Maybe it was because she'd been a patient in his clinic years ago, long before he'd turned against abortion. Maybe it was because she remembered what it was like to be a 25-year-old woman with a four- month-old son, an IUD that had perforated her uterus, and to be pregnant.
But when Ann Taylor Allen saw Dr. Bernard Nathanson's film, "The Silent Scream," she said to herself: "Why should a fetus be given a voice, even a scream, while the woman in whose body it resides has no voice at all?"
Later, when the pro-choice activists began their national campaign called "Abortion Rights: Silent No More," this Louisville history professor decided to write down the story of her own abortion. At first, she thought she would sign the letter Jane Doe. "But then I thought, this is supposed to be a speak-out and it's not speaking out very loudly if I don't use my name."
So, she began the process that led her to Washington on May 21, to the platform on the Western Plaza, just a few blocks from the White House. There, from 7 a.m. through the long steamy day, she and 50 other women and men from about 45 states took their turn under a banner that read, "We are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your friends -- and abortion is a choice we have made."
One after another, they gave voices and names and stories to the "issue" of abortion. Frank Mendiola of Los Angeles told about his twin sister, dead at 14 from an illegal abortion after she'd been raped by six men. Shira Stern and Donald Weber, a rabbinical couple from New York, told of the abortion they had chosen knowing their defective baby would be born dead.
Karla Cowell, a young District of Columbia teacher of handicapped children, told how her belief in the sin of abortion disappeared on Oct. 6, 1982. As a new graduate from college with neither husband nor job, "I discovered that I was pregnant and I also decided that an abortion was the only choice for me."
These personal storytellers were joined by supporters who read some of the 35,000 to 40,000 letters that are still pouring into the National Abortion Rights Action League, letters that carry names and pseudonyms, stories and Zip Codes. At times, when readers were using all four microphones on the plaza, the air was filled with a cacophony of failed contraceptives and relationships, of legal and illegal abortions, of youth or poverty:
"I would have been a young unwed welfare mother." "I had just graduated from college." "There was no possibility of marrying my boyfriend." "My husband was out of work, I had four children and my diaphragm failed." "I was 14." "I was 44."
The head of NARAL, Nanette Falkenberg, brought no illusions to the event she organized. She knows that personal stories will not change the hearts and minds of anti-abortion people. To the hard core, these women will always be murderers. Even as the readings went on, a right-to-life organization in a nearby hotel was presenting a group of women who regretted their choice of abortion. While Allen was telling her story on the plaza, Nathanson was defending his videotape in the Capitol.
But, as Falkenberg said, "We wanted to get the women back into the debate. When a member of Congress thinks about abortion, we don't want him to just think of the fetus or the 'silent scream.' We want him to think about the women, the real women in his district."
This is what this change in strategy is all about. Over the past year, the focus shifted so that the media lens looked straight through the pregnant woman to her fetus. The pro-abortion activists countered with cool treatises on "personhood" and legal briefs on "viability." But now it's time again for emotions. Once again, we need to see close-ups of the complicated, messy, everyday realities of the women who face an unwanted pregnancy.
As Allen read from her letter, "Why may Bernard Nathanson speak freely and publicly about his experience of abortion while I, his ex-patient, am ashamed, embarrassed and afraid to speak? We must start using the words which the opposition has taken from us."
On May 21, a group of women who want to protect this most private, personal decision contributed something to this cause: their own privacy, their own stories, "words." They may make all the difference.