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For Molly White, Abortion Changed Everything

When Molly White takes office in January, she will immediately be one of the Texas House’s most conservative members. But to a degree unique among her new colleagues, ending abortion is White’s personal and political passion.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
White, right, speaks on a women's health panel at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 20, 2014.

BELTON — Molly White keeps a few essentials in her 2009 white Cadillac Escalade:

  • Rubber fetuses in sizes that reflect different stages of pregnancy.

  • A folder holding more than 700 affidavits signed by women in Texas who say they’ve been hurt by abortion (hers included).

  • Brochures on what she believes are the dangers of abortion and birth control pills.

They’re all part of her strategy to educate as many Texans as possible on her views on reproductive health.

“We are women and we are designed to give birth, we’re designed to nurture, we’re designed to bond. It’s just nature,” White said inside her favorite coffee shop in Belton, the community she will soon represent as a first-term Texas legislator. “... And when we violate that natural way of having a child and giving birth, it’s going to affect us.”

When White takes office in January, she will immediately be one of the Texas House’s most conservative members. In the Republican primary, she upset incumbent Ralph Sheffield by some combination of knocking on thousands of doors and winning the support of conservative groups like Empower Texans. She is eager to address GOP calling cards like border security and lowering or abolishing property taxes.

But to a degree unique among her new colleagues, ending abortion is White’s personal and political passion. She had two abortions in her 20s and says the physical and mental suffering she endured afterward, including cervical damage, a hysterectomy, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts, convinced her that the procedure is unsafe and shouldn’t be legal.

White takes this opposition a step further than many abortion foes; a nonprofit she founded counsels against both birth control and sex education that promotes it.

These are widely contested views that most doctors and researchers say are not rooted in sound science. The vehement response White’s position draws was on display at a Texas Tribune Festival panel in September, when Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a longtime Democratic legislator on stage with her future colleague, became so incensed by White’s claims that she spoke of her own abortion for the first time — calling it a routine medical procedure.

Conservative strategists say White’s political debut presents an interesting opportunity to advance even more anti-abortion legislation in Texas. She arrives in the Legislature as Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, whose failed gubernatorial bid followed her high-profile filibuster of a bill further restricting abortion in Texas, departs. Both women have had personal experiences with the procedure.

“I really do believe that the left or the liberal side of the aisle really doesn’t know what to do with a representative like Molly White,” said Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant who worked on White’s campaign. “Their ‘war on women’ mantra really falls on deaf ears when it comes to Rep. White.”

Democrats, meanwhile, say they worry that White’s entrance into the Legislature could distract lawmakers from more pressing issues and advance policies that aren’t based in fact.

“We need to have evidence-based public policy,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, adding that when it comes to health care, policy must come “from the medical community and not anecdotes.”

The political reality is that White is unlikely to move the needle much in a lower chamber that appears almost certain to remain in the control of House Speaker Joe Straus, an establishment Republican who wants to keep lawmakers focused on the budget, education and infrastructure, not red meat social issues.

And White says she doesn’t have any preconceived notion of the role she will play in abortion legislation in the upcoming session.

She thinks the anti-abortion legislation of 2013 — which banned abortion in Texas after 20 weeks, required women to have the procedure at facilities that meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, and heightened requirements around hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions — was largely effective. (The constitutionality of the admitting privileges rule has been upheld by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ambulatory surgical center provision, which closed all but a handful of Texas abortion clinics, was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court while it is being reviewed by the appellate court.)

One additional target in 2015, White said, could be what she calls “loopholes” in judicial bypass — the cases in which minors whose parents don’t give consent for an abortion may seek permission from a judge instead.

“She’s quite articulate in explaining her experience to people who would otherwise not be able to relate to what she’s talking about,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion Texas Alliance for Life. “I think that will give other women... encouragement to speak out, probably in numbers we’ve never seen before in the Capitol.”

White, 56, is not shy about telling her story. With her first abortion, at 22, she says she felt staff at the clinic did not inform her of the risks; with the second, at 27, she says a doctor pressured her to go through with it even though she’d changed her mind, telling her it was too late to change course. Parental pressure was a major factor, too, she said; it took decades for the family’s frayed relationship to heal.

“I walked in self-condemnation after those abortions,” White said. “I became very hard-hearted, very angry.”

Along with two stillborn babies, White said, the abortions haunted her for more than a decade — even though she still considered herself “pro-choice.” It affected her ability to bond with her son, born in 1983, and her daughter, born in 1992, she said.

Soon after her daughter’s birth, White began volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center in Temple. Encouraged by others who worked there, she participated in the center’s first “abortion recovery program” — offered by many anti-abortion organizations to counsel women experiencing feelings of guilt or depression after the procedure.

It was a transformative experience for White, who said she had never discussed the details of her abortions with anyone — not even her husband, Ronald, whom she married in 1989.

During the program, White said she came to believe that “everything I was experiencing negatively in my life was connected to the abortions I’d had in the past.” The seasonal depression that came along each November suddenly had an explanation that made sense to her: one of the pregnancies she had terminated, she said, would’ve resulted in a November baby.  

Her opposition to abortion was cemented.

After finishing a college degree in psychology a decade later, White heard a man named Allan Parker speaking on the radio. Parker, president of the Justice Foundationa group that opposes abortion, was talking about the organization’s efforts to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case.

The group was collecting affidavits from women who believed they had been injured by abortion in Texas. Deciding it was time to tell her story, White filled one out, had it notarized and sent it in.

Within weeks, she was flying to Washington, D.C., to speak at a national anti-abortion conference. Soon afterward, White formed her own nonprofit, Women for Life International — effectively an international speaker’s bureau.

Women for Life’s mission goes well beyond curbing abortion. “Reproductive rights, family planning and safe sex is the greatest hoax ever devised against women and families,” according to a statement on the group’s website. The result of “women’s reproductive and sexual rights,” the site reads, is that “a billion children have been slaughtered through abortion, and global populations are plummeting to dangerous levels.”

White also believes that both abortion and birth control pills (“pushed on women like candy”) are causes of breast cancer. She points to the research of Joel Brind — a biology professor and endocrinologist who wrote papers throughout the 1990s arguing that abortion heightened breast cancer risks — and Angela Lanfranchi, a breast cancer surgeon who has referred to birth control as a cancer-causing “molotov cocktail.”  

The overwhelming majority of medical experts disagree with these assertions. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health has concluded that having an abortion “does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” Some studies do suggest that women on oral contraceptives have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer, the National Cancer Institute reports, but that risk goes back to normal several years after stopping the pill. Studies also show women who take the pill have lower risks of ovarian and endometrial cancer.

“I appreciate opposing views, but it needs to be factually correct and supported by good, sound, scientific evidence,” said Moss Hampton, regional chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “…Those questions have been settled years and years ago.”

He added that “early elective abortions are one of the safer procedures that physicians of any type do.”

White said she is undeterred by such arguments, and will continue to be informed by her own experience. Her biggest hesitation in running for office was that she would have far less time to travel the world spreading her message. A trip she took to Nigeria in 2012 was spurred by frustration over philanthropist Melinda Gates’ initiative to spend billions of dollars to expand women’s access to birth control there and in other countries.

White said she had been struck by a Nigerian woman who chastised Gates’ plan in an open letter. The woman, Obianuju Ekeocha, wrote that the initiative would lead to “streets devoid of the innocent chatter of children.”

Those words rang true for White, who said she will never fully recover from her abortions.

“When we have big family gatherings and my family’s there, my whole family’s not there,” she said. “What lasts with us is that we’re missing children.”

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