Yesterday morning, Florida resident John Andrew Weldon pled guilty to product tampering and mail fraud in what may well be the most bizarre, creepy, made-for-reality-television crime of the year. More than that, though, Weldon may very well have inadvertently done more damage to the pro-choice movement than any other single person over the past decade.
The headlines of the case are sordid enough: Not wanting to shoulder the financial and personal burdens of becoming a new father, Weldon tricked his girlfriend into taking an abortion pill which subsequently terminated her pregnancy. As strange and icky as that might sound, the actual details of what transpired are stranger and ickier still.
Weldon’s girlfriend, Remee Jo Lee, says that when the couple discovered she was pregnant the two had different reactions. While Weldon actively encouraged terminating the pregnancy, Lee found the news to be a “blessing,” saying that being a mother was her “number one goal in life.” At an impasse, Weldon took Lee to see his father, a Tampa Bay gynecologist. After the examination, Weldon told Lee that his father said she had a slight infection, which could be cleared up by a mild anti-biotic. Working with an unnamed pharmacist, Weldon instead obtained the drug Cytotec, more commonly known as “the abortion pill.” (Part of his plea deal states that Weldon will give up the name of the pharmacist who was his co-conspirator.) After tampering with the prescription label so that it appeared to be an antibiotic, Weldon then delivered the Cytotec to Lee. Later, Lee developed abdominal pains, which led to her hospitalization. There she learned that her pregnancy had been terminated.
Other parts of this horrific story, while 100% true, still feel… off. For example, Lee thought her long-term boyfriend with whom she wanted to raise a child worked at the hospital where she was admitted. But he did not work there, or indeed at any hospital. Now that Weldon’s plea is in, Lee has begun the cable-news and talk show circuit, presumably with the help of a publicist, and talks about her desire for hers to become the face of the plight of the unborn child. And while it’s certainly within Lee’s rights to attempt to become a mini-celebrity just months after being victim of such a horrific ordeal, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t touch off a warning bell on my sympathy-meter. That the unborn child had already been named Memphis as a tribute to Graceland, because the couple so loved All Things Elvis, only adds to the purposefully tabloid feeling I get from the entire awful affair.
But there’s another fascinating aspect of this story that I cannot deny, which is this: I find myself reevaluating my solid pro-choice stance. And if this becomes a big, national story, I think many others might as well.
For decades, social conservatives have been trying to pass laws that make destroying a fetus classifiable as murder and/or manslaughter. These have primarily been attempts to get around Roe v. Wade (or at the very least to attempt to force SCOTUS’s hand in the matter). Pro-choice advocates have of course objected, but not just on the basis of access to abortion. Is a pregnant woman who goes hiking guilty of murder or manslaughter if she slips and falls, unintentionally triggering a miscarriage? What about a woman who gets in an auto accident that triggers one? (Not to mention the other driver.) What about one who is under the weather and doesn’t go to the hospital, and later discovers she was suffering fro hyper-thyroidisim? Most social conservatives say they would never advocate prosecuting for such circumstances, but since similar proposed laws attempt to jail rape victims for “evidence tampering” if a resulting pregnancy doesn’t come to term, it’s hard not to take such promises with a grain of salt.
One of the inherent problems of having an issue like abortion so deeply steeped in politics is that anything that remotely touches it is, likewise, so deeply steeped in politics. The case of Weldon and Lee, however, is something entirely different than I have heard discussed by either the pro-choice or pro-life crowd. In this case, we’re not even talking about a domestic dispute where violence creates unintended consequences. Rather, we’re talking about an incredibly detailed, systematic conspiracy to terminate the pregnancy of an unsuspecting woman. Authorities will point out that even without a law protecting the fetus, crimes were committed and that Weldon will serve jail time for those crimes. And that’s certainly true enough, but…
There’s no question in my mind that the real crime committed by Weldon isn’t anything remotely akin to, say, sending out mailers for a fictitious non-profit asking for donations. The whole concept of mail fraud (or product tampering) being the issue here is so absurd that I have no doubt that most readers will find it equally absurd – even if they’re die-hard pro-choicers. There are other crimes you could go with, I suppose. Reckless endangerment? Medical fraud? Practicing medicine without a license? Assault? Vandalism? All of them have the same wink-wink feeling of all of us agreeing not to notice we’re collectively forcing a round peg into a square hole.
I’m a pro-choice guy, and I will fully admit to my stance being just as much gut as reason. To me, a woman having a miscarriage she probably could have avoided feels like an accident. A rape victim terminating a pregnancy spawned by her assailant feels like someone not being forced to be a victim for life. A woman terminating a pregnancy at an early enough stage because she knows she’s not ready to raise a child feels like a choice. What Weldon did, though… That feels like murder. It feels like murder all the way down to my bones, all the way down to my cells, all the way down to my very atoms. It’s hard to have such a visceral reaction and not begin to question where I stand on the whole abortion issue. Which is not to say that I’m suddenly jumping on Team Pro-Life; I’m not. But I am suddenly far less comfortable with the side of the fence on which I choose to stand.
And I’m guessing I’m not alone – even with those that stand pretty heavily on the pro-choice side of the fence. And herein lies something of an opportunity for pro-life advocates.
Social conservatives have become their own worst political enemies on most national issues, but none so much as the issue of abortion. How bad has their messaging on abortion been over the past year or so? So bad that they’ve had to spend the majority of their public bandwidth defending/explaing/spin-doctoring the guys who insinuated that women who are pregnant would have to be lying about being raped, the guys who told women impregnated by rape that they should view their ordeal as a “gift from God,” the gal who compared being impregnated while being raped to having a fender bender, the guy who said we needed to remember when hearing of a woman being impregnated by rape that “some girls, they rape so easy,” the guy who said that any pregnant woman who thought she had been raped should get a second opinion from a “professional” to find out if she really was raped, and of course, the aforementioned gal who suggested a woman who was impregnated by rape should be charged with a felony tempering-with-evidence charge if she chose to take a morning after pill. That’s right – social conservatives are so bad at political messaging that they have chosen the tactic of shaming, pooh-poohing, and denigrating rape victims. It’s as if they have been actively trying to boost pro-choice support.
The Weldon-Lee case, however, has the potential to be a game changer.
I’ll be the first to admit that my deep-seated cynicism of cable news may be clouding my judgment of Lee, but if I’m being honest, I find her foray into B-status celebrity to be bordering on creepy. (Her ability to go from photogenic smiles to teary eyes and back just a little too rehearsed looking; her outfit on CNN just a little too sexy yet tasteful, her timing to hit the limelight just a little too well calibrated.) And despite feeling this way, Lee’s story has still stopped me in my tracks and made me seriously reconsider my position on abortion. Think, then, of how she might resonate with the 99% of US citizens who aren’t nearly as cynical as I am.
Of course, it’s possible that social conservatives might still find a way to – ahem – abort this “gift from God” being handed to them. (Sorry.) If it they were any other major U.S. political faction I would have no doubt they’d completely abandon their attacks on rape victims and talk about Weldon and Lee 24/7. But then, those other political factions wouldn’t have been so stupid to have chosen to go after rape victims in the first place, so who knows? Still, the Weldon-Lee case is one of those opportunities that comes rarely for political causes: the kind that make their opponents stop and question if they’re on the wrong side.
I certainly know I’m asking myself that question.
 And before you ask: Why yes, I actually do feel pretty guilty about having this reaction.