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‘Badass. Prolife. Feminist.’ How the ‘pro-life feminist’ movement is straddling the March for Life and Women’s March

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa leads a rally of self-described anti-abortion feminists at the annual March for Life. (Michael Chandler/The Washington Post)

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa made headlines last year when her antiabortion group was removed from a list of partner organizations for the Women’s March on Washington. The Dallas-based founder of New Wave Feminists went to the march anyway, sans invitation, and had a blast.

“Women are amazing,” she said. “We can disagree, and we can still work on what we do agree on.”

This weekend, she is back in Washington, her “I am a ProLife Feminist” posters and pink velvet platform boots packed for two events: The March for Life, headlined by President Trump on Friday, and a women’s march first anniversary event on Saturday.

She is more interested than ever in building a bridge between two sides of the abortion debate by emphasizing issues that women can agree on, such as improved maternal health care and child care. She wants to build a culture where abortion is unthinkable rather than illegal, she says.

[Is there a place at the Women’s March for women who are politically opposed to abortion?]

These are five breakthroughs that followed the Women's March on Washington, which took place the day after President Trump's inauguration. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

Her group, which describes itself online as “Badass. Prolife. Feminist.” is one of many that is attempting to broaden the antiabortion movement’s appeal to a younger generation that is less religious, more progressive on social issues and increasingly framing opposition to abortion in terms of human rights, scientific language, and in terms of feminism. Many of these women have plans to attend both marches, not as disrupters but as a true reflection of their own perspectives.

The movement is gaining traction.

“I have never seen so much energy [for pro-life feminism] going into the March for Life,” said Serrin M. Foster, president of the Alexandria-based group Feminists for Life that dates back to the early 1970s. She said this year she has received requests for educational materials and posters from all over the country.

Many female antiabortion activists, who have been ambivalent about feminism, felt emboldened last year by the Women’s March snub to show how their stance is inherently feminist or pro-woman.

Additionally, over the past year, many who oppose abortion have been compelled by discussions started by the #MeToo movement and disappointed to see leaders within their communities support Trump, who bragged about sexually assaulting women, or Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama who was accused of making unwanted advances toward female teenagers.

[President Trump to March for Life: ‘We are with you all the way. May God bless you.’]

At a pep rally organized at Catholic University on Tuesday to kick off the March for Life activities, a featured speaker was Aimee Murphy, founder of a group called Rehumanize International and another prominent ‘Pro-life Feminist’ voice. She encouraged the students there decorating posters to advocate for “a consistent life ethic,” a view also promoted by Herndon-De La Rosa that says human beings should be free from violence throughout their lives and protected from abortion, as well as war, nuclear weapons, the death penalty, torture, and euthanasia.

Maria Lebron, 19, a sophomore at Catholic University, said she has been attracted to the antiabortion feminist movement over the past year and the “hip” message of Murphy and Herndon-De la Rosa.

“I want to change the face of the pro-life movement,” she said. For the movement to succeed, it cannot be attached to a religion or a political party, and it cannot only be focused on the unborn, she said: “We can’t just stand for the baby, we have to stand for the mother too.”

Women’s empowerment was on display at the March to Life Expo at the Renaissance Hotel in D.C. on Thursday, with T-shirts sporting slogans such as “Girl Power Begins at Conception” and “Empowering Women Empowers Women” amid tables filled with religious art or promoting natural alternatives to birth control.

At the March for Life, Herndon-De La Rosa led a rally of 50 abortion opponents from the New Wave Feminist group who were protesting Donald Trump’s address to the main crowd while at the same time highlighting the growing science of fetal development as evidence that life begins at conception.

Herndon-De La Rosa urged the group of women holding signs saying “I am a prolife feminist” to position itself in front of the march to show the world that the antiabortion movement does not just consist of a “bunch of priests.”

As she tells it, Herndon-De La Rosa was born to be a “Pro-life feminist.” Her mother became pregnant with her at 19 while at the University of Texas. Rather than having an abortion, she had a daughter, juggled low-wage jobs and took 10 years to complete a degree. “Watching her made me a feminist,” she said.

She herself got pregnant at 16. Her boyfriend left, and she considered adoption, but she felt like she had family support to raise her son. Later she got married and had three more children.

She first started her New Wave Feminist group in 2004 because she wanted to help other women who did not feel they had support to make the choice she did, and she wanted to raise awareness about issues — like the hyper-sexualization of women — that can lead to teen pregnancy and abortion.

One of her first targets was what she called a “breastaurant billboard” she drove by each day. “I was sick of seeing women used and objectified to sell chicken wings,” she said. Her agitating prompted the owner of the billboard to cover up the cleavage with a “Now Hiring” sign, she recalled.

She worked as a sidewalk counselor outside abortion clinics and volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. She said sidewalk counseling should be done without graphic signs or bullhorns that call out and shame women, and should offer assistance to women who are struggling with housing or employment, not just prayers. She said pregnancy centers should not only offer “pee sticks and sonograms,” but also provide annual exams and tests for sexually transmitted disease and birth control.

“If we care about women’s health, we have to be there for women when they are not pregnant.”

After the Women’s March, she got 20,000 new followers on Facebook and a slew of media appearances, and she has had a steady stream of speaking engagements since. She said she remains a “black sheep” in both movements.

Among many abortion rights advocates, “pro-life feminism” is not a thing.

Pamela Merritt, co-founder of Reproaction, an Alexandria-based activist group that works to expand access to abortion, said she “understands the attraction to feminism” for many in a movement that helped elect a president “who has been accused of sexual assault, is attacking immigrant communities, saying racist things on a daily basis, going after access to health care, and who may have colluded with a foreign power to get into office.”

She said being a “pro-life feminist” is like saying you are a “vegan who likes chicken.” “It’s just not possible, if you don’t believe a woman has the human right to make decisions about her body and her health care and her future.”

Among abortion opponents, the concept of feminism remains polarizing, said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. Her group, which counts hundreds of affiliated groups on college campuses around the country, staged a counter protest at the Women’s March on Washington last year.

Students for Life protesters also demonstrated outside the Women’s Convention in Detroit in October, a follow-up event to the March Herndon-De La Rosa attended. This fall Hawkins launched a speaking tour of eight college campuses under the banner “Lies Feminists Tell.”

To be a mainstream feminist, you have to be “100 percent pro abortion,” Hawkins said in an interview.

“I am primary breadwinner. I run a business for more than 45 employees. My husband stays home and cares for our children. I should be celebrated as a victory, but I’m not welcome, because of my human rights stance on abortion,” she said.

She also disagrees it makes sense to broaden the focus of the movement. “Pro-life millennials are not monolithic. We disagree on a lot of issues but we are all united on one principal goal — to make abortion illegal.”

Even on that last point, which most abortion opponents deem essential, Herndon-De La Rosa disagrees.

If abortion were made illegal now, she expects a black market would return for abortion, and many young women with unplanned pregnancies would be shunned and sent away as they were in the past.

“I am not seeing a woman-centered society yet that empowers women and fights for women,” she said. “Women need more support first, and that’s where we can all work together.”