Gannett News Service
Washington – Florida Sen. Bud Gardner has received 3000 letters, hundreds of phone calls and a half-dozen videotapes on abortion. But he only became pro-choice after talking to his mother.
“She just helped me crystallize my feelings,” said Gardner, who won an award from the Florida Right to Life Committee last year.
Gardner said he still believes abortion is morally wrong, but his mother persuaded him that the government should stay out of women’s decisions.
Although others had made similar arguments, Gardner said his mother was persuasive because of her age, conservatism and the family’s shared religious values.
“We had the same philosophical base,” he said.
Other male legislators also are listening more closely to their mothers, wives and daughters as they prepare to vote on abortion. The trend is most evident in Florida, where the legislature will convene Tuesday to consider a series of abortion restrictions.
But it has emerged elsewhere and affected other votes involving women’s rights.
Women won the right to vote in 1920, when Rep. Harry Burn broke the deadlock in the Tennessee Legislature. He voted for ratification of the 19th Amendment after receiving a letter from his mother saying, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help.”
Today, discussions on abortion are more complicated, with women bringing up a wide range of arguments to persuade sons or husbands.
Nancy Crawford, the wife of Florida Senate president Bob Crawford, said she helped bolster her husband’s pro-choice views by telling him about the pregnant teenagers she once taught in junior high school and reminding him of the pain endured by their baby, born with a heart defect.
After watching her daughter spend most of her nine-month life in a hospital intensive-care unit, Crawford said she wished she had known in advance about the birth defect and could have considered an abortion.
Jean Sieben, 71, of Geneseo, Ill., said she told her son, Todd, who serves in the Illinois legislature, about the days of illegal abortion to convince him to switch his position.
“I know how women suffered, and I know doctors who went to prison,” said Sieben, who said she often taught women about birth control.
Todd Sieben, a Republican, said he never had thought much about abortion before but assumed he would vote against it because of the GOP platform. After talking to his mother, however, he now calls himself “pro-compromise” and favors few abortion restrictions until the 20th week of pregnancy.
Some legislators said they were struck by their wives’ and mothers’ strong views on the subject. They often found their arguments persuasive, they said, because the women – especially mothers – were conservative and never had lobbied them before.
They said they thought it appropriate to seek out women’s opinions on abortion, especially the views of their loved ones, since the issue is so personal.
“Men should be sensitive to the fact they are making a decision on something they will never have to face,” said Florida Sen. Curt Kiser, who started hearing from his wife years ago about why women should have the right to abortion.
Added Elaine Gordon, one of only 27 women in the 160-member Florida Legislature: “The men are like the audience in this play. They’re watching what’s happening, but they can’t identify with the struggle.”
Not all the wives can persuade their husbands to switch sides, and they are not all pro-choice either, though the ones who seem to have the most success persuading their husbands favor abortion.
Legislators said they considered all the comments from their constituents, but because this issue involved moral judgments, they often focused more on examining their basic philosophies of life.
“I am not a computer terminal,” said Florida Rep. James Frishe, an anti-abortion legislator who was not persuaded by his deluge of mail or the pleas of his pro-choice mother.
For some lawmakers, the women in their lives need say nothing to sway them.
“I just looked at my daughter, who is 12-years-old, and I had to ask myself: if she got pregnant, would I let her have the baby at that age?” said Florida Rep. Alfred Lawson, who recently changed from anti-abortion to pro-choice. “I don’t think I could do it,” he said. “And I thought I would be hypocritical if I said my daughter could have it, but not other people.”
Most legislators, though, do not change their views as quickly – and some wives are willing to do whatever it takes to apply pressure.
Crawford, who stopped speaking to her husband for three days during Florida’s debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, asked the National Organization for Women to arrange a pro-choice rally in her husband’s district, according to NOW Vice President Patricia Ireland.
Lynn Gustafson, the wife of Florida House Speaker Tom Gustafson, said she had other ways to exert influence but refused to describe them.
“It’s personal,” she said. “Use your imagination, and then go a little bit further.”