"Whether or not to have an abortion is a decision a person has to make with guidance from her family and her doctor," 81-year-old Pat Packer tells me. "I feel the government should not be involved at all."
We are not at a Planned Parenthood rally, and Packer isn't a pro-choice advocate. Packer is upset, because, according to her, Obamacare has opened the door for the federal government to pay for abortions.
I correct her, pointing out that the Hyde amendment prevents any taxpayer dollars to go toward the procedure. "That's what they say now," she concedes. "You'll see. Eventually the government will pay for it."
I am sucking down some sort of pink punch at the "Celebration of Pro-Life Women Leaders" event, just off-campus from the Republican National Convention. The event is co-hosted by anti-abortion groups Susan B.Anthony List and Concerned Women for America, and the special guest speaker is none other than Michele Bachmann. The attendees are a few blocks from the RNC stage, where the only talk of abortion is a dog-whistle-y mention of "life." Here, they're free to talk openly about the horrors of botched abortions and the miracle of 17-week-old heart beats. They're also free to regurgitate misinformation like Packer's refrain about Obamacare — there's little danger of a viral video, no glaring cameras from the major networks.
"Of course I would love for [the RNC speakers] to talk about these issues in public," says Dr. Dale Burroughs, a longtime member of Concerned Women for America. "But I understand they need to speak in generalities because they have 10 or more issues they need to cover."
Indeed, the Republican party has taken pains to tamp down culture debates, focusing instead on the economy and touching personal bios. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum threw a few bones to pro-lifers, but there has been nothing close to the famously combative "culture war" speech Pat Buchanan gave two decades ago — even as the party's official platform on the issue has since swung further to the right. Not one woman has directly addressed these issues at the podium.
What a difference a few thousand feet makes. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who both gave stiff and lackluster addresses earlier in the week, came alive at the Susan B. Anthony-CWA event — and were fiercer than they ever could be on a nationally televised stage. Ayotte boldly repeated the falsehood about taxpayer dollars going toward abortion and quoted Ryan's vague platitude about life Wednesday night, urging the audience to "think very hard about those words." Pam Bondi called Obama a "loose cannon" who has been "glamorized by Hollywood."
"I wish that was the speech I could have given" on the RNC stage, Bondi told me later. "But they had a very specific request of me, which was to talk about Obama's health care law." This request prevented Bondi from taking her own advice, which she gave to young women at this event: "Don't be afraid to talk about your pro-life beliefs!"
Michele Bachmann, notably absent from the RNC roster, said things that would never make it onto ABC or CNN. She called Barack Obama "the most anti-woman, anti-life president ever in the history of the United States." She characterized the Affordable Act as "pro-abortion," "anti-women" legislation that puts government money toward killing babies (once again, this is false). She warned the audience of this race's stakes, with an urgency that not even the most bombastic speakers have had in the RNC spotlight: "If we fail to succeed in this election, we may never, ever, ever have this chance again to prevent taxpayer abortion."
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney promised he'd "honor the sanctity of life" in his speech last night, to relieved applause. But that's it.
During prime time, the Republican party is keeping a razor-sharp focus on the so-called "real issues." In other words, the ones that steer clear of people's sex lives. But they know there are voters like Burroughs, who told me her No. 1 issue at the voting booth was whether or not a candidate supports abortion. The vehement anti-abortion rhetoric may take place offscreen, but it's still happening — and it's playing a huge role behind the scenes.