A Few Not-so-random Thoughts Of Abortion, Decency And Fair Play John Stanton Spent 90 Days In Prison For His "Pro-life" Beliefs. His Worst Moment Came After Watching Clinton's Convention Acceptance Speech On Tv.

Posted: October 11, 1992

This column is going to be about Gov. Casey, Bill Clinton, free speech, abortion, and a nice man who went to jail for what he believed in.

Originally it was going to be just about the man who went to jail - John P. Stanton, the former head of the now defunct Pro-Life Coalition of Southeastern Pennsylvania - but other events have intruded and require comment.

Stanton and three others went to jail earlier this year for contempt of court after they refused to pay the legal fees of an abortion clinic they had picketed in violation of an injunction. The lengthy and complex civil litigation involved defies easy summarization, but the bottom line for Stanton was that he preferred to go to jail rather than "pay money to an abortion company." He stayed in jail for 90 days and still hasn't paid.

The case didn't get much attention, which sort of surprised me. We don't have all that many prisoners of conscience in America, and it seemed to me that if he had been, say, an activist for an oppressed ethnic or racial minority group, he and his colleagues would have gotten at least a brief moment in the national media spotlight.

So I was going to write a little piece about him partly to redress that oversight, and partly because I've always liked John. He exudes decency and goodwill. At 65, the former factory manager is fit and feisty, always good for a pithy quote. He likes to tease the abortion-rights people for calling themselves "pro-choice." Abortion, he says, "is such a terrible thing that even those people who are for it don't want to be associated with it."

Our differences on the abortion issue have remained more or less constant over the years. He believes abortion is a horrible thing that should be outlawed. I believe that it is a horrible thing, but that the consequences of outlawing it would be more horrible.

I have to credit him, though, for being someone willing to reach out across the abyss that separates the warring factions in the abortion controversy. He has come in to speak with The Inquirer Editorial Board and once invited me to speak to his Pro-Life Coalition, where I was courteously received.

Stanton and I have kept up a running correspondence over the years, which continued during his enforced stay at Snyder County Prison in upstate Pennsylvania, where he and 31 other federal prisoners, most of them drug traffickers, were being warehoused.

His letter from prison offered a lengthy critique of recent editorials and described the limited (but real) joys of looking out across the verdant countryside through the 11-inch wide window of his cell. After he got out, I arranged a meeting in part to find out what it was like to suddenly find oneself behind bars with hardened criminals.

"It wasn't bad," John told me cheerfully. Images from old Jimmy Cagney movies were shattered in my mind.

Except for the van rides wearing shackles, the only truly unpleasant moment had come when the cellblock strongman (who routinely did a thousand push-ups a day) had threatened to punch him out for whistling in the shower early one morning. Stanton told him he would oblige if the man would ask him without using so much profanity. The two men didn't quarrel again.

Stanton and his cellmate, Michael McMonagle, also an officer of the Pro- Life Coalition jailed for contempt, conducted prayer meetings every morning and night, and a dozen or so of the other prisoners regularly took part. Stanton believes the "power of prayer" improved the level of civility in the prison. He has been back to see his prison associates, and has visited the

families of several.

The worst thing about life in prison was television. "I'm sure there's television in hell," he told me. The first prisoner up in the morning would turn it on, and it would blare until the guards turned it off at 11 p.m.

And the worst night of television, Stanton continued, was Bill Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, notably the line about keeping abortion legal. "All those people cheering," he said, incredulous that there could be such enthusiasm for destroying human life. "I went to sleep still hearing them applaud. It hurt. It really hurt."

Stanton's comment brought me up short. I like Clinton, and I had liked the speech. I appreciated the fact that Clinton had said he was not "pro- abortion," that he was only supporting a woman's right to choose. But this was a distinction without a difference for Stanton, and no doubt for many other reasonable, intelligent people who regard abortion as immoral and

criminal.

It was a reminder of the way the issue bitterly divides people who might otherwise have congruent beliefs about our national agenda.

There was another bitter reminder of this vicious divisiveness over abortion on Oct. 2 when Gov. Casey was shouted down by hecklers as he tried to give a speech in New York co-sponsored by the Village Voice and Cooper Union on the subject "Can a Liberal Be Pro-Life?" The behavior of the audience was inexcusable (and, yes, un-American).

The speaking invitation had been given because Casey had been denied the opportunity to address the Democratic convention on the subject, and I have to be clear in saying that I did not argue with that decision because there was another dynamic involved.

Casey, it has to be remembered, had been going around during the Pennsylvania primary saying that Clinton had no chance to win the election. ''We have to recognize reality," Casey told The New York Times, " . . . he's got a tiny, flyspeck of support." Casey openly urged his party's delegates to remain uncommitted and to choose another candidate.

Now, when an official of Casey's stature sets out publicly and gratuitously to decapitate his own party's presumptive nominee (and fails), that's the political equivalent of high treason, and banishment from the podium is probably the lightest punishment imaginable. The governor can thank his lucky stars he wasn't blindfolded and offered a cigarette. (Worst of all, of course, he was flat wrong.)

But that having been said, the Democrats were wrong not to have allowed some pro-life spokesperson to address the convention. And Clinton himself was wrong, wrong, wrong to have declared that he would require any Supreme Court nominee he might propose to be in favor of allowing abortion.

Ideological litmus tests of this kind for judicial nominees are just evil policy, and Clinton should disavow it. (Imagine the ruckus that would ensue if a president required Supreme Court nominees to hold an anti-abortion position.)

I don't know what else can be done to remove the abortion issue as an obstruction to political dialogue and governmental progress. My hope, as I have expressed in this space previously, is that it will, for various reasons, simply subside.

Maybe it would help if there was some mutual recognition of the nature of the abortion dilemma, which was caught neatly by author Gilbert Steiner: ''Neither side is comfortable with less than total victory, each side views its cause as sacred - and both are right."

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