March 17, 2008— -- What is it about this children's book
That fills Dr. Seuss fans with such scorn?
Anti-abortion groups took a look
At Horton and they saw the unborn.
We all learned to read with the books written by Theodor Seuss Geisel and grew up with characters from the "Cat in the Hat" and "Yertle the Turtle" to the "Sneetches and the Grinch."
But do the books have a hidden meaning?
Since the 1980s, some anti-abortion rights groups have interpreted the book "Horton Hears a Who" as an anti-abortion parable.
If you don't remember, it's the tale of Horton the elephant who discovers a whole town of tiny people living on a speck of dust. Though his neighbors think he's crazy and make fun of him, Horton makes it his mission to protect his new friends, declaring his intention with the famous line:
"A person's a person no matter how small."
Despite the fact that the book was written in the 1950s, long before the legalization of abortion in 1973, the statement has become an anthem to legions of anti-abortion rights activists.
"Horton Hears a Who" has the message that every single person, no matter how small, deserves protection," says Kristi Burton, who leads Colorado for Equal Rights, a group that has drafted a state ballot initiative stating that life begins at conception.
"That's what our amendment is saying. Obviously, it uses legal language but it says the same thing."
Burton led a group of several dozen activists who attended the movie premiere of "Horton Hears a Who" in Denver Friday to praise the film's message and hand out T-shirts with Horton's famous statement.
That could get them in trouble with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which represents the interests of the late author. According to Seuss biographer Phil Nel, Geisel threatened to sue an anti-abortion rights group during the 1980s that used the statement on its stationery, forcing them to back down.
Burton insists that her group talked to attorneys to make sure that they could reprint the sentence on their shirts. A lawyer for Dr. Seuss Enterprises did not return calls seeking comment.
As for the author himself, Nel says that he is not aware of Geisel ever publicly expressing his opinion on abortion.
"But given that he was a liberal Democrat who favored women's rights, it's fair to infer that he did not support that [anti-abortion] agenda."
Geisel's widow, Audrey, did not return calls seeking comment. But Karl ZoBell, the lawyer for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, told National Public Radio that "She doesn't like to hijack Dr. Seuss characters or material to front their own points of view."
Since the book was published in 1954, the same year as the landmark civil rights decision Brown vs. Board of Education, it was widely interpreted as a paean to the rights of minorities. One reviewer praised it as a "rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights."
It's not the only Dr. Seuss book to arouse controversy and conflicting messages.
"The Lorax," a parable about the plight of the environment and the destruction caused by industrialized society, has been banned in some schools and libraries for its anti-timber industry focus. A group of timber companies even created its own version of the book, a logging-friendly tome called "The Truax."
Nel says that some of Geisel's books were shaped by his liberal politics.
"The Sneetches" was inspired by his opposition to anti-Semitism, but it also works as an anti-discrimination parable. "The Butter Battle Book" was a critique of Reagan's escalation of the nuclear arms race and "Yertle the Turtle" is an anti-fascist book inspired by Hitler."
Even the "Cat in the Hat" has a larger purpose beyond just teaching kids how to read, says Nel. "It's all about challenging authority. There's a theme in Seuss' book of the outsider, usually a child character, speaking up and making himself heard and making a difference. Look at little Jo Jo [in "Cat in the Hat']. It's his voice that puts them over the top."