At 9 a.m., the day of the Senate vote, the phone rang in the downtown suite of offices. It was Thea Rossi Barron, a legislative lobbyist, calling from Capitol Hill. "Judy," she said, "we've got a problem, Sen. Griffin is vacillating on the abortion language. This is totally unheard of. I think Michigan Citizens for Life are sitting on their fannies. Call them right away."
Judy Brown hung up. Within an hour, Sen. Griffin had received 100 phone calls and 50 telegrams from constituents in Michigan.
"Immediately, there was a telephone tree going, telegrams going, and three of our big state leaders had made personal phone calls to Griffin, and two of them got through," Brown explained that morning. "Now Thea hears from Griffin's legislative aide that the senator's vacillating because he has received no pressure from the grassroots level. Now our attitude toward this has to be: We know Michigan Citizens for Life is a strong organization, and we know they are consistently sending information to the senators. So is the LA giving the information to the senator? Is he only giving lip service to us? What is going on? So in order to bypass that, this morning we asked everyone to deal only strictly with the senator no matter how long it took. We told them, 'Don't go through anyone. He needs personal contact from you people.'
"And it happened. It happens in every state when we need it."
A little more than a year ago Judy Brown was the sole staff member of the National Right to Life Committee headquarters in Washington. The office was barely functioning, and almost broke. Now she heads a staff of eight, operating round the clock if necessary, with a quarter-of-a-million-dollar budget and a reach into every corner of the United States through 1,500 chapters repsenting 11 million members.
As she says, "We have the most phenomenal citizens' lobby in the country." Perhaps so. Certainly it's the most passionate.
At 8:30 a.m., most of the stores and offices in the Penn-Branch Shopping Center across the Anacostia River are still closed: the take-out pizza parlor, the savings and loan, the liquor store, the discount records shop, the barber shop, the beauty parlor. But upstairs, on the second level, just off the elevator, they are already open for business. It's that way six days a week, through the year, at the Hillcrest Clinic and Counseling Service.
Inside the waiting room, 13 women are sitting, most of them young, most of them black. Just like any waiting room, anywhere: The same kind of self-conscious stiffness you encounter in doctors' offices and elevators. You don't talk, you look straight ahead, you leaf through the magazines on the table. (Redbook's on top, with two headlines: "How to Be Sexy This Summer," and: "A Guide to Finding Your Sensuous Self.")
From time to time a nurse opens a door, enters the room, calls out a name, and a patient goes into the inner office.
Not so long ago, anyone who practiced at Hillcrest would have been subject to criminal penalties. A stigma would have been attached to anyone who frequented it. Hillcrest is an abortion clinic. An average of 20 abortions a day are performed there. Since its opening in 1971, there have been 31,000 abortions at Hillcrest. Although Hillcrest is a private clinic, about one-third of its patients are indigent. Their abortions are paid by the federal government through Medicaid. Now, with the Supreme Court rulings of the past two weeks and congressional action banning public funds for abortions, Hillcrest faces the loss of a third of its revenues. The indigent patients either will have to find money to pay for their abortions, or have their children.
"We cannot absorb that type of cost," says Dr. Michael Jackson, executive director of the clinic. "Those people are going to have to pay. I think it's a sad day for this country. It doesn't make sense. It's not just one step back, but several steps backwards. The question is not whether abortions are going to be performed. The question is by whom, where and who's going to pay for it? I happen to think with my training and skill I can do a better job than an illegal abortionist.
"Now, I make more money delivering children than aborting them, so it's not bothering me financially. I'm here to render a service. But as a matter of personal opinion I think it was very wrong. Don't cut these people off from abortions person. Show me what you're going to replace it with. Are you going to replace it with a bigger welfare system? Are you going to make sure that these children are going to be adopted in foster homes, that they're going to be taken care of properly?
"No right to life group, no anti-abortion group, has demonstrated any type of satisfactory alternative. In most cases, they don't suggest even one. They're just going on emotionalism."
At 3 p.m., the Senate debate was under way.Outside, as always, where the same kinds of scenes that surround the Capitol day in and out: a man strode back and forth across the steps where Presidents are inaugurated, speaking loudly about repentance, shedding of innocent blood, slaughter of innocent children through a million abortions, waving a placard that read: "God Hates Adultery, Covetousness. Homosexuality, Idolatry, Abortion, Murder . . .", while all around him flowed crowds of citizens. Girl Scouts and high school students, a band, a senior citizens tour, nearly all seemingly oblivious of the demonstrator. Inside, the Senate was considering an amendment to a Health, Education and Welfare bill.
The debate was about banning public funds for abortions, but really it was about more than that. It was about Rights. The Right to Life. The Right to Choose. The Rights of Women. The Rights of Children. The Rights of the Individual. The Rights of Society. The Rights of Dissent. The Rights of the Majority, the Rights of the Minority. And, perhaps most important of them all, the Right to be Wrong.
Senators don't permit themselves to be photographed while at work. What the public would see, on most occasions, is a cozy chamber, bathed in soft lights, antique in quality, usually more than half empty, the pace leisurely, with a few public servants standing casually around small desks and tiny wastebaskets that look as though they come out of a 19th Century school-room. It's often been called a club, and for good reason; it most resembles a comfortable, faintly stuffy, faintly stilted club - a men's club.
What usually passes for debate is a desultory and tepid exchange couched in such formal language about the honorable and the distinguished senator that it quickly becomes enervating. Only a handful of senators were on the flock on this occasion, but for once there were genuine flashes of emotion, anger, and outrage.
Packwood, of Oregon: ". . . I have been involved this year in politics, active politics, for a quarter century. Abortion is the most divisive basic issue I have run across in my experience . . . Before we are done with this debate we will hear stories about killing little children and murder. I am saying that is not the issue . . . to say that we are going to deny abortions to the poor because we disapprove of them is a disdainful, haughty arrogance that should not demean this Congress."
Helms, of North Carolina: ". . . they do not want to confront the inevitable basic question, the only one that really matters. And that, Mr. President, is the deliberat termination of an innocent human life . . . Let every woman control her body, including the time that she conceives or prior thereto . . . But after that there is another life, another body, that has some rights too - including the right to live."
The Senate voted to ban the use of federal funds for most abortions.
It's not over. Two last words, from two women.
Judy Brown, of the Right to Life Committee: "Our goal is to eliminate abortion, except where medically necessary to save the life of a mother. Now I feel we are on a rising tide."
Glenda Wharton, director of the Hillcrest Clinic: "You like to think in terms of a country that thinks in terms of all of its people, and not just the favored. I'd almost rather see them say abortion is no longer legal than to say poor people can't get them. It's so discriminatory."