Before I became a lobbyist for the abortion rights movement, I spent a lot of time working for several Members of Congress. It was a fascinating experience – especially the nightly, free all-you-can-eat and drink receptions hosted by some big lobbying group (the National Association of Realtors and the Mortgage Bankers Association always had the best parties).
A short while ago, one of my readers asked in so many words how Members of Congress sort out all of the information that crosses their desks. Specifically, she asked about information and statistics that are health-related and, I assume, that might be related to reproductive rights. In essence, she was asking about the decision making process. Here are my thoughts based on my experience:
When they run for Congress, within hours of filing their papers the candidate will be asked about their position on abortion. There’s no way they can avoid it. So, right up front the candidate has basically declared if he or she is pro or anti. Now, if asked about their position on the deficit, they’ll say they want to reduce it but then will start fudging on the specifics. On abortion, it is much harder to fudge. So, if they get elected they go to Washington D.C. with the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” tag. In a very, very small number of cases, the candidate might try to float around in the middle by saying things like they support legal abortion but believe there should be restrictions on its use. But that is very rare.
So, let’s say Mr. or Mrs. Smith finally arrives at their new office on Capitol Hill. If they are a new Member, their office is the size of a broom clo
set and they have to squeeze in about 9 staff people. In ten or twenty years, they’ll get decent accommodations. Then, suddenly, one day there is a new report put out by the very respected and objective American College of Psychologists saying that abortion causes “immense emotional harm.” In their study of 1,000 women who had abortions, they determined that 891 suffered “severe mental consequences.”
Within hours, the National Right to Life Committee issues a press release praising “what we have known all along about the consequences of abortion.” The pro-choice groups, meanwhile, are hunkered down, having private meetings amongst themselves trying to figure out what the hell to do with what they see as a rather legitimate report. The next day Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey announces with great fanfare that he will introduce the “Abortion Counseling Act of 2011” requiring that women receive counseling from a clinic psychologist before being allowed to obtain an abortion.
In a matter of weeks, the bill is up for a vote. The pro-lifers, of course, will not only vote for the bill but will go to great lengths to praise the report of “this august body of psychologists.” And, by this time, the pro-choicers will have come up with some bullshit response about “this flawed study by a generally respected organization” that would restrict access to abortion. The pro-choicers would be squirming as they voted against the bill but if they hope to get campaign contributions from the pro-choice organizations, they have to toe the line. Every vote on the issue is ranked, they want that 100% voting record.
Then there are those few Members of Congress who are floating around in the middle, who are trying to look at the “evidence” objectively. Those are the ones who will bear the brunt of the lobbying from the pro-life and pro-choiceorganizations. Everyone, and I mean everyone, will be pissed off at them because they dared to be independent and actually review the statistics.
What it comes down to is that, on this issue, the lines are drawn very early and it is virtually impossible to change minds. Indeed, this is often the case with most issues on Capitol Hill – and it’s a shame. There is no room for independent thought, it is a “sign of weakness” if one says that they are “undecided” on a particular issue. There is never any real debate in the Halls of Congress, it’s just a bunch of minows who have their pre-packaged talking points.
So, the answer to the original question is, at least on this issue, statistics, reports, etc. don’t mean diddly squat.