Projected onto a screen at the front of the room, a sepia-tinted orb gently pulses in a black abyss. Violin music swells as two circles suddenly appear inside the orb, quickly dividing into four, then eight, then too many to count. The words 24 hours. Baby's first division appear on the screen. The audience watches in respectful silence as the YouTube video progresses through the initial stages of human development — the miracle of life played out against a high-drama score. They are members of a anti-abortion student group at California State University in Northridge, where they have gathered in a chilly conference room on a sunny day in September to welcome a special guest: Emily Wilkinson, the 27-year-old West Coast regional coordinator of Students for Life, an anti-abortion network with 800 chapters at colleges and high schools across the country. As the video ends, Wilkinson stands to address the group. "Thank you, guys! So good to be here," she says. She is poised and smiling in a peasant skirt and Birkenstocks, a tiny braid woven into her long, auburn curls. "It's exciting that school's back in session, and it's time to start making a difference on campus again," she says in a warm but resonant tone. Though the group is small — just six female students and two male faculty members have shown up today — but their mission is grand: "To abolish abortion in our lifetime," Wilkinson says. To do that, she goes on, "we must make abortion unthinkable." So, I do. I picture a world where no woman would ever have to think about having an abortion: a world where, somehow, we've eliminated the possibility of unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. There would be no legal battles over a woman's body, no hard choices, no need to choose at all. I mean, yeah, that world sounds wonderful. It's just not this world. Twenty years ago, the national debate over abortion was quite literally a street fight. Many people, particularly within the generation born after Roe v. Wade, still associate the anti-abortion movement with screeching protesters, the murders of doctors who performed procedures, and, more recently, the firebombing of clinics in Washington state and California. Certainly, that's how I saw it, until I met Wilkinson. She and her peers refer to themselves as part of the "pro-life generation," and there are more of them than you might imagine. While Americans in general have been inching toward the anti-abortion camp over the past two decades, the shift in opinion among millennials is more pronounced. According to a Gallup poll, 23% of young adults now say that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances — higher than in any other demographic. Many other millennials are uncomfortable identifying themselves exclusively as anti-abortion, but only 27% now identify as exclusively pro-abortion rights, according to another poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which also found that 35% of millennials believe abortion is morally unacceptable. The anti-abortion movement is no longer one relegated to the few and fanatical. It's a war being waged in statehouses, in America's highest courts, and in student conference rooms like this one. And with abortion rights and access being whittled away across the country, anti-abortion activists must be recognized as the widespread, vital force they are. Today's anti-abortion shock troops are young people of no particular background or religion, organized in a diverse mosaic of groups that include the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, Pro-Life Quakers, Secular Pro-Life, Pro-Life Pagans, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, and Feminists for Life (whose motto is "Refuse to choose. Women deserve better"). In other words, Wilkinson is not the new voice of the anti-abortion movement but one of many new voices. "I attribute that to the fact that since abortion was legalized, so many women have had abortions that those women are now our aunts, our mothers, our sisters, our friends," she tells me. "I think that it's just that the truth is coming out. So many people have experienced it and been hurt by it that they want to do something about it." The research might counter her on that point, but I'm not here to debate but rather to listen and learn (and bite my tongue, if only for a day). I joined Wilkinson on a typical workday; she spends much of her week on the road, visiting schools up and down the West Coast to help campus activists flesh out their annual plans and deliver energetic presentations like this one at Cal State, Northridge. She's there to remind them that today's battleground over abortion is right before their eyes. "Frankly, if you look around [this campus], you probably don't see any pregnant women. And you probably don't see that many pregnancy resources," she tells the group. Where anti-abortion advocates of yore may have focused on the fetus, Wilkinson draws attention to the future mother — specifically, pregnant women on campus. "They are the target demographic," says Wilkinson. "Five hundred thousand college-age women will have an abortion each year." But there is no talk of shame or murder in this room, no condemnation. Instead, Wilkinson urges the need to create a supportive environment for the student who finds herself pregnant. "She's going to wonder, ‘Well, I don't see any pregnant women. I don't see any diaper decks. I don't see any lactation rooms. I don't see any family housing. I'm going to lose my scholarship." She pauses. "Unless you change that," she tells her audience. "And if you don't, then every campus is going to be a hostile environment to a pregnant woman." Regardless of her stance on the issue, no pro-abortion-rights woman would argue against making college a better place for pregnant women and mothers. And Wilkinson knows it. "First of all, look for common ground — because there is. And it's not something to be afraid of," she says. She urges her fellow activists to welcome "the haters," even if it means putting up with some vocal abuse. "We're trying to win hearts and people, not arguments," she says. "If people don't feel that you respect them, then they're not going to respect you." No matter what, you have to cultivate "a really compassionate outlook on everyone you talk to." This, I realize, is the secret weapon of the anti-abortion movement that doesn't end up in the news: empathy.
Emily Wilkinson wasn't raised to be an activist, but she did grow up in an anti-abortion home. Thanks to her dad's job as a business and marketing professor, she spent her childhood hopscotching all over the country, before settling in Montana for her teen and college years. Wilkinson's first awareness of abortion came, she tells me, when her parents took her to an anti-abortion rally when she was 9. It made a big impression. "Some state legislator got up and spoke, and my mom told me to cover my ears," she says. "Of course, I didn't cover my ears. And he described a partial-birth abortion. [Ed. note: This procedure is known in the medical community as an intact dilatation and extraction and is recommended in rare circumstances.] That was very shocking, very sickening to me as a child, you know? When you find out something horrible existed that you never knew about before, your heart sinks a little and you're like, 'Oh, the world is worse than I thought.'" After that, Wilkinson says, "I always had this tug to be involved." She started anti-abortion groups in high school at college. After graduating, she spent three years working at an anti-abortion pregnancy-resource center, and in 2014 she became one of 18 full-time staffers at Students for Life. Hers is not a faith-based calling, although Wilkinson is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Religion doesn't even come up until I ask her about it, and even then she admits that some religious organizations can be part of the problem. For instance, "if you don't want the members of your church or school to be having sex, then you better be talking about it," she says. "It's something pastors or Christian schools sometimes just ignore because they think it's not affecting them." So, does she implicate the church for more kids getting pregnant and having abortions? Not exactly. But…"because Christians view sex before marriage as wrong or a sin, students who get pregnant could want to hide that fact," says Wilkinson, deftly laying out her argument while easing her little red Hyundai back onto the freeway. "Churches and schools need to recognize that when people mess up, you help them through it. They don't get kicked out or get shunned. No, they get support and love. That's something that we tell students. If that's lacking in a school, then you be that support, so if a girl gets pregnant, she knows exactly who to talk to."
We walk into the administration office of a Los Angeles-area high school shortly after the lunch bell rings and meet Sarah (we've changed her name because she's a minor), a senior trying to start her own Students for Life chapter at the school. Small and blonde, with a bubbly blue shimmer brushed on her eyelids, she's the kind of 17-year-old who looks closer to 12. But, just like Wilkinson, Sarah is vocal and confident in her beliefs, even when it's hard. "A lot of people [in school] are pro-choice just because it's cool to be 'different,'" she explains. Wilkinson nods and smiles, saying that when she was in school, being anti-abortion "was the un-coolest position to have." But it's people like Sarah, she says, who are "showing people that it's nothing to be ashamed of." Sarah brightens further under Wilkinson's praise and goes on: "It's all over the media. I don't want people reading biased pro-choice articles about what's happening." "Yeah," Wilkinson nods. "Do you think most people on campus know about Planned Parenthood?" Planned Parenthood, of course, is the primary target of anti-abortion advocates in the U.S., and right now, the organization is in the crosshairs. In July, an anti-abortion group released a series of hidden-camera videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood employees making arrangements to illegally sell aborted fetal tissue to medical labs. The videos were widely criticized for having been deceptively edited, but Planned Parenthood critics in Congress jumped on them as ammo to withdraw the group's federal funding. Nevertheless, Sarah says, most students in her school have a neutral or positive view of Planned Parenthood, seeing it "as, you know, women's health." Wilkinson quickly supplies her with a perfect counterpoint to offer her classmates: "the 3% myth." She's referring to the fact that Planned Parenthood reports that abortions account for only 3% of the services the group provides. Though technically accurate, critics have called this a problematic statistic, primarily by claiming it doesn't reflect the percentage of income generated by abortion procedures. But numbers are beside the point, says Wilkinson, when you're talking about abortion. "What's any other time that we would excuse violence because it's only happening 3% of the time?" she asks. "‘Well, my neighbor's really nice. He only hits his kids 3% of the time...' One percent is too much. One child killed is too much." This is what it comes down to. Personhood — the moment at which a human becomes a human (with human rights) — is the lens through which you have to look to understand anything and everything about the anti-abortion movement. Personhood bypasses politics and religion and even a woman's body, focusing on the body inside her (or the potential for one). People argue the pro-abortion-rights movement makes room for those who do and don't believe in abortion, while anti-abortion proponents seek to decide for all. But women like Wilkinson are armored by the bone-deep belief that a fertilized egg is human life just as an adult woman is human life, and so of course one abortion is one too many. They don't call it "murder" for dramatic effect; that's simply what they see. Of course, there's no unified consensus on personhood — and that's what makes it such a powerful tool for the anti-abortion movement. During campus campaigns, Students for Life groups often put up posters with photographs of human development from conception to adulthood that ask: "When Should Human Rights Begin?" They ask people walking by to put Post-Its on whichever stage they choose. It's a powerful question, instantly forcing passersby to challenge their own beliefs. The personhood question has no easy answer — and that's why Wilkinson asks it. Driving up and down the freeway with Wilkinson between campuses, I felt the question rattling around in my own mind. Like her, I grew up firm in my beliefs about abortion: It's a woman's right. It must be safe and legal. Having been born a decade after Roe v. Wade, I was sure it always would be. But after spending the day in Wilkinson's world, it was suddenly so much harder to feel sure of anything.
That evening, Wilkinson and I sit in a bubble tea shop in Koreatown, where I run her through a litany of questions I was pretty sure I already knew her answers to. Does she want the government to defund Planned Parenthood? Yes. "It's not about taking away money for women's health care. It's about redirecting it." Does she support the use of contraception? No. To the pro-abortion-rights view, this stance on birth control seems counterintuitive, to say the least. Considering the vast majority of unwanted pregnancies it actually prevents, one would think the Pill would be an anti-abortion advocate's best asset (says Wilkinson, "It would appear that way, right?"). But again, it's not entirely surprising if you see a fertilized egg and an adult person as 100% equal. Wilkinson explains her take, first by pointing out that one of the ways many hormonal birth control pills work is by thinning the lining of the uterus so that even if — by very slim chance — an egg is fertilized, it will be less capable of attaching to the uterine wall. "So, from a consistently pro-life perspective, once fertilization has taken place, if you intentionally prevent that life from attaching to the wall of the uterus, then that is causing a very early abortion." As for non-hormonal contraception — condoms, IUDs, etc. — she's also against it, believing, as many anti-abortion proponents do, that birth control creates a false sense of security, thereby leading to a greater likelihood of unwanted pregnancy. "The next step," she concludes, "is abortion." The only birth control Wilkinson advocates is fertility awareness — tracking your body's ovulation cycle in order to calculate when you're able to get pregnant. And, to be clear, that's just for married couples. She supports abstinence for single people (though she offers "no comment" on her own sexual status). Finally, I come to the hardest question. So many times that day, Wilkinson had surprised me, revealing herself to be considerate, relatable, and far from a stereotype. I really, really wanted to be surprised again. "Do you believe there are any exceptions in which abortion is allowable? If it's a child who's pregnant, in cases of rape, or when pregnancy threatens the life of the woman?" Wilkinson nods. "The usual: rape, incest, life of the mother," she adds, finishing the sentence for me. And, for each, she has an answer. Abortion is never necessary to save the life of a woman, she says. "There's never a medical condition that a woman would be in where, in order make her better, you need to give her an abortion. That just doesn't exist." From a practical perspective, this is patently untrue, given that pregnancy itself is not without risk even to healthy women, and certainly to those with preexisting conditions. In 2012, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists responded to this common anti-abortion argument, stating that "abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health." Wilkinson agrees to disagree, adding that she'd love to read more about it if I can send her documentation of these alleged medical situations. But, for now, "I don't think that situation exists." And that's that. There is one exemption here, though she doesn't really count it as such. In cases of ectopic pregnancy (where the fetus attaches outside the uterus, typically in the fallopian tube), Wilkinson believes it's okay to end the pregnancy — indirectly. These pregnancies aren't viable, and if they're not terminated they will eventually end in a rupture that could seriously injure or kill the pregnant woman. Though there are less invasive ways to terminate — using medication to induce abortion, primarily — one method is to surgically remove the section of the fallopian tube where the fetus is attached. That procedure alone is acceptable, she says, because "you're not going in there with the intent to destroy the life of the baby. It's a secondary effect." From a practical perspective, the overall purpose is the same, and to an outsider may seem like extreme hair-splitting. But Wilkinson says it's an important difference. "With the drug, the intent is ending the life of the baby. So I see it differently from a philosophical standpoint." On to the next exception: survivors of rape. Wilkinson turns somber, holding her eyes firmly on mine. Because of her work, she is familiar with rape in ways that many of us are not. She's watched friends go through with pregnancies after sexual assault, and she has peers who were themselves conceived in rape. It's worth noting this context, for her ultimate answer is not a casual brush-off but the one she truly believes is the most sympathetic. "Something that people misunderstand about the pro-life movement all the time is they think we don't care about women and they think we don't care about women who have been raped. And that's so not the case. Rape is one of the most horrible things I know of, and we have a huge problem with rape in our country, obviously." She goes on, expounding on the injustices of rape in the U.S. "We want to provide that woman with resources and compassion and to help her heal and to get justice for her, absolutely." She pauses. "But I don't think that the abortion does that for her." In fact, believing as she does that abortion is an act of terrible violence, Wilkinson says, "I would see it as adding more trauma to the trauma she's already experienced." Furthermore, "now there's another victim." She launches into an impassioned monologue about how she sees the psychological effects of rape and abortion as "almost identical," adding that "in many cases, abortion is used to cover up rape…or incest" and how, in fact, she thinks abortion benefits only the rapist because it "covers up his crime." It's clear she has a lot to say on this topic, but still, I'm pretty sure I haven't heard a direct answer. "So, just to clarify, your answer in that scenario is 'no,' right?" "Yeah. That'd be my answer. And, I'm sorry, what was the other one?" "Children." "Yes, um. Again, super-difficult circumstance. And I'm not…I don't think any person who's against abortion would deny that pregnancy can bring about some really difficult, complicated circumstances." I felt my eyebrows inch up involuntarily, and willed her not to say it. "Um, but again," she said, "I don't think that to inflict that on that girl is a good thing." Wilkinson continued in a sober tone: "To ask her to go through something as traumatic as an abortion and to be left with those effects, especially from such a young age, that's not fair to her. And again I think that when someone is pregnant then we have to look at the whole situation — at both people involved. So we have the girl, and we have the child. How can we care for both of them? How can we treat her medically? So that if she needs to be on bed rest or she needs to have a c-section or whatever it is, to be able to safely take care of both patients." "Okay. So the answer to that one is also 'no.'" "That's correct." Wilkinson claims to be fighting for a world where "abortion is unthinkable" — a vision so idyllic it goes beyond humanity. If I could muster up the radical compassion with which Wilkinson approaches her own opponents, I'd say she's fighting for the utopia I'd imagined earlier that day, where no pregnancy is unwanted or unsafe. But, no matter what she's fighting for, she's leaving raped and pregnant children among the casualties. In that moment, I felt my own assuredness return more firmly than before. The voice of today's anti-abortion movement is often one like Wilkinson's. It doesn't scream or hurl barbaric insults. It asks and pauses, waiting politely for your thoughts. The greatest mistake the pro-abortion-rights side could make would be not to answer — to resign this movement as one controlled by politicians and extremists. True, they are the most visible leaders, making the headlines and signing the measures into law. But here on the ground, there are people like Wilkinson, working on hearts and minds, and not through demands but questions. Uncomfortable though it may be, we should all find answers to those queries, and soon. Conversations like this are what turn belief into conviction, forcing you to look at what you hold to be true, and why. As Wilkinson said, there is common ground between us, and that's where the battle is being fought. If you don't show up, then the other side has already won.