Last Year In “Some Bullshit”: Something I Will Never Comprehend

{This post was originally written on April 22nd, 2016, for the Broad-cast blog. Now that the Broad-cast is defunct, I thought I’d bring it over here to repost it on the anniversary. Not the anniversary of his death, though; the anniversary of the day so many of us spent remembering him via songs and videos and think pieces and GIFs, my god, the GIFs! So instead of the more staid approach I took with the photo illustrations to this piece on the Broad-cast, here I will be inserting GIFs. They may or may not be appropriate to the topic addressed in any given paragraph. I don’t care. Prince gave good GIF.}

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When Prince Rogers Nelson died yesterday at the age of 57, the world lost a musician of unparalleled talent. He played 27 instruments. His vocal range spanned an effortless four-and-a-half octaves. He released 39 studio albums and apparently had thousands of unreleased songs locked in a vault at his Paisley Park mansion. There are literally no other musicians alive today who can even approach Prince’s musicianship across so many metrics.

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But beyond Prince’s contributions to modern music, Prince also spend much of his career existing outside the strict boundaries of gender enforced by our culture. In his song “Controversy,” he addresses the curiosity of the public about his identity, posing questions that I know I was also asking as a young child when I saw him on my television: “Am I black or white/am I straight or gay?” As Alyssa Rosenberg said in the Washington Post yesterday, the deaths, in rapid succession, of both Prince and David Bowie have robbed us of two artists who “showed there’s no right way to be a man”:

“But if conventional notions of gender were only one of the things that didn’t constrain Bowie and Prince, their transcendence of this particular category is still a particularly significant part of their legacies. In the clothes they wore, the lean bodies they lived in, the way they positioned themselves in their music and art, their relationships to LGBT communities and in so many other ways, Prince and Bowie were living arguments that there is no one way, and no correct way for a man to dress, to move, to decide what he values, to choose who he loves or where he stands in relation to that person.”

butttt

Prince’s former bandmate, Wendy Melvoin, said once that her first impression of Prince was that “He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman…We looked at each other for the first time and I thought, ‘Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy.’” Melvoin was among the many female musicians that Prince promoted relentlessly throughout his career, whether they were instrumentalists like Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and Sheila E., to whom he gave prominent roles in his bands; or vocalists like Vanity, Apollonia, Carmen Electra, and even Sinead O’Connor, whose career-making breakthrough record, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, was written by Prince.

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In addition, Prince’s lyrics always promoted female sexual agency. In one of his earliest hit songs, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Prince’s desire for the woman in the song is built entirely around wanting to give her pleasure, and says, “I don’t want to pressure you,” as simple and clear a refutation of rape culture as we’re ever likely to get in a Top 40 song. Throughout the first two decades of his career, he gave voice to the idea that women could make their own choices about sex. For third-generation sex-positive feminists, listening to Prince approvingly sing about things like female masturbation was often a revelation. Writing for ESPN yesterday, Allison Glock pointed out that:

“He made slut-shaming irrelevant. By inviting women to be sexual on their own terms, to play with camp, to wear lingerie and throw down insane guitar licks, the women in Prince’s crew presented power in myriad forms, and showed they were in on the joke, beating sexist reductions to the punch and turning them on their ear musically and otherwise.”

touch it

Prince also expressed a deep feeling of comradeship with women in songs like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” where he laments that he will never be able to feel a certain level of closeness with his lover simply due to the expected male/female dynamics of a romantic relationship. His ability to flow between signifiers of masculinity (impeccably manicured facial hair and an often bare hairy chest) and femininity (heels, ruffled blouses, eyeliner, purple everything) was finally encapsulated by the glyph he created to replace his name during his contract battle with Warner Brothers — half male, half female, all Prince. This gender play made him not just an icon for the gay community, but very specifically the black gay community. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Tre’Velle Anderson writes:

“For black men, gender is a straight jacket, and day by day we find ways to live with our hands bound. Prince, however, found a way to break free. He shrugged off the confines of gender giving way to a persona that was masculine and feminine, and the world had to deal. Looking at how he moved through the world, seemingly without a care, I saw a way that I too could somehow balance these seemingly opposite identities.”

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But Prince’s comfort with androgyny during the first half of his career derailed after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2002, following the death of his only child and end of his first marriage. Although he was apparently furious about the way he was portrayed in a 2008 New Yorker profile, he did not deny saying the quote that deeply confused a gay community that had seen him as an icon for decades:

“You’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to [the bible]. But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then…you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right…God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’”

whut

Prince had always been a believer. He had always woven religious language and imagery into his songs; indeed, “Let’s Go Crazy” is straightforwardly about enjoying the short time we are given on this earth to the fullest, while anticipating “the afterworld: a world of never-ending happiness; you can always see the sun, day or night.” Ann Powers mused on NPR that:

“Prince fans…first had to work through his dirty-minded outrageousness…only to find themselves confronted with the deeper provocation he posed. That was to move through the sensual into a spiritual, even religious space…which he brought to the level of profound spectacle. A promised land, on earth, made of intertwining grooves and limbs. Prince devotees committed themselves to starting there, in a kind of naked state. Beyond the explicitly political thread that delicately runs throughout his work, this was the way Prince fought for civil rights — he created musical environments in which propriety, the viral carrier of prejudice, fell under the curlicued sword of wise good humor and elegant lust.”

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The transition from a Christianity that reveled in the joyous embrace of “living in the now before the grim reaper comes knocking at your door” to one that made him forswear buttless jumpsuits and cease all live performances of songs like “Head” and “Darling Nikki” was jarring. Even for the fans who didn’t feel a kinship with Prince for his gender fluidity and overt carnality, fans who simply idolized his willingness to be deeply weird on every level without apology, a Prince who no longer wanted to gyrate into twenty-three positions in a one night stand seemed…wrong.

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But the people who raised their voices yesterday in an outpouring of grief were the ones who grew up on the Prince of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, who will always remember how his example pushed the boundaries of American ideas of gender. His recent music had become less relevant to pop culture, although he remained a singular figure who was revered throughout his industry. He also turned much of his energy to philanthropy, as his friend Van Jones revealed yesterday on CNN. Slowly but surely, stories have been trickling out over the last 24 hours of donations made in secret so as to conform to his new strict religious beliefs. Helping inner city kids learn to program computers. Donations to small local organizations like libraries. Fundraisers to help prop up local community organizations in Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles. While many of us may have seen an idol slip away from us on issues of gender and sexuality, Prince continued to support progressive ideas through undercover largesse.

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Prince was a figure of unfathomable impact in American pop culture. His loss seems unreal. Maybe tomorrow it will make more sense. For today, we can reflect on the things he did, the words he sang, and how they changed us.

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“Whoever’s in charge up there had better take the elevator down and put more than change in our cup…”

Aside

I learned about the filibuster in the Texas state senate late Tuesday afternoon. I was generally aware of the abortion bill making its way through the Texas legislature.  I had the impression that it was largely similar to bills that have passed in many states where the Republicans held both executive and legislative control.  These bills, firstly, try to ban abortion outright after some arbitrary point in gestation, usually 20ish weeks.  They also impose onerous and medically unnecessary restrictions in the name of “protecting women’s health” which are really intended to create insurmountable obstacles for women seeking abortions to do so in a timely fashion, as well as forcing smaller clinics to close due to the financial impossibility of meeting the new requirements.

Texas has already passed plenty of obnoxious anti-abortion bills, including one that requires mandatory sonograms — the one thing that gets me more tiled up than anything else that shows up regularly in this type of legislation.  Given that most abortions will be performed early in the first trimester, before a heartbeat is detectable by an abdominal ultrasound, that means most women will be forced to have a transvaginal ultrasound.  and yes, transvaginal ultrasounds are exactly what they sound like, even if the people legislating them refuse to say the word or hear the word.  So essentially the state is forcing doctors, against their will, to perform acts of penetrative sexual assault on women.  I know I’ve digressed a bit here, but seriously, I could write a whole post on how angry I get about mandatory ultrasound laws and the condescending arguments legislators have the gall to make in their defense.  But I won’t.  I’ll talk more about what was being proposed in Texas the other night.

The bill in question was called Senate Bill 5, or #SB5 if you wanna tweet about it.  SB5, a version of which had already passed through the Texas House of Representatives, would:

  • Outlaw all abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization, with no exception for rape or incest victims
  • Require all abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of where they practice.
  • Require women to have TWO in-person visits to a doctor before she gets an abortion
  • Require every abortion provider to be licensed as an ambulatory surgery center, at a cost of approximately $1 million per clinic, effectively guaranteeing the closure of all but 5 clinics in the state, clinics that provide many services above and beyond abortion.  That would leave vast swaths of the second largest state in the nation not only far removed from any abortion services, but much harder up for other health care, like pap smears, mammograms and contraception.

(verbiage taken mainly from the rundown on this site)

This bill would make it virtually impossible for the majority of Texas women to exercise what the Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago was a constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion.  This was the bill that finally sent Senator Wendy Davis into filibuster mode.  Wendy Davis, who was once a teen mom living in a trailer park who worked her way up to Harvard Law.  Wendy Davis, whose district was almost gerrymandered such that she would surely lose her seat but was saved by the oversight imposed by Sections 4 & 5 of the Voting Rights Act — sections that were essentially deemed void by the Supreme Court the same morning that SB5 was set to pass the Texas State Senate.  Mere hours after the Supreme Court decision came down in Shelby County v. Holder, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the ruling would allow him to institute the redistricting maps in question. This was Wendy Davis’s last stand, and, as many reporters were quick to note, she was making it in a pair of very sassy shoes, looking like Tami Taylor.  Hi y’all!  Someone call Connie Britton; her Oscar winning role is waiting for her!

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When I first heard about the filibuster, I decided I wasn’t going to watch it or follow it on Twitter.  I had gotten exactly, no lie, 45 minutes of sleep the night before; I was home with my kids; and I just didn’t have the emotional strength needed to deal with what I was sure would be a crushing defeat.  Her first “strike” was for being off topic, but her second was for receiving assistance from a fellow senator in putting on a back brace.  (Side note here: apparently Senator Ellis wasn’t allowed to help Davis put on a back brace, but during the longest filibuster in Texas history, Republican senators brought their colleague a trashcan and then formed a human circle around him so he could take a dump in private.  OK. Sure.) I was positive the third strike would be for some infuriating momentary lapse.  She would shift her weight enough that her hip would rest momentarily on a desk, say.  Or she would sneeze really hard and put her hand out reflexively to steady herself because she was exhausted and dizzy.  Something stupid.  Basically the floor of the Texas senate had become one giant game of Operation and Wendy Davis was a shaky pair of tweezers.

But as time ticked by I grew more and more intrigued by this lady who never leaned, who never sneezed, who never did anything but adjust her glasses slightly as she flipped through pages and pages of material — first person stories of abortions that had been submitted on her website, descriptions of the procedures in question, and finally, after I eventually realized that something epic was under way, that this woman was in it to win it, after the kids had gone to bed and I was flipping back and forth on my phone between Facebook, Twitter, and the Texas Tribune live camera…finally, she began to talk about how the different restrictions on abortion would combine together to create a circumstance that took far too much time and money for almost any woman to overcome.

At 9:38 CT, I posted on Facebook, almost delirious with excitement and anticipation:

I was in labor with D for 20 hours.  My sister was in labor for 40 with her son.  Underestimate the strength and stamina of women at your own peril.  We are made of sinew, bone, and steel.  10.5 hours down. 2.5 hours to go.  Stand.  With.  Wendy.

Shortly after that, the sound on the live feed was cut.

*

I didn’t see what happened immediately before the sound went out; I turned the live feed back on after a short break and it was already silent.  Having read earlier that no sound meant there was some sort of off-the-record debate happening, I scour the #sb5 tag on Twitter to try and discern what they are talking about.  Apparently a Republican senator had tried to call a third strike, claimed that something Senator Davis had said was “not germane” to the bill as is stipulated by the filibuster rules.  Someone tweets that she’d mentioned RU-486 and been deemed off topic.  I scoff. No way could anyone with half a brain say that discussions of abortions aren’t germane to a bill about abortions.  Next someone says that she was called out for discussing the sonogram bill that had already passed last year.  Again, totally germane.  You tell women they have to do two visits and a sonogram and the only clinics available to them are hundreds of miles from home, that clearly adds up to an undue burden.  No way could they shut her down for that.  No way.  No way.

Facebook 10:06 pm:

THAT IS FUCKING RIDICULOUS.  THAT IS FUCKING…THOSE DISINGENUOUS MOTHERFUCKERS.

 

(Sometimes, when I’m mad, I use long words like “disingenuous”.  Sometimes, when I’m REEEEEEEALLY mad, I use even longer words like “motherfuckers”.)

They were never going to let this happen.  That much is clear now.  They were always planning to torture this woman, to make her waste her time and energy in a task that they would find a way to thwart in the end anyway. Hm.  Sounds surprisingly similar to how they approach another relevant issue, affecting not just one women but all women.  But THIS one woman, this woman that they had planned to crush all along, keeps standing as Twitter and Facebook erupts along with the crowd watching from above in the senate gallery.

And then, as Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst banged the gavel to silence the boos and the “shame!”s and one absolutely livid cry of “BULLSHIT!” a middle-aged white-haired man stands up, looking and sounding like he’s just apparated there from the set of “Inherit the Wind”, and says, “Parliamentary Inquiry: Is your decision appealable?” This terrifying wraith in a white wool suit at Dewhurst’s elbow whispers in his ear; he reluctantly answers that it is. Kirk Watson (D-Austin): “Point of Order: I move to overturn the motion and begin debate.”

Facebook 10:12 pm:

OH SHIT IS WHAT I THINK IS HAPPENING ACTUALLY ABOUT TO HAPPEN? Is this guy about to start debate on this motion and essentially start a new filibuster? Please tell me yes.  Please.  Please.

Reply from my super smart lawyer friend Abby 10:13 pm:

WATSON IS ON IT

Facebook 10:13 pm:

OH SHIT WHO CAN WE CAST AS WATSON IN THE MOVIE NOW?

Facebook 10:15 pm:

OH SNAP WHO IS THIS NEW LADY UP IN HERE MAKING HIM RE-EXPLAIN EVERYTHING? I suddenly love all the Democrats in the Texas state senate.

 

The new lady is Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who poses another “Parliamentary Inquiry”, this time to Senator Robert Duncan, who has taken over for the Lt. Governor on the dais: “Since I was not able to be here on the floor because of my father’s funeral (!!!), I ask that you tell me the three points of order so that I may understand even in the most basic way the debate about to begin.”

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Duncan rolls his eyes,  The scary elbow lady looks like she’s about to throttle someone.

My Super Smart Lawyer Friend Abby 10:19 pm

To whom can we submit ideas for stupid parliamentary order questions they can ask for the next 1.5 hours?

 

And then all hell breaks loose. Someone named Senator Estes moves to table Watson’s appeal.  Someone named Senator West claims Duncan was out of order for recognizing Estes. I can’t make heads or tails of any of it, so I get down to the brass tacks of fancasting Connie Britton’s Oscar-winning movie.

Facebook 10:24 pm

OK, Randy Jackson gets to cameo as Senator West.

Facebook 10:28 pm

Senator Estes will be played by the Slurm Monster from Futurama

 

Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) says they should take a break to review the parliamentary procedure that has gotten them to this point and see whether Estes should have been allowed to make a motion or whether Watson still had the floor.  “Just review the tape,” he says in a silky smooth baritone, gesturing with the slightest shrug.  “That’s all I’m asking.” I suddenly get a little hot under the collar and mentally recast the role of Senator West with Idris Elba. (THAT IS SERIOUSLY MY HIGHEST POSSIBLE COMPLIMENT SENATOR ROYCE WEST D-DALLAS JUST SO YOU KNOW IF YOU EVER READ THIS.)

The floor becomes a kerfuffle of incomprehensible “point of order” and “parliamentary inquiry” requests.

Facebook 10:30 pm

SIT DOWN SENATOR TANKERBELL YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. SENATOR WATSON HAS NOT YIELDED THE FLOOR.

 

I actually begin to fear that scary elbow lady might start shooting death rays out of her eyes to pick off cranky Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who is clearly attempting to debate the ruling on “germaneness” and “aid” technicalities even though she’s claiming she simply has a “parliamentary inquiry”.  Duncan finally puts his foot down and orders Watson to give his closing statement.  Watson, speaking as slooooowly as possible, basically starts in with an abortion-themed “I’m just a simple country lawyer” monologue.  I give up.  There’s no way they’ll be able to drag this out.  I turn off the feed.

But I can’t stay away.  Despite my lack of sleep, I am somehow hyper-awake.  Ten minutes before midnight, I turn my phone back on, and everyone on Twitter is going apeshit over something Senator Van de Putte has said.

 

“Did the President hear me or did the President hear me and refuse to recognize me?” state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte asked.

“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” she asked as the chamber erupted in cheers. (Huffington Post)

I turn on the live feed.  The room is in chaos.  Senators and staffers are wandering around, looking bewildered.  The crowd in the gallery is screaming so loud no one knows what’s going on.  They are drowning out Dewhurst’s attempt to hold a roll-call vote, and it’s one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  The leadership finally trued to gather everyone into a scrum to vote, but it’s too late.

Facebook 12:00 am

NO VOTE NO VOTE MY PHONE SAYS MIDNIGHT

 

On the floor, in the middle of the huddled legislators, Senator West thrusts his phone into the air, looks up into the crowing gallery, and shouts, “It’s midnight! It’s midnight!”

Facebook 12:02 am

RANDY JACKSON’S IPHONE SAYS IT’S MIDNIGHT TOO

 

Suddenly you can distantly hear names being called and responded to.

My Super Smart Lawyer Friend Abby 12:02 am

they are voting. they are voting.

*

In the aftermath, some of the senators said they didn’t even know what they were voting on.  Was it the motion to end the filibuster? Was it the bill itself? The Republicans dutifully hollered “support!” and the Democrats who were close enough to hear shouted “oppose!” and Senator Van de Putte paced in agitation around the dais.  But we were all watching.  There were over 150K of us watching.  We’d seen with our own eyes that the vote came after midnight.  The senators began to leave the floor, the cameras were pushed back to the perimeter, the state troopers came to clear the gallery.

CBS News tweeted that the bill had passed.  Their source was an unnamed Republican legislator.

The people I follow on Twitter went absolutely nanners.  I was actually a little concerned that Wil Wheaton was going to have a stroke.

I retired to bed at that point, resigned to the idea of a lengthy court battle.  So I missed all the fun drama around 1 am when screenshots surfaced showing that the Texas legislature website originally logged the vote as happening on the 26th, until someone apparently manually changed it to 11:59 pm on the 25th.  I can only assume that SOMEONE raised serious hell about that backstage, because around 3 am it was changed back and Dewhurst grudgingly acknowledged that the vote had not happened within the time limits of the special session.

In the end, this was all mostly symbolic.  Clearly Governor Perry would just call another special session to pass the bill. But the Republicans in the senate were so determined to deny Wendy Davis even that small symbolic victory that they made an absolute mockery of the whole process.  They took what was already a parliamentary farce and decided that the rules they had been so determined to enforce all day with regards to Senator Davis didn’t apply to themselves.  (I would like to sidebar here for a moment and point you to a document that shows how this is not an isolated incident. It is called “The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion” and it seems more than germane to the topic at hand.)

I have read comments saying that the so-called “citizen’s filibuster” that happened in the last ten minutes of the session was less democracy in action and more the rioting of a mob.  But what really happened was a realization that this game was rigged from the start; that our democracy is filled with tricks and traps, like gerrymandering and filibustering and parliamentary rigamarole and court packing and straight-up fucking vote fraud.  These things are built into the system.  And a whole bunch of people, mostly women, sat in that gallery and watched their democratically elected representatives play a game that would directly affect their lives, their bodies, the lives and bodies of the people they love.  They watched people of principle make a stand on their behalf: Senator Van de Putte cared enough to leave her father’s funeral to come back to vote.  Senator West and Senator Ellis woke up that morning and basically heard the Supreme Court rule that there was no more racism in Texas; I’m guessing that might well have galvanized their resolve a bit.  And Senator Davis saw, in that very same ruling, the Supreme Court eviscerating any chance she had of re-election.  So she was going to stand. And Van de Putte, West, Watson, Ellis, Zaffirini: they were all going to stand with her.  And so were the people in that gallery, and so were the people in the rotunda, and so were Wil Wheaton and my Super Smart Lawyer Friend Abby and me and the thousands upon thousands of us glued to the live feed of a tiny local media company that had barely gotten any hits before this.

You can call it a mob.  But the only weapons any of us had were our feet (so we stood) and our voices (so we shouted).  And CBS and the AP were taking the word of the lieutenant governor that the bill passed, no questions asked. And CNN was literally talking about blueberry muffins.  Maybe even more people would stand and shout, if only we had a national news media that would ACTUALLY COVER NEWS.

There was a tweet from a Jill Biden parody account floating around that evening that said, “At 12:01 AM, CT, I predict Wendy Davis will give us the best mic drop the world has ever seen.” We were cheated out of a mic drop, but we got a phone thrust — those of us who were watching knew the exact moment a line had been crossed.  And we refused to let them cheat.

It will only be for a moment.  The bill will be back, and it will pass.

I don’t have a good ending for this post.

We stood with Wendy.

That’ll have to do for now.

“I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up.”

Would I like for there to be fewer abortions? Of course I would. But you know how you could reduce the number of abortions performed in this country? You could give comprehensive sex-ed to adolescents in schools, including ACCURATE information about contraception and the use/effectiveness thereof. You could require insurance companies to cover contraception as part of every health insurance plan. (We’re working on that one, but OH NOES GOD HATES SLUTS!) Or you could institute actual universal health care so that the potential cost of pregnancy and childbirth isn’t completely untenable without decent insurance coverage. (An abortion costs around $500; pregnancy and childbirth will run you $6000 IF you have zero complications. C-sections, the frequency of which continues to rise, can cost up to $25K!) You could also actually attempt to stimulate the damn economy so people have JOBS and can afford to feed and clothe children. You could create stronger penalties against domestic violence, or get rid of laws that discourage women from calling 911 in domestic abuse situations for fear of being arrested for being a public nuisance or deported for being in the country illegally. That would keep women safer and make it less likely for them to desperately need an abortion to prevent bringing a child into an abusive home. You could subsidize child care, extend unemployment benefits, make the tax code more progressive rather than more regressive. Basically every damn plank in the Democratic Party platform would create an environment where fewer women were stuck in situations where the prospect of having a child is unfathomable.

Or, you know, you could pass a bunch of laws that force doctors to lie to women, force doctors to sexually assault women, send women to Crisis Pregnancy Centers where they will be berated and shamed, close clinics and set time limits that leave women with no other choice to flee across state lines into the offices of butchers like Kermit Gosnell. That sounds like a good plan, guys. Thumbs up.