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Taking action

An older generation passes the baton to a younger group of pro-life activists

David Daleiden, surrounded by supporters, speaks to reporters outside the Harris County Courthouse in Houston in 2016. Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images

Taking action

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision led to the legalization of abortion nationwide, the pro-life movement has grown and developed in several directions: political and legal groups, pregnancy care centers that serve abortion-vulnerable women and babies, and direct action such as sit-ins and blockades at abortion centers.

During the 1980s, secular media portrayed some direct-action leaders as fanatical. They were often more colorful than the quieter pro-lifers working behind the scenes in politics and pregnancy care centers. Legislation in the mid-1990s effectively halted sit-ins and blockades by imposing harsh penalties on participants, so the direct-action arm of the pro-life movement sputtered out.

In recent years, though, a new generation of pro-life advocates has adopted new direct-action methods—in particular, undercover journalism—in the fight against abortion. Here are profiles of four prominent pro-lifers who fall in the direct-action category: two from the older generation, two from the younger.

‘The father of the rescue movement’

Born in 1950, John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe was the third son of nine children in a devout Catholic family. His father, a NASA scientist, taught him about the compatibility of science and faith. “I missed the message that it’s dumb to believe in God,” Cavanaugh-O’Keefe explained in 1986.

As a boy, he was close to his older brothers, and he planned to follow in their footsteps by fighting in the Vietnam War. When Cavanaugh-O’Keefe was a senior in high school, the death of one of his brothers in the war helped ground him in his Catholic faith. He considered joining the priesthood, but he stuck with his previous plans to attend Harvard University and pursue a degree in physics in the fall of 1968.

During his freshman year, he became involved with the anti-war movement on campus. Cavanaugh-O’Keefe quickly became frustrated with the tendency of his fellow activists to show hatred toward soldiers—men like his brothers. Although he considered war evil, he couldn’t discredit his brothers’ sacrifice. By the end of his freshman year, he still planned to join the military after college.

That summer, his uncle, an attorney, helped him land a job at a New York City law firm. During a flight delay on a business trip in Michigan, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe had his first encounter with members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. The movement introduced him to the writings of Catholic monk Thomas Merton, whose anti-war stance and emphasis on nonviolent social activism influenced his decision to drop out of college and apply to the draft for conscientious objector status. The draft board assigned him to a Maryland mental hospital and then a Massachusetts hospital as an orderly.

“She protested too much and after she had gone over her reasons again and again, I had the feeling she had made a mistake,” Cavanaugh-O’Keefe said.

The event Cavanaugh-O’Keefe pinpointed as his awakening to abortion’s evils was his conversation with a female coworker who had aborted one of her children. He was initially ready to accept her decision, but the woman spent more than an hour justifying her choice. “She protested too much and after she had gone over her reasons again and again, I had the feeling she had made a mistake,” Cavanaugh-O’Keefe said.

After researching abortion extensively, he developed his own position: “I came to the conclusion that … my friend … was a mother who was grieving because her child was dead, and she was unable to deal with it because she was denying that anything was wrong.”

Although he considered pursuing the life of a monk, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe chose to become a political activist. After completing his military service, he continued working as an orderly. Within the next several months, he made his first contact with national pro-life leaders. “I thought they were just a bunch of right-wing nuts,” he explained in his book Wrath of Angels.

Uninspired by mainstream pro-life groups he saw as complacent and uncommitted, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe began merging his pro-life stance with his left-wing convictions about political activism. After returning to Harvard, he graduated in 1976 and married Betsy Cavanaugh, satisfying his feminist ideology by adding her surname to his. That same year, he joined a group of Catholics who shared his vision for nonviolent demonstrations against abortion. He helped organize abortion center sit-ins and experienced his first arrest in 1977, the same year he formed his organization, the Pro-Life Non-Violent Action Project.

Cavanaugh-O’Keefe initially tried to broaden the left-wing base of the pro-life movement by inviting anti-war activists to participate. When this failed, he focused on offering a politically balanced movement to others who shared his frustration with right-wing pro-lifers. Although the demonstrations he led never gained much of a following or significant media attention, he implemented standards for nonviolent protests and earned the title “the father of the rescue movement.”

In the early 1980s, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe began to waffle on his stance of nonviolence. He never resorted to aggressive acts himself, but he also stopped opposing those who did. One of his recruits for a Maryland sit-in—a man named Michael Bray—bombed an abortion center in 1984. This incident’s association with the Pro-Life Non-Violent Action Project discredited Cavanaugh-O’Keefe’s work. His nonviolent protests faded as the more aggressive tactics of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue took off in the late 1980s.

In the 1990s, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe served as the director of public policy for the American Life League. In recent years, he has shifted his attention from abortion to focus on opposing eugenics and supporting immigration. He challenges the typical right-wing posture of his fellow pro-life Catholics.

During the 2016 presidential election, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe publicly shared his distrust of Donald Trump and announced his controversial decision to vote for Hillary Clinton, saying, “There is no pro-life option on the ballot.” Trump, he said at the time, has shown habitual mistreatment of women and support of men who do likewise that will “damage the nation … in a long list of ways, including that he would increase abortion.”

‘Jail has its blessings’

Monica Migliorino Miller was born in 1953 to a Catholic family in Cleveland. As a child, she worried about wounded birds and held funerals for her deceased fish. At age 9, Miller wrote a treaty promising never to harm animals and signed it in her own blood. She later realized that dodging ants on the sidewalk or sparing pesky mosquitoes was impractical, but her compassion for vulnerable creatures remained.

Near the end of college, this compassion translated into passionate protection of unborn babies. Miller studied theater at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. She had performed in plays since high school and planned to pursue a career as an actress. During her senior year, Miller learned a good friend was going to abort her unborn baby. Although the friend seemed confident in her decision, Miller later heard her friend acknowledge the abortion as the death of her child. Miller thought this friend seemed to be mourning her baby.

A month before graduating in May 1976, Miller attended a Holy Week retreat where she met pro-life activist Shirley Parks. The two became friends. They attended pro-life political strategy meetings together, and Parks gave Miller books about abortion. After graduating, Miller abandoned previous plans of joining an Illinois monastery and decided instead to attend Loyola University of Chicago as a graduate student in theology.

During graduate school, she spent her weekends in front of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Center for Health and Concord Medical Center, trying to talk women out of their abortions. Miller also met pro-life activist Joe Scheidler and, in March 1978, participated in her first sit-in, where she and 26 other pro-life “rescuers” entered the Concord Medical Center, locked arms, and blocked the hallway to the abortion center’s procedure rooms until police arrived and put them in jail for the day—the first of her many arrests.

In 1981, Miller graduated from Loyola with a master’s degree in theology. Four years later, she briefly worked as executive director of Illinois Right to Life before moving to Milwaukee for doctorate studies at Marquette University. Miller continued her activist work in Milwaukee, participating in and organizing sit-ins, standing trial for alleged lawbreaking, and even serving prison time.

For several months, Miller kept dozens of boxes filled with aborted babies in her apartment’s spare room as she arranged for their proper burial.

After moving to Milwaukee, Miller and some fellow pro-life advocates began making regular trips to dumpsters to retrieve the remains of aborted babies. From February to April 1987, Miller, Scheidler, and other activists collected about 600 babies from behind a Chicago abortion center. Miller photographed some of the bodies and body parts to document the atrocity of abortion. She also worked with the Catholic Church to ensure the babies were buried properly in marked graves. For several months, Miller kept dozens of boxes filled with aborted babies in her apartment’s spare room as she arranged for their proper burial.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act into law, placing strict penalties on activists who interfere with pregnant women attempting to visit abortion centers. The legislation passed the same year Miller completed her second prison sentence. At that time, she was married with an 18-month-old daughter and a 5-month-old son. After her release, Miller stepped down from leadership in pro-life activism to raise her children. “I needed to focus on them, which meant I could not risk jail time that would take me away from my duties as a mother,” she said in a 2017 interview.

After her children grew up, Miller renewed her involvement with pro-life direct action. In 2017, an email from a fellow former rescuer inspired Miller to restart her sit-in efforts. That December, she helped organize Red Rose Rescues in three states. Police arrested Miller and four other pro-life advocates for refusing to leave the waiting room of a West Bloomfield, Mich., abortion center after they had handed out red roses and offered help to the women. The judge told Miller and her colleagues they would not be allowed to go within 500 feet of any abortion facility. Police arrested Miller outside of a Michigan abortion center the following June. By then, she was in her mid-60s, and she spent 45 days in jail—her first sentence without work or child care conflicts.

Miller saw each of her jail sentences as opportunities to build relationships with her fellow inmates and sometimes even talk women out of abortions.

“Jail has its blessings,” she said in a 2018 interview. “You’re there to give a good example to the other women, you’re there to show compassion and understanding to them. … The women in jail were very good to me, very kind, very pro-life. There was hardly anybody there who didn’t support why I was there.”

‘A young millennial pro-life feminist’

Born in 1988, Lila Rose is the third of eight children. Her protestant parents educated her in their San Jose, Calif., home. Rose first learned about abortion as a 9-year-old when flipping through a book she found in her parent’s house. The book’s images of aborted babies shocked her and sparked her desire to become involved in pro-life activism.

Although her parents were not activists, they taught Rose to value human life and supported her early pro-life work. Six years after first learning about abortion, she started the pro-life group Live Action with some friends in her family’s living room. The group began as a venue for Rose and her friends to learn how to best articulate the truth about abortion. They prepared PowerPoint slides and presented them to local church groups.

The nurses encouraged Rose to get an abortion and told her the school doesn’t support pregnant women.

While in college at UCLA, Rose started a campus chapter of Live Action and began her undercover investigative work. For her first investigation in 2006, she went to the campus health center posed as a pregnant college student to discover what resources the school would offer. The nurses encouraged Rose to get an abortion and told her the school doesn’t support pregnant women.

In later investigations, Rose entered Planned Parenthood facilities and posed as an underage victim of sexual abuse to investigate whether the organization was covering up statutory rape. With her small voice and innocent face, Rose claimed to be pregnant with the child of a much-older boyfriend. She used hidden cameras to capture video of the employees’ responses. After Rose released her early videos online, some Planned Parenthood facilities posted photos of her to warn their staff. But Rose dyed her hair blond and continued infiltrating abortion centers. The undercover videos she released received national attention, leading some state governments to investigate Planned Parenthood facilities.

Rose considered becoming a movie producer or actress, but activist work with Live Action became her post-college career. The organization continued to conduct undercover investigations, and the expanding team began using technology and online media to share content about abortion. Rose left behind her undercover persona and now speaks at conferences, hosts a pro-life podcast, and makes occasional television appearances.

In one minidocumentary from The Atlantic, a journalist described the innovative nature of Rose’s pro-life activism: “She has been able to take the model of a young millennial feminist and turn that into a young millennial pro-life feminist. … She has been able to transform her platform into not just an insurgent bunch of people with handheld cams going into an abortion clinic and trying to find some dirt but rather really a platform for a movement.”

Rose married in the fall of 2018. Now in her early 30s, she lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and their son, who was born in December.

‘Clear-eyed, smart, and relatively rational’

Born in 1989, David Daleiden was the product of an unplanned pregnancy. His parents were seniors in college when he was born and married after they graduated. Daleiden grew up in Davis, Calif., and received his early education in the public school system. His home, he said, was “not super activist or even particularly Catholic,” but he remembers learning about the history of slavery in the United States from his African American kindergarten teacher. Daleiden said that early education influenced his understanding of human injustices.

As a teen, he researched abortion and learned that more than a million abortions happened in the United States annually. Daleiden also found photos of how abortions work and developed a personal pro-life stance. While at a Junior State of America program in high school, he met fellow teen activist Lila Rose. Daleiden joined her organization at age 19 as the director of research and participated in the Mona Lisa project, an undercover investigation of Planned Parenthood facilities.

When he joined Live Action, Daleiden was a student at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. He contributed to a campus publication and belonged to a Catholic student group. While working on an assignment for a professor, Daleiden learned that some researchers used fetal body parts for scientific study. He was attending a conference about stem cell research when one of the presenters mentioned some of her data came from research on aborted babies’ brains. In college, Daleiden secretly recorded a Planned Parenthood representative during an informational meeting at neighboring Pomona College. The school temporarily banned him from the campus.

According to Daleiden’s senior thesis adviser, he was “a basically quiet student. There was no pontificating there on his part whatsoever.”

Daleiden was also smart. He wrote his senior thesis on abortion law in America, and his adviser described the completed paper as a “tour de force, a great piece of work.” Daleiden earned his degree in three years.

Daleiden spent 30 months under a false identity, attending abortion trade shows and visiting Planned Parenthood facilities across the country.

He left Live Action in 2013 to pursue his own undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood’s trafficking of aborted baby body parts. Daleiden spent 30 months under a false identity, attending abortion trade shows and visiting Planned Parenthood facilities across the country. Posing as a representative of a company interested in purchasing fetal remains, he secretly recorded his conversations with Planned Parenthood executives. Daleiden and his colleagues captured footage of these executives talking about how to adjust abortion procedures to best preserve the remains of aborted babies and discussing prices for aborted baby body parts.

The release of Daleiden’s videos during the summer of 2015 sparked congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood’s activity. The abortion giant sued Daleiden to prevent him from releasing any more videos and called the content false and highly edited. Over the next few years, he and his associates faced both civil and criminal charges for acts that included making a fake driver’s license, eavesdropping, and offering to buy tissue from aborted babies.

Daleiden defended his actions under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, saying he was acting as a citizen journalist investigating violent crimes. Others, including some pro-life advocates, called his actions unethical. A Texas court dropped charges against him in 2016, but a California jury ruled in 2019 that Daleiden owed Planned Parenthood $2 million for trespassing, fraud, and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The California civil court case continued into 2020.

Unlike some pro-life activists, Daleiden received sympathy from a few secular journalists. Sandhya Somashekhar of The Washington Post seemed to appreciate the millennial’s selection of a hybrid car, his funky choice of Nightmare Before Christmas socks, and his choice of Clark Kent–style glasses when working undercover. Vice’s Mike Pearl called Daleiden “clear-eyed, smart, and relatively rational” compared to many of his pro-life predecessors. Only relatively, of course—in the eyes of Vice.

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.



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