It’s a quandary for many of the 2024 Republican presidential candidates set to debate this Wednesday night: how to talk about abortion in America now that their long-held goal of overturning Roe v. Wade has been achieved. What should new abortion laws and limits look like? What should the exceptions be if there even should be exceptions? Should there be a federal ban on abortion nationwide, or should the issue be left to the states? In red-leaning and purple states, voters have rejected ballot measures that would limit abortion rights. The failure of Ohio’s Issue 1, which would have made it harder to amend the state’s Constitution to protect abortion rights, was just the latest of a series of similar outcomes.
The candidates have offered a range of views, including some pretty squishy talk. But Kristan Hawkins, president of Students For Life of America, is undeterred about her mission — “to see abortion made unavailable and unthinkable in the United States.” Ms. Hawkins, president of the group since 2006, has become one of the anti-abortion movement’s most intransigent activists. Even as Republican presidential candidates shy away from anti-abortion groups that were once reliable comrades, Ms. Hawkins remains committed to her group’s strategy. “Fundamentally, if you don’t think abortion is a federal issue, then you have no business running for federal office, because obviously you haven’t been paying attention,” she said.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.
Jane Coaston: Should there be a federal abortion law? And if so, what should it look like?
Kristan Hawkins: Yes. There should be a federal law prohibiting abortion and protecting women and children from the abortion industry, absolutely. As the Biden administration has sadly, yet effectively demonstrated, especially this past year and a half, abortion is both a federal and a state issue.
Coaston: That puts you in a different position from other groups. Some other anti-abortion groups have argued for a 15-week federal ban with exceptions. You do not favor that. Can you tell me, one, why? And two, how are you looking to help get voters and Republican legislatures on board?
Hawkins: I don’t think I’m actually in disagreement with other national pro-life groups. The fundamental premise of the pro-life movement is that we want to see abortion to be made unthinkable and unavailable throughout our country. I think there are some folks who believe, sadly, what the G.O.P. leadership is telling them — that a 15-week type of bill is the only thing that is possible. We obviously prefer starting that conversation with earlier protections.
Coaston: So a six-week ban, for example?
Hawkins: Yeah. Right now in states, we are working with legislators, and the conversations I’ve been having with some of the candidates are, at minimum, starting with a Heartbeat Protection Act law that prevents abortions when children’s heartbeats can be detected. We also have introduced life at conception legislation as well. So we have very much an early abortion model.
Coaston: In Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio, relatively conservative states, people have voted against efforts to restrict or change rules that could lead to increased restrictions on abortion. Patrick T. Brown from the Ethics and Public Policy Center has argued that the result in Ohio’s Issue 1 vote was a “five-alarm fire” for the pro-life movement. Do you agree or disagree? What did you take away from the results?
Hawkins: My takeaway from Issue 1 is that it’s a five-alarm fire in terms of funding. The pro-life movement is not getting the funding that the abortion lobby is getting. I think that’s our largest concern at this moment, where G.O.P. leaders aren’t leading on this issue. They’re not leading their donors to lead on this issue. And the result is just walking away. It’s a little hard to, in the minds of an everyday voter, convince them why they should turn out to vote, and to really talk about what’s really at stake.
[According to campaign finance reports filed with Ohio’s secretary of state in July, the official “No” campaign out-raised the official “Yes” campaign, $14.8 million to 4.9 million. Those numbers do not include funds raised by other pro-Issue 1 groups like Protect Women Ohio, which received millions of dollars from anti-abortion groups and conservative organizations.]
Coaston: Do you feel like Republican officials promised you and other anti-abortion activists and voters something that they’re not delivering now that they could deliver it?
Hawkins: We’ve always said how proud we are that the conservative movement is the three-legged stool that President Reagan famously referred to, and how social conservatives were one of the important legs of the stool. And I think what we’ve seen since the fall of Roe has been just this unwillingness to engage on this issue. When the G.O.P. leaders are willing to engage, they’re not willing to speak out on this issue. When Leader McConnell [the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell] came out and said he wasn’t going to be pressuring his members to support a measly 15-week pain protection bill, you instantly saw G.O.P. donors deflate on this issue. Leadership has that influence on the activists, on the donors. How many freaking elections do the G.O.P. need to lose before they understand how important social conservatives, how important pro-life voters and activists are to the conservative movement?
Coaston: How do you think the Dobbs decision changed how pro-life groups function?
Hawkins: For Students for Life, it didn’t change anything. This is why I built Students for Life, to be a post-Roe organization, to have trained activists, 170,000 activists in all 50 states. I think Dobbs just sped up the urgency and the number of fights.
Coaston: Do you worry that the no-exceptions call to abolish abortion is making things harder politically for the overarching anti-abortion cause? Do you see people saying there should be more of a step-by-step process?
Hawkins: I think that when you look back at the history of social reformers across our country, there’s always varying tactics and strategies within those social reform movements. But I think our role as a social movement is not to be simply a wing of the Republican Party. Many of our young people don’t even consider themselves to be Republicans. Many of them consider themselves to be independent. We don’t consider ourselves that extension. Our job is to be that standard-bearer of holding that North Star up, saying this is where we’re going.
I had a funny situation happen to me at a conservative conference a couple of months ago. I had some student interns who I’d been mentoring there and meeting folks, and at the end of the night I said to one of the students, “How did it go today?” And she told me that she had this conversation with this person who works in the conservative movement who said, “Oh yeah, you work for Kristan Hawkins, that girl who’s never satisfied.” At first, I was like: “Who said that? Who said that?” But then it became so funny because that is what we’re doing. We are never satisfied.
I will be that person who’s never satisfied until we reach that day where no woman feels she has to choose the violence of abortion in order to be a free, equal member of our society, in order to complete her education or reach her career goals.
Coaston: Do you think that the way that pro-life groups try to persuade voters needs to change?
Hawkins: I think we need to be careful about listening to inside-the-Beltway consultants when we’re talking about how to speak with the voters on this issue, because I think we need to be very real with them about the abortion extremism that’s really at stake here, because this is an 80 percent issue for us. Eighty percent of Americans disagree with the notion that abortion should be legal up until the moment of birth. That is an easy issue. I’m talking to a student on campus. I’ll say, “Look, you may not agree that all abortions are wrong, that all abortions need to be stopped and need to be prevented. But your position on abortion is probably a lot closer to my position on abortion than it certainly is with the Democratic National Committee’s platform or Planned Parenthood.”
[According to Gallup, 34 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under any circumstance, while 51 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances. Thirteen percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal within the first three months of pregnancy, a record high for the polling organization.]
Coaston: I remember about a year or so ago, you called attention to some pretty extreme comments from Representative Matt Gaetz, who basically said that pro-choice women are too ugly to have to need abortions. How do you talk to men about abortion in a way that is both helpful and prevents this kind of rhetoric?
Hawkins: Well, it was sad to see Representative Matt Gaetz talk like a liberal, because those are the comments I get every single day from liberal pro-choice men on social media. As an overweight pro-life leader, the comments I get are insane. They are the most uncharitable comments you would ever experience that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Fundamentally, the pro-life movement, we’re saying every human being has value and has worth. And when you’re calling out people based on their appearance, you’re doing exactly what the abortion lobby does every day and the comments that we see and I get dozens and dozens of times a day about how I’m so fat, no one would ever have sex with me, and that’s why I’m pro-life.
Sadly, it’s been a theme that’s come up recently broadly in the conservative movement, conservatives calling out body-positivity movements. And obviously, we should not be encouraging obesity. But I think we need to be careful about how we talk about that. To your question, my message does not change when I’m talking to men or talking to women about abortion, because I’m talking fundamentally about what abortion is: It’s the violent ending of a unique, whole living human life that will never exist again, and how it’s fundamentally an act of injustice.
Now, if I’m talking to a woman about abortion, she may bring up real-life circumstances or she may talk about her challenges, or her sister’s challenges, or her friend’s challenge being pregnant, or her fears of becoming pregnant or being parenting in the workplace, which we need to talk about and we need to address. But the message doesn’t change for us if we’re talking to a pro-choice male or female.
Coaston: I noticed your group promotes a lot of things on issues of paid leave, work flexibility, making college campuses better for parents and for women who are pregnant. Do you think the pro-life movement should be more focused, talking more about adoption or foster care or work flexibility? Do you think that should be something that’s coming up more, or should there be more focus on limits to abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood?
Hawkins: I think both. When we understand that abolishing abortion is not simply a political goal, it’s not simply something that’s going to be done in the body politic. There’s also the question of the demand for abortion and the reasons women feel like they have to choose abortion.
Running nearly a 100-person organization, the majority of my team members are females. They’re pro-life, so they’re getting pregnant. I know the real commitment it takes from the workplace level to accommodate and to welcome and to support pregnant and parenting staff members, and so I think it’s a natural extension of what we’re doing in the pro-life movement. Sometimes, you’ll hear in the pro-life movement, some folks will tactically say, “Well, let’s focus 100 percent on ending the killing. Then, we’re going to focus on supporting women.”
How do we change minds on abortion? It’s very much the adage of, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” scenario. When we’ve done polling with Pro-Life Advancement about the brand of the pro-life movement, about the brand of the G.O.P. movement, fundamentally if people think you’re an angry bigot who hates women, they’re not going to really listen to you when you make a scientific case as to why the child in the womb is a unique member of our species and is valuable and should be protected. People have to actually like you or at least respect you to listen to what you have to say.
And part of that is they need to understand that you do care, that you may disagree about these issues, but you’re not doing this out of malice or hate in your heart, which I think that’s what the abortion lobby has done so well when trying to frame pro-lifers as old, angry white men who just want to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen in 1930s America, which is not the case. This is why pro-life women are hated much more than pro-life men. If I say I’m a feminist, would people get angry with me for me to say that I’m a feminist?
Coaston: There have been some pretty difficult stories this last year about women in states like Florida who have carried pregnancies with horrifying complications to term against their wishes, like babies without vital organs. A lot of Americans seem to look at that and say, “That’s a massive cost.” How do you persuade people that they should support laws where there can be incredibly difficult outcomes sometimes?
Hawkins: Our position does not change. When you’re talking about cases of severe fetal abnormality, one, I would say we need to be very careful about that because even your own publication came out saying 80 percent of prenatal testing is wrong.
Now, obviously, when you’re looking at a situation where there’s a major malformation that’s taken place during development, you can see that child not developing part of his or her brain or limbs or something like that via ultrasound, that’s obviously a different scenario than the genetic test, which might say, “You have a child with Down syndrome,” when you don’t, or, “Your child who has cystic fibrosis,” when you don’t.
[Last year, The New York Times published an investigation which found that even though screenings are very accurate when they look for more common genetic disorders like Down syndrome, certain newer tests that purport to identify rare abnormalities get their positive results wrong 80 percent to 93 percent of the time.]
Coaston: There will be difficult outcomes sometimes with laws that limit abortion. That’s just a thing. How are you working to persuade people to support those laws anyway?
Hawkins: I mean, there are always difficult outcomes to pregnancy, because not every pregnancy results in the live birth of a child or a child who will survive years after his or her birth. That is sadly guaranteed. But I don’t think those tragedies tell us that we need to keep abortion legal in all nine months. Those are not cures to difficult situations. Abortion is not a cure to a difficult situation or potentially life-threatening situation a mother may find herself in. The violence of rape is not cured by the violence of abortion. The life-threatening risk of sepsis or high blood pressure from a woman who is in their 25th, 26th week doesn’t have to be cured by abortion either. There may need to be maternal fetal separation and pro-life doctors, pro-life advocates and leaders absolutely understand that, but it’s about treating both lives with dignity and respect.
[Anti-abortion groups differentiate abortion, which they argue to be the deliberate killing of a fetus, from “maternal-fetal separation,” in which the fetus is removed from the uterus through C-section or induction where the fetus may or may not survive.]
Coaston: We’re in the midst of a presidential primary. Where do you hope the Republican Party is on abortion when the convention starts next summer, and where are you worried the party might be?
Hawkins: We have a strong pro-life platform, the party, so I’m not concerned about the party. I’m concerned about the leaders of the party adhering to their platform and fighting to advance their platform. That’s what needs to happen. Whoever becomes the nominee for president, those who are running for the U.S. Senate in key swing states, to be unapologetic about their pro-life beliefs. They need to be educated in how to address these questions that they get asked by the media. Fundamentally, if you don’t think abortion is a federal issue, then you have no business running for federal office, because obviously you haven’t been paying attention.
A few days after Ms. Hawkins and I spoke, Time magazine published a widely read story about the pregnancy of a 13-year-old girl, whose mother says she was raped, in Mississippi. Because the story touched on some of the challenges we spoke about, I followed up in email with Students for Life. A spokesperson responded with Ms. Hawkins’ responses, which have been edited for length.
Coaston: Mississippi prides itself on being a pro-life state. What does it need to do, in your view, to live up to that promise? What went wrong with the response to this crime?
Hawkins: When a woman or girl is raped, the first response should be to ensure that she is protected, safe, and getting the care she needs. Any failures on the part of our social services to address that should not be camouflaged by a discussion of abortion. Women and girls need and deserve to be safe, protected, and defended. That should be priority No. 1. Counseling, shelter and support must follow.
Our response to tragedy must be to help those suffering, not to cover up a crime with something that doesn’t address any of the underlying problems. The day after an abortion a woman or girl still has the same issues as before, if she is unsafe, but now, she has to deal with the violence of abortion as well.
Coaston: Just to be maximally straightforward for our readers: Is this a case in which you would support this girl having access to abortion?
Hawkins: I would support this precious girl having access to safety and support, access to education, access to police and social worker protections, access to resources, and freedom from fear. For a survivor of rape, those things are of vital importance. Helping a rape survivor, providing loving care, is a process, not a moment in time. Both mother and child deserve our support and respect. Consider how valuable Jesse Jackson has been to the Civil Rights Movement, and what a loss it would have been if he had not been born.