The Compassionate Social Conservative
Kyleen Wright has been a pro-life activist for more than thirty years. And she’s still making surprising alliances—and surprising some of her allies.
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As a student at Alief Hastings High School, outside Houston, Kyleen Wright became, she says, a “noisy” pro-life activist, and the 54-year-old has since spent more than thirty years working for the cause. It can be rowdy work at times, as during last year’s debate over Texas House Bill 2, which introduced new abortion restrictions and prompted two special sessions and Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster. But political pugilists might be surprised to hear that Wright’s views have been influenced by her own experience of feeling vulnerable after a divorce left her raising four boys. Today, as head of the Texans for Life Coalition, she is one of the movement’s strongest voices.
Erica Grieder: A recent study found that since HB 2’s restrictions on abortion providers took effect, Texas’s abortionrate has dropped 13 percent. What do you think about that outcome?
Kyleen Wright: I don’t think 13 percent is a scary number to people. That’s not a huge reduction. That’s similar to the reduction we saw from the sonogram law.
Is that what you were expecting?
We had no idea how many clinics would close. I don’t want to be disingenuous: we’re not unhappy when abortion clinics close, because we think that abortion hurts women and we know that it ends the life of a separate, unique human being. But the part of the legislation that our organization was so passionate about was the hospital admitting privileges. That was about getting some bad actors out of the industry. We knew that that would mean fewer abortions, but we also knew that it would mean less trauma and a higher standard for women.
Okay. How did that come about?
A young woman approached us. She had had a bad experience with an abortion in Dallas. The first time she called me, I just listened. A lot of times people are really upset after an abortion, but after that feeling wears off, they just want it to go away and don’t want to talk about it anymore. And of course you’re never really sure if it’s the real thing or if it’s some kind of setup. But she kept calling, and eventually we met. She was very pro-choice. That was unusual. She was a progressive Democrat. So this was all very interesting to me. She told me a lot about her abortion experience and her doctor, and I said, “Well, you know, you didn’t hemorrhage, you didn’t die. Yes, he lied to you, he didn’t follow the law, it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t that—but we don’t have any horrible, permanent damages.” But she kept pushing me and pushing me, so I began looking into his record. And he was a monster. I have a friend who had an abortion experience, and I was telling her about what I was working on, and when I began to tell her about this doctor, she just started to have this full-blown panic attack and started crying and telling me that he was her abortion doctor and that he had molested her. And I decided that a hospital admitting privilege provision would take care of him in short order. It really wasn’t “Oh my God, we can close down all but six or eight abortion clinics this way!”
But according to that story, the doctor was breaking laws the state already had. Couldn’t he have been charged for that?
Well, you would think. But this is typical in the abortion industry. You have women who are caught up with guilt and shame. No matter what society says, no matter what pretty signs they have on the clinic’s wall, there is a tremendous amount of secrecy and shame. All of that enables abuse. It’s the perfect hiding place for bad doctors.
Activists at the Capitol during a special session, July 1, 2013. (AP/Eric Gay)
On the other hand, we also hear about experiences that point to the need for abortion to be accessible. I’m sure you’ve seen reports that women in the Rio Grande Valley have been using ulcer drugs available in Mexico to induce abortions because of the new law’s restrictions. That’s not an ideal safety situation either.
It certainly is a concern. The original articles, though, did talk about how women were already buying these pills at the flea market before HB 2. That is, yes, very, very scary. We certainly want to do all that we can to explain to people that doctors are important, and we don’t want women self-aborting. I have a friend who came home from school one day to find her mother dead because she had tried to self-abort. Nobody wants those kinds of tragedies.
Have you been thinking about the next legislative session?
We will be looking for opportunities, but we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen—who the winners are and what the direction is. The state does have some really pressing needs right now, with the education lawsuits and immigration, among other things. There’s a concern, I think, that the Legislature may be a little bit weary [of the abortion issue] after HB 2. Some of these other things are going to dominate.
You’ve been getting a hard time from some people about expressing compassion for the immigrant children from Central America who are coming across the border.
I’m like a lot of people; I’ve gone back and forth. I believe in the rule of law, but then I think about parents sending children on these dangerous journeys, and the kind of desperation that has to be behind that. I realize that we can’t take in all of the world’s poor, although my first response is that I’d like to. We need to look at the law, but I think that our country has always been open to refugees and the desperate. I can just hear what Ronald Reagan would say, about people yearning to be free and willing to make that kind of a journey. I think some of my friends believe I’ve gone off the deep end because I was the first social conservative to support [House Speaker] Joe Straus. There are a few stuffed rhinos in my office that people have given me.