The Magazine

Randall Terry Shoots an Ad

The anti-abortion crusader’s latest campaign

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By MATT LABASH
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Romney, W.V. 

Randall Terry

Randall Terry makes a joyful noise on his 1898 Steinway D.

TWS/Matt Labash

Of all the divergent byways the Road to the White House provides, there are none so curious as the detour that has me pushing out to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia to spend a week with Randall Terry, his family, and his hive of pro-life activists. Here, I will hunker down with the head of the Society for Truth and Justice, Terry’s current organization. Two decades ago, as founder of Operation Rescue, Terry was the most celebrated, dreaded, and despised pro-life agitator in America, leading a movement that saw 70,000 arrests in abortion protests in the largest civil disobedience efforts since civil rights days. He’s been arrested nearly 50 times himself for actions such as chaining himself to an abortion clinic sink and presenting Bill Clinton with an aborted fetus. All told, Terry’s spent over a year of his life in jail.

At his mountain compound, we will argue religion. We will watch abolitionist movies for inspiration. We will drink whiskey late into the night while having fetus-friendly jam sessions in his basement office/TV studio, with Terry holding down vocals and piano or guitar while performing songs of his own composition such as “Cryin’ for You Baby,” sung in the style of his musical hero, Barry Manilow.

But I’m leaping ahead, and these are sideshows, besides. While I don’t at all mind fraternizing with whiskey-drinking, antislaving, pro-life activists, this isn’t a social call. I’ve dropped in on Terry because he is cutting 30-second TV ads for himself and his crew of mercenaries, who are running in elections throughout the country—mostly -congressional. None of them expects or is even trying to win. Terry, in addition to a congressional race in Florida that he’s not truly competing in, is also not truly competing on the presidential ballot in three states as an independent. But that’s all beside the point. Because Terry boisterously predicts the cumulative effect of their graphic anti-abortion ads, which stations must run because of their federal candidacies, will do nothing less than dislodge the most pro-choice president in U.S. history under the weight of 52 million dead babies.

Dead babies. There you have it. It causes discomfort, but I said it outright. Terry would approve, since that’s what he calls them, mirroring his conviction. It’s my conviction too, I suppose, since I’m a pro-lifer when I think about it, which like many of similar stripe, I mostly don’t. But if we’re being honest, I’m not as convicted as the kind of people who use formulations like “dead babies” in polite conversation. It’s the kind of talk that causes even many pro-lifers to nervously scan the horizon for avenues of escape from the barking mad guy who thinks he’s an Old Testament prophet. 

“Dead babies” are words that arrive weaponized. You’ll notice Terry doesn’t call dead babies “the unborn,” or frame their plight in the context of the “right to life” or “reproductive choice.” He will often call a Planned Parenthood center an “abortion mill,” but otherwise rarely even uses the word abortion. “You abort the takeoff of a rocket,” he says mockingly. “You murder a human being.” He prefers calling abortion “baby killing,” and abortionists “baby killers.” 

I dwell on the words “dead babies” because they animate and illuminate every corner of Randall Terry’s large and often messy life. They undergird his credo, which is elegantly simple, and it goes like this: If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it. He seeks not to persuade, but to offend. Or to persuade by offending.

To go see Randall Terry, who lives in a no-horse town, you push through the one-horse town of Romney—no relation to Mitt—where Dairy Queen counts as a sit-down restaurant and where even the Chevy dealership has three crosses planted in front of it, not just for Jesus but for the two thieves (though nobody tends to steal much in Romney).

Terry’s SUV meets me at his nearly impossible-to-find turnoff, where we’re faced with a dilemma. Take a rickety wooden bridge that doesn’t look like it could bear the weight of a housecat, or traverse a shallow stream. He lustily rips off through the rushing water, and I follow (the hell with it, my car’s a rental). After climbing a half-mile up a dirt road that doesn’t seem convinced of itself, we arrive at the top of a scenic mountain, with a vista of the poplars, red oaks, and sugar maples that carpet the surrounding Appalachians.

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