ON MY LAST DAT IN SIOUX FALLS, Unruh invites me to see her new, 40-foot bus. She intends it to be the first vehicle in a "Fleet for Little Feet": mobile crisis pregnancy centers that will find what Unruh calls abortion-minded women in malls, on college campuses throughout the rural badlands, or, as on the morning I visit the motor coach, at the state fair.
Inside, Unruh and a volunteer — one of her post-abortive women — give me a tour: the potty where women pee on their pregnancy-test sticks, an ultrasound that tells them the gestational age of their fetuses, an overhead compartment chock-full of baby clothes and — like party favors — dozens of two-inch plastic fetal dolls wearing red or blue diapers nestled in a wicker basket next to a sink.
I imagine myself walking into this claustrophobic space, afraid I might be pregnant. I think of the often complicated life of my mother, who gave birth to me (prematurely, she says) seven months after a wedding that took place on a Wednesday afternoon in between my parents’ college classes. In place of the messiness of real women’s lives, Unruh offers tidiness. Money, ambition, love, lust, loneliness — forget ‘em. Climb the bus stairs and you learn the secret: Life will be so much easier if you just follow the rules. Swear off premarital sex, but if you do stumble, have the kid.
Heaven and my political brethren forgive me, but I can imagine the profound relief her clients must feel at being told what to do. Despite the deep divisions between Unruh and me, I have found her oddly seductive; how can I be surprised if women in trouble do, too? I find myself wishing someone on the right would replace her, someone less able to touch all the conflicted feelings of the women she is trying to reach and the legislators she is seeking to persuade. I also wish that, for me, she could have been a better interpreter of her side of America’s culture wars, so I could better understand why my Uncle Bart is dead. But now that I see how Unruh has edited her own past, I am more confused than ever. And I’m convinced that if Unruh would tell her very human story, plainly and completely, she would be more, not less, inspiring. She’d be real.
But at the state fair that last day in South Dakota, I don’t know all of her story yet.
Unruh says, apologetically, that in her haste, she has forgotten to bring me a parting gift.
"Please," I joke. "Don’t give me a present until you see what I write!"
She laughs. We "good-bye" and "thank you" and "oh goodness, those peaches" each other. Then Unruh — perhaps reflexive in her good manners — reaches into the wicker basket and offers me a plastic fetal doll, one in red swaddling clothes. I tuck it into my pocket and kiss her good-bye.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2008.