Q&A with Students for Life president Kristan Hawkins
Kristan Hawkins is a Minnesota-based Catholic laywoman who serves as president of Students for Life of America (SFLA), a national non-profit group that educates and mobilizes high school and college students to end abortion. There are currently more than 930 chapters of the organization in all 50 states. She holds a B.A. in political science from Bethany College in West Virginia.
Mrs. Hawkins previously worked for the 2004 Bush/Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee. She also served as a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2015, she converted to Catholicism.
On Jan. 4, I interviewed Mrs. Hawkins by email about her work.
Since taking over Students for Life of America in 2006, what have been your biggest accomplishments and changes as president?
I was the only full-time staff member when I started in 2006. From then, we have grown to 25 team members with more on the way. In less than 10 years, SFLA has become the dominant pro-life youth organization in America, now working with over 930 college and high school groups in all 50 states. The growth of SFLA and our student pro-life movement is one of my biggest accomplishments as president, and I hope to continue to grow the organization and our initiatives, like the Pregnant on Campus, Rock for Life, and Pro-Life Future. I am always looking for ways to encompass more people into the pro-life movement and into our work at SFLA.
What led you to get involved in pro-life work and what keeps you in it?
I began working in the pro-life movement as a high school student when I volunteered at a pregnancy resource center in Steubenville, Ohio. It was that experience which lead me to go back to my high school and start a pro-life group and become active in the pro-life movement, attending the March for Life, lobbying at my state capitol and organizing protests in my community.
Because of my passion to end abortion, I became interested in politics, and my career goals shifted completely. In 2004, I took time off of college to work for the Bush re-election campaign and then, two weeks after my graduation, I started working in Washington with the Republican National Committee. From there, I moved on to work at HHS as a Bush appointee. When the opportunity to lead Students for Life of America came about, I knew I couldn’t say no. It’s a vocation for me, not a job. There is nothing more important than working to stop the greatest human rights tragedy in our time—abortion. The stories of babies being saved and women being helped by our students is what keeps me going. I know we are turning the tide in our nation to a culture that is more open to life.
What is the goal of your work and how do you pursue it?
Our goal is to abolish abortion, to make it unthinkable and illegal. To that end, we train our 930-plus student pro-life groups every year at our two national conferences in January and work one-on-one on campuses all across the country to make sure these students have the resources they need to help women facing unplanned pregnancies and educate their peers on abortion and its alternatives. We meet students where they are—our Regional Coordinators traveled over 150,000 miles last year to train and meet with students and help them establish their groups on campus. We have educational displays like the Planned Parenthood Project, the Human Rights Tour, and the We Care Tour that we bring to campuses every semester which helps to educate students on various aspects of the pro-life position.
We also launched the one-of-a-kind PregnantonCampus.com earlier this year, which is a unique resource that helps college students search for help on or near their own campuses when facing an unplanned pregnancy. There is information on financial aid, housing, childcare, nearby pregnancy resource centers and places to find inexpensive maternity clothes. We want to do everything we can to help pregnant students feel like they aren’t forced to choose between their child and their education.
After the first undercover Planned Parenthood videos emerged last July, you organized a nationwide rally called Women Betrayed. What has been the progress of this campaign?
The #WomenBetrayed movement has taken off like wildfire. We thought, at best, we would have 10 rallies maybe across the country less than two weeks after the first Center for Medical Progress videos were released but we ended up having about 80, maybe more. We had local leaders emailing us one or two days before the national rally day asking for help in organizing their own event. I think it was so successful because not only was the pro-life movement inspired to get the word out about these videos because they showed what we had suspected Planned Parenthood was doing, but it was also the perfect opportunity to talk to people outside the pro-life movement, specifically Planned Parenthood’s own clientele.
That one day alone in July when we kicked off the national #WomenBetrayed movement, we had over $10 million in earned media coverage. Nearly every single rally was covered by the local media, plus several national cable and mainstream press outlets. We were able to reach the same people that Planned Parenthood wanted to reach and talk to them and tell them that Planned Parenthood was betraying women by seeing them, and their babies, as merely dollar signs.
Since then, we took the message on a week-long bus tour when we kicked off the Planned Parenthood Project in October. In addition, we had a week-long ad in Times Square that said “Planned Parenthood betrays 897 women a day” and pointed them to the www.womenbetrayed.com website to learn more. It was a huge success.
Earlier in your life, you went to Planned Parenthood yourself when you were pregnant, trying to see what kind of services they offered for women who wanted to keep their babies. You’ve continued to follow the organization for a long time. What is your overall impression of the services it offers?
In September, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards testified in front of Congress that 86 percent of her organization’s non-government revenues are from abortion. That’s their bottom line and that’s what they sell. Their own abortionists admitted on camera in the Center for Medical Progress videos that they take money for the body parts of aborted babies, that they change the abortion procedure illegally to get better organs, and that they don’t always get full consent from women having abortions. They have been caught covering up statutory rape, double-billing taxpayers, aiding and abetting sex traffickers, scheduling sex-selective abortions and accepting money to abort African American children. And a former Planned Parenthood director revealed that the organization has abortion quotas.
There is no good that Planned Parenthood does that can outweigh the evil that happens inside their facilities every day. It’s like saying I have no problem taking my child to a pediatrician that is a known pedophile because hey, he’s a great doctor.
There are thousands of other federally funded Community Health Centers that offer the same services Planned Parenthood does, except abortion, and the money they receive from taxpayers—over $500 million a year—should be redirected to those centers.
Although many U.S. pro-life leaders are Christians like you, religion usually doesn’t factor into the reasons people give for opposing abortion. What’s the most effective argument against legal abortion that you’ve found in your work?
One of our campus displays, the Human Rights Tour, asked students to place a post-it note where they thought that life begins on a big banner. They could choose several weeks during the first, second or third trimesters. To many folks’ surprise, a vast majority chose “at conception” or when “heart begins to beat.” This would then lead to a conversation about defending the belief that abortion should be legal at that point when they believe that life begins during the same point in pregnancy. We need to force students—and others—to think about their own beliefs and how they would defend them when it comes to taking the life of an innocent child.
I believe that civil conversations with students, and anyone who is in opposition to the pro-life position, can be fruitful and, at the very least, force people to think about why they believe abortion is O.K.
The Center for Medical Progress videos have also been a game-changer. By viewing even a few minutes of the content, one will need to seriously consider why they are in support of a procedure that takes the life of a fully formed baby in the womb.
We also have another campus tabletop display called the Fetal Pain Tour, which uses medical textbook diagrams to show a baby at 20 weeks gestation and how an abortion is done at that stage. Students generally have no idea what happens and once shown the evidence, they choose to at least agree to restrict abortions after 20 weeks.
A lot of it is education but a lot is just trying to understand the viewpoints of others and being respectful and level-headed when discussing abortion with them. We never know the fruits of the seeds that we plant in the minds of people when we have these discussions with them.
Abortion continues to divide our U.S. political landscape pretty sharply. Where can we find a political common ground on this issue?
Start where people agree—most Americans agree that abortion should be restricted in the second and third trimesters. Also, parental consent laws have support, as do requirements that abortionists should have admitting privileges at area hospitals for safety concerns.
Another area of common ground we find on our work on campuses is support for college students facing unplanned pregnancies. Our Pregnant on Campus Initiative actually works with many Women’s Centers on campuses to make sure that pregnant and parenting students have the resources they need to continue their education and parent their child.
This year’s March for Life protest in Washington, D.C., will mark the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. What realistic chance is there at this point of overturning that law?
It is essential to vote pro-life first in order to elect the right leaders who will place Justices on the Supreme Court who uphold the Constitution, which has no right to abortion written in it. There is no greater issue than the protection of life, from conception to natural death. If a leader doesn’t believe in protecting this foundational right, what will his/her other policies look like?
In your view, what would a more realistic abortion policy look like for the United States in our current political situation?
When Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion laws will go back to states, many of which already have restrictions. I want abortion to be unthinkable as well as illegal. But the pro-life movement needs to have in place the infrastructure to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. In many areas of the country, there are already resources for these women but there has to be more and our culture needs to change to one that accepts life rather than a culture of death.
Short of repealing Roe v. Wade, what can ordinary Americans do to fight for life, ensuring the right of every baby to be born and have a financially secure home?
Firstly, we need to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. Many of our Students for Life groups on campus throw baby showers for these women or their local pregnancy resource center. We released a list of the top schools in the nation that are most friendly to pregnant and parenting students and we hope more schools will follow these colleges and universities as they seek to provide housing, childcare and financial aid to these students.
But we need to do more. We need to make sure that pregnant mothers and their partners know about these resources, that they know about adoption, that they know they have support. Even if abortion is made illegal, women will still want to have abortions and we need to be ready to help them. An unplanned pregnancy can be terrifying and the pro-life movement needs to show America that being pro-life is being pro-woman.
Your organization also works to end euthanasia and infanticide. How is our country doing on these issues right now?
Well, our nation elected the most pro-abortion president in history when President Obama was sworn into office. He voted against protecting babies born alive after botched abortions four different times. The release of the Center for Medical Progress videos indicated that it is possible babies are born alive after abortions and they are being left to die and then have their organs harvested. We need a leader in office who is a stalwart defender of life. We need laws that force severe penalties on abortionists who refuse life-saving treatment to these little babies born alive after failed abortions.
The advancement of euthanasia in this nation is very worrisome. The pro-life position respects life from conception to natural death and euthanasia is a direct attack on that belief. Every life is precious and while suffering is difficult, it can certainly be redemptive and no one but God has the right to take the gift of life.
While we Catholics describe ourselves as “pro-life,” others often call us "anti-abortion," identifying us by what we oppose politically (i.e., your group’s platform on ending abortion, euthanasia and infanticide) rather than by what we support. What positive things (i.e., not things we want to make illegal) do pro-lifers support?
Good question. We support adoption. We support women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. We support throwing awesome baby showers for expectant mothers on campus. We support building relationships with students facing adversity on their campus for simply being pro-life. We support life in all its stages. Life is beautiful—it is a gift, a treasure and we support it 100 percent.
At public events, the U.S. pro-life movement often appears predominantly white and Christian, seeming dominated at times by white Christian women from middle to upper class backgrounds. How do you explain the appeal of this movement to these particular demographic groups?
We have two Spanish-speakers on our small staff and several young men as well. The March for Life consists of overwhelmingly young people. ABC Nightline profiled myself and another young pro-life activist this past summer and followed us to a late-term abortion facility in New Mexico and highlighted the young pro-life women praying outside the facility and reaching out to pregnant women.
At the Easter vigil last year, you converted to Catholicism. What led you to join the Catholic Church?
It was a series of events and conversations and a lot of prayer, that ultimately led to my conversion to Catholicism. When I initially moved to Washington, D.C., I struggled to find a church that believed the same things I did and held the same values as my non-denominational church in West Virginia did. I started to realize that every church was different, and they all don’t believe the same things. I couldn’t find a spiritual home.
Secondly, when I started working for Students for Life of America, I was constantly surrounded by faithful Catholics. I didn’t really know what to make of it. I couldn’t joke that they worshipped Mary or only went to Mass on Christmas and Easter. They had answers to all my Protestant-driven questions and made me think.
Lastly, when my oldest son Gunner was born and diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, the Catholic Church’s teaching on suffering really called to me. I could relate to it and I needed to hear that suffering can be redemptive because when faced with a devastating diagnosis like I was with Gunner, I needed to know the suffering wasn’t for nothing, that Jesus was calling me to use it for him.
How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a wife and mother?
Like I noted above, the theology of suffering has played a role in my life as a mother, and of course as a wife—well, marriage isn’t always easy so there is suffering involved! All of our four kids were baptized recently, and I’m thrilled to welcome them into the same church that has welcomed me. Converting to Catholicism and living it out is hard though.
When I was pregnant with our fourth child this spring, I knew that there would be a 25 percent chance she would have Cystic Fibrosis like her older brother does. When the tests came back a few days after she was born, it was heartbreaking to learn that she shared the same disease as Gunner. Being a Catholic and falling back on the solid teachings of the faith has helped me to deal with living my life as a wife and mom and hopefully made me a better person and example to others.
Other than your conversion to Catholicism, how has your Christian faith changed or evolved throughout the years of your work?
Abortion is evil, and I am confronted with this reality every single day. There is no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of our team members, that we are engaging in a spiritual battle on a daily basis. There is evil out there. There are lost souls. Knowing this reality helps me to cling more closely to my faith than I ever have before because I can’t defeat this evil by myself.
What people living or dead have inspired you the most in your Catholic faith?
Many of the living people who inspire me are our supporters. So many of them are faithful Catholics and others are converts to Catholicism. Obviously they have been praying for me since day one, but they were the ones open to having the conversations about Catholicism and to me asking numerous questions. I don’t know if I would have converted if it weren’t for the faithful Catholics that have surrounded me on my journey.
How do you pray?
Trying to abolish abortion keeps me busy and knowing that I am fighting a spiritual battle keeps me in prayer often. It’s not so much as praying prayers but more of keeping a wide open line to God every day. I can be in the car for hours or on a plane or on my way to meetings yet I am never away from God for a long period of time.
Where do you find God in your life right now?
I find him in my four children—two of whom have Cystic Fibrosis and need extra care. They are innocent, fun and embody life to the fullest. I also find God in my patient husband. He is currently homeschooling our children and is dealing with a houseful of rambunctious boys and one sweet baby girl.
I also find God in our generous supporters. We are kept afloat by gracious donors who see the immense value in the work we do. Without them, we could not be out there on campuses every day, meeting students where they are and spreading the love and compassion of the pro-life movement.
And I find Christ in our team at SFLA, who work diligently to make sure our students have all the resources they need to abolish abortion. They travel hundreds of thousands of miles a year, give up time with their own families, work all kinds of crazy hours and save babies.
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
This is my favorite because it drives me to embody Christ, to live for him, to do everything I can to save the innocent lives that are made in his image. At the end of my life, after hopefully giving all that I have, I can gain eternal life.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?
I would encourage him to continue to increase dialogue with our Protestant brothers and sisters.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
That they should dedicate their lives to something that will save others and to get active in the movement; that they should work to build a culture of life.
What are your hopes for the future?
Immediately, I want to see Planned Parenthood be defunded, to elect a pro-life president, to change our culture in this generation to make sure we have a solid hold on it so that people will not tolerate abortion and that it will be unthinkable. And then I want to abolish abortion.
What are your regrets about the past?
That I didn’t convert to Catholicism sooner.
Any final thoughts?
Some people may not believe that we can change our culture and abolish abortion but we can. This is an achievable goal. Let’s make it happen.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.