By Tina Hester, Executive Director of Jane’s Due Process
Updated on 09/07/16 with edits from the version published on Rewire.
In 1993, long before sustained public campaigns to destigmatize abortion, I outed myself as a woman who’d had an abortion to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and a room full of Baptists in western Kentucky.
The remarkable legal scholar and Center for Reproductive Rights founder Janet Benshoof had agreed to debate Schlafly, who died earlier this week at age 92. I was working for the ACLU of Kentucky at the time. I jumped at the chance to drive Benshoof to the event—and to see the pair spar in Murray, a town with dozens of churches and many abortion opponents.
At one point in the debate, Schlafly compared Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision that denied citizenship to African Americans in 1857. After Schlafly made the point that women should be required to wait 24 hours before having an abortion, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I was so terrified about speaking out that I can’t remember her response to my comments. What I most remember from the debate was her anti-evolution argument that while some might think they were descended from apes, she was sure she was not.
At the end of the debate, several members of the audience came to me and offered to pray for me since I had undergone an abortion. If you know anything about Kentucky, you know Catholics rule along the Ohio River but Baptists control much of the rest of the state. This was Baptist country.
I offered to pray for them as well, since they probably knew someone—sister, daughter, or wife—who also had an abortion and who could not be upfront with them.
Schlafly was a bundle of contradictions. A mother of six, she argued that women didn’t need legal protections to pursue their dreams in the workplace. They should stay home and raise kids. Meanwhile, she was constantly on the road and the speakers’ circuit—and also at tables where political decisions were made.
Some of those political discussions live on in our reproductive-health laws. Those waiting periods for which she advocated—some 24 hours, some longer—have become a reality in 27 states. In my capacity as executive director of Jane’s Due Process, I help minors overcome the barriers to choice that are Phyllis Schlafly’s painful legacy.
Looking back, I hope that the women in the audience that day who had ended pregnancies—and we know there were some—took away some power in hearing others who made the same decision speak up.