In this week’s episode, you (and the café’s Wednesday night regulars) will meet Claire. I think you’ll like her: she’s the sort of woman who changes the personality of a crowded room just by walking in. And when the room in question is the lounge of The Last Chance Democracy Café, occupied, in most notorious part, by Horace, Tom and Winston, that takes some doing.
We will be talking with Claire (or, actually, mostly being talked to by Claire) about something that we’ve never discussed at any length before in a café episode, the granddaddy of all emotional issues — abortion. There’s been a lot of noise lately among Democratic bigwigs about whether it would be wise politically for the party to deemphasize abortion rights as an issue. Before doing so, the Democratic leadership might be wise to talk to Claire.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 60: The Gospel According to Claire
by Steven C. Day
We had no shortage of things to talk about at the large round table last Wednesday evening: Paul Wolfowitz’s resignation, the simultaneously horrifying and entertaining B movie otherwise known as Alberto Gonzales’ Department of Justice, the riveting testimony of James Comey — and so much more.
So, although it had been a full two hours since Horace, Tom, Winston, Zach and I gathered in the lounge, we were still nowhere close to settling into a topic for the evening (which by tradition we always do). We just kept bouncing from one hot news story to another.
But then Horace, no doubt feeling the tug of duty in his role as the group’s unofficial den mother, took the first step toward establishing a topic, suggesting that we should talk about global warming.
“If you don’t mind, I have something else I’d like to talk about,” came a woman’s voice.
There, next to the table, looking down at the five startled men sitting below, stood Claire. A short, thin woman — about 70 years of age — Claire has what can only be described as a memorable face: Not exactly beautiful, certainly not ugly — but most definitely memorable. She reminds me a little of pictures I’ve seen of an older Eleanor Roosevelt: average sized nose, deep intelligent eyes with pure white hair which, while neatly groomed, offers utterly no pretension of fashion. Her ever present smile, on the other hand, is pure Molly Ivins — a full-throated grin, as big, as they say, as all Texas.
I smiled mischievously. I was the one who had invited Claire to drop by. I knew she would be a handful for Horace, Tom and Winston, none of whom had ever met her before. And that, I thought, might prove to be fun.
* * *
I had met Claire two days earlier when she dropped by the café, exploding into the lounge like a bundle of dynamite blasting an opening into a mine. “Howdy, neighbor,” she beamed. Then before I could inhale the air needed to respond, she was off again, announcing that she was the owner of the “Dress Like a Winner” operation that had just opened down the street. She was on a mission to meet everyone in the neighborhood.
Dress Like a Winner, is a charitable organization that collects donations of nice business clothing from stores and individuals. Then they use the donations to help low income women dress professionally, which, of course, helps them to land and keep good jobs.
It was three o’clock on a Monday afternoon when Claire dropped in. The café was as dead as Larry Flynt appreciation day at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (actually, amazingly, Flynt and Falwell apparently became friends). So we had plenty of time to talk — well, she had plenty of time to talk: I mostly listened. She had moved here from Texas a year earlier, although I could barely detect any Texas accent. That’s not all that uncommon these days, of course, given the way regional dialects are being ironed out of our national language. I blame television, although the increased mobility of our population probably also plays a big part, with people today sometimes changing homes more often than they change the oil in their cars.
Claire had moved here from Texas to be closer to her grandkids after her husband died. A year later, she decided to open Dress Like a Winner for something else to do. “I love my grandchildren,” she said, “but I don’t intend to spend the rest of my years as a fulltime babysitter.”
One particularly interesting thing I learned is that she served 16 years in the Texas legislature. She was voted out in 2002, one of the victims of Tom DeLay’s scheme to take over the legislature as the first step in gerrymandering the state’s congressional seats in favor of the Republicans.
Claire said, “That little bug killing bastard pumped so much money into my opponent’s campaign . . . well, I never had a chance. They outspent me five-to-one with almost all of it going into negative advertising. Even though I’d won easily the last eight times I ran, I got creamed. The empty suit they ran against me got over 56 percent of the vote.”
“With all of the Republican misconduct in that election that’s come to light, we now know just how dirty that money was,” I said with a note of disgust.
Claire laughed loudly. She does that a lot. “Oh, we knew that plenty well back then too. If Tom DeLay touched it, you knew it had to be dirty.” There wasn’t the slightest bitterness to her voice, though. “There’s no point crying over spilled tequila,” she quickly added. “After all, there’s more than one way to serve the cause. And I’ve found plenty of ways to stay active.”
“Well, if you’re still interested in politics . . .”
“Interested in politics?!” she cut me off. “Is Rush Limbaugh interested in a slab of prime rib coated in Viagra?! Hell, yes I’m interested in politics!”
“Well, then . . .”
“You ought to see my car. At last count, I had 20 bumper stickers for different liberal causes. My favorite one says, ‘Honk if you think liberals are sexy.’”
“Well, then you really ought to drop by here some Wednesday . . .” I tried again, but I didn’t get far before Claire was off and running once more.
This time she laughed so loud, I swear the driver of a Greyhound bus passing by on the street in front of the cafe turned to see what all the racket was about. “Why just last November, I had so many Democratic campaign signs in my yard that my Republican neighbor put up a sign in his yard that read, ‘This House Is Not Associated With The Communist Next Door!’ Naturally, in appreciation I signed him up for a gift membership to the ACLU.”
Eventually I did get a chance to mention Wednesday nights at the café with The Three Wise Men and Zach. She said she’d try to drop by.
And her she was.
* * *
I found Claire a seat at the large round table and introduced her to the guys. She told Zach, “Very glad to meet you, young man. It’s always nice to have a good looking man around who still has more hair than liver spots.”
Horace smiled broadly. “Claire, it’s a great pleasure to meet you. You said there was something you wanted to talk about. So, by all means, talk.”
Winston smirked, “I haven’t seen evidence she needs much encouragement on that score.”
“Oh, hush, you old sourpuss,” grinned Claire. “Can I help it if you’re intimidated by strong, beautiful women? No doubt some issue involving your mother.” Then before Winston could say a word she laughed, “Although, I have to admit that I can talk up a storm. There’s no doubt about that.”
It was sheer genius. She not only slammed Winston, but then also cut off all opportunity for a counterattack by interposing a very mild self-deprecating comment before he could respond. I have never seen anyone handle Winston better.
“Then she turned to Horace and said, “I gather you’re the polite one?”
Without missing a beat Horace replied, “You just haven’t seen my bad boy side yet.”
“Well, now there’s something to look forward to!” howled Claire. But then her voice became serious: “What I’m really interested in, though, is what you gentlemen think about the Gonzales v. Carhart decision.”
“The partial birth abortion case,” nodded Tom.
“God, I hate that name,” Claire scowled. “There’s no such medical procedure . . .”
I broke in. “You’re right; the proper medical name is intact dilation and extraction, or D&X for short. Partial birth abortion is just a name made up by abortion opponents because they think it sounds bad.”
“Sort of like calling the estate tax the death tax,” agreed Winston with a sneer. “It’s always about word games with these bastards.”
“What else have they got to offer?” grunted Tom.
A hint of anger was starting to creep into Claire’s voice. “As upset as I am over the decision itself, however, what almost infuriates me more is the patronizing tone of the majority opinion: Justice Kennedy talking about protecting women from suffering regret over having an abortion. What could be more insulting? Of course, some women regret having abortions. People often regret the decisions they make. But it’s our decision . . . the individual woman’s decision . . .”
“I agree completely with . . .” I tried to add, but Claire wasn’t about to yield the floor.
“. . . and we don’t need George W. Bush, Rick Santorum or Justice Kennedy hovering over us to protect us from ourselves as though we’re a bunch of silly little girls who can’t be trusted to make our own decisions.”
All five men at the table — Horace, Tom, Winston, Zach and me — each spoke up expressing agreement with what Claire was saying.
She nodded, acknowledging our comments.
Then she said, “But does it burn inside you?” No one answered. After a few seconds she turned specifically to Horace: “Does it burn inside you . . . defending reproductive freedom? Does the thought of Congress or the states limiting women’s abortion rights upset you more than just about any other political or constitutional issue?”
Horace stared at his Scotch on the rocks pensively, clearly mulling the question over in his mind. Then he said, “I strongly support a woman’s right to choose . . . But to be honest, I have to say that I do have personal moral qualms about abortion.”
Claire was having none of that. “That’s not the question. Sure, I have some qualms about it too. Abortion’s a tough issue . . . a very personal one, which is why, of course, it has to be a decision made by each woman for herself. Not something imposed from above. And I understand that you agree . . .”
“Yes, I do.”
“. . . with that. But does it burn? Is it personal with you in a very unique way: something that you can feel in your gut, that eats you up inside? Or is it just one of a number of liberal beliefs you hold?”
Horace paused again, rubbing his chin with his left forefinger. “I guess,” he said finally, “the truth is that it is an important issue to me . . . a very important issue, but does it stand alone in my mind? No, I guess not. I guess it really is just one of a number of political issues I care about.”
Claire smiled broadly again. “I always have been partial to good looking men. But I especially like it when they’re honest. So thank you. You see, that’s the great fallacy of the idea constantly being floated by Democratic politicians and pundits . . . mostly male, of course, about how it would be good politics for the Democrats to deemphasize abortion rights as an issue.”
“There have been people saying that, I know.”
“Yes, it’s been quite the topic of conversation within the party hierarchy. And to a lot of men that may sound perfectly reasonable. Why not go with your strongest issues, and soft-pedal the ones that may cost you votes. But what these folks need to understand is that to a very large percentage of Democratic women that is a complete nonstarter. It’s something we simply won’t stand for.”
“So you really think sexual identity makes that much difference?” asked Tom. “That women care that much more about abortion rights than men? Because the polls don’t necessarily bear that out.”
Molly, who had been standing in the corner laughing as she watched Claire run over the rest of us, brought her another beer.
“You know, usually I hate arguments based on identity politics,” Claire responded. “For the most part, I do think men and women care about the same things and are motivated by the same concerns. But abortion is different. I honestly do believe that women . . . women like me who favor reproductive freedom, see abortion in a fundamentally different way than most men do . . . even liberally minded men. To us it’s personal. It’s our rights and our bodies they’re talking about. It’s our freedom they want to take away. And you don’t compromise about something like that. You just don’t.”
“But don’t a lot of women oppose abortion?” asked Zach.
Claire pointed her finger at him and winked, indicating, I think, that she thought it was a good question. “You’re absolutely right. In fact, as that gentleman over there . . . I’m sorry, what was your . . .”
“Tom,” smiled Tom.
“Thanks. I’ll get all of your names down soon, I promise. You know when you get to be my age sometimes you have to triage your available storage capacity. Should I try to remember a good looking man’s name, or, instead, make sure my mind doesn’t let go of that recipe for the best margarita ever made in Texas? Lord knows, I don’t have enough brain cells left for both. Anyway, as Tom was saying, the polls show women very divided on the issue. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. What I am saying, however, is that women who do care about their reproductive rights tend to care about them deeply. As I said, it’s personal to us. And the Democratic Party had better understand something: if it ever decides to deep six its support for abortion rights, an awful lot of women are going to deep six it.”
Zach, God love him, seemed no more intimidated by Claire than he had been of Horace, Tom and Winston on his first visit to the café. I had to give him credit. She scared the hell out of me.
“But I have to tell you,” he told Claire, “I’m pro-choice and all that, but I do think abortion becomes a tougher issue when the baby . . . you know, what’s the word . . . ”
“The fetus?” Claire offered.
“. . . right, the fetus is older and better developed. Maybe that’s not a legitimate thing to say, I don’t know, but I do feel that way. And isn’t the procedure we’re talking about used for late-term abortions?”
“It’s Zach, right?” said Claire.
“Well, Zach, first of all, as long as they aren’t words of hate, it’s always legitimate to say what you believe regardless of what anyone else thinks . . . including me. Bush and his crew may not feel that way, but screw them. I’ll take Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Bill of Rights over the whole lot of them any day of the week.
Zach, who seemed a little relieved, said that he agreed.
“Good. And I do understand what you’re saying. These are tough issues, no doubt about it. So, maybe I should tell you . . . I don’t know . . .” She paused for just a second, then added, “Yes, I think I definitely should . . . I should tell you the other reason why this is such a personal issue for me. In addition to my own kids, I’ve always been really close to my sister’s children, my nieces and nephews.”
“Yeah, it’s nice having that kind of close extended family, and I love them all. But to be honest, there’s one girl . . . Joyce, who has always been my favorite. I guess it’s because she was such a troublemaker as a little girl. Anyhow, she grew up and married a great guy named Cody. Cody’s in the military, a captain in the army. They wanted to start a family, but nothing happened. So finally they got checked out and discovered that Joyce had a problem with her fallopian tubes that made it really hard for her to get pregnant. They tried all the medications, but just couldn’t get pregnant.”
“That’s got to be tough.”
“I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t experienced it can really understand . . . or can even truly imagine the pain of desperately wanting children, but being unable to have them. It broke my heart watching that beautiful little girl, although she wasn’t a little girl anymore . . . watching her become more and more depressed. But finally they were able to scrape together enough money to try one round of in vitro fertilization. And lo and behold, one of the embryos took. And for a long time, the pregnancy seemed to be going along fine and Joyce and Cody couldn’t have been happier.”
“I don’t even want to hear what’s coming next,” Horace shook his head sympathetically.
“Yeah, you guessed it.”
“What?” asked Zach nervously.
“They found a problem with the fetus. A sonogram picked up something that had been missed earlier. To make a long story short, the fetus wasn’t viable. It was a girl, which made it especially hard. Most young couples want a boy first, but they wanted a girl. But this was one dream that wasn’t going to come true. The fetus didn’t have a chance. If they took the pregnancy all the way to the end, the baby would die within a few days of birth, all the doctors they talked to agreed.”
Claire patted Zach on the hand. “Thanks. So, on medical advice, they decided to get an abortion. But because the pregnancy was at a little past 20 weeks it was considered a late term abortion, and no one anywhere near where Joyce lived was willing to perform it. ‘It isn’t worth all the grief,’ one ob-gyn told her. ‘It isn’t worth putting up with all the attacks and threats from the crazies.’ So Joyce had to fly to Wichita, Kansas where a doctor named George Tiller practices.”
“I know about him,” said Horace. “My daughter lives in Wichita. I know he’s controversial because he performs late term abortions.”
“Right, he’s one of the few doctors left who will help someone in Joyce’s situation. Anyhow, this was a couple of years ago and Cody had just been sent over to Iraq, which left Joyce on her own to deal with the problem. So I flew with her to Wichita, to try to provide some support.”
Horace said softly, “That must have been hard.”
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Joyce was crying the whole way on the plane. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone more deeply in grief . . . A psychologist I know explained it to me once. She thinks it’s part of the reason why having a miscarriage is so painful for many women. When a young woman finds out that she’s pregnant, especially if she desperately wants kids, it changes her whole self-image. She becomes a new person: she becomes mom. And to have that torn away from you suddenly can be devastating. Joyce had wanted children for so long . . . had suffered so many disappointments just to get this far . . .” Claire was starting to tear up just a little, but she was still fully in control of her emotions.
No one at the table said a word.
“Anyway,” Claire started in again, “we arrived at the clinic and there were protesters there. When I saw them I knew things were going to get ugly. I’ve had to deal with antiabortion fanatics before, back when I was in politics. And, sure enough, as we drove in they kept waving signs with pictures of aborted fetuses on them and yelling things at us like ‘baby murderer’ and ‘please don’t kill your baby.’”
“Jesus,” said Winston.
“Oh, yeah, they brought Jesus into the discussion too, have no doubt about that. I think that I was the angriest right then that I’ve ever been in my life. Here was my niece, making the hardest decision she’s ever had to make . . . and make no mistake, just because it was the obviously correct decision didn’t mean it wasn’t hard, and these bastards were attacking her. I mean, who the hell did they think they were? What right did they have to try to impose their values on my niece, let alone to pass judgment on her when they didn’t have a clue about what she was going through? How dare they treat her that way? I wanted to give them a piece of my mind. Hell, I wanted to give them a piece of my boot, but I didn’t.”
“Your job was to stay with Joyce,” said Horace in a comforting voice.
“Yes, it was . . . and that’s what I did, and Joyce got through it. But I promised myself that day that whatever else I do with what’s left of my life, I’m going to fight these people and I’m going to fight for women like Joyce. This will probably be the last great battle of my life: a war to make certain that the women in Joyce’s generation and the women who follow them will have the same rights and the same dignity in regard to their own bodies that my generation has had. And that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what my conscience demands that I do.”
Horace held up his glass in salute, “So there we have it, The Gospel according to Claire. May it take seed, grow and spread across the land.”
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001