Susan B. Anthony List’s ‘pro-life gala’ had progressive undertones

Everyone I told I was attending what the invitation called a “pro-life gala” on Wednesday night made some version of the same joke: Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Was that hostility talking, or anxiety and fear of the other? Either way, a few aspects of the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual fundraising dinner would have been more familiar to progressives than they might think — especially the pervasive use of the language of civil rights:

“We do not say one person is inherently better than another,’’ said the keynote speaker, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), “whether because of gender, creed, color or the age of gestation.” (Although no, he did not mention sexual orientation.)

Then there’s the antiabortion lobby’s animosity toward a big chunk of the GOP: “In the party of Lincoln and Reagan and much of the donor class,’’ said another speaker, Gary Bauer, “the defense of human life is what they think loses elections.” Instead, cracked Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, a political action group supporting conservative congressional candidates, “they think we need to spend time on really popular ideas, like cutting your mom’s Social Security check.”

There was a deep conviction among supporters at the dinner, many of whom were in from out of town, that opposing abortion is a feminist cause. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the group, which has a PAC that she said will spend about $10 million in support of antiabortion candidates this year, put her life’s work in league with “the suffrage and the abolition and the child labor movements.”

There was some pro-science talk, too, from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who was honored at the event: “I love the fact that my friends becoming first-time grandmothers go with their daughters and daughters-in-law to see the sonograms, and then they all go straight out to buy clothes; the child has a name and they know the sex of the child. In the debates I get into with some of these climate-change devotees,’’ she said, gleefully drawling that last word, “they love to talk about settled science. Well, life is a settled science, too.”

In fact, if it weren’t for all the swipes at President Obama, both from the lectern and the back of the ballroom at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it might have been possible to forget that this was a party thrown to raise money for a strongly conservative organization.

Even the opening prayer over the meal drew an anti-Obama barb from master of ceremonies Bill Kristol; after Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life, offered the invocation, Kristol said he admired her order for “taking a stand on principle, when encouraged not to do so by the current administration.’’ Purveyors of Obama’s health-care law, he meant, and its mandated coverage of contraception, which is forbidden by Catholic teaching.

A Hill staffer — one of many young women in the crowd of about 540, including a Carnegie Mellon grad with green hair who considers herself a new-wave feminist — remarked that she spends hours every week taking calls from constituents demanding to know why the president hasn’t been impeached.

Asked their reasoning, she said, oh, mainly it was the treason, as if accusing an American president of a crime punishable by death was no leap at all.

Polling consistently indicates that Americans are divided on abortion. According to a CNN poll last week, 27 percent said abortion should be legal in all circumstances and 20 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances. Thirteen percent said it should be legal in most circumstances, 38 percent said it should be legal in few circumstances and 20 percent said it should always be illegal.

This was the 20 percent crowd, many of whom compare the rights of the unborn to the once-unrecognized rights of slaves: “The poison from that decision,’’ Bauer said of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that slaves could never be citizens, “almost destroyed our country, and keeps us apart today.”

There also was plenty of outlaw bravado from the microphone. “It takes a lot of courage in this town to show up at this event,’’ said Huckabee, who is considering another presidential run.

And multiple complaints about news media bias seemed pretty accurately reflected in the initial Associated Press report on the dinner, which began this way: “Calling their opponents Satan worshipers and savages, antiabortion lawmakers on Wednesday insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.’’

Only, no one did call their opponents Satan-worshipers or savages; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) described an abortion rights protest last year in Austin at which demonstrators shouted “Hail, Satan,’’ to drown out antiabortion protesters singing “Amazing Grace.”

Cruz described them as “arm-in-arm, chanting, ‘Hail, Satan,’ embracing the right to take the life of a late-term child.’’ Which certainly isn’t how those demonstrators would see it, but also isn’t the same as calling them Satan-worshipers.

The Associated Press reference to “savages” came from a comment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that he refuses to call abortion rights supporters “pro-choice” because in his view “that’s a euphemism for the savagery they advocate.”

Isn’t the political rhetoric about this divide rancorous enough without exaggerating?

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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