Washington Post article
March 6, 1993

Her Beliefs Paved Her Road to Power

Local Woman Let Her Voice Be Heard on Right to Life

by Carey Kinsolving

Kay and Charles James camped out at a hospital in Richmond, watching and praying for their daughter, Elizabeth, who had slipped into a coma 2½ weeks earlier, suffering from a disease that doctors said is usually fatal after three weeks. But then the 3½-year-old woke up, uttering the words “Where’s my mommy?”

“Here I am,” Kay James said, as she held her daughter, rocked back and forth, and whispered, “Thank you, Lord,” until she was hoarse.

That was in 1980, in the city where Kay James had grown up as the fifth child in a family that was dependent on welfare and living in a public housing project. Her father was an alcoholic. She had learned early what it meant to struggle against the odds and to maintain the faith.

Four years after their harrowing hospital experience, the James family moved to Washington for job-related reasons, and soon Kay James, 43, began to be noticed by those who walk the corridors of power. Her public speaking ability on antiabortion issues landed her a job as the director of public affairs for the National Right to Life Committee. Later President Bush appointed her to two high-level government positions. She is now vice president for policy for the Family Research Council, an independent non-profit advocacy organization.

In the midst of increasing responsibilities and public notoriety, James continues to remember the keys to her success – faith, family and steadfast beliefs.

Every Dec. 9, the James family remembers Elizabeth’s recovery. That’s the day when Elizabeth’s heart monitor showed a flat line. Doctors revived her, but they didn’t offer much hope for her quality of life even if she managed to regain consciousness.

That’s also the day when, tears streaming down her face, Kay James confessed to a friend, Joyce Ranson, that she didn’t know how to pray for Elizabeth anymore. “Should I ask God that she live even if it meant that she’d be physically impaired for the rest of her life?” James recalls asking.

Ranson bristled and said, “Listen here, young lady, I am asking God to heal her and to grant her life. Sweet, irreplaceable life. If (Elizabeth) comes through this ordeal physically or mentally handicapped, she is still your daughter, and we will still celebrate her life.”

Today Elizabeth is thinking about which college to attend, and the James house serves as a second home for many of her high school friends.

The story of Kay James’s rise to a position of influence in Washington began with a telephone call from the National Right to Life office, which knew about James’s volunteer efforts with a crisis pregnancy center. A cable-television program wanted to do a program on how abortion relates to the black community, and the group recommended James.

At first, James turned down the invitation to appear on the show, but after persistent goading from her son, Chuck, and husband, Charles, she called back and accepted. After the executive director for the National Right to Life Committee saw a tape of the show, he offered James a job as director of public affairs. So began a three-year whirlwind of debates, speeches, news conferences and nonstop traveling.

As Kay James kept debating, the letters of support and phone calls from antiabortion activists kept coming. And she continued to grow in her faith and sense of identity.

“Eating rug” became a standard practice two hours before each debate. James took the phone off the hook, locked the door and lay face down on the carpet, confessing her inadequacies and fears to God. “I would ask Him to speak his words through me,” James said.

Often, the rebuttals to hard-ball questions came to James as she walked to a microphone. In a debate at Princeton University, she was asked whether she thought women needed abortion in order to have economic parity with men in the work world.

The first words from her mouth were, “Say it loud! I am black and I am proud.” James explained that as a college student, she discovered the link between her black identity and her identity as a beloved child of God; she learned to exult in the Psalm declaration “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

“And now I know [that] as a woman, I don’t need to mutilate my body and kill my children to be equal to any man. The real feminists say, “I’m pregnant, and you better be prepared to deal with it. I bear children; it is part of who I am.”

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, has squared off numerous times in public debates with James. Although she has deep philosophical differences with James, she said she respects her. “I always felt that [James] was on the same level of thoughtful discussion about the issues,” Michelman said.

James’s role as full-time spokeswoman for the antiabortion movement ended in 1989 when she returned to a lonely hotel room after a debate only to hear her then 6-year-old son, Robbie, say into the phone, “Mommy, why won’t you come home?”

Not why “can’t,” but why “won’t” you come home, she recalled.

She decided that if she saved every unborn child in America and lost her own, she would fail in her primary mission to God.

Shortly after her resignation, James received an offer to serve in the Bush administration as assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She stirred anger among a number of health officials when she blocked publication of a major AIDS-education pamphlet targeted at teenagers explaining how to use a condom; she said that was a message that parents should give their children.

In James’s last job, as associate director in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Nancy Dudley served as her special assistant. Dudley said James is a bridge builder who connects people and ideas that might otherwise remain apart.

“I never thought that was something that one had a God-given talent for, but she does,” Dudley said.