Wanda Franz, a retired psychology professor from Morgantown, is among the most significant political activists that the majority of Americans have never heard of.
For 20 years, Ms. Franz, 67, has been president of the National Right to Life Committee, which does much of the legislative heavy lifting for opponents of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Its national conference ends today at the Hyatt Regency at Pittsburgh International Airport.
The soft-spoken mother of three shakes her head at the ideas that women shouldn't oppose abortion because it's supposed to benefit them or that men shouldn't oppose it because they don't get pregnant.
"This is a human rights issue. Like any other human rights issue, it's something that everyone should be concerned about," she said.
She believes that from conception, a fetus is a genetically unique, living human being, entitled to human rights. The seeds of her activism were planted in post-World War II Germany, where her father was in the U.S. military. She agonized over the genocide against Jews, gypsies and others.
"I knew the Germans. I played with the kids. They were ordinary people. It was so hard to understand how that could have happened," she said.
She found the philosophical origin of death camps in the German medical community of the 1930s. Doctors had promoted a policy of killing "life unworthy of life." Handicapped people were killed for the good of society.
"I concluded that when you give up your respect for life, for the dignity of any one group of people, it spreads. You start killing everybody," she said.
She didn't connect that to abortion until 1971. She was a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where her husband taught in the medical school and she would have her own career. She was teaching fetal development in a class on developmental psychology and was asked to speak to anti-abortion activists. She joined the cause.
"We had the naive idea that if you remind people that the unborn baby is a person, that they would say abortion isn't good, and they wouldn't do it. It wasn't that simple," she said.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws against abortion. Since then, the National Right to Life Committee has had a succession of legal strategies.
The first was a constitutional amendment banning abortion except to save the woman's life. That remains a goal, but she acknowledges that it's politically impossible for now.
The committee adopted an incremental approach, supporting limits such as parental consent laws, for which there is broad support. Her group opposes criminal charges against women who have abortions.
"We don't see the woman as the criminal. It's the abortionist we're after," she said.
But the National Right to Life Committee forbids its members to use illegal protest tactics, such as sit-ins, and has harshly condemned violence against abortion providers.
Unlike some more strident groups that have accomplished little in Washington, the National Right to Life Committee accepts laws that permit certain "hard case" abortions -- to save the woman's life or after rape or incest.
Ms. Franz doesn't believe that abortion is a right response to rape, but she does believe that politics is the art of the possible.
"We like to say that 90 percent of Americans oppose 95 percent of all abortions," she said. "The majority of Americans want to see abortion available for the life of the mother and for cases of rape and incest. Those are the three big issues, and we are willing to allow those kinds of exceptions, which account for 3 to 5 percent of all abortions, because we are trying to get rid of the 95 percent."
When asked about Ms. Franz, the group called NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a statement through its communications director, Ted Miller. "We expect anti-choice groups and politicians to continue to attack women's freedom and privacy in the legislative process and at the voting booth, and we will not let those attacks go unanswered. They want to outlaw abortion, and that is out of step with the view of the vast majority of Americans."
But Ms. Franz cites recent polls showing that 51 percent of Americans are now willing to call themselves "pro-life." A turning point came during battles for a ban on the late-term abortion procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion." Medical testimony dispelled a widely held belief that abortion was legal only in the first three months, she said.
"It was an eye-opener for so many people ... and then they began to realize more and more what abortion is really about."
Her group was bruised in the battle over health care reform. While some abortion opponents supported the final bill on the grounds that access to medical care will prevent abortions, Ms. Franz believes it includes huge loopholes for federal funding of abortion and for the government to deny expensive, life-saving care.
She acknowledges that private insurance companies deny some life-saving care now.
"The current system has a lot of weaknesses. But this does nothing to fix them. All we've done is to move the problem out of the private sector and institutionalize it with the worst form of federal bureaucracy," she said.
The group's website outlines what it considers an acceptable plan for universal health care.
She believes that the tide has turned. "We've had the best primary season in a long time in terms of seeing pro-lifers elected," she said.
"We believe that, since the peak of abortions in 1980, we have been able to save 9 million lives. We think there are a lot of people walking around today who wouldn't be here if we weren't here."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.