I was in Arizona awaiting my grandson Eli's birth in March, 1997, when I received a panicked call from my Washington, D. C. staff. "We've been summoned to appear before the joint House of Representatives and Senate Judiciary Committees to testify about the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Act. It's going to be a witch hunt," they told me. "You have to come back and prepare. It's a really big deal--you'll be under oath and intense media scrutiny."
This would be my first face-to-face encounter with Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), the silver-maned, vociferously anti-choice, then-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who died on November 29. It'd be my first congressional testimony since I had become national president of Planned Parenthood the previous year, when President Clinton vetoed in play again.
The Federal Abortion Ban, as I call it because it is, had engendered as much controversy within the pro-choice movement as within the Congress and public. In my view, that internal angst came about because the abortion ban wasn't immediately outed for the frontal assault on Roe v Wade it has since proven itself to be. (A full rendition of this brilliantly deceptive legislation's history is in my book, The War on Choice.)
Green though I was to the federal political theater, I knew we had to reset the agenda and change the terms of the debate. And one thing I'd learned from the frontlines during 22 years at the helm of Planned Parenthood affiliates in bright red West Texas and Arizona was that the hotter the flames of controversy, the more they got people's attention and illuminated what we had to say.
I grumpily boarded the plane to Washington, hoping the baby would await my return. Perusing Hyde's voting record, I found something striking: in all his years of strident opposition to abortion, the man had never voted to support family planning programs that would lessen the need for abortion. What kind of hypocrisy was that? Not only was he the author of the infamous Hyde Amendment that since 1977 had robbed women relying on Medicaid for health care of coverage for abortion, but he had done absolutely nothing to help them prevent unintended pregnancy in the first place.
In the imposing hearing room, Committee members sat behind tables on a high, well-lighted platform looking down upon the testifiers below in what felt like a pit. Behind us sat an audience of advocates from both sides. News cameras lined the back of the room.
The prepared testimony of the four pro-choice organization leaders called to testify had been carefully vetted by our staffs, legal advisors, and media consultants. Tension was thick.
But one thing you can depend on is that a zealot will eventually hoist himself on the petard of his own extremism. Hyde didn't even attempt to cloak himself in the charade of the abortion ban bill's supposed moderation. Instead, he roared his first question: "Ms. Feldt, does it trouble you that there are so many abortions?"
"Mr. Hyde, if it troubles you," I went off script to reply, "why have you never once voted for family planning services?"
The chamber erupted in applause; the hearing chairman cautioned them to quiet down or be ejected. The previously timid committee Democrats perked up. The lion had been bearded in his lair. Hyde's response can only be described as "blub, blub", while he attempted to deflect the palpable shift in energy. Then he began to attack me in earnest, and Sen. Ted Kennedy leapt to my defense and cut him off.
The other testifiers similarly took energy from this confrontation so that in the end, the hearing was not the rout anti-choice forces had hoped for and pro-choice forces had feared. But it was a line of demarcation between a pro-choice strategy of defense and one where we would put forward a positive agenda.
Afterward, I stepped to the platform to shake hands with the Congress members. When I got to Mr. Hyde, he leaned over the table and looked searingly into my eyes. I expected he would either compliment me for taking him on or lecture me on the error of my ways.
Instead, he leered, "Your organization hires the best-looking women."
I wish I could say I had a clever retort, but I burst out laughing at this typical male technique for diminishing a woman.
I made it back for Eli's joyfully awaited birth. But America has yet to ensure every woman can enjoy the blessings of motherhood in freedom.
Hyde would go on to lead the impeachment process against President Clinton, only to have his own hypocrisy revealed again: he'd had an affair -- which he excused as a "youthful indiscretion" though when it happened, he was married with children and in his 40's.
Hyde's relentless opposition to a woman's human right to make her own childbearing decisions, including his consistent record, through his retirement last year, of voting against preventive family planning services, continues to cause immense human suffering and injustice.
Let Henry Hyde rest, but not in peace.
Follow Gloria Feldt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GloriaFeldt