When Your Pregnancy Is Political

A conversation with the anti-abortion activist Lila Rose about politicizing one of the defining moments of her life

Brianna Pressey / The Atlantic

The linguistic worlds of pregnancy and abortion are radically different. When someone is experiencing a wanted pregnancy, everyone from doctors to popular websites such as The Bump refer to “your baby” and discuss milestones, like hearing a heartbeat during an early ultrasound. In the political debate over abortion, language is a battlefield. Pro-abortion-rights activists are on high alert for what they describe as efforts to “humanize fetuses,” from policing the line between early “cardiac activity” and “heartbeats,” to calling out a Doritos Super Bowl ad which they saw as portraying a fetus as unrealistically animated, while anti-abortion groups lobby for “the right to life” from the earliest days of pregnancy.

Sometimes, however, these two worlds collide. Lila Rose, who founded and leads the anti-abortion group Live Action, has been an activist on this issue since she was 15. Now, at age 30, she is pregnant for the first time. Although she is still in the early weeks of her second trimester, her pregnancy has quickly become part of her advocacy work.

“Our first ultrasound at 7 weeks, hearing our baby’s heartbeat for the first time,” Rose tweeted in mid-May, along with a video of a monitor screen showing her womb. “How can any abortion supporter in good conscience hear this heartbeat and imagine ending it, not by a hired hitman, but by their own hands?” The tweet was liked 14,000 times, and the replies unspooled into a full-fledged battle over the ethics of abortion; a significant portion of Rose’s 207,000 Twitter followers regularly spar with her over her views. A week later, Rose tweeted about all the disability-detection tests she was offered during her first doctor’s appointment. When Rose asked what would happen if any of the tests were positive, she said, the doctor told her they would consider “our options.” “Our medical system is on a search & destroy hunt for babies w/ disability,” she tweeted. “I’m finding a new doc.”

For any family, pregnancy raises a huge number of questions about bioethics and how public or private they want the experience to be. For Rose, these questions are washed through the additional layer of her professional identity. In a recent conversation, she told me that her pregnancy is about expanding her family and bringing life into the world. But watching the way she has presented her pregnancy online, it has also seemed like a living testament to her political values. Rose found out she was pregnant around the same time that near-total abortion bans in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri were making national headlines this spring. Newly pregnant and watching those debates unfold was “very personally painful,” Rose told me, “to look at the outright misinformation, and the way information is twisted by abortion advocates to try to further dehumanize human beings in the womb.”

Rose is a controversial figure. Her early activism involved posing as an underage sexual abuse victim* and secretly recording her visit to Planned Parenthood facilities. She later trained others to pose as sex traffickers. (In a statement last fall, Planned Parenthood said that “Live Action has a history of doctoring video [and] making false claims, and has no credibility.”) More recently, she has pushed claims that are contested by medical groups, such as her assertion that “abortion is never medically necessary.”

I spoke with Rose about how pregnancy has—and has not—shifted her views about abortion, and how it is inspiring new approaches to her advocacy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Green: Congratulations! What exciting news.

Lila Rose: Thank you. Yeah, we’re very excited.

Green: Have you been using apps that make comparisons to, like, a cherry, and then a slightly bigger fruit—

Rose: It’s been interesting reviewing the pregnancy resources out there. I haven’t found an app yet that has very detailed descriptions of embryonic and fetal development. One of the Live Action projects that we are looking at is creating that app, which actually would provide very detailed information. You would be able to see the skeletal and nervous systems, as well as how it’s affecting your body.

The apps that do exist have rudimentary drawings of what the baby looks like, but it does not look very lifelike, and I don’t know how medically accurate they are. This has been an inspiration to me—we need better resources. What is on the market right now is not up to par for what I think women would appreciate.

Green: Why is it that specific details about the medical development, week by week, appeal to you?

Rose: From the conversations I’ve had with other women, they like to know a lot, and they like to have as much information as possible. Having detailed information about the development of the baby is really, really fascinating. There’s an interesting documentary I watched recently on the developmental process in the womb. It had a lot of detailed information about how your diet, your stress levels, different elements of your lifestyle can impact the development of a child, and how much communication there is between your bodies. I think a lot of women would love to learn more about that if there were more easy-to-access resources about that.

Green: How do you find the tone of pregnancy resources for women?

Rose: It’s funny you asked that. Some of it I find almost comical. There is a fair amount of advice out there. But for a lot of questions, we don’t know why. For example: nausea. I experienced a lot of nausea in the first trimester; most women do. But there’s no medical explanation, so far, for why women get nauseous in the first trimester in pregnancy, which I was shocked to discover. It reminded me just how important investing is—in prenatal care and care for mothers and improved maternal health, but also in research.

Green: The women who use these apps presumably aren’t seeking an abortion. They want to be pregnant. They are excited. They’re seeking all the information they can find. And there’s a lot of talk about the baby as a baby. “Your baby is the size of a pea,” etc. In other spaces, medical or political advocates for abortion are very dogmatic about not calling it “your baby”—not speaking about pregnancy in those terms.

I wonder what it’s been like for you, someone who spends a lot of time on the front lines of the abortion battle, to cross into this other space where you’re an expecting mom, just like other moms, and it’s a normal and accepted thing to just talk about your baby as your baby.

Rose: I wasn’t surprised that that was the paradigm, which is a false dichotomy—a child in one context and a blob of tissue that should be aborted in another. I find the conversation around the heartbeat bills that have been passed very striking. On the one hand, you research, “When does the baby’s heart start beating?” and doctors, medical experts, and any number of motherhood websites talk about how you can hear the heartbeat at six or seven or eight weeks. And you have all this new reporting being done by abortion advocates in media who are trying to discredit heartbeat bills by saying, “It’s actually not a heartbeat, it’s an electrical flicker,” or, “The science behind the heartbeat bill is incorrect.” Well, if the science behind the heartbeat bill is incorrect, then every single ob-gyn who has been telling their patients that they can hear the heartbeat at six and seven weeks, they have also been lying to their patients for years.

For me, that was personally very painful, to look at the outright misinformation and the way information is twisted by abortion advocates to further dehumanize human beings in the womb. It just shows that we have to dehumanize in order to protect this so-called right to abortion.

Green: Why did you tell the world so early into your pregnancy?

Rose: Every couple is different about when they choose to share publicly about a pregnancy. I know the reason to avoid sharing earlier is because of the potential for miscarriage. But even in a situation of a miscarriage, I still consider that my son or daughter. And I would have felt that I needed to grieve him or her.

Also, I was so excited to share the news. The first trimester is a time that’s terribly misunderstood about an embryo’s development. People don’t really understand how quickly that baby grows, how early the heart is beating, how early brain waves are already formed. It’s incredible, how quickly a child grows in the first trimester. So I wanted the opportunity to get to talk about my baby’s development.

Green: You’ve been thinking intensely about abortion since you were at least 15 years old. Now, you’re in this different position. It’s very different to be a pregnant person. I wonder how the experience of getting pregnant has changed, or opened new horizons on, your thinking about pregnancy and abortion.

Rose: I think it’s deepened my conviction about the preciousness of pregnancy, and the importance of caring for and respecting women who are pregnant.

I’ve always been a big advocate of pregnancy resources for women. But being pregnant myself just affirms how important that is to me. I’m blessed: I have a husband, I have a home, I have nutritious food to eat. That reaffirms how important it is to make these resources available to women experiencing pregnancy, to not just provide physical resources but emotional support and other forms of community support to women. Pregnancy can be a roller coaster emotionally. It can be taxing physically. It is a very important time in a woman’s life that impacts her not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Green: You tweeted about having your seven-week ultrasound and getting a lot of inquiries from a doctor about tests that could potentially detect abnormalities. What happened, exactly?

Rose: My husband and I had been looking for a pro-life doctor. We had just moved to Los Angeles, and we were given some recommendations. One of the ones that we visited presented herself as “pro-life.” But after talking to her more, I don’t think she understood where I was coming from.

It’s not to say that these tests should never be used, or can never be used responsibly. In some high-risk situations, if you are predisposed because of your family background, it would help to understand what disability your baby may have so you can be better prepared to care for that baby. Or there are treatments you can do, potentially, in utero.

But she already knew our genetic history. She already knew that we didn’t have any reason to think that there would be an abnormality. I asked her, “Are these tests all necessary? What would they be used for?” and she said, “To detect any abnormality or disability.” And I said, “And then what do we do with that information?” And that’s when she said, “Well, then you consider your options.” And I said, “Well, what are our options?” And she included termination as an option.

It was striking to me that even somebody who used the word pro-life considers it standard to provide termination as an option if there’s any whiff of disability or abnormality. To have that presented to me and my husband was painful. I would prefer a 100 percent pro-life doctor. They can be hard to find, but they exist. One that is not going to kill a child just because they are seen as less than perfect.

Green: Having had the ultrasound at seven weeks, and then at 11 weeks—has that changed your understanding of what it might be like to get bad news? Like, if you were a mom, and you found out there was a strong likelihood that your child would have Tay-Sachs—has living through those moments in pregnancy changed your level of empathy for what that experience might be like?

Rose: I don’t know that I feel a different degree of empathy, because I did feel a lot of empathy before. But I do feel even more strength, being pregnant, that I want to do whatever I can to protect my baby. No matter what challenge he or she may be facing, I want to face it with them and for them, as much as I can. So I think it makes it even more visceral for me, that sense of protectiveness that I feel.

Green: You’ve said that there’s never any medical reason for abortion. I wonder if, having gone through some of those tests yourself and been in the vulnerable position of having the ultrasound, you would soften or think differently about the kinds of decisions parents might be making in those situations, where they want to have a happy, healthy baby, but there’s some medical situation where it seems like that’s impossible, and abortion is the route they feel they have to take medically and morally?

Rose: If anything, it strengthens my complete opposition to seeing a less-than-healthy baby as less than precious. Abortion is not a medical treatment. It doesn’t make a baby healthier, it doesn’t make a woman healthier. It just kills.

If my child were to face a life-threatening diagnosis or some sort of disability, my child deserves just as much love from me and my husband. And I hope that our society can be one of compassion and love and advocacy, as opposed to believing it would be better that you died, which is, unfortunately, the way a lot of our health-care system is set up right now for babies before birth.

Green: Well, I’m not necessarily talking about conditions such as Down syndrome, where it’s very possible to live a long life. I’m talking about conditions, especially those diagnosed later in pregnancy, where, for example, the brain is growing outside of the baby’s head. That’s something that doctors might term as being incompatible with life—there’s no way for a baby to live after it exits the womb. In that scenario, do you think it’s wrong or inconceivable that a family or an expecting mother might feel like she has to have an abortion?

Rose: Well, she doesn’t have to have an abortion. If your baby has a life-threatening condition like hydrocephalus—if there’s water on the brain, or the brain is developing outside of the baby’s body—there have been babies that have been born that way, or surgeries that have been done that have allowed that baby to live a year or two or even longer. Often a baby like that can die during delivery or minutes after birth. But there is a tremendous difference morally, and I think personally, for the bond between parents and a child to intentionally destroy a human life, and to love that child in his or her last moments when they’re dying naturally.

Doctors talk to women and patients about abortion as if it’s a humane thing to do. That is flat-out wrong. It’s a lie. When you actually look at what happens during a late-trimester abortion procedure, such as a second-trimester D&E, these are really cruel, inhumane acts against these children. They involve tearing the child limb from torso, or the lethal injection of a drug into a baby’s heart which poisons them to death over an hour’s time. This is not you magically wishing the baby’s life away and it goes to heaven. These are traumatic, barbaric, cruel acts against human beings, instead of allowing them to die with dignity in the loving arms of someone who cares for them.

Green: Has your pregnancy been scary?

Rose: It hasn’t been, thankfully. But from friends I have, and women I’ve talked to, I can understand how it can feel that way, especially if there is fear of miscarriage, or if your pregnancy is high-risk. You’re dealing with the potential for life and death, both for your baby and also in the process of giving birth. And I think that’s why it so important that we continue to improve the high maternal mortality rates here in the U.S., which are abysmally [high] for a developed country.

Green: What are the things that you’d like to see happen to improve maternal mortality rates?

Rose: I do think the more doctors can see and care for both—consider the patient the mother, and consider the patient the baby—will improve outcomes for both mom and child. I think a lot of our health-care system is set up for speed, and that’s why, for example, our C-section rate is so high in America. Some C-sections are important and necessary—they can be lifesaving. But there is this rush, mentally, to the labor-and-delivery process, and it’s not as personalized and careful to work with the woman’s body when she’s ready to give birth. So I think that the over-medicalization of pregnancy can be problematic.

Green: That’s pretty crunchy!

Rose: That’s pretty crunchy?

Green: Yeah!

Rose: How so?

Green: I hear that rhetoric most often from the natural-birth movement, or people who are trained midwives—people who want to focus on women’s bodies in the birthing process and push back against the C-section culture, etc.

Rose: I mean, it might have a little crunch in it. I appreciate what doctors can do, and that they can save lives. But I respect people who choose to have home births, or choose to do births in bathtubs. I hope to have a doula at the birth of my baby.

It’s not to say that doctors shouldn’t be involved in birth, that C-sections are all bad, because it’s clearly not true. But I think in health care, when doctors are rushed, when there are numbers to meet or there’s a certain number of patients to get to, it can harm the amount of personalized care that’s given. So it comes back to, how much do we value pregnancy? How much do we value labor and delivery? How much do we value the baby?

Green: I have noticed a baby boom among Millennial conservative women. Has being pregnant strengthened your political cause—like, your body is the best evidence for everything you’ve been saying for all these years?

Rose: I don’t know that I would see it that way. [Laughs.] I’m pregnant because I got married and I love my husband and, thank God, we were able to conceive. If what you’re getting at is there’s some conspiracy among young conservative women—

Green: Not a conspiracy—

Rose: Like, now’s our time to be pregnant, to own the left—

Green: No, no, no. Not a conspiracy. More just, when you yourself are pregnant and somebody says, “Have you ever thought about what it’s like to be a pregnant woman?” You can be like, “Well, I am.” It’s sort of the ultimate argument, right?

Rose: Before becoming pregnant, when I would talk about the development of a baby in the womb, or pregnancy, or abortion, I didn’t feel like I was disqualified from talking about it. I don’t think those are ideas that only pregnant people get to have.

The most important part of being pregnant, to me, is that I have the honor of carrying my son or daughter, and that my husband and I are growing our family. It has an implication for my work. I can now share about the development of my baby. But the first focus is, this is me growing a family. This is my son or my daughter.

* This article has been updated to clarify that Lila Rose once posed as an underage sex abuse victim and later trained others to pose as sex traffickers, but did not pose as a prostitute, herself. The story has also been updated to remove a reference to a document from the National Right to Life Committee that discusses potential scenarios where life-saving care for a pregnant woman may result in the death of a fetus, rather than the woman seeking an elective abortion.