HAROLD CASSIDY IS trying to break my heart. We're sitting in his law office, minutes from the antiques haven of Red Bank, New Jersey, and a stone's throw from the Navesink River. The room, furnished with a gleaming wooden table, green-and-brass banker's lamps, and legal volumes lining the walls, could be the set for any movie about a small-town lawyer who lives by his passion for justice. Cassidy himself is a master of the dramatic narrative—his work has made him a collector of heartrending tales that, despite what must be countless retellings, he shares again with fresh intensity.
This one is about a girl he calls Donna Santa Marie (PDF), who discovered she was pregnant just before her 16th birthday. She and her boyfriend, both children of immigrants, were excited and wanted to get married. His parents gave their blessing; hers demanded that she have an abortion. Donna refused.
"Donna," he says, drawing out each word for emphasis, "was very strong—exceptionally strong for a woman her age." For two weeks, her parents let her go to school but otherwise would not let her out of her room. "And every day they wore on her; she had to have the abortion, she had to have the abortion. She just continued to refuse. They then made her a promise: They said, 'If you get the abortion you can get married; in fact, we'll hold a big church wedding.' She still refused."
Finally, Donna's parents told her they would prosecute her boyfriend for statutory rape if she didn't comply. So she went with them to the abortion clinic. When a clinic questionnaire asked, "What do you consider an abortion?" she wrote, "Murdering my baby." To the question "Is anyone forcing you to have an abortion?" she wrote: "Yes, my parents." Based on her answers, the doctor refused to do the procedure.
The parents were extremely angry, Cassidy explains, speeding up slightly; the next day, Donna's father punched her in the abdomen, and a few days later he took her to another clinic. "Now, can you imagine," he says, quiet outrage rising in his voice, "a 16-year-old girl putting up with this..." I'm expecting him to say "abuse," but he continues, "...this great right, supposedly, this great right to choose?" Now he's dripping with disgust. "And she goes into the waiting room and she's waiting for her forms to fill out and they didn't give her any, and they bring her back to a room and she's sitting there waiting to talk to the doctor, and someone came in and anesthetized her." Cassidy pauses.
"And they pulled the baby out."
While these ideas have become part of the vanguard of pro-life thinking—protect the woman, not just the unborn—few have heard of the man who helped bring them to prominence.
FOR ALMOST two decades, Harold Cassidy has quietly advanced the pro-life cause by giving legal shape to the stories of women who terminated their pregnancies and came to regret it. He has sued abortion providers for, among other things, not warning these women that they would experience the profound grief he's convinced afflicts many who have ended a pregnancy. And while these ideas have become part of the vanguard of pro-life thinking—protect the woman, not just the unborn—few have heard of the man who helped bring them to prominence.
A tall 65-year-old who wears his size awkwardly, Cassidy has lived most of his life in this quiet corner of eastern New Jersey—"just one little person out in the horse country"—and kept his distance from mainstream pro-life groups. His wife has a desk at the front of the office, where she handles the phones; one of his sons, a young attorney named Derek, works alongside him. Cassidy rarely speaks to reporters and agreed to talk to me only reluctantly, after lengthy negotiations. "I'm not a messenger," he insisted. "You're trying to turn me into a messenger. I'm nothing but a lawyer."
Still, talk he did, for more than a dozen hours, spread over multiple interviews that took place on weekdays, weekends, and holidays—and for which Cassidy, who has graying hair and a large mustache, invariably wore a dark suit and tie.
Cassidy, once a pro-choice liberal, sees the mother-child relationship as "almost sacred." He returns again and again to certain themes: "the absolutely amazing, powerful, inherent instincts of women to love their children" and "their inability, when they lose their children, to put it completely behind them"—even when those "children" are embryos they chose to terminate. He also has come to the conclusion that "most abortions are the result of some level of coercion," not just by partners or parents, but by a "culture that says, 'Don't bother us with your problem; we don't want to help you in your time of need. Just dispose of the child.'"
These beliefs have put him at the forefront of the pro-life movement's biggest rebranding in recent memory, an effort that has gained tremendous traction among pro-life state legislators. (Ever since the November midterms, pro-life groups have been especially gleeful about their prospects at the state level; Operation Rescue leader Troy Newman told the New York Times, "I feel like a little boy on Christmas morning—which package do you open up first?")
Of course, the notion that ending a pregnancy can be distressing is nothing new, and many pro-choicers have begun to acknowledge it—in a 2005 speech, Hillary Clinton famously called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice." Some abortion clinics now refer patients to groups, like the California-based Exhale, that offer post-abortion counseling resources. But pro-lifers have taken the concerns much further. They have used the notion that women must be protected from abortion's emotional impacts to justify a new round of laws (PDF) imposing mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods, or forcing doctors to dole out discredited information about health risks. (See "Are You Sure You Want an Abortion?") They've also championed state-mandated counseling scripts informing women that what they are doing amounts to taking a life—so that, the argument goes, a woman doesn't later find herself overcome with grief over a decision she cannot undo.
In 2005, with Cassidy's guidance, South Dakota passed one of the nation's most restrictive counseling laws. Its language (PDF)—lifted directly from Cassidy's legal writings—compels providers to tell women they are taking the life of a "whole, separate, unique, living human being." The law, which Planned Parenthood is challenging (PDF) in federal court, has inspired imitators (PDF) in Missouri and North Dakota, with looser interpretations introduced in Indiana and Kansas.
These bills are not backed by mainstream scientific findings. In a 2008 review, the American Psychological Association found "no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion." More recently, a team at Johns Hopkins University reviewed the relevant literature and concluded that the highest quality studies suggest "few, if any, differences between women who had abortions and their respective comparison groups," while "studies with the most flawed methodology" found negative effects.
But the dry prose of studies can't compete with vivid anecdotes of womanhood shattered and degraded. Cassidy is haunted by the modern-day pietá of the suffering post-abortive woman, and it's that image he wants us all to see.