befriended him, Pat Mahoney, told the Washington Times,”Ron Fitzsimmons is not a die-hard abortion-rights person. I’ve always felt Ron to be a decent person with a shred of honesty to him. What he’s had to live with for all these years is now crumbling down on him.” Something Fitzsimmons did a few years ago left a more sour impression. To understand, keep in mind that Fitzsimmons is not associated with a political or educational abortion-rights group. He heads the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, a group that represents the abortion industry.

Fitzsimmons promotes the interests of people who are in the abortion business, a $500-million-a-year industry.

Thus it was particularly unsavory when, in 1991, Ron Fitzsimmons engineered a behind-the-scenes attack on the abortion industry’s chief competitor _ pro-life pregnancy care centers. Ironically, he accused his competitor of lying.

Pro-life pregnancy centers have been offering help to women for over 30 years, thus enabling them to choose life. They work through such organizations as Birthright, Heartbeat, CareNet, and the National Institute for Family & Life Association. Unlike the abortion industry, pregnancy assistance groups don’t make money _ they lose it at a gushing rate, replaced by private donations.

Goods and services are given to women at no cost, and most items, as well as workers’ time, are donated. Pro-lifers frustrated by political wrangling find they are able to prevent abortions by providing women practical and emotional support. It’s a popular outlet for idealism, and in 1988 the nation’s approximately 2,500 abortion providers were matched by about 2,000 pregnancy centers. Today there are about 3,000 such centers.

In a September 4, 1991 memo to”All Abortion Providers,”Fitzsimmons wrote:”I approached the chairman of the Subcommittee (on Regulation, Business Opportunities, and Energy), Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., approximately seven months ago and suggested that he hold a hearing to help publicize the issue. My thinking was that the resulting publicity would at least make some women more aware of the problem.” Fitzsimmons hoped to use a Congressional hearing _ and the tax dollars enabling such hearings _ to reach his group’s customers: pregnant women.”The problem”he wanted to explore was pregnancy care centers, which he termed”phony clinics.” His weapon was a manual published by a now-defunct pregnancy center group, the Pearson Foundation, in the early 1970s. The Pearson philosophy encouraged shady tactics _ choosing a name that resembles an abortion clinic, situating the office near a clinic, answering direct questions with evasions until the woman and a counselor could talk.

The Pearson approach was short-lived and repudiated by every legitimate pregnancy center. But Fitzsimmons was able to present the Pearson approach as typical of all centers, to the frustration of honest care providers, who had been pouring themselves out in service to women for decades, for free.

The hearings were held. Panels were composed entirely of abortion-rights supporters. Wyden told NBC’s”Today”show that representatives of”bogus clinics”had been invited but refused to testify. In reality, pregnancy care movement leaders clamored to testify and were refused admittance. They camped in the hall outside the hearing room door, attempting to talk with media passing by.

But Fitzsimmons had taken care of that as well. His memo goes on,”I went to the ABC program `Prime Time’ several weeks ago and they immediately agreed to do an `expose’ on the issue.”Apparently they had no hesitation about taking the word of a business representative against its competitor. This and other media coverage, like the hearings, obediently followed Fitzsimmons’ script.

That was over five years ago, and now, Fitzsimmons says, he feels”like a dirty little abortionist with a dirty little secret.”This is an analogy not likely to please his clientele, and may be the best clue yet to his sincerity. People can change, and it’s to be hoped Ron Fitzsimmons is changing. And one good sign of change is doing your best to make restitution to those you’ve wronged.