Cause and Effect


If you’re among the viewers who stumbled onto certain congressional hearings on C-Span recently and felt your stomach turn, you’re right where abortion foe Janet Folger wants you. She thinks your conscience may turn next. Then, perhaps, your vote.

Supporters of abortion rights see Congress’ “partial-birth abortion” debate as a blatant attempt to undermine the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which established a woman’s right to decide the fate of the fetus developing in her womb.

“Duh!” says Folger, who has been trying to focus people on images of abortion since she recoiled from a grisly photo in high school 20 years ago.


Now 34, the legislative director of the Ohio Right to Life Society is proud that her efforts have helped make the Buckeye State a test lab of sorts for antiabortion legislation, and that she fanned the issue that reignited the smoldering abortion stalemate.

Here in Ohio’s capital, people discuss Folger in tones that range from mere respect to awe, exasperation and thinly veiled loathing. What most agree is that the energetic--some might even say hip--young lobbyist does not fit the stereotype.

What some fear and others hope is that she may represent the vanguard of a formidable new breed:

* “Ohio is the leader in the nation in chipping away at Roe v. Wade and helping the unborn,” says Cleveland-area legislator Ed Kasputis. “We are constantly at the forefront of this debate and it’s because of Janet Folger.”

* “They’re into everything!” Rep. Joan Lawrence, an abortion rights supporter, says of Folger’s group. “It doesn’t matter what it is, they’re going to stick abortion in, and Janet is behind it all. . . . She drives me nuts.”

* “I can honestly say I’ve never seen any lobbyist as aggressive as she is,” says state Rep. Bob Corbin, who has refused to allow Folger into his office since she involved herself six years ago in a legislative matter he thought was none of her business.


But as Folger works her way around the elegant rotunda of Ohio’s refurbished statehouse, stroking suit sleeves, laughing at legislators’ jokes, it becomes apparent that many here appreciate her relentless hard-soft sell--or at least know enough about her constituency’s clout to pretend.

Even before meeting with Folger, a visiting reporter glimpses the odd incongruity of her style in the cheerful welcome basket she has delivered to his hotel room.

Nestled in the shavings are a big Ohio coffee mug--and a bumper sticker (‘Abortion? Pick on someone your own size”); muffin mix--and fuzzy teddy bear stickers reading “Choose Life”; chocolates--and a gold pin of two tiny footprints: “These feet are the exact size and shape of an unborn baby’s feet at 10 weeks after conception.”

Then there’s the fact sheet, complete with photographs of developing fetuses, a motif that carries over to Ohio Right to Life headquarters, across the street from the statehouse.

Folger first confronted the abortion issue when representatives from Planned Parenthood and Cleveland Right to Life presented their cases to her 10th-grade health class at a suburban high school.

The abortion rights representative, she says, talked about “the products of conception, fetal matter, globs. . . . They tried to dehumanize the kid.” The antiabortion speaker, on the other hand, talked about the developing “baby,” she says, and showed pictures.



Critics say religious zeal drives Folger. She parries that although she was raised Lutheran and now attends the evangelical Vineyard Fellowship, science, not religion, shaped her stand:

“I didn’t know about abortion. I had no guidance directly from the church. . . . I saw scientific facts of human growth and development and saw it clearly as a human rights issue.”

Folger holds up a copy of the photograph that nailed it: a plastic trash bag brimming with fetuses. They look as if they’re sleeping. “I looked at that as a clueless 10th-grader and said, ‘There’s no way you can word your way around this, you’re looking at a bag of dead babies.’ ”

She went on to become an antiabortion activist in college, while majoring in communications, and was working on her masters degree and hosting a show on Christian radio when Ohio Right to Life hired her in 1988.

Ohio has blazed antiabortion trails in “right to know” law, which requires that women seeking abortion receive detailed information about fetal development, and in parental notification.

But some would say the state made its biggest impact on the debate in 1992, when antiabortion rights activists got hold of a paper Dr. Martin Haskell of Ohio had presented to the National Abortion Federation. It detailed his use of a procedure to abort fetuses of “20 weeks and beyond.”


Folger whips out a yellow Highlighter and underscores a passage from that paper: “ . . . The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents.”

Supporters of legalized abortion refer to the procedure by the term Haskell used: “Intact Dilation and Extraction--D & X.”

Folger called it “brain-suction abortion.”


Ohio was already a battleground; in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, several abortion clinics had been bombed.

In May 1994, Folger was backing her 1987 Porsche 924S from the garage of her Columbus-area home when she noticed a dribble of flames on the concrete. As she ran into the house to call for help, the car ignited.

The arson investigator assigned to the case says the cause of the fire could not be determined, but labels it suspicious--possibly sabotage. Folger says she still receives death threats.

As Ohio’s ban on “brain suction” worked its way through the legislature in 1995, Folger learned of a young nurse who had worked for three days at Dr. Haskell’s clinic.


Folger called Brenda Shafer and talked to her for two hours about the possibility of testifying about what she had seen. As it happened, the Ohio bill passed without Shafer’s involvement, but Folger kept calling, asking if Shafer would go to Washington when a similar federal bill was debated.

“She said, ‘It has to be your decision, but you could make a big difference,’ ” Shafer recalls.

So Shafer testified at congressional hearings: about witnessing late-term abortions on one fetus with Down syndrome and two others with no apparent defects; about the nightmares and guilt that followed. What she saw, Shafer says, transformed her from abortion rights supporter to opponent.

Antiabortion rights activists say the vivid word pictures Shafer painted were pivotal in the congressional debate, and continue to cause others to flip-flop as a video of her testimony circulates.

Ultimately, though, President Clinton vetoed the ban. At an emotional news conference, he said his decision was based in part on the moving testimony of women who underwent the abortion as a wrenching last resort--when the fetus inside them could not survive, or when delivery or other forms of abortion would have put their own lives at risk.

In March, the House passed the bill again. If it passes the Senate, as expected, it will go back to Clinton.



Susannah Sagan, who heads Columbus’ National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, seems almost bewildered by the woman she battles over what Sagan considers “one of the most fascinating moral dilemmas in our society today.”

When she and Folger fought for the hearts and votes of the Ohio Legislature over the D & X bill, Sagan was “enormously pregnant,” she says. But being pregnant and feeling the “beating heart and kicking feet” didn’t change her mind about the right of women to choose whether to carry their offspring to term.

Now, Sagan says, the son she was carrying is downstairs in the day-care center of the Presbyterian church where NARAL has its offices. And when she looks at him, Sagan says, she sees an entity that is like, but somehow different in kind, from what she sees in the pictures Folger shows of pre-viability “babies.”

No such distinctions are possible, however, in defining the humanity of the mother, she says. So Sagan views the question of legal abortion--where delicate questions of life and death intersect complex issues of rights and responsibility--as “a seesaw.”

“If you say the fetus has rights from conception, then the woman has no rights,” she says. “If you say the woman has rights until birth, then the fetus has no rights.”

Sagan says she would never try to take decisions about that balance away from the mother: “I don’t know where Janet comes off thinking she has the responsibility to decide what’s best for them.”


Sagan gives a little sigh: “The opposition has been underestimated. I talk to older feminists, and I think they thought, ‘Great! We’ve legalized abortion, now let’s move on, get pay equity. . . .’

“No one could have realized that the anti-choice people are never going to give up. . . . The average member of the public doesn’t understand the significance of the threat that is out there from people like Janet.”


Back in Columbus after a quick appearance on a nationally syndicated television talk show, Folger spends her morning urging legislators to exclude abortion-related expenditures from family planning provisions in the state budget.

Then she breaks for lunch. Worried, apparently, about the image of zealotry her opponents paint of her--about the suspicion that “Right to Life” equals “Got No Life”--Folger slaps a stack of photographs from a recent Caribbean cruise on the table.

The restaurant’s stereo actually plays “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while Folger, who has never been married, fans out shots of herself in a crowded hot tub, singing on the ship’s stage in a slinky cocktail dress, leading a conga line.

Folger is sometimes described as a Jodie Foster look-alike. But that’s her button-down, statehouse persona. In the cruise pictures, Folger looks more like comedian Tracey Ullman and it is that mugging, mimicking, wise-cracking version of Folger who turns up later in the evening to speak before a sympathetic audience at Capital University, a Lutheran college.


Folger tells a story about a display her group put up at another school. As is often the case, she says, an angry woman approached the table, which displayed medical models of fetuses.

The woman upbraided the antiabortion activists for misleading people by using words such as “baby” in discussing the fetuses, shown in different stages of development. Then, Folger says, the woman’s toddler piped up. “Look Mommy,” she said, pointing to the models. “Babies!”

For Folger, the continuum of human life starts at conception. What some see as moral, ethical and medical mileposts--intricate neurological evolutions, trimester designations, “viability,” birth itself--”are about as relevant,” she says, “as terms like ‘toddler,’ ‘adolescent’ and ‘elderly.’ ”

The human is there, she says, and discriminating based on its age is an injustice.

Running with that point, Folger abruptly turns discussion of various justifications for abortion into a Court TV-like game show.

First, she acknowledges that saving the life of a mother is a good--though in her eyes rare--reason for abortion. She adds that rape and incest are even rarer tragedies that are only exacerbated by abortion.

Then she hauls a young man onto the stage, announces that he just killed his 3-year-old daughter and says, that as his attorney, she is asking the group to forgive the act.


The child, Folger says, pacing the stage with the assurance of Oprah, was disabled, deformed and unwanted. The father, she says, was too young, poor and depressed, too devoted to advancing his career and decreasing overpopulation to raise her.

The “jury” gives the man thumbs down. Folger urges the group to ponder how anyone could view such common reasons for abortion with any less disdain.

Afterward, a new generation of potential activists crowds around her, eager to learn what they can do for the cause.