I am trying to get feeling back into my hands. Winter Storm Jonas is close to bearing down on the East Coast, and the sensible thing to do would be to stay indoors. Instead, I am attending the March for Life, an annual event where pro-life supporters from across the country march from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court, rallying for the lives of the unborn. Snow isn’t a factor, not even with the 30-plus inch forecast, the harsh winds, the chilly temperatures. Robert Knapp from Wichita, Kansas, who is leading the Kaupan Mount Carmel Catholic High School group, assures me that we’ll all be fine.
“It's a lot warmer than it’s been in past years,” he reasons, recounting 18-degree temperatures from three years ago.
It’s a test of endurance for an observer like myself, but an act of joyful duty for the attendees. There is an exuberant energy in the crowd. The members of Crusaders for Life of Chicago are holding up yellow balloons emblazoned with the word “LIFE” while their voices rise up in chants: We love babies, yes we do. We love babies, how about you?
It’s this force of belief that motivates activists like David Daleiden, founder of the Center for Medical Progress, to spend more than two years maintaining an elaborate ruse in hopes of taking down the largest abortion provider in the country. Last week, Daleiden and activist Sandra Merritt turned themselves in to the Harris County, Texas, authorities after they was indicted by a grand jury on felony and misdemeanor charges for the solicitation of fetal tissue. (After the arrest and subsequent surrender, I reached out to Daleiden and his attorneys for comment. No response was received by the time of publication.) He won’t accept a plea deal despite a possible sentence of 20 years imprisonment for tampering with a governmental record, plus a year for attempting to purchase fetal tissue.
Of course, Daleiden wasn’t actually trying to score some in-vitro viscera. But as part of his undercover work through the Center—purportedly started as a non-profit to educate the public about “the latest advances in regenerative medicine, cell-based therapies, and related disciplines”—from 2013 to 2015 he posed as an employee of the fake company BioMax Procurement Services seeking to buy post-abortion tissue from a Planned Parenthood official. These interactions were captured by a hidden camera and slapped on the internet in an attempt to reveal the evils of Planned Parenthood.
It’s the belief in the absolute sanctity of life in the womb that moves activists to pursue this work at any cost, even with the possibility of jail time looming ahead. And perhaps, even more so now, supporters of the pro-life cause would agree with Daleiden’s recent statement given during an appearance in January at the construction site of a Planned Parenthood “mega clinic” in Washington, D.C., where he told protesters: “I’m convinced that 2016…is going to be a historic watershed moment for abortion and for unborn children.”
The media likes to report on how younger generations are becoming more secular, but it’s people like 27-year-old Daleiden who are keeping the pro-life movement alive. Daleiden is the anti-abortion movement’s Edward Snowden, an Abbie Hoffman with a collared shirt and tie. These young activists freezing their asses off during a snowstorm regard him and his co-conspirators as heroes—or, as of last week, courageous martyrs.
I grew up an evangelical Christian, attending pentecostal Assemblies of God churches. And while Focus on the Family’s President Jim Daly noted that it’s taken 40 years to wake up to the commitment to Catholic, pro-life values, my upbringing always felt folded into the anti-abortion movement. It was a given that as a good, Christian girl I would be pro-life. As a college freshman, I briefly owned—and once wore during a class presentation on abortion—the shirt most recently popularized by actor Kelsey Grammer: “Would it bother us more if they used guns?”
Now, at 25, I’ve shed the evangelical descriptor and simply identify as “Christian.” And I’ve made a point of avoiding the abortion debate in the years since high school. When the Center for Medical Progress released the videos over the summer, I avoided them, just as I had always avoided any image of an aborted fetus. I didn’t view the videos until last month, for the purposes of this story.
Instead of being filled with the graphic images that protesters sometimes hold outside abortion clinics, they consisted largely of long, awkwardly-angled shots of Planned Parenthood executives speaking with Daleiden over dinner or at a conference. On one occasion, Daleiden examines fetal tissue with a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast technician, presumably to maintain his facade when invited to further tour the clinic, but also to provide a visual for his eventual audience. Planned Parenthood issued a statement and acknowledged that while the video contained footage that could be “difficult for many people to see,” it noted that most medical procedures and medical research “are difficult to watch.” (A grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of the charge of misusing fetal tissue.)
Even after viewing the Center for Medical Progress’ raw footage, I hesitated when watching the “investigative” Human Capital documentary series. While this series of videos largely focused on interviewing a former Stem Express procurement technician, there is a still image of what is portrayed as an aborted fetus. (Stem Express is the biomedical firm that previously took donations of fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood.) While Daleiden has said that the image is used to simply illustrate what a 19-week old fetus looks like, the reality remains that the image is of a stillborn baby, taken from a Daily Mail story.
I put off watching it until the morning I left for D.C.
Despite having only spoken to Daleiden briefly in person earlier that afternoon, his voice is familiar. His face is never seen in those videos, but his voice, confident and comfortable with stem-cell terminology, acts as the viewer’s guide. So when Daleiden stumbles over some of his words, it’s surprising. But for someone who had to limit his social media presence over the past couple of years—he hasn’t uploaded pictures to Facebook since beginning the Center for Medical Progress in March 2013—and who avoided the gaze of the camera for two years, it makes sense that he’s hesitant to talk about himself.
Daleiden has been anti-abortion since middle school, and he remembers not being able to convince his friends of his views. “I didn't really have a whole lot of facts or talking points, I had just my moral intuition,” he says. Frustrated, he turned to Google Images and found a photo of an aborted fetus, along with the statistic of one million abortions per year in the United States in the early 2000s.
Seeing the image made it clear for Daleiden “that abortion is killing a baby.” It took him beyond rhetoric to an “actual visceral reality that you can see and you would have to pluck your own eyes out to ignore it.”
Daleiden was determined to be “one of the people who went against the grain,” who stood up to say, “No, this is wrong. You can’t treat people this way.” But since then, it has become more clear that at the very least, those of the youngest generation who identify as pro-life are a sizeable group: According to a March 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 25% of millennials identify as “only pro-life.”
It was all about fetuses for Lila Rose, too. The 27-year-old Live Action founder and president was 15 years old when she founded the pro-life organization Live Action, which also specializes in undercover investigations that Rose herself has taken part in, posing as “a 15-year-old girl impregnated by her 23-year-old boyfriend.” But she first learned about abortion at nine. She was looking for a book to read at home and flipped open Handbook on Abortion by John Charles Wilke—a self-published booklet that some consider the “Bible of the right-to-life movement”—to an image of aborted first-trimester fetus.
“I thought, is this real?” Rose says. “‘Is this really happening?’ As a nine-year-old, you don't have the filters of the political language or the rhetoric, it's just a child. It's a baby.”
If Rose and Daleiden’s language sounds similar, it could be because the latter worked with the former as the Director of Research for Live Action from 2008 to 2013. While Live Action and the Center for Medical Progress are not officially associated, Daleiden and Rose are friends. They both have a penchant for hyperbolic language; Rose refers to abortion as the “greatest human rights abuse of our day,” while Daleiden describes it as “a grave human rights injustice on the same scale as slavery or the Holocaust.”
For other young activists, their lightbulb moment came through real-life experience, not just gruesome photos. Originally set on being an aeronautical engineer—with a space academy scholarship to boot— Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins, 30, decided at age 15 to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center where someone from her church worked as an accountant. Until she walked into the clinic and began her training to volunteer as a counselor to young women, some the same age as her, Hawkins didn’t know too much about the pro-life movement.
When I speak to Hawkins by phone, she credited viewing the 1984 short film Silent Scream as a turning point. Narrated by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the founder of NARAL Pro-Choice America who later became a pro-life activist, the film itself is like a prototype of the videos of Center for Medical Progress. It aims to expose the reality of abortion by showing an ultrasound—purportedly of an abortion procedure—where a twelve-week fetus reacts with a “silent scream” as the doctor’s instruments are introduced into the womb. At the time of the film’s release, the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecologists denounced the video, noting that “Nerve cell pathways do not begin to develop until 24 weeks. The fetus does not feel pain.”
“That made me [think], ‘What the heck is going on? Why aren't we talking about this?’” she says. “I mean, I went to church, I went to Sunday school, I went to youth group, I did everything I was supposed to, and we never talked about that.”
Other speakers like Hawkins touted at the March for Life conference that millennials are considered the most pro-life generation. Depending on which poll you rely on—whether Pew Research, Gallup, or Public Religion Research Institute—the numbers do not tell quite the same story. Pew Research found that 56% of millennials believe “abortion should be legal in all cases,” compared to 59% of Gen Xers. However, the remaining 44% of millennials are not necessarily pro-life the way that Daleiden and Rose and Hawkins are. According to PRRI, 27% of millennials identify as both pro-life and pro-choice, meaning the numbers are not necessarily as clear as portrayed.
So while calling us the pro-life generation could be an overstatement, it is impossible to deny the fervor behind why Daleiden believes this generation to be different, which he categorizes as “the survivor generation.”
He notes that our generation, born after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, carries a “survival mark” that may manifest itself on a spiritual or subconscious level. “Many of us are survivors of abortion literally, in that we could have been aborted.” He’s talking about himself—he was the result of an unexpected pregnancy while his parents were college students.
When I see Hawkins speak briefly during the Youth Rally at the March for Life conference, I’m surprised that the mild, measured person I spoke with on the phone is nowhere to be found. The Kristan Hawkins in front of me is shouting into her microphone, getting the crowd of teenagers excited, employing the Biblical story of David and Goliath and delivering a pep talk worthy of Coach Taylor: “Winners always envision the win,” she yells. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are the pro-life generation, we are born to win, and we will win.”
This group doesn’t rely on graphic billboards and signs. They rely on their words, well-waged and passionate.
Perhaps now, with smartphones in our hands and the videos of groups like the Center for Medical Progress easily Google-able, we don’t need the images of aborted fetuses plastered in front of us. Those are accessible on our own time. But a stirring speech to rise up like the Biblical David is not. There’s an energy, not only at the Youth Rally, but at the March itself the following day. This is where pro-life activists are made, ready to freeze, ready to soldier on for the unborn. Maybe it’s also the outrage boldness that comes from feeling lied to. I think back to Rose’s words: “We are rejecting the tired old lies of the last century.”
I have my phone’s recorder running during the rally before the March, but I lose the recording due to my phone shutting down to the cold. But there is one line I remember clearly because it was the second time I heard it that day: Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, told an expectant group at the Family Research Council’s ProLifeCon, “A little bit of snow or a lot snow isn't a sacrifice too big for us.”
It is now three weeks later, and the moment I remember most clearly is standing on Constitution Avenue as snow flurries began to fall, waiting to begin the March to the Supreme Court. As we begin to move, I hear a baby wail. I turn to my left and see a mother holding her bundled up baby, its face exposed to the wind and snow. It is crying. It is cold.
Sarah Galo is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Guernica, the Establishment, and the New Republic, among others.