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A new battle for the pro-life generation

Activists fear increasing hostility in the wake of Roe’s overturn will scare some young people away from pro-life efforts


Elizabeth McNulty (center) and Mary Krolicki (right), both from Students for Life of America, speak with activist Cate Tershak at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Getty Images/Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket

A new battle for the pro-life generation

Grace Hartsock flew to Kansas from her home in Austin, Texas, this summer just to knock on doors. It was the last weekend in July, and the 18-year-old joined joining a group of volunteers with Students for Life to canvas the Overland Park area in the final days leading up to the state’s vote on the Value Them Both amendment. That measure would have clarified that the state constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion.

That Sunday, she started around 10 a.m., asking residents if she could count on them to vote yes in the upcoming referendum. A few hours in, she received her clearest “no” answer of the day. Soon after Hartsock walked away from a woman who opened the door and spoke with her briefly, a second woman in gray sweatpants bolted out of the house and chased her down the driveway. When she caught up with Hartsock, the woman started shoving and punching her and threw a piece of food at her. The Leawood Police Department later confirmed to WORLD that officers arrested and charged the 37-year-old woman with misdemeanor battery.

Two days later, the results for the Kansas vote started rolling in as polling locations closed, showing an unexpected and overwhelming opposition to the pro-life amendment. “It was disappointing, to say the least,” said Hartsock. Many pro-lifers blamed misinformation from pro-abortion groups for the loss. Hartsock pointed to the biased media coverage that has bombarded readers since the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June. “I think it just goes to show that we have such a big job ahead of us,” she added.

Most young pro-lifers have not experienced the level of opposition Hartsock encountered. But some young activists told WORLD they’ve still seen a shift in how their peers react to the issue. They’re adjusting to increasingly vocal and personal opposition from pro-abortion opponents—pushback that they fear will result in people in the middle joining the pro-abortion side. The job is harder in some ways, but they’re also encouraged by peers who are eager to get involved.

Twenty-year-old Brooke Rizuto is the student president of the pro-life group at Dallas Baptist University and a former Students for Life intern. She’s noticed that people who didn’t see the abortion issue as a big deal before now recognize it as immediate and pressing. She said she’s seen pro-abortion people become more vocal about their opposition ever since the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision on June 24. “If you were unsure about how someone felt about this issue—100 percent, you found out that weekend,” she said. “Pretty much everyone weighed in on that topic.”

Rizuto celebrated the decision on social media by posting a picture of her with two friends holding pro-life signs. “The battle is far from over, but June 24th should serve as a reminder that we serve a good and gracious God who holds the victory in every battle,” she wrote. Some friends celebrated with her, but others responded with attacks that seemed more personal than she remembered facing before. “You’re the reason women lost rights to their own body. This is disgusting,” wrote one.

Jamie Scherdin, the 22-year-old Ohio regional coordinator for Students for Life, said the response of five or six of her college friends surprised her, as well. “People whom I would consider my friends, who were very aware that I was involved in this work, completely cut me out of their life due to the reversal of Roe,” she said. “I see and I hear that from the students I work with all the time. You know, ‘My friends didn’t really care that much before that I was pro-life and since the reversal of Roe they won’t look at me, they won’t talk to me, they’re just so angry.’”

Scherdin recently visited an all-girls Catholic high school to recruit students to learn about how to support pregnant women and parents in their community. She was surprised when one 16-year-old girl approached her and began what Scherdin called a “rowdy conversation” that attracted the attention of a couple of dozen other students. Scherdin said the girl began an argument using rape and incest exceptions to justify abortion and argued that it’s harmful for women to suppress sexual urges. While she would have expected a back-and-forth like this at a public school, she said it’s “not normal for an all-girls, private Catholic high school.” Scherdin said recent events on the abortion issue seemed to fuel this girl’s frustration. “I think most students, or most people that I talk to, are more fired up one way or the other than they have been,” she said. “ She as a young woman feels like her rights are being taken away. … I see it very different than she does, but I can’t blame her for being fired up when she truly believes that is what’s happening.”

Rizuto has seen the backlash affect other pro-life students, too. Even before news spread of Hartsock’s encounter with the angry woman in Kansas, she was already noticing a shift in the concerns students have about joining pro-life activities. They used to be worried about facing awkward situations. Recently, she said, “It’s more of, ‘It’s too dangerous. I’m not putting myself out there.’”

Meanwhile, she said some pro-lifers have asked her what the point is of continuing pro-life outreach as if the overturn of Roe v. Wade ended the discussion. Pushback from increasingly vocal pro-abortion groups and this sense of apathy among pro-lifers, she said, could make it less likely for some pro-lifers to get involved.

Rizuto has spent time researching what the laws actually say in each state and how they will affect cases such as ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages. She wanted to learn how the law would apply to specific medical complications that women sometimes face during pregnancy. She said she’s seen these questions cause some people to waver in their pro-life positions, but only in “people who, I would say, just don’t care enough to look into it.”

But those new difficulties have not shut down pro-life activism among young people and students. Merlot Fogarty, the 20-year-old president of the pro-life group at the University of Notre Dame, said she has personally seen an increase in obscene gestures directed toward her and people yelling at her across the quad. She understands that it would be easier in some ways for students to join with the pro-abortion movement on campus. But she said Notre Dame Right to Life just hit 675 members with an increased number of freshmen in the group this year. She thinks it’s because of how prominent the issue has become recently. “There really is no middle ground anymore,” she said. “I think the freshmen who identify with pro-life are coming to the university looking to find those who are actually working hard to help women and children in the wake of Roe.”


Leah Savas

Leah is the life beat reporter for World News Group. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.

@leahsavas

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