The first ever pro-life women’s conference took place on the weekend of June 24-26 in Dallas. Hosted by activist Abby Johnson of And Then There Were None, the conference attracted women from all over the country eager to hear from female leaders and connect with one another. Over 500 activists participated: pregnancy center and sidewalk counselors, doulas and nurses, writers, lawyers, and community organizers. There were 31 sponsors, among them Natural Womanhood, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Save the 1, and International Helpline. Keynote speakers included Marilyn Musgrave of Susan B. Anthony List, and Star Parker from the Center for Urban Renewal and Education; break-out informational sessions and panel discussions featured other popular figures like abortion survivor Melissa Ohden and Secular Pro-Life’s Kelsey Hazzard.
A recurring conference theme was the need for the feminist movement to get away from claiming men and women are the same in order to gain equality—in the workplace, in schools, and in society at large. Speakers stressed that women are equal because our contributions, while distinctively different from those of men, are just as valuable. It was therefore fitting for Feminists for Life president Serrin Foster, who opened the conference Friday night and spoke again on Saturday, to call on attendees to embrace feminism: To be pro-woman is to be pro-life, she declared. Foster shared insights gained from her decades-long experience as a pro-life feminist and related heart-breaking stories she had heard from both women and men affected by abortion.
Leah Jacobson, founder of The Guiding Star Project, was both a keynote speaker and leader of one of the informational sessions. She addressed how our society continues to perpetuate the idea that the female body can be manipulated to fit a cultural norm. There are three things that are distinctive to being a woman, she explained, which a man cannot mimic: the ability to ovulate, gestate, and lactate. As natural as these functions are, throughout American history, Jacobson claimed, attempts have been made to manipulate or suppress them, reflecting a troubled culture that undermines femininity by sending women the message that they can’t trust their own bodies. She also addressed the devaluing of the bond between mother and child indicated by the lack of workplace accommodations for families with babies. And she made a good point about the hypocrisy of a culture that promotes a movement protesting GMOs and hormones in meat, while remaining generally complacent about the hormones and chemicals in birth control pills. High amounts of artificial drugs in these pills, she pointed out, have been found in groundwater supplies.
In addition to Jacobson’s, other breakout sessions included topics such as “Latinas and Abortion,” “Pregnancy Loss,” “Fertility Awareness Based Methods for Family Planning,” “Pro-Life Concerns about the Girl Scouts,” and “How to Start a Pro-life Group on Campus.”
The panel discussions featured first-hand accounts concerning political activism, adoption and birth mothers, and creating a culture of life to embrace even the hard cases—such as that of Rebecca Kiessling, a public speaker who was conceived in rape. Kiessling told the story of how her mother had sought to end her pregnancy, then reconsidered because she didn’t want to gamble her own life and health by resorting to a back-alley abortion. “I wasn’t lucky,” Kiessling said. “I was protected. Legality matters.”
There was also a session on activism from the millennials’ perspective. The young panelists acknowledged that imagery plays an important role when trying to reach abortion-minded women or to initiate dialogue with pro-choicers. But in their experience, the use of graphic images of bloody aborted baby parts makes pro-lifers appear unapproachable and extreme. Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa of the New Wave Feminists added that it can be effective to show the violence of abortion, but only after a person has expressed genuine openness to pro-life viewpoints. In her experience with her own crisis pregnancy, and as a sidewalk counselor, she found that abortion-minded women responded better to sidewalk counselors offering pamphlets with a happy, young mother smiling on the cover, rather than a picture of an aborted baby.
The Conference was a call for more and better action for women, by women. As we began to leave the hotel on Sunday to return to our respective hometowns, the general chatter was, “We’re doing this again next year, right?” and “I know what I need to do”—the beginning of a new phase of a collective and cohesive national women’s movement to reclaim the narrative about abortion and what women’s equality really means.