The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new face of the antiabortion movement is a young mom of 6 who listens to Lizzo

Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman. (Neeta Satam /For The Washington Post)

ST. LOUIS — When state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman stepped up to the microphone, her male colleagues stopped talking. Inside a crisis pregnancy center, Missouri’s secretary of state, three state representatives, a state senator and several support staff — all White men — settled into their folding chairs to listen to the woman one called the “female face of the pro-life movement.”

“I’m a mother of six,” Coleman, 39, said as she addressed the 20 people in the crowd. “My first son was born between my first and second years of law school. My second son was nursed as I was handed my law school degree.”

She’d brought everyone together on this afternoon in mid-December to announce her new antiabortion bill, an eight-week ban mimicking the law that has successfully eradicated almost all abortions in Texas since Sept. 1. Coleman chose to debut her legislation here, in a room with rhinestone-studded walls and a “believe in your selfie” station, because the pregnancy center’s guiding ethos aligns with her own: Faced with an unexpected pregnancy, Coleman says, women “will rise to the occasion.”

“Women deserve better than abortion,” she said before passing the mic to the first of five men.

In the spring of 2019, as state after state passed unprecedented abortion bans, the antiabortion movement was criticized for the White male faces who led the charge. As advocates on both sides now brace for the end of Roe v. Wade, the antiabortion movement has reimagined its message and its messengers. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case that could eliminate the constitutional right to abortion, the state of Mississippi centered the woman, rather than the baby, arguing that abortion bans “empower” women to be their full selves, a claim critics say is hypocritical, especially coming from privileged White politicians. Coleman is among the young women and mothers who have emerged to usher the antiabortion movement into its next phase.

While Republicans have long lagged behind Democrats in electing women to public office, GOP women triumphed in 2020, when 17 won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many young, conservative women who have won seats at the state level are now leading the antiabortion cause, said Sue Liebel, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect antiabortion candidates. In West Virginia, 32-year-old Kayla Kessinger. In Ohio, 27-year-old Jena Powell. In Florida, 44-year-old Erin Grall. Liebel travels from state to state, recruiting them.

At the crisis pregnancy center, state Rep. Doug Richey (R), who spoke after Coleman, said he’s been told to “sit down and shut up” because, as a man, he has “no right” to speak about abortion. Richey points his skeptics to women like Coleman, who he says understand the “challenges and difficulties” of motherhood.

“Anyone who would claim that the pro-life community is just a bunch of men who are trying to control the lives of women — they do not know what reality is,” Richey said.

Coleman gets a little thrill from defying people’s expectations. She is a Catholic attorney who buttons her cotton cardigans all the way to the top but blasts Lizzo and Beyoncé as she runs at 6 o’clock in the morning. After a long day, she and her husband will indulge in a cocktail from the book “Drinking With the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour.” Then she turns on “The West Wing” — her favorite TV show, despite the Democratic president.

As the event ended, Coleman stood between her navy- and black-blazered colleagues for a picture, distinct in Chanel lip gloss and a designer dress.

“A rose between many thorns,” one of the male politicians said as they moved into position.

Coleman looked into the camera and laughed. Soon news of her bill would reach the Planned Parenthood clinic five blocks down the road.

“I think there are some who would call me a thorn,” she said.

If Coleman ever runs for national office, she knows what her walk-up song will be. Driving her Chevy Suburban home from the state Capitol in Jefferson City the week before she filed her bill, Coleman belted out “Piece of Me” by Britney Spears.

“With a kid on my arm, I’m still an exceptional player,” she sings. “You want a piece of me?”

The song takes her back to her 2018 campaign for state representative, when she went door to door for hours with her 1-year-old on her back, while her older kids — now 16, 15, 13, 12 and 10 — trailed behind. In Coleman’s Catholic community on the outskirts of St. Louis, her family is a “normal” size: You’re not truly “big” until you have eight or nine kids, she says. (To fit her family, her next-door neighbor had to buy a bus.)

After an eight-year career as an estate lawyer, Coleman said she turned to state politics out of frustration. She didn’t think the other Republican candidates could flip her purple district.

“I just looked around the field and thought, ‘These guys can’t win and I can.’ ”

Soon pundits were calling her “The Iron Lady of Jefferson County,” where she lives, after the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Coleman relishes the comparison — almost as much as she appreciates another one people sometimes draw, to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. A Catholic mother of seven, Barrett represents a version of feminism that aligns with Coleman’s own antiabortion views, the state representative says. Coleman has reclaimed an iconic critique of Barrett with a laptop sticker that reads, in swirly cursive: “May the dogma live loudly within you.”

“If the alternative is to be called a hypocrite, then yeah, I’m glad that the dogma lives loudly within me,” Coleman said.

Coleman knew she’d do more than her competitors to further the antiabortion effort. Five months after joining the legislature, she was part of the four-person team that passed House Bill 126, Missouri’s “heartbeat bill,” which would further limit abortion across the state. Although the courts struck down the eight-week abortion ban before it took effect, Coleman and her colleagues intentionally drafted their bill as a package of restrictions, some of which would take effect even if others were blocked. The bill included a “trigger law,” which would ban all abortions as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned.

At Planned Parenthood, staff refer to Coleman by her first name. “Oh, I know Mary Elizabeth,” said Chief Medical Officer Colleen McNicholas, eyebrows raised. McNicholas has been providing abortions in Missouri for 10 years and sits in an office plastered with uterus-themed greeting cards (“Sorry I ovary-acted”). When Coleman emerged as a leader in Missouri’s antiabortion movement, McNicholas said she wasn’t surprised.

By changing the faces out front, she said, conservative leaders are “trying to move away from the obvious, which is that antiabortion laws and regulations are misogyny.”

But women can be misogynistic, too, she said: “Particularly White women and White women of privilege.” Abortion bans disproportionately impact low-income women and women of color, McNicholas added, who are already fighting to overcome the many layers of systemic oppression. Coleman can make these arguments against abortion because she “benefits from the system,” McNicholas said.

When Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch called on the Supreme Court to use Dobbs to overturn Roe v. Wade, she asked the justices to consider how much has changed since the landmark case in 1973. While an unwanted pregnancy once may have spelled professional ruin, 50 years later, Fitch claimed that “sweeping policy advances” have “empowered” women to fully pursue motherhood and a career, rendering abortion unnecessary. In the past few weeks, Fitch’s slogan — “Empower women, promote life” — has been mass-printed on masks, posters and tote bags. Coleman used it as the title for her new heartbeat bill.

“There is this idea that to forge a path for more women at the table, you have to sacrifice your family or your children,” Coleman said. “But I think it’s actually the incredible opposite. I think I only have the capacity to do the other work because I put my children first.”

The national antiabortion movement has identified Coleman as a particularly effective steward of this message. After a lifetime of antiabortion activism, praying outside clinics, Coleman adopted her two youngest, both kids of color. She loves being a mom, she said, and kisses each of her six kids on the forehead before she leaves the house each morning. “God bless you and keep you,” she’ll say.

“Those of us who are mothers can assure other women that we are empowered,” said Leibel of Susan B. Anthony List: “That becoming a mother didn’t take away my power. In fact, it gave me power.”

Politicians like Coleman have to tread carefully. Abortion rights advocates immediately attacked Fitch for what they called the hypocrisy of her argument. Just because Fitch was able to raise three kids as a working single mother, they said, doesn’t mean everyone else has the resources to do the same. If Fitch really cared about mothers, many chimed in, she’d support policies like paid leave and government subsidized day care.

People will say the same things about Coleman — and she is savvy enough to realize that the optics aren’t great. She lives in a large house in the suburbs, with a wreath on every window and a kitchen stocked with 15 different kinds of cocktail glasses. “I couldn’t do any of this if it wasn’t for Chris,” she often says, referring to her husband, an accountant and amateur mixologist who handles a large chunk of the child care. There have been times when she has employed not one but two nannies: one at home and one in Jefferson City, two hours away, at an apartment she used to rent while the legislature was in session.

To help pregnant women, Coleman suggests education and tax policies that “support the family.” As evidence, she cites her grandfather, an immigrant who took a job as a railroad laborer and worked his way up. Coleman credits a good education and a steady job: “Now all his grandchildren have college degrees.” If those policies come up short, she says, pregnant women can turn to churches and nonprofits. These organizations don’t need to offer support for very long, she argues. A supply of diapers, a stroller or some rent money can get women over the hump, she adds, until they realize that they made the right decision.

“It’s a small amount of help that makes a difference,” she said.

In the United States, the average cost of raising a child is $233,610.

Coleman’s bill was still warm when she held it in her hands for the first time.

“Eighty-eight pages,” she said, flipping through the stack of paper on her desk in Jefferson City. “Hot off the presses.”

The Capitol that day in mid-December was mostly empty, as it will be until the legislature convenes on Jan. 5. Once session begins, Coleman will be spending almost every day there, in her office stocked with Nerf guns, sippy cups and tubes of Go-Gurt. Over the next few months, legislators will decide whether to crack down even further on abortion.

In many ways, Coleman said, Missourians are already living in a “post-Roe world.” She rattles off the numbers, month by month. March 2021: 14 abortions. April: 14 abortions. “May, 15. June, 13. July, 7.” With all the restrictions, including a 72-hour waiting period, most patients find it easier to just drive to Illinois, to a large Planned Parenthood facility that opened in 2019 a few miles across the border.

Sometimes, people ask Coleman why she keeps going. Especially with the Dobbs decision expected in June, they’ll say, why go hard on another big abortion bill this session?

“This is the identity of who we are as a state,” said Coleman.

“She is always talking about different ways to stand up for life,” said Seth York, Coleman’s legislative assistant. “This will finish the job.”

Since she joined the legislature, Coleman has studied the various antiabortion restrictions attempted in other states, always hunting for new pieces that manage to slide past the courts. Even if a new law is struck down in another state, she says, it might be worth trying in Missouri, where legislation filters through the Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, known as one of the most conservative circuit courts in the country.

As soon as the Texas ban took effect, Coleman read up on the legal strategy. To challenge antiabortion restrictions, abortion rights groups have to sue the person or institution charged with enforcing the law — usually the attorney general or the state health department. But the Texas law empowers any private citizen to enforce Senate Bill 8, leaving abortion rights groups with no one to take to court. Coleman immediately texted her colleagues to see if they’d support something similar in Missouri. By the end of the week, she was on the phone with the attorney who helped design S.B. 8.

To McNicholas, at Planned Parenthood, Coleman’s new bill seems like “theatrics,” especially with a Dobbs ruling expected in June. In Missouri, she said, legislators are constantly trying to “out pro-life each other” — and Coleman recently announced a bid for state Senate.

Coleman thoroughly rejects that assessment. Especially since the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the Texas law on Dec. 10, leaving the ban in place for the time being, Coleman said she is more confident than ever that her bill “has legs.” While the high court gave abortion rights groups the power to challenge S.B. 8, its ruling was highly specific to Texas. By pointing out the particular issues with the Texas ban, Coleman said, the justices essentially gave other states a blueprint for a version of S.B. 8 they would let stand.

Coleman is hopeful Roe will be overturned, but not convinced. Because no one will know the specifics until June, she said, “having as many options in place as possible to protect the unborn is really important.”

Even if abortion is banned in Missouri, she said, her work won’t be done. The Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights, Ill., performs hundreds of abortions every month. In a post-Roe era, liberal states would inevitably provide more abortions than ever, Coleman said.

“Then it becomes, ‘What do I do nationally to protect the unborn?’ ”

She’s not sure Congress would ever have the willpower to ban abortion at the federal level, she said. But if she ever ends up in Washington, she’d make it her No. 1 priority.

Ahead of the Dobbs arguments on Dec. 1, Coleman flew to Washington, D.C., with her daughter, Larkin. They stood at the steps of the Supreme Court among hundreds of antiabortion activists, wearing pins that read, “Empower women, promote life.”

As most protesters listened to the speakers on the podium, Coleman donned headphones and strained to hear the live-streamed arguments happening inside. She was happy to hear Barrett ask whether the “burdens of parenting” emphasized in Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey might be resolved by adoption. She adopted Larkin 10 years ago.

Outside the court, a middle-aged man held a loudspeaker in one hand and a six-foot photo of an aborted fetus in the other. As a group of abortion rights protesters walked by, he started to yell.

“Shame on you, wicked women. God is going to push you into the everlasting destruction.”

Although Coleman empathizes with these kinds of protesters, she wishes they’d stop. For decades, she said, the media has amplified these voices, insinuating that the entire antiabortion movement is made in their image.

“It’s much easier to pull out the person who is just at their wits’ end,” she said.

Look a little more closely, she said, and you’ll find an abundance of antiabortion messengers who pose a much greater threat.

They are just as angry, but they smile. They nod. They talk about their children and invite you for dinner. Then, over a cocktail, they explain why they think abortion is wrong.

This piece originally appeared in The Lily.