When you hear the words "anti abortion protester," what comes to mind? Shouting, bug-eyed Randall Terry and his Wrestlemania threat videos? A lady who makes her kids hold up signs containing pictures of dismembered fetuses and shouting at women as they enter Planned Parenthood? A room full of male legislators who can't say the word "vagina?" Well, I'm happy to report that the new face of the anti-abortion movement is much less unpleasant looking. In fact, it's downright photogenic, pleasant, and rock concerty — which makes it even scarier.
Dallas Observer staff writer Anna Merlan attended a 3,000-lady-strong rally called The Esther Call, a revival-style gathering for young women who believe that God is the sort of dude who unleashes tornadoes that destroy entire towns as a kind of cute way to say "wassup" to people at pro life rock concert/church services. Led by a charismatic dude named Lou Engle, the anti-abortion protest/church service looked a lot like a new breed of anti-abortion rally, characterized by concert-style lighting in a feminine pink, speaking in tongues, crying in the mosh pit, and proclamations that the wrath of a vengeful God is going to rain down on America because abortions. But first, before you're cast into hell, Lou Engle and the gang are going to pray for you in a fun, free-form concert-style setting with cool youthy music. It's like Coachella, if the point of Coachella was to take away women's access to both abortion and legalized birth control. Coochella.
The new sleekly-marketed anti-abortion movement is trying to get away from the old, uncool abortion protesters of The Old Days, the kind that drive SUV's into abortion clinics and murder health care providers and repackage it in something new, youthful, and "cool." Outlawing abortion wouldn't punish women, they argue. It would actually promote civil rights and women's rights. Central to their new marketing strategy is the oft-repated notion that women deserve better than abortion. To be fair, we also deserve better than pregnancy, which for all its natural beauty and majesty, contains many elements that suck a whole lot, like morning sickness and delivery table pooping. And also, to be fair, I've heard that a problem-free IUD is better than both abortion and pregnancy. But I digress.
Some of the rally's attendees are in their 40's and 50's, but most of them Merlan observed were in their 20's and 30's and "pro-sex in the right ways;" that is, they believe that married couples should feel free to hump each other's brains out, but that they should always be open to pregnancy. Hm. This new thing sounds a lot like that old thing that everyone already decided they didn't like.
Even though the message and motives of The Esther Call are the same message and motives of the old fashioned anti-choice movement, gatherings like The Esther Call make young, evangelical women feel as though they're part of something new, that they're on a mission bestowed upon them by God. And while they're so outside the mainstream that they're probably on the other side of the Continental Divide, their views — that abortion is murder, that birth control is murder, and that sex should only occur within a marriage when both people are open to pregnancy — are becoming more mainstream within the pro-life movement.
The new conservative political/religious pro-life movement really crosses the boundary into Battybatistan with their belief that their actions at anti-abortion rallies produce supernatural signs from God, like weather events. This particular rally, for example, occurred shortly after a supercell of tornadoes touched down in the Dallas area, interfering with travel for many of the rally's would-be attendees. But rather than interpreting the tornadoes as a sign that God didn't want people to attend the Lou Engle rally, Lou Engle thought it God giving them a shout out. "Who would have guessed that when they crossed over the county line of Dallas, 12 tornadoes exploded," Engle told the gathered crowd. "And no deaths!" No deaths, certainly, but a lot of people lost their homes in the tornado explosion. Destroying shit is apparently God-talk for "I hate abortion so much and can make complainy tornadoes but I can't personally, in my limitless power, make fetuses less abortable."
The Esther Call doesn't want to exclude women who have had abortions themselves, though, even though it's technically their fault that Joplin, Missouri was destroyed. According to Merlan, along one of the walls were rooms containing "abortion aftercare" resources for women who had abortions and men who had "participated in them." Contained in the room was a folding chair, some tissue paper, and flyers. All ladies are welcome to answer The Call, if they feel sufficiently shameful about their lives before they realized that they were called by an omnipotent God to limit other women's choices.
Merlan's attended several rallies like this — anti-abortion political/religious gatherings run by a charismatic leader — and has found that there are common creepy threads between them. People at these rallies are almost universally pleasant. They've got no qualms about touching strangers and asking women personal questions. They always want to pray for you. And they honestly believe that things their prayers are directly influencing earthly events in much the same way a person holding a TV remote and pointing it at a television might think they're influencing the channel and volume.
While it's easy to dismiss The Esther Call as a wacky group of zealots having a well-produced revival, the man behind the movement has some friends in high places. Lou Engle is the leader of Texas Governor Rick Perry's prayer group, the same group that referred to homosexuality as "sexual insanity." Rick Perry, as in the same guy who just denied millions of women health care because he's so adamantly against giving money to Planned Parenthood. The same guy who got applause at a Republican Presidential debate after he smirkingly announced how many people he'd executed as governor.
Perhaps most scary? Esther Call participants are so completely convinced that God is on their side that they believe they're winning, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that American women enjoy their access to birth control and abortion. When asked about the relevance of the movement in mainstream conversations, one Esther Call participant told Merlan that she didn't understand the question, but that the movement was "growing." By the laws of science, growth of groups is constant, right? Twelve exploding tornadoes couldn't possibly be wrong.