Kristan Hawkins is the dynamic, under-30 mom of two at the helm of Students for Life of America (SFLA), which gathered over 2,000 high-school and college students last weekend for their annual meeting in the Washington, D.C., area, coinciding with the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America. Hawkins talks about the students, the children, and envisioning a world without abortion in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So how does one “Envision a World without Abortion?” That’s your theme at Students for Life this year?
KRISTAN HAWKINS: I think one of the problems our movement faces is that so many know abortion is wrong — polls prove it — yet they are uncomfortable with the idea of making abortion illegal. They fear the unknown: back-alley abortions, hundreds of thousands of women dying in the streets, or, my favorite line I hear often on campuses, “unwanted children being abandoned and starving on the streets.” For many of us, legal abortion, in all nine months of pregnancy, on demand, is all that we have ever known.
I try to remind people that our movement is similar to the slavery-abolitionist movement. It’s not a quick fight, but a long battle that will be victorious. You can change the culture; it’s difficult and it requires many things to happen first, but it’s possible.
The first step in achieving any goal is to envision that goal — not imagine, envision. You need to see it in your mind, know what it’s going to look like, and then work backwards in determining the steps you need to take to make it a reality.
I’ve spoken to far too many pro-lifers and Christians who are pro-life but don’t think abortion will ever end. They are right to a certain extent — there will always be abortions — but they don’t always have to be legal. How can you work in a movement when you don’t believe that what you are working for will ever happen?
I think we can see from the victories the pro-life movement had in 2011, despite the obstacles here in Washington, that abolition of abortion in our lifetime can actually happen. So how do you envision a world without abortion? Think about a society in which all life is treated as a precious gift. Where women and families in crisis can turn to community- and government-supported pregnancy-help centers and their church family for support. Where our political leaders respect life, and political parties try to prove who is more pro-life. Where adoption is tagged as a positive and brave option, and birth mothers are celebrated. Where Hollywood and the music industry promote life. Where no woman ever feels forced to choose abortion for the sake of her education, career, or family.
Envision means to make our plans for post-Roe America now: to support and establish the structures, on campuses and in our communities, that we will need to make sure no woman or family gets left behind. Envision a nation in which every woman facing an unplanned, crisis pregnancy knows there is a place she can turn to for help.
LOPEZ: In a new video, you make pretty clear connections between the anti-abortion movement and the civil-rights movement. I realize Alveda King is an outspoken pro-life activist, but do you really have the right to make such claims?
HAWKINS: Yes, we do. Like the civil-rights movement, the pro-life movement is also addressing a human-rights issue — one that has taken over 50 million American lives since 1973. I look to many movements and their leaders for inspiration and comparison, especially the civil-rights movement.
For more than 100 years after the Civil War, bigotry and injustice reigned in America against black Americans. While confronting so much — Supreme Court decisions upholding racism, church apathy, unjust arrests, murders and death threats, and infighting among leaders, the civil-rights movement pressed forward and finally achieved a monumental victory: the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
LOPEZ: What’s different about Students for Life? A bunch of idealistic kids from homeschooling families who are the minorities on campus?
HAWKINS: Well, I’m not from a homeschooling family, although I think I have been convinced to homeschool my children!
I don’t consider myself idealistic; I’m a pretty practical person. I love whiteboards, spreadsheets, action plans, my Franklin Covey binder, and metric goals; ask any of our team members. I’ve lived in Washington for over six and a half years now, and my idealism about our political system was pretty much beaten out of me my first year here. In fact, the first day for our Missionaries (our summer interns), I hammer home the history, successes, and problems of the pro-life movement. But I have hope. I think that is different from being idealistic, because I have reason to hope; I’ve seen it.
The great thing is that we aren’t the minority on campus. When you look at the polls, we are actually the first youth generation since the handing down of Roe and Doe that is pro-life. When we talk to students on campus, they believe and know abortion is wrong. Our challenge is getting them to step outside of the moral relativism that has been beaten into them and agree that abortion should be made illegal.
I think if you ask any of the students who work with us or team members of ours that have worked for other non-profits before, they will say there is something different about the way we run our organization. We run our non-profit like a for-profit business. Our supporters and students are our clients. We are constantly redesigning and evaluating our programs. We encourage thinking that is “outside of the box,” and all team members know never to bring a problem to me without a proposed solution. We strive for excellence and have a healthy sense of competition, never resting until we achieve our goal of abolishing abortion. It’s like working on a multiple-year political campaign — long hours, high passion, urgent deadlines, stretching your own limits, and the best time you’ll ever have in your life.
LOPEZ: Do college kids really need a support group? How hard is it to tell people around campus that babies are human lives?
HAWKINS: Yes, they do. When I was in college, I felt alone. My little pro-life group had five members. I literally did not know there were thousands of other struggling leaders like me across the nation.
For almost all of the students we work with, the No. 1 thing we must train them in is leadership. They know how to be pro-life, but what they lack are skills in leadership — how to run meetings, recruit and develop members into leaders, fundraise, attract press attention, and deal with controversy on campus or in the community.
SFLA helps create programs and events that students can easily replicate on campus without having to spend hours locating speakers, writing press releases, and drafting flyers. We also provide moral support to these student leaders, connect them with other national pro-life organizations that can help them, and get them legal help when necessary.
LOPEZ: The medical students have it particularly hard? Which seems quite perverse, doesn’t it?
HAWKINS: It’s downright scary what is going on in medical schools. Today’s medical students are literally being taught that there is a cure for Down Syndrome — it’s abortion — and if you don’t tell the parents to abort their child who tested positive for Trisomy 21 to abort, then you are the unethical one!
Because grading and residency placement in medical schools is so subjective, many pro-life medical students feel like the only thing they can do is keep their head down, do their work, and not make waves. We had some of the officers of one Med SFL group told that if they were pro-life, they shouldn’t have even applied to their med school because they did abortions. Another Med SFL group leader was called out in class as a “Nazi” because he was pro-life. Seriously, they labeled him a “Nazi” for being against the killing of innocent children. Doesn’t make sense to me.
LOPEZ: Do you ever worry your Pregnant on Campus Initiative might unintentionally encourage promiscuity and early parenthood?
HAWKINS: This is not the first time I’ve been asked this question. In fact, I’ve had administrators of Christian colleges not want a pro-life group on campus because of this concern — some not even allowing flyers for a local pro-life pregnancy-help center to be posted in the women’s bathrooms.
You know, you can ask any of the student pro-life leaders that we work with — all will agree that our Pregnant on Campus Initiative is needed on their campus. It goes back to my earlier answer about envisioning a world without abortion. To abolish abortion, we must set up the structures needed so no woman ever feels forced into choosing abortion. That means establishing resources on campuses that support pregnant and parenting moms and dads.
Yes, this does get tricky because you don’t want to promote premarital sex and early parenthood. I think Christian colleges need to accept the fact that students on their campuses are making the mistake of having premarital sex. If they don’t address this problem, where are those girls — brought up in Christian homes and attending Christian colleges with strict codes of conduct — going to go when they get pregnant? Some of our students and pro-life friends have stopped those very girls outside of abortion facilities and helped them choose life.
The Pregnant on Campus Initiative is what this generation wants: solutions, not slogans. They want to prove their peers wrong, and show them that the pro-life movement cares about that young mother in crisis and wants to seek social justice with her.
LOPEZ: What exactly would be your plan if you were headed to lunch one day and the Supreme Court overturned Roe?
HAWKINS: Well, I would go back to the map in my office — the map, courtesy of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which lists the status of all of the state abortion laws. I would call my mentor and friend, David Bereit of 40 Days for Life. He and I would work with other national and state pro-life leaders to arrange the largest webcast/teleconference in the pro-life movement’s history to mobilize the grassroots. While we were waiting for the webcast/teleconference to begin, we would work with other pro-life leaders to arrange a strategy session.
Then SFLA would call, e-mail, text message, tweet, and Facebook message every student leader we work with, especially in those states in which abortion was not illegal but in which we would have a decent chance of making it illegal, and organize them to join a special webcast/conference call with the other pro-life leaders in the state to develop a legislative strategy for passing a state law to ban abortion.
Our team members would take flights to key battleground states and plan to stay and mobilize young people in those states.
Bottom line: I don’t think I would sleep for weeks.
LOPEZ: Social media are just another way to get the word out, aren’t they? Or can they be more revolutionary than that? Have pro-lifers taken full advantage of that?
HAWKINS: They can be revolutionary. Social media can take a small, unknown organization or cause and change the world. You don’t need millions (even though that helps), just good ideas, decent marketing, and great timing.
I think it is extremely important for our movement to make sure we are taking full advantage of social media and online presence. We have gotten better at social media as a movement but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Young people determine your credibility based on your online presence.
I will admit, I judge a book by its cover. If I go to a website that someone wants me to check out, and the website design hasn’t been updated in the past two or three years or I find it hard to focus on just one thing, I click off and assume the organization/company doesn’t have it together if they can’t get a decent website.
LOPEZ: What is ivoteprolifefirst.com, and how does one do that when there are plenty of political issues to consider?
HAWKINS: You know, being a single-issue voter has become looked down upon by many in academia, the media, etc. However, I am a proud “pro-life first” voter. If a candidate isn’t right on the life issue, how can I trust him/her to be right on other issues?
Ivoteprolifefirst.com is a new coalition effort that SFLA has been working on for 2012. At the site, we are asking all pro-lifers to sign our pledge to always vote pro-life first: to always consider a candidate’s stance on abortion before other issues, because there is no greater issue than the right to life. Then, after they sign the pledge, we ask all pro-lifers to make sure to register to vote if they haven’t done so yet; to request an action kit to register voters and pledge signers at their parish, church, or campus; and to e-mail their family and friends to sign the pledge and register to vote.
You know, I saw two bumper stickers on a car the other day, and it still frustrates me when I think of it: One side of the car had a “You Can’t Be Catholic and Pro-Choice” bumper sticker, and the other side had an “Obama 2012” bumper sticker. Can you say disconnect?
LOPEZ: How much of the task of abolishing abortion has to do with helping mothers and fathers who get bad prenatal diagnoses? With helping doctors help them welcome life? Do you ever worry that that is an unfair, even cruel, thing to ask?
HAWKINS: There are so many people I know personally who were told to just “have the abortion” when they received a poor prenatal diagnosis for their child. In fact, it’s shocking how many people I know have been told this by their doctors.
Our movement must do more to help families prepare to welcome children with genetic disabilities. I love the group Prenatal Partners for Life. We need them in every hospital across the country. They are doing work that no one else does — listening to and supporting families who choose to carry and deliver their child despite poor diagnoses.
I think this starts in the medical schools. We need medical students to learn 1) that these special children can survive outside of the womb and have happy lives and be a joy to their families; 2) that abortion is not compassion for the family; and 3) that there are resources to help parents deal with poor prenatal diagnoses and prepare for birth.
LOPEZ: Do we focus enough on adoption? And letting parents know that’s a real and wonderful option?
HAWKINS: No, we do not. One of our team members is a birth mother, and since she has started working for SFLA, she has really showed me just how far our movement needs to grow in this area. Since working with Amanda, I now am sensitive to how people talk about adoption; I’ve heard pro-life leaders and students we work with use the wrong terminology when talking about it, saying “give up the baby” instead of “placing the baby with an adoptive family.” Words like “give up” send a signal that adoption is a bad thing, when in fact it is one of the most sacrificial decisions a mother can make for her child. Birth mothers need to be celebrated in our culture. Right now, most people don’t really know what to say or do when they meet a birth mother.
LOPEZ: What drives you crazy about our abortion politics?
HAWKINS: Politicians who claim to be pro-life but, when elected, don’t do anything brave or significant because they don’t want to rock the boat while “waiting for their prime committee assignment ten years from now.” Elected officials who claim to be pro-life but hire pro-abortion employees! Personnel is policy. If you are a pro-life politician, you must hire pro-life staff members or you will miss opportunities to lead. And elected officials who say they want to do big things and cut government spending but then are afraid, or say “it’s not the right timing” to de-fund the abortion Goliath, Planned Parenthood. I’m an impatient person.
LOPEZ: What encourages you?
HAWKINS: This generation of young people. The 2,000 students who travelled from California, Florida, Texas, New York, etc., to be at the SFLA National Conference this past weekend.
I wish every pro-lifer could come with our team on college campuses and witness first-hand the transformation that is happening in our culture.
LOPEZ: You could be plenty busy without this non-profit work. And yet you are a working mom. Is that at all in conflict with your traditional values? How do you look at the role of a woman in a modern world? Does she have to be juggling?
HAWKINS: Yes, multi-tasking is key. When I had my second son, I knew something had to give, and I’ve chosen sleep! It’s interesting, the line for me was always that you can have it all — a husband, successful career, and a family. That’s the feminist line, right?
However, what I didn’t understand was that while you can have it all, something will always have to give. You have to make incredible sacrifices and have to be fully dedicated.
My husband and sons sacrifice for this movement every day when I’m not home. I sacrifice my precious time with my two little boys. If I am at home, I am sacrificing time with a team member or a student leader who needs guidance. I think the key is finding balance, realizing that you can’t do it all, learning to delegate and prioritizing, figuring out what is most important to you, and finding creative solutions like having team meetings at my house once a week or inviting team members to my house to work when I need to be home, etc.
LOPEZ: What did Kortney Gordon, your good friend and pregnant colleague who died in a car accident this year, teach you in life and in death?
HAWKINS: The tragedy with Kortney, Sophy, and Jon is beyond anything I would ever imagine. I found out: It is amazing what you find out about yourself when you are challenged; when you go on autopilot and let the Holy Spirit give you strength that you didn’t know was possible.
At any moment, your time on earth could be over. So don’t leave loose ends, tell the people you love that you love them every day, and don’t expect to be here forever.
That you have to do what you love and what you are passionate about. Kortney and Jon died doing what they loved. You have to live your day like it’s your last.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large for National Review Online.