In Iowa, an antiabortion sign of the times for Republicans in federal budget debate

April 9, 2011

On the outskirts of this overwhelmingly Christian and deeply conservative town of about 6,000 in northwestern Iowa, motorists pass a sign on the edge of State Route 10 that poses a question: “If a fetus is not a child, why the rush to abort it?”

So many thousands have seen the sign since it was erected in the autumn of 2008 that observers generally agree it is the most powerful antiabortion message in the community. The sign sits on farmland belonging to 81-year-old Carl Mulder, a lifelong Republican and self-described “devoted Christian.” Lately he had been reading whatever he could about the possibility of a federal government shutdown sparked by Republican and Democratic differences over government spending cuts.

On Friday, as the midnight deadline for working out a deal approached, nothing had aroused Mulder so much as talk that Republicans were demanding a slashing of federal funds for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. Though none of the money Planned Parenthood gets from the government is used for abortions, conservatives have argued that even if federal funding does not pay for abortions directly, it frees up other money that does.

Mulder was excited, convinced that the congressional imbroglio offered conservative Republicans a rare opportunity to strike a major blow on behalf of the antiabortion movement. He did not want to see the GOP back down from what he views as a pivotal fight, even if it led to a shutdown. Compromise, Mulder said, would only betray weakness.

Mulder’s yearnings and warnings reflect the political risks facing House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and the other Republican leaders if they are seen as caving in on the issues that matter most to many social conservatives. With the shutdown deadline only a few hours away, Mulder gave voice to expectations and hopes: “We need people to be strong now on abortion funding, not to back down. This is the chance. My understanding is many Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood. And if it takes a government shutdown to do that, then I’d do it, because we have to stop the killing of unborn babies.”

The impetus for Mulder’s sign, set in a field where he and his family have been growing corn and soybeans for three generations, came about three years ago, when Mulder went to a local Christian organization that encouraged unwed mothers to put up children for adoption rather than seek abortions. Mulder asked them for language that he could put on an antiabortion sign, and the organization responded with not only the pointed question about the status of a fetus but also a slogan for the other side: “Adoption Is Still an Option!”

Delighted with the wording, Mulder paid $750 to a friend to carefully paint the large sign and help him erect it off Route 10. Suddenly, many motorists were being reminded of the cause several times a week.

“I got some compliments about it,” he said. “But, you know, maybe not as many as you’d think, and that’s probably because I personally don’t know anyone around Orange City and this county who isn’t antiabortion. The antiabortion feeling isn’t dramatic around here. It’s pretty common. People should know that — so many people feel the same way I do here. . . . That’s what I hope Congress remembers now. They gotta do something. They can’t let this go. You can’t just talk about it.”

He paused, pulling his cap off as he sat down in his house, catching his breath at his dining-room table as the last of the day’s pale sunlight slanted in from a window. He still wears the same kinds of jeans he wore when, as a young man, he arose at 5 each morning to milk the family’s cows. He is still broad-shouldered and thick-forearmed, and he held out a firm but courteous hand like a stop sign — no — when a stranger offered to help him up from a chair. He smiled: He can do that by himself.

But his days of milking and getting up on the farm are over. He has lived in town since 1993, when one of his sons took over the daily management of the farm. Mission work occupies much of his time now, particularly the delivery of repaired wheelchairs to the needy in Latin America, among other places.

He had a slight stroke a while back, he explained, and sometimes his hand has the slightest of tremors, but he has done his best as a retired farmer to stay productive, including putting up his sign.

“Anything to help stop the abortion killing,” he said. “You just hope the people in Washington are listening.”

He doesn’t know Boehner’s name really, knows him only as “that man who replaced Nancy Pelosi, and thank God for that.” But he said he hoped Boehner and “those other guys who are Republicans” feel the passion that imbues his sign and grasp the expectations in Orange City.

“You just hope they understand how much this issue means to people out here,” he said. “Sometimes they’re so far away, I don’t know if they get it. But the Republicans especially better pay attention. I hope they’re good Republicans. Hope they see. I pray they will.”

He had listened to “the other side” during the debate over the spending cuts and the possibility of a government shutdown, he allowed. In particular, he had taken note of the criticism leveled by liberal Democrats who had asked whether those in favor of deep cuts had considered the benefits they had received from the federal government, things such as farm subsidies, ethanol subsidies and funding for infrastructure, such as the interstate highway that runs near the Mulder family farm.

Mulder had pondered it all, remembering well how he had benefited from subsidies in the early 1980s, during the farm crisis that threw many Iowa family farmers into bankruptcy.

“I was thankful for the subsidies I got then,” he said, adding that the benefits helped him stay afloat. “It wasn’t a lot, just a [few thousand] probably, but it made a difference. You bet a lot of us who got them were grateful.”

Still, he said, America is in a different place now. “We have a debt that is what? Trillions and trillions? We can’t afford all this spending any more.”

He has weighed the possible downside for some Americans who might be affected by the cuts against the upside for a country that he has come to see as fiscally reckless and morally wanting.

“I don’t want anybody to get hurt by anything, but we get to choose a new path,” he said. “My thinking is, especially on the Planned Parenthood thing, that if we can get rid of the possibility of any taxpayer-funded abortion, then a government shutdown is worth the risk, worth the risk of some problem with something. I’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t back down. Go ahead and be strong.’ ”

He stopped mid-thought. He heard his wife, Mildred, outside, doing yardwork as the Iowa sun fell for good on this day. He smiled. The potential shutdown, the hard lessons it would bring, the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood, were now only hours away.

“Gorgeous day, snow stopped falling three weeks ago, spring arriving,” he said. “And maybe maybe maybe, Washington does right and stops spending on all this stuff that we can’t stand as Christians here. I’m just a retired farmer. But I had to do something. I hope the sign helps a little. I’m proud of it. It is just one more sign. But there are a lot of us. I hope they know they have to be listening.”

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