If you listened to most media outlets and political pundits today, you would believe that the pro-life movement is led by a bunch of "old, white men" who are out of touch with the American people and care little for women’s health and choices.

The reality is starkly different. Many, if not most, of the major national and local pro-life organizations are led by women. March for Life, Students for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, Feminists for Life, Rehumanize International, Democrats for Life, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Americans United for Life … the list goes on, and doesn’t even include the countless crisis pregnancy centers where women lead the frontline efforts to save women and their children from abortion.

Many, if not most, of the major national and local pro-life organizations are led by women.

It’s striking, when you think about it: a movement often described as anti-woman is, in fact, led by women. This struck me, and so I decided to investigate further. Why are so many women drawn to the pro-life movement? Why do so many become leaders in pro-life organizations? How can we change the narrative that to be pro-life is to be anti-woman? I drew on the expertise of Saints John Paul II and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, as well as of some of the women leading these organizations, to find out.

Why Women?

Without exception, the women I spoke with believed that being a woman gave them a unique perspective and unique gifts that make them effective pro-life leaders. They cited being mothers, innate caregivers, intuitive, and effective multitaskers (especially as mothers) as giving them an advantage in relating with the women they ultimately support as pro-life leaders.

“My capacity for motherhood and person-centered approach to life likely helps me be more sensitive to the miracle surrounding a new life,” said Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life. Serrin Foster, President of Feminists for Life (FFL), agrees, saying that “our innate nature as caregivers helps us relate.” FFL has been led by women since its founding the year before Roe v. Wade.

“While I think we need to see the critical role men play in this conversation, a woman is able to show a culture that erroneously believes [all women consider abortion to be a woman’s right] that there are many, many women who are pro-life,” adds Mancini.

While her education in biology and her experience as an OB/GYN made her pro-life, it was “the experience of being a mother myself that taught me the most about this issue,” said Donna J. Harrison, M.D., Executive Director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG). “Women intuitively can relate to the nuances of the vulnerabilities women face when they are pregnant and unsupported.”

Kristan Hawkins, President of Students for Life of America, noted that as a mother of four children, she understands what it’s like to cope with pregnancy “and all that goes with it,” saying that women can “speak directly to the pressures our sisters are under when they first learn they are pregnant and trying to think through how life will change and what is needed to succeed.”

Women, Hawkins believes, are “uniquely qualified” to tell women that there is support for them and that they can have a good life with a child. “We understand women’s needs for empowerment, opportunity, education, and family support. We can speak directly to the challenges, as the leading pro-life organizations are led by women balancing career and family, showing that it can be done.”

Harrison pointed out more than half of pro-life professional medical organizations are led by women, including AAPLOG, the American College of Pediatricians, and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Science, she says, tells these doctors that ending the lives of “the unborn human beings in our womb does not liberate us as women but rather liberates irresponsible men … Abortion maims us as women, not frees us.”

Consciously or not, these women echo the many Catholic theologians and philosophers who believe that women, with our capacity for physical and spiritual motherhood, are well disposed to nurturing a culture of life - and that we are indispensable in doing so.

“A woman is always a mother, whether physically or spiritually,” writes Margaret Harper McCarthy, Ph.D., in Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church. Quoting Pope St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women,” she continues, “The specific reason in modernity for turning so urgently to the feminine genius is ‘the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity’ and to make them more homelike” (Promise and Challenge 120).

Similarly, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) believed that femininity is necessary for all occupations, including politics. “One can even say that the development of the feminine nature can become a blessed counterbalance precisely here where everyone is in danger of becoming mechanized and losing his humanity,” she writes of women working in fields such as science, business, or national or municipal service (Essays on Woman 50).

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) believed that femininity is necessary for all occupations, including politics.

Changing the Narrative

“The trustworthiness of women as protectors of life at its most vulnerable has been undermined at its core by the feminist movement’s insistence on abortion as a fundamental right essential to women’s equality,” writes Elizabeth D. Schilitz, JD, in Promise and Challenge. “This trust cannot be restored without the engagement of women” (70) - women like the leaders of pro-life organizations.

“When I began at FFL 26 years ago,” said Foster, “I could see that many other organizations had both men and women leading — one as a board member, the other as staff — but the mainstream press would always quote the men, pitting them against women, the way abortion advocates pit women against children."

“The abortion lobby has tried to create a civil war within women and between women and society,” Hawkins said. “They tell us that we are at war with our bodies … pushing chemicals and hormones at us to suppress our fertility, and then they tell us that we are in competition with our own children who will detract from our lives.”

“The abortion lobby has tried to create a civil war within women and between women and society.”

“So many women are stepping up to fight back against that narrative,” said Kristen Day, Executive Director of Democrats for Life. “We see that what the abortion industry is doing is not consistent with the feminist movement of empowering women. Because they’re really discouraging women from succeeding, because they tell women that ‘if you don’t get this abortion, if you don’t kill your child, you can’t have a job, you can’t finish school’ … A lot of the women who are leading this pro-life movement are saying, ‘Yes, you can! If you have a child, it doesn’t prevent you from doing the things you want to do.’”

Women leaders of pro-life organizations, says Harrison, are “here to speak the truth to fellow women and to society at large. We speak not only from scientific knowledge of the effects of abortion on women, but also from experience as women ourselves.”

Perhaps women have a unique ability to proclaim this truth. Citing theologian Benedict Ashley, Schilitz writes that women have a “gift of prophecy [that] can find expression in a particular ability to nurture faith” (Promise and Challenge 72), and Schilitz suggests that “women, as icons of Mary, can offer to the Church … two particular gifts — the motherly gift of understanding the trust we must place in God and the contemplative gift of prophecy — in a way that is particularly called for in the present age” (73).

Perhaps women have a unique ability to proclaim this truth.

Indeed, in the next chapter of Promise and Challenge, Sr. Mary Madeline Todd, OP, STL, writes of “the prophetic voice of women in the Church and in the world,” saying that “considering the interactions of Christ with the women of his time, there is evidence of an exceptional prophetic character in the call he extended to them” (96). She points to Mary of Magdalene and St. Catherine of Siena as examples of this uniquely feminine prophecy. Mary is, after all, the “apostle to the apostles,” the first person Jesus appears to after his resurrection. Catherine, meanwhile, showed not only fearlessness in her calls “for purification, repentance, and peace” (98) but also a great “openness to the value of every person” (92).

This combination — the courage to speak out and the respect for human life — is exactly what’s needed for the pro-life movement to succeed.

This combination — the courage to speak out and the respect for human life — is exactly what’s needed for the pro-life movement to succeed.

Two of the women I spoke with noted that it’s also important for the movement to value the contributions of men.

“It will take male leadership to call men on to fulfill their responsibilities as fathers and husbands to the women whom they make pregnant,” Harrison said. And Serrin agrees: “As a feminist who believes in the basic tenets of nondiscrimination, bigotry, sexism, and ageism should have no place in our society,” she said. “At FFL, we value the contributions of men, who are welcome at Feminists for Life, especially those of good dads. I treasure our Board, donors, and staff who are men as much as I do women.”

After all, the Church teaches an integral complementarity that “considers both men and women equally capable of making contributions to any situation,” writes Schiltz (Promise and Challenge 54). “These contributions are whole and complete in themselves … but, when applied together in a particular situation, can be creatively amplified to result in something new.”

Becoming a Leader

The last question I asked each of the women I spoke with was what advice they would give about becoming a pro-life leader. Each gave her own advice, but the common theme was starting local to build a culture of life.

“Start leading in your community,” said Day. “Stay local … Get involved, particularly in the state and local government.”

Mancini advised women to concentrate on building a culture of life in our communities. “Start a student organization, run for school board or local office, pray in front of an abortion center, work at a pregnancy care center.”

Foster, whose organization offers a variety of resources and programs for colleges and universities, focused her advice on students. “Lead your efforts on campus for those at high risk,” she said — namely, the one in five students who are parents and are at high risk of abortion. Learn about nonprofit management, find an internship with a pro-life organization, and “find your lane. What kind of service appeals to you? Is it advocacy, education, direct services? Is it medicine, legal, administrative? … Not everyone has to be a leader in a formal sense! Go with the skill that comes naturally to you and work it.”

“Have a very thick skin,” Harrison recommended. “Know the pro-abortion side of the argument better than the pro-abortion leadership, and understand the lie embedded in their spin. Remember that we are in a very long battle ... Set your eyes on the long course, and don’t be moved. And always remember that in the end, Truth will win.”

Hawkins ended her interview with this inspiring statement: “Be organized, be passionate, be fearless, and be ready to fight through obstacles. We all know that our culture at large is geared toward Planned Parenthood and their allies. Knowing that you are David in a world of Goliaths doesn’t change the fact that you can win, with hard work and determination.”

“Knowing that you are David in a world of Goliaths doesn’t change the fact that you can win, with hard work and determination.”
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Taryn Oesch DeLong

Taryn Oesch DeLong is a wife, mother, and editor and writer. She is the managing editor of Catholic Women in Business, a contributor at Natural Womanhood and Live Today Well Co., and a FEMM instructor. Follow her @tarynmdelong on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or read her blog, Everyday Roses.

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