Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

The Pro-Life Movement You’ve Never Heard Of

At the March for Life rally, Washington, D.C., January 27, 2017 (The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images)
It’s not just white Christian conservatives

When Ryan Bomberger, an African-American pro-life activist and the founder of the Radiance Foundation, launched one of his group’s first major advertising campaigns — drawing attention to the disproportionate effect of abortion on black communities — National Public Radio produced a segment covering it and interviewed him extensively before the segment was finalized.

“When the show came out, they had omitted me from the entire piece,” Bomberger says. “This was a segment about a campaign that I had designed, that my group had put together. They didn’t mention me at all. They had three pro-abortion perspectives, and one of our colleagues who is pro-life, Catherine Davis. I was cut out completely.”

For black pro-lifers, this is a common problem. Abortion-rights advocates often have an advantage in the public debate because, with the help of media allies, they disregard anti-abortion activists whose witness undercuts their narrative. They claim that the pro-life movement is a monolith — uniformly conservative, white, religious, and male — and ignore or dismiss all evidence to the contrary.

In reality, the anti-abortion movement is one of the most diverse political coalitions in the nation, united by a belief in the sanctity of every human life. For decades, groups and individuals with vastly different cultural backgrounds, religious views, and political goals have set aside their conflicting preferences on other issues to campaign against abortion.

One of the best modern examples of this reality is Katrina Jackson, who, as an African-American Democrat in Louisiana’s state legislature, sponsored a bill to extend basic medical-safety standards to abortion clinics. In early March, she addressed supporters in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, surrounded by signs reading “Protect Women, Protect Life,” as the justices heard oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo, in which abortion clinics are challenging her legislation.

Interviews with more than a dozen anti-abortion leaders with stories like those of Bomberger and Jackson underscore that, far from being dominated by Republican men with traditional Christian values, the pro-life movement features prominent female leaders and black activists, and it has far more support from Democrats and non-religious Americans than abortion supporters admit. 

 In November, the Church of God in Christ unveiled its “Resolution on the Sanctity of Human Life.” It is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 5 million members, overwhelmingly African-American and Democratic.

“Abortion is genocide. Abortion must end to protect the life of the unborn. The Church of God in Christ opposes elective abortions,” the resolution reads. “This issue of personhood has haunted America since the Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Roe v. Wade decisions. Just as slavery was overturned in America, Jim Crow was defeated, and Nazi Germany was overthrown, it is our prayer that the heinous industry of abortion will become morally reprehensible worldwide.”

Reverend Dean Nelson, executive director of the pro-life Human Coalition Action, tells me that the resolution is “historic and phenomenal.” Nelson is one of a number of African-American leaders who work with the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, a network of groups seeking to “restore life, family and hope in the Black community,” according to its website.

“As far as I’m aware, you haven’t seen a major black denomination have a pro-life resolution since 1973,” Nelson adds. “Those of us in the black pro-life movement have already begun to use this as leverage to get some of the other black denominations to make similar resolutions. The Church of God in Christ is one of the largest and most influential, so I think it was good for us to start there.”

Catherine Davis, another pro-life activist who partners with the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, worked with Nelson to bring about the Church of God in Christ resolution. Both of them helped one of the church’s bishops, Vincent Matthews Jr., to write the resolution’s language.

“Their denomination is going to offer alternatives to abortion, as well as counseling and support for women and men who have post-abortive trauma,” Davis says. Davis often speaks about her own experience of having had two abortions. She is the founder of the Restoration Project, which, she explains, “educates about abortion and the genocidal impact that it is having in the black community.”

Several of the leaders with whom I spoke mentioned the deep ties between the earliest legal-abortion advocates and the eugenics movement, noting that Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, wanted to decrease what she saw as “unfit” populations, including, in her view, blacks. Though she wasn’t an abortion proponent, she promoted birth control as a means of limiting low-income and minority groups and proposed a regime of mandatory sterilization for those she deemed “feeble-minded.” Those views were widely shared among the earliest abortion advocates.

Their vision has been realized to some extent: White women are underrepresented among abortion patients, while black and Hispanic women are overrepresented. Abortion in the U.S. is also highly concentrated among low-income women; it is not privileged white progressives who most often avail themselves of this right they so zealously champion.

Roland Warren is another African-American activist. He became pro-life after his college girlfriend became pregnant and was encouraged by a nurse to abort. Instead, she and Warren got married, she went on to become a doctor, and their first child graduated from Harvard. Today Warren leads CareNet, a network of pregnancy-resource centers.

He laments that people support abortion despite its disproportionate effect on minorities. “There’s a view that on average there’s nothing good that can come from a black child coming into the world as opposed to a white child,” he says, noting that this makes it more difficult for pro-choice people to acknowledge that black pro-lifers exist.

“The black community doesn’t have another 46 years to suffer at the hands of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, because 20 million black lives have already been lost to abortion since 1973,” Davis says. “That’s more than the entire black population in 1960s America.”

Polling shows that black Democrats tend to be more opposed to abortion than white Democrats are. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that while 83 percent of white Democrats support legal abortion, only 66 percent of black Democrats do. Thirty-five percent of white Democrats say voters should support only candidates who favor legal abortion; only 7 percent of black Democrats say the same.

“Since African Americans perceive the Democratic Party as the facilitator of their civil rights and the party that would represent them the best, they have turned a deaf ear and accepted abortion as a part of their political platform,” says Reverend Clenard Childress, who founded the group Black Genocide to publicize the negative effects of widespread abortion in black communities.

Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation has similar concerns. “It is mystifying to me that even with decades of the results of undying devotion toward the Democratic Party, African Americans still give the party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow, the party of separate and unequal, the party of unlimited abortion their allegiance,” he says.

Bomberger has a compelling personal story: He was conceived in rape and adopted into a multiracial family as one of 13 children, most of whom also were adopted, and he and his wife are adoptive parents. He says that because his foundation publicizes information that abortion-rights advocates try to downplay — such as the fact that Planned Parenthood facilities are highly concentrated in neighborhoods with low-income, minority populations — they often accuse him of racism.

“The Left demonizes people based on whatever group they’ve shoved them into,” Bomberger says, explaining why abortion-rights supporters often pretend that black pro-lifers don’t exist. “They talk about nuances, but they never act as if there are any. To them, all black people think alike. All black people do the same thing.”

According to many of these leaders, people in their communities realize that abortion is not the boon that its advocates attest. “Abortion supporters talk about things like ‘reproductive justice’ or ‘reproductive freedom,’ but this language doesn’t trickle down,” says Christina Bennett, a pro-life activist of more than a decade who worked for several years as a counselor at a pregnancy-resource center in Connecticut. “The women having the abortions aren’t thinking in this language. It’s really the elite, privileged women who push this message that abortion is health care.”

“I can’t tell you how many women have fallen into my arms in tears because their significant other put a gun to their head or threatened to kill them or had someone escort them into an abortion clinic to keep them there to make them have an abortion,” Catherine Davis, founder of the Restoration Project, says of her work with post-abortive women, especially those in black communities.

Bennett relates the story of a pro-choice group that recently created candles marked with the phrase “Abortions are magical” to give to volunteers. “If I was to take those to the inner-city abortion clinic in Hartford and try to hand them out,” Bennett says, “the girls actually getting abortions wouldn’t want those candles. That’s not their reality. They’re getting an abortion because they have to feed their kids. They already have another child at home or they’re thinking about how their man is going to leave if they have that kid.”

“If black women are aborting their children at a disproportionately high rate, why is the response that we must need more abortion clinics so they can do this even more?” Warren muses. “We wouldn’t do that with animals. We’d say we need to figure out what’s happening in this environment that’s causing this animal to believe they have no choice but to end the life of their offspring. Why would we not say that about my people? Aren’t we worth that much?”

Over the last couple of decades, it has become increasingly common to see signs at anti-abortion events with messages such as “I am an atheist, and I am pro-life.” Though supporters of legal abortion often claim that efforts to limit it stem from a theocratic desire to impose the religious views of some on the rest of the country, the existence of a growing number of secular pro-lifers undercuts this assertion.

One of the largest groups representing them is Secular Pro-Life, founded in 2009 by Kelsey Hazzard, who says she noticed the need for a non-religious pro-life group during college.

“You would find a prenatal-development pamphlet, and it would have all these wonderful pictures, but then it would have that quote from Jeremiah about ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,’ ” she recalls. These encounters inspired her to make brochures aimed at informing readers from an exclusively secular perspective, and she went on to create a group with the same purpose. 

“For people who are religiously unaffiliated, it’s so needed,” Hazzard says. “We became a gathering place for people who didn’t feel at home in the religious-Right label, whether that’s members of liberal Christian denominations, Catholics disillusioned by the Republican Party, religious-minority groups such as atheists, agnostics, Mormons, Buddhists, Jews, Wiccans — people who could all put aside their differences and work together on this because we weren’t making it a ‘God thing.’ ”

Today, Hazzard leads the group with the help of two fellow atheist Millennials, Monica Snyder and Terrisa Bukovinac, the latter of whom is a member of Democrats for Life and the founder of Pro-Life San Francisco, which aims to galvanize young people on the West Coast.

Bukovinac says she was instinctively pro-choice growing up but changed her mind after seeing videos of what happens during an abortion procedure. “You can’t justify abortion any more than you can justify the killing of a born person,” she says. “There is no consistent, objective distinction between an unborn person and a human being.”

This insight drives much of the work that pro-life atheists do in the anti-abortion movement, aiming to refute the notion that religious dogma animates policies to restrict abortion. A recent Gallup poll found that about 20 percent of Americans who are either non-religious, atheist, or agnostic say they’re pro-life, which translates to roughly 15 million people in the U.S.

Aimee Murphy, who leads the group Rehumanize International, is another activist with this perspective. Murphy became strongly pro-life as a teenager after she was raped by an ex-boyfriend and became pregnant. She said that at the time she felt she should consider abortion, but after her rapist threatened to kill her if she didn’t abort, she realized she was pro-life.

“There was something about my own life being threatened that I felt a solidarity with the preborn child,” Murphy explains. “I said to myself, ‘If I were to be killed by my rapist, I would be victim to this gruesome violence. If it turns out I am pregnant, then who am I to threaten this same sort of violence against a completely defenseless human being? Who am I to perpetuate that same cycle of oppression and violence against someone else?’”

Her organization promotes the “consistent life ethic,” which embraces the central principles of human dignity and nonviolence, including protection of unborn human beings.

“The dominant narrative is either you’re pro-choice or you’re a person of faith — pick your tribe,” is how Kelsey Hazzard puts it. “It’s refreshing for people to know, okay, maybe I’m having some doubts about supernatural claims or the Bible, but that doesn’t mean I have to be in favor of killing babies now.” 

In late January, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, marking the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade. The theme for this year’s march was “Life Empowers: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman.” In conjunction with the event, the March for Life organization produced a series of articles highlighting how the earliest feminists in the U.S. — suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul — opposed abortion, calling it an exploitation of women (I co-authored one such article with March for Life president Jeanne Mancini). This has long been a central contention of the pro-life movement, perhaps best synthesized in a line coined by Feminists for Life president Serrin Foster: “Women deserve better than abortion.”

Foster has been president of Feminists for Life since 1994, when she began visiting college campuses to deliver a speech called “The Feminist Case against Abortion.” In her speech, Foster contends that feminism properly understood “embraces basic rights for all human beings without exception” and “rejects the use of force to dominate, control, or destroy anyone.”

Along with many in the pro-life movement, she objects to the way that feminism and abortion rights have become synonymous in the U.S. since second-wave feminists drove pro-life women out of their movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Who’s having abortions? The majority of them are the financially challenged,” Foster says in an interview with National Review. “In this country, it’s students. It’s young women who are challenged in the workplace. We are here to end the feminization of poverty that leads to abortion. We want to make abortion unthinkable through resources and support.”

“If we want to build a future that’s abortion-free, where we have completely not only legally abolished abortion but really made it unthinkable,” Aimee Murphy says, “you need everyone to believe that abortion is a crime against mothers and their preborn children.”

Today’s pro-life movement is predominantly represented by leaders and groups that use this language, talking not only about the violence done to the unborn child but also about the harm that it does to mothers. Many of the most prominent groups in the movement are led by women: Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, Jeanne Mancini of the March for Life, Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Committee, Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, Lila Rose of Live Action, and several others.

“The notion that it’s just a white, male, conservative, Republican movement is just an old way of thinking and not the reality of today,” says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. On the subject of feminism, Day pointed to a recent controversy over a Kentucky bill requiring abortionists to describe ultrasound imaging to pregnant women: “The abortion-rights side and even the Democrats are taking the position that we shouldn’t show this information to women. . . . Women fought hard for rights, and they deserve the right to know exactly what’s going on. They deserve to know that it’s a baby growing inside them, not a clump of cells. It’s so anti-feminist to say they shouldn’t.”

Another controversy illuminates just how much abortion-rights advocates want to squelch pro-life feminists: In 2017, the leadership of the first anti-Trump Women’s March on Washington removed the group New Wave Feminists from its sponsor list after discovering that the organization opposes abortion.

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, calls that incident “one of the best things that ever happened to us,” saying it brought attention to pro-life feminism. Her opposition to abortion stems from the fact that her mother became pregnant with her at the age of 19. “She chose life for me even though I know that was really hard and ended up leading to her having a decade of trials and failed marriages, and it took her that long to finish her degree,” she says.

De La Rosa herself also became pregnant as a teenager and was a single mom for two years: “I saw from a feminist perspective the world is not built for mothers, . . . and I didn’t see feminists talking about that.”

Like most pro-life feminists, De La Rosa is frustrated by the way abortion forces women to deal with the consequences of pregnancy alone and allows men to avoid taking responsibility. “Abortion culture has allowed us to let men off the hook, because women have their choice and so men should have their choice, too,” she says. “They can decide to step away from parenthood even though they participated in the act that created this life.”

Despite the hostility they encounter from the other side, most of these leaders remain hopeful. For black pro-life leaders, the Church of God in Christ resolution illustrated that their quiet lobbying is bearing fruit and that more African Americans will discover the ways in which abortion is devastating their communities. For secular, pro-life Millennials, it is polling data that have been most heartening: Young people by and large don’t call themselves “pro-life,” but scientific developments have made it more difficult for them to deny the humanity of the unborn child. For the female leaders of the pro-life movement, pregnancy-resource centers and growing programs to help young mothers stay in school are signs of cultural change.

Powerful supporters of abortion dismiss or attack these voices because their witness undercuts the false narrative underlying the case for abortion. Pro-choice advocates insist that feminism requires women to have the right to abortion, that it is racist to lament the disproportionate abortion rate among black women, and that only religious zealots would oppose abortion rights. There are thousands of people in the pro-life movement who prove each of these claims wrong.

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