It was a typical baby shower — or, at least, it looked like one. Someone had twirled pastel streamers across the walls and strung up pale pink and blue balloons. The gift table was overflowing with adorable Onesies and binkies, boxes of wipes, and a blue plush bear. Guests giggled their way through silly shower activities; there was a round of "guess the celebrity mom" and a bottle-chugging contest.
The only thing that appeared to be missing was the mother-to-be herself. She never showed, but that, along with the guest list, gifts, and games, seemed to be part of the plan. The shower was a club event organized by Missouri State University’s chapter of Students for Life. And the “gifts” were donations for a local Pregnancy Care Center that counsels women against abortion.
“We had a blast...all while reminiscing about the culture of LIFE our generation is fostering, both on campus and across the nation,” a caption on the MSUBearsForLife Instagram account reads.
These sorts of gatherings are taking place on campuses across America. At Louisiana State University, student activists gathered in the campus’ “free speech alley” to hand out diapers, Onesies, and infant shoes. Clubs in California, Colorado, and Florida went so far as to find actual pregnant peers to fete with gifts and ‘Gram-able metallic B-A-B-Y balloons. The celebrations are so popular that the national Students for Life website posted baby shower tips for helping a “pregnant woman while having a great time."
All of this — the young ambassadors seemingly stripped straight from the sorority composite, cute baby clothes, the festive metallic balloons — is the new Instagram-ready face of the modern anti-abortion movement. You know that old stereotype of in-your-face angry protestors outside abortion clinics waving pictures of dead fetuses? These events are the polar opposite.
While the current political landscape has led many abortion rights activists to focus their ire on the male lawmakers introducing and voting in anti-choice legislation, these "pro-lifers" are young, social-media savvy — and overwhelmingly female. And, at a critical moment in the fight over abortion, they're betting this softer lens will help frame the issue in their favor and, ultimately, win over the next generation of voters.
Theirs is an approach that leans hard on the women’s maternal impulses trope, focusing on aww-worthy images of infants, and celebrations of motherhood. They’re throwing showers, petitioning for nursing rooms on campus, stockpiling itty-bitty baby socks to symbolize their steadfast opposition to Planned Parenthood. They rely on lifelike 3-D ultrasound pics and pregnancy apps to make the case for personhood during the earliest stages of pregnancy. Their social media accounts pop with inspirational quotes, mommy-blog worthy pics, and celebrity baby bumps.
“We love to highlight when famous celebrities are talking about their pregnancies or posting cute pictures on Instagram,” says Bethany Goodman, assistant director of the annual March for Life rally. “It kind of connects to the inherent knowledge that we believe that everyone has: that an unborn baby is a baby.” A recent post from Students for Life replicated that technique, congratulating Beyoncé and Jay Z on the “the life and birth of the twins!”
And when you ask these activists to describe their passion for this cause, the responses are dripping in rhetoric reminiscent of — of all things — pop-feminism. The language of girl power and images of feminine strength are used liberally.
“This is about a generation of women saying, 'We’re better than this, we’re more empowered,'” says Americans United For Life president Catherine Glenn Foster. “We’re not going to be stuck in the Victorian Era, where men are going to say we can’t work and have a family.”
Arina Grossu, the director of Human Dignity at the Family Research Council who is herself a millennial, sees a wave of women standing up and saying: “We are empowered, we can do it all. We want solutions, and killing our baby isn’t a solution.” Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins blasts the idea that a woman can’t have a child and go to college. “It’s complete and utter bullshit. That’s the message of 'you can’t'; of 'you’re not strong enough to do this,'” she says.
“The pro-life group on campus, their job is to say: Yes you can.”
If that sloganeering sounds familiar, that's because it's been the choice phrase of feminists on the front lines of the abortion debate for literally decades (not to mention the mantra that launched pro-choice President Barack Obama into the White House back in the mid-aughts). But this new crop of pro-lifers see a major flaw in the left's logic behind those messages.
On the left, feminists who support abortion rights are focused on tying reproductive choice to economic well-being, while simultaneously settling on hard truths, like we can’t really have it all. Reproductive freedom, which includes the right to an abortion, they say, is crucial to women's economic independence and empowerment. (Case in point: More than 100 female attorneys signed an amicus brief to that effect, filed last year in the Supreme Court case over Texas’ clinic regulations). But for women on the other side of the debate, motherhood, even unplanned motherhood, is deserving of a you-go-girl message all its own: Yes, you can have it all — including that baby.
Of course, balancing a child with a career or college demands more than a few boxes of diapers and emotional support from peers. The safety net for moms in this country — especially ones facing an unplanned pregnancy — is, in many respects, nonexistent (only 14% of working parents even have access to paid family leave). Childcare costs are soaring. Proposed federal budget cuts and GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act could make things harder for low-income parents already struggling with raising a child. And studies have documented the adverse effect an unintended pregnancy can have on a woman’s educational and economic prospects — as well as on the development of children born to women who wanted an abortion but could not get one.
Critics are quick to call out what they see as the hypocrisy of lawmakers pushing for anti-abortion laws, while simultaneously failing to prioritize policies that make juggling parenthood possible. “It is new and it is woefully blind to class and equity,” Karissa Haugeberg, author of Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the 20th Century, says of this "pro-life" message. The “myth that women can have it all,” she adds, ignores the “reality of life for low-income and even middle class women. It is less and less financially possible for even a woman without a child.”
That family policy question is a complicated one for anti-abortion activists, especially given the movement's large GOP base (Hawkins, for example, identifies as a fiscal conservative and opposes government-mandated family leave; other women involved in the movement interviewed by Refinery29 expressed support for such proposals). But enacting more pro-mom legislation isn’t exactly the point. A key aim, activists say, is to create a broader culture shift, one that celebrates and prioritizes "life." That is what, they believe, will help to bring to their side a group they see as crucial in the high-stakes fight over reproductive rights: the so-called “mushy middle," voters who have conflicted, or not yet fully-formed, opinions on abortion.
It might be hard to believe that these people even exist, given that abortion remains one of the most polarizing issues in the country, even among women. One recent study from Pew Research found 59% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases — a statistic that's at a 20-year-high, with women driving the increase. But the sentiment is split along partisan lines. Among Democratic women, support for legal abortion spikes to 85%; while among Republican women, it’s only 32%.
But that's just the Pew poll: Gallup data shows Americans evenly split when it comes to identifying as pro-choice or pro-life. Another, from Knights of Columbus and Marist, found that while a majority of Americans 18 to 34 identify as pro-choice (58%, to precise) virtually the exact same percentage of millennials would ban abortion after 20 weeks, except when necessary to save the life of the the mother. Half of those young voters consider abortion morally wrong. (Pew and Gallup have both found similar trends, with at least 4 in 10 Americans overall holding that view).
Hence: the must-win mushy middle. These people are predominantly young, and, like many millennials, they eschew labels. Talking pro-life vs. pro-choice doesn’t do much to move the needle (Hawkins and other Students for Life activists says they’ve mostly stopped using the term pro-life when canvassing on campus because it doesn’t resonate). What does, anti-abortion activists have concluded, is something the reproductive rights side has already been cultivating for years: a “woman-focused brand.”
The Institute For Pro-Life Advancement, an arm of Students for Life, lays out the imperative for focusing on “women’s equality and well-being” in a 2016 research and polling report. It’s a strategy informed by the success of one of their chief adversaries: Planned Parenthood.
“They appealed to emotion and claimed woman-focused messaging as their own — and it worked,” the briefing says. To counter that, the report advises doubling down on what it calls “the abortion industry’s betrayal of women” in a way that is clear, concise, and, most importantly, “not judgmental.”
“We know,” the briefing reads, “that our message going forward must be pro-woman...that pro-lifers and individuals on the fence will come together to oppose injustice against women.” That messaging has been core to Students for Life’s aggressive grassroots field campaign. In the decade since its founding, the number of Students for Life chapters on college and high school campuses has increased tenfold, to 1,200. In the past year, the group chartered its first middle school chapter.
Claudia Schwenzer, a 21-year-old senior at Oakland University in Michigan, was once a member of that mushy middle. Her mom supported abortion rights, as did her older sister. She herself remembers getting riled up after clicking a link on Facebook that warned cuts to Planned Parenthood would leave women without access to healthcare, thinking, “I can’t believe pro-life people would do this to women.” When it came to describing the “pro-life” movement, the word “hateful” came to mind. “I definitely thought that it was just old people on the sidewalk in front of a clinic holding signs, protesting and yelling,” she says.
Then, in January 2014, a teacher at her Catholic high school handed her a flier about the upcoming March for Life. Curious, she brought the form home and worked up the nerve to ask her mom for permission to go and cash to cover the $90 trip fee. After an all-night bus ride, she rolled into in Washington and saw the sea of women filling the streets. The signs, the songs, the prayers, she felt, were focused on protecting people like her.
“I realized [the movement] was younger people, like me and my friends,” she says. “That was the first step of ‘this is who I am now, and there’s no going back.’”
Schwenzer is now a board member of her university’s Students for Life chapter. Her room is so full with pro-life lit and swag — a “Feminists for Life” bumper sticker is affixed to her mirror — that her pro-choice mom can’t come in without “being surrounded” by it. When her parents turn on left-leaning late-night shows, many of which decry the ongoing attack on reproductive rights, she quietly leaves the room.
But what peeves Schwenzer most is listening to her peers, including her “radically left” sister, whom she also describes as her best friend, complain that her cause is dominated by old, white men in Washington who “want to control my body... want their hands on my uterus.” It’s a popular sentiment for Women’s March signs and feminist merch. But while it's true that the majority of the GOP caucus — and, if we’re being honest, Congress as a whole — fits that description, young, female, anti-abortion activists like Schwenzer say that characterization fails to account for their growing influence.
“The pro-life movement is female-led, as it should be,” Schwenzer says. “It is true there are men in Washington who are making these decisions. But people don’t understand that it is young women who are advocating for their rights and for their unborn children's.”
Women have, of course, always been central figures in the debate over abortion on both sides. But their role in the anti-abortion movement has evolved over time.
In the late 1960s, Catholic leaders came together to form a new strategy for tracking and addressing the growing push for abortion rights. The National Right to Life Committee, one of the country’s oldest and largest anti-abortion groups, was born. Its first president was an attorney from New Jersey, named Juan Ryan. And that was representative of the emerging professional anti-abortion movement, one primarily dominated by bishops, members of the clergy, doctors, and lawyers — a.k.a men.
In those early days, the movement’s most visible female voices were the wives of the male leaders, or women organizing on a grassroots level, according Haugeberg, who teaches at Tulane University and has studied the movement extensively. Others soon rose in prominence, though it wasn’t without conflict. Activist Marjory Mecklenburg, who chaired NRL in the wake of Roe v. Wade, left to start her own organization over a split on prioritizing the rights of the fetus versus the needs of pregnant women, Haugeberg writes. In the mid-1970s, NRL named Mildred F. Jefferson, the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, as its president.
Jefferson’s background as a doctor made her a compelling and powerful surrogate. (After her death, one NRL leader praised her as “the greatest orator of our movement.”) Women like her “achieved pretty big leadership posts pretty quickly because they were anomalies,” according to Haugeberg. “The anti-abortion movement always knew it was vulnerable to criticism if it looked like it was a bunch of white men trying to tell women and people of color what to do with their bodies,” she says. “They were really sensitive to that — and it was true, it was a lot of white men. In a PR move, they tried to promote people of color and women very quickly to have them be the face of the movement.”
The true roots of the “women centric” message that is experiencing a resurgence today, Haugeberg argues, is the Crisis Pregnancy Center. These centers, which offer pregnancy tests and counsel women against abortion, started popping up in the 1960s. Many were led by women. And they took a different approach than the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric of other leading conservatives.
“It was much softer and more gentle,” Haugeberg says. “They basically treated girls like they had been victimized by boyfriends who didn’t care about them, or had gone wayward. It was part proselytizing, offering them a redemption pass.” For decades, these women, and their message, remained the minority faction, according to Haugeberg’s research. But in the 1980s, she says, the “[anti-abortion movement] realized it was untenable, to simultaneously make women be pregnant and then demonize them for being pregnant.” The woman-focused approach moved to the forefront.
Today, women are serving in key roles on all levels of the movement. Women lead 60% of Students for Life chapters nationwide, Hawkins estimates. Five out of six full-time March for Life staffers are female, and organizers claim that the “majority of those who march are female and/or millennial” (Hawkins says a plan to hold a voter-registration drive at one was a bust because so many participants were under 18). Leading groups that advocate for restricting abortion — March for Life, National Right to Life, Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life — have women at the helm.
“It is so powerful visually that so many pro-life organizations at this point are being led by women, and many of them young women,” Foster, who was just named AUL president this May, says, adding: “We are very thoughtful and intellectually choosing life, and that’s what we’re about.”
Maddi Runkles was, in many respects, a model student at Heritage Academy, a private Christian school in western Maryland. She got straight A’s and was elected president of the student council. When she wasn’t playing soccer or hanging with friends, she volunteered at Vacation Bible School and for Meals on Wheels. That résumé helped her secure admission to Bob Jones University, one of the preeminent conservative Christian schools in the nation.
Then she got pregnant. She thought briefly about abortion, she has said, but decided to have the baby. Her parents pledged their support. But Heritage Academy's leadership saw things differently: Premarital sex is a violation of the institution’s moral code, and Maddi had broken that rule. They suspended her, a punishment she says she accepted. Then came word the visibility pregnant teen wouldn’t be allowed to walk at her graduation. “The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation,” the principal reportedly wrote in a letter to parents.
The decision made national headlines — with Students for Life acting as one of Maddi’s loudest cheerleaders. The group collected messages of support, petitioned the school, and, yes, threw Maddi a graduation ceremony, complete with baby gifts.
“She made the courageous decision to choose life, and she definitely should not be shamed,” Hawkins told The New York Times at the time. “There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way.”
That public support came with costs. The group lost donors, Hawkins says, and she personally received nasty messages from fellow, mostly older, activists who felt she was wrongly celebrating teen pregnancy. Some took issue with her taking aim at the actions of a Christian school. She concedes that the controversy probably hurt the Christian cause. But to Hawkins, highlighting the case was critical — she worries that a response rooted in shame is what drives young women to seek abortions in the first place. And there's another silver lining: She thinks her stance might have struck a chord with another key demographic in her fight to end abortion.
“I told Maddi at graduation, ‘I think we probably made a lot of new pro-lifers,’" Hawkins says. “It probably made some people who are in the mushy middle go, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of that.’”