Students for Life starts to build on Northeast campuses

Printed from:

BOSTON – After graduating from college in May, New Jersey native Jane Riccardi headed for New England on a rare assignment – to spur on the infant pro-life student movement in one of the most progressive pockets of the country.

Although Riccardi, 23, had spent some time as a student working on various causes, she joined the national Students for Life organization in 2015 as one of 10 regional coordinators, and the  first one to hold the post full-time in New England. Since she started, five new high school chapters and two at local colleges have been set up in the region.

The expansion is among the latest moves by Kristan Hawkins, the president of the Spotsylvania, a Virginia-based organization that took on a new name under her leadership in 2006. In the past decade, more than 900 student groups have sprouted on high school and college campuses across all 50 states, including 20 in Massachusetts.The organization’s national conference attracts thousands of students each year.

“This is the only pro-life group that has people everywhere,” Hawkins said in an interview. “They eat, live, breathe pro-life activism.”

But the group is facing significant challenges. A May 2015 Gallup poll showed that the term “pro-choice” was more popular among Americans than “pro-life” for the first time since 2008. A spring 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that while young adults prefer to avoid such controversial labels, a strong 56 percent oppose making abortions more difficult to obtain. A recent Associated Press poll showed rising support  for legal abortion among Republicans.

And yet, in the midst of all the political yammering, as the Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has pointed out, fewer young people are actually getting abortions.

With all the extremist connotations associated with the debate over abortion, Students for Life has adopted a somewhat surprising mission.

As its name signifies, the organization is almost entirely led by students in groups of five to 10 members on campuses. Around 40 groups exist on New England campuses, through which students have a two-fold mission – to advocate for unborn children and to help women. Much of their focus, Hawkins said, is aiding pregnant women on campus and offering them options through their “Pregnant on Campus” initiative.

“If you look at two of our different regions, the Northeast and California, these are states that have the biggest abortion rates,” Hawkins said. “Students understand this is something that is really important to fight for.”

Compared with previous generations who communicated anti-abortion messages, the organization has altered their approach, Hawkins said. Shocking people with bloody images, she added, often merely turns them off from discussions of the issues. They’ve joined with other campus groups across the political spectrum for conversations about sexual assault and rape.

“The younger pro-life generation has to change their rhetoric – the science is clearly on our side,” Hawkins said. “You can’t talk about the baby or fetus, science is very clear. You need to talk in terms of women’s rights.”

Riccardi said she aims to educate and advocate for women.

“Our goal is not to take away women’s health care but to give them other options,” Riccardi said in an interview about abortion providers. “Our Pregnant on Campus initiative is helpful because it shows we care about women, and this is what empowering women looks like.”

But Riccardi’s vision for New England is brazen.

“I want to see the pro-life movement incorporated into academia,” she said. “My biggest pet peeve is when people view pro-life as anti-progressive – that you can’t be academically or intellectually astute and pro-life.”

Based on student advocates she has encountered at Ivy League schools, she believes that perception is reversible.

“People are inclined to more academic conversation than activism, so I think that’s where change will be most possible,” she said. “If we can transform these campuses, it’s very strategic location for pro-life movement in general.”

Despite the difficulties she expects to encounter, Riccardi remains optimistic. When that transformation occurs, she said, “it’s going to be very, very forceful.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.