NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—Emily Berning, the co-founder of the relatively new anti-abortion group Let Them Live, is fond of quoting a statistic by the Guttmacher Institute, that 73 percent of people who choose to have an abortion do so because they can’t afford to have a baby. That statistic is plastered all over Let Them Live’s materials displayed in CPAC’s exhibit hall, much of which could be easily confused at first glance for Planned Parenthood merch with their hot-pink-heavy color palette and slick design.
Other studies somewhat contradict that Guttmacher Institute figure, which is a little outdated at this point, but it’s true that many choose to get an abortion because they can’t afford to have a child, or another one. Reproductive rights advocates tend to highlight that reality in an effort to show that people who get abortions aren’t baby-hating monsters; they’re just broke, and wouldn’t it be great if we had a higher minimum wage and good healthcare, as well as paid leave and also free or affordable childcare? But Berning, a fresh-faced blonde with a delicate hoop through her nose, loves to use that statistic to make a different point, as she did during her speech on Saturday from CPAC’s main stage, where she spoke alongside Live Action’s Alison Centofante. “These abortions that are happening because of finances are a hundred percent preventable,” Berning asserted. “The lives that are being lost because a mom can’t pay her rent? Her child is not worth $500. Her child is priceless.”
Preventing women from getting abortions is the 24-year-old’s life’s work, and while she believes that Roe v. Wade should be overturned and abortion should be illegal, until that happens, Berning has hit upon a different tactic—running what is essentially the anti-abortion movement’s version of an abortion fund, and framing it as a woman-friendly act of empowerment. Let Them Live is just one of a growing number of anti-abortion groups that are now cannily adopting the look and feel of the reproductive rights movement to give their work a shallow feminist gloss. Just look at the swag they brought to CPAC—the stickers proclaiming that “if your feminism is pro-abortion, it’s not feminism,” the t-shirts printed with the message, “No mom should have to choose between paying her bills or her unborn baby’s life.” I paged through their book of stories of women (and men) who regret their abortions, titled Shout Your Abortion Too: Stories of Regret, which is an explicit nod (or ripoff, to be more accurate) of the Shout Your Abortion storytelling project started by former Jezebel writer Lindy West and the activist Amelia Bonow.
“We really felt like there was a huge gap in the pro-life movement, and the pro-life movement has been so focused on the fetus. And we’re like, well, how can we focus on the women?” Berning told me, adding that their goal is to “meet women really where they’re at. “You know, I am definitely anti-abortion and definitely do not agree with abortion,” she said. “The way that I want to make that happen is by empowering women. And basically saying, look, you’ve got this. And we’ll stand beside you and work with you.”
For women who are pregnant and contemplating getting an abortion, Let Them Live offers to pay for their rent, bills, and other costs during the length of their pregnancy in exchange for them choosing to not have an abortion. “Throwing some diapers at her, that’s not going to solve anything,” Berning noted. One could say the same of the financial support Let Them Live provides, which averages around $5,000 and ends when the women give birth. When I asked Berning why the support ended once an abortion was no longer possible and raised the incredibly high costs of being a new parent, she replied that they do try to help women “get a better job.” Let Them Live’s website states that they “are not in the business of providing long term support to women in crisis pregnancies” and that they provide a “hand up with immediate assistance” so that people can “think clearly and cancel their abortion.”
Berning recalled a moment that was, as she put it, a “turning point” when she and her then-fiancé Nathan, with whom she co-founded Let Them Live in 2018, spoke with a woman who planned to have an abortion “because of financial reasons.” “We emptied our bank account and we personally financially supported her,” Berning said. The Bernings, who had founded Let Them Live to campaign against abortion rights in countries like Ireland, soon pivoted to this new mission. According to Berning, they’ve provided financial help to 27 women since February of last year, an extremely modest number. But the impact of Let Them Live is beyond just the number of abortions the organization claims to have canceled—by cloaking their work in the veneer of pro-woman feminism, they hope to draw in people who might be more inclined to support abortion rights. “When we started helping these moms”—all pregnant women are already moms to Berning—“it really transformed into, well gosh, there’s people that agree with us on both sides. And that’s when I started to realize that we are kind of bridging this gap,” Berning told me.
Who can argue with providing support to a pregnant woman who wants to remain pregnant, after all? (Though think about the ethics of Let Them Live’s work for even a few minutes, and read about how they “found” at least one woman they claim to work with, and it begins to feel a little gross and transactional.) “It’s different than the old way, and we’re really focusing on the women,” Berning said. She added, “There’s a new way to approach things instead of just, ‘keep your legs closed.’”
Berning is part of a new generation of anti-abortion activists, many of them young women themselves, who are attempting to rebrand a movement whose most enduring visual—part of the “old way” that Berning referred to—is still that of a blown-up image of a bloody fetus. (Unsurprisingly, both Berning and her husband Nathan recently worked at the conservative Leadership Institute, a breeding ground for the next generation of conservative activists that was once described as a gathering to teach young rightwingers “how to sell their ideas in ways that engage a mass audience” as well as the “art of selling conservatism as compassion.”) This new cohort recognizes that it’s up to them to make their foundational, dangerous belief—that abortion should be illegal—more palatable for young people, and in particular young women, who have grown up in a cultural environment that has been casually suffused with the hum and hiss of a type of empowerment feminism and a growing, if begrudging, acceptance of women’s sexual agency.
If you still picture a man screaming “Abortion is murder” when you think of an anti-abortion activist, Berning and others like Live Action’s Lila Rose and New Wave Feminists’ Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa are hoping to change that with their work. And an embrace of the language of feminism, or at least its most mainstream, pop version, has been key to those efforts. In this reinvention, abortion is no longer “murder,” it is “ableist, racist, ageist, and sexist,” as a popular t-shirt proclaims. Go on the Facebook page of the anti-abortion group New Wave Feminists and you’ll see messages like “Abortion is a symptom of women’s oppression, not a solution to it,” pictures of signs proclaiming “Women are never property, even in the womb,” and posts decrying sexual assault and rape. Conferences aimed at young anti-abortion conservatives are now suffused with the language and iconography of feminism. As the anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson put it to Buzzfeed in 2018, the movement needs to learn from “mainstream feminism.” “I’ve heard enough from men on this issue. I’m ready to hear from women,” Johnson proclaimed. In this work, they’re joining older groups like Feminists for Life, which has been around since the 1970s and counts people like Sarah Palin and the wife of Chief Justice John Roberts among its members, and which for a time was, if not on the outskirts of the anti-abortion movement, certainly not at its heart.
But for all that Berning earnestly speaks about wanting to find “at least a little bit of common ground,” reading her introduction to Shout Your Abortion Too is a reminder that at its heart, the goals of the “feminist” anti-abortion movement have not shifted an inch. As Berning, writes in the introduction to Shout Your Abortion Too, “Abortion is not inconsequential or without ramifications. The women in Shout Your Abortion are living a lie. They tell themselves that their abortion was a liberating experience, but taking the life of an innocent human being is anything but. While abortion may liberate the mother from parenthood, it will always enslave her to the lifetime trauma that abortion brings.”
Two days before Berning spoke at CPAC, Vice President Mike Pence had proclaimed triumphantly on that very same stage that “life is winning in America.” On Saturday, Berning told the crowd of her work, “We will help her no matter what, through it all, so that she can bring life into this world.”
It sounded, to my ears, like a threat.