Through fate or coincidence or just one of God’s little nudges, I encountered two women last week who have good reason to take it personally when someone claims to be pro-life “except in cases of rape or incest.” One of them has a documented history of taking on “exceptions” candidates, and in the case of Rick Perry, changing his mind.
Both women were born to mothers who had been raped. The mothers chose life, under challenging circumstances. Their daughters, Darlene Pawlik of Raymond, New Hampshire and Rebecca Kiessling of Michigan, are now active in pro-life ministry. After I had scheduled an interview with Darlene for this blog, an opportunity to speak to Rebecca the same day came up, courtesy of former state senator Jim Luther. I can take a hint.
Darlene is past president of New Hampshire Right to Life, which is how I first heard of her. Last January, I missed an opportunity to hear her when she spoke in Concord to a pro-life group about her experiences. It was through the publicity for that speech that I heard about the circumstances of her conception. I asked her this week how she was moved to go public. She responded, “Martin Luther King [Jr.] said that no one is saved unless all are saved. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'” She communicated via her Facebook page, beginning by thanking her mom for being brave enough to have her. “Mom was a little nervous” about the public revelation.
Darlene met Rebecca in early 2012 after Rebecca found her on Facebook, and then met her in person at the national March for Life in Washington, DC. Darlene’s pro-life work started long before that, though. “I did little things when [her kids] were young. Probably started around 1992.” In ’96, “I jumped in with both feet.” She is a nurse and a homeschooling mom. Before serving as NHRTL’s president, she helped to lead NHRTL’s Educational Trust.
Darlene was blunt about a history of violence in earlier generations of her family, including her mother’s rape. She has written a book called Testimony: the Dark Side of Christianity to let people know “you don’t have to be in the dark.” A friend told her “you can’t go public.” She couldn’t agree. “I said stop. No more secrets. I am the ‘exception.’”
Rebecca Kiessling echoed those words when she called in as a guest on Jim Luther’s radio show the other day. “I am one of the exceptions. My mom backed out of abortion because it was illegal.” Today, her mother is “very thankful that we were both spared this horror.” Rebecca now represents Personhood USA, which “recogniz[es] all human beings as persons who are ‘created in the image of God’ from the beginning of their biological development, without exceptions.”
She promotes the “personhood pledge” for candidates for public office. In 2012, several leading Republican candidates for President signed the pledge. Rick Perry didn’t, at first. Rebecca got to him. She made her case, face-to-face. To his credit, he couldn’t look her in the eye and say she shouldn’t have been born. He signed.
She’s quick to say she isn’t the one who broke the barriers for children conceived in rape. She points to Julie Makimaa as a trailblazer, and she recommends the book Makimaa wrote in collaboration with David Reardon, Victims and Victors.
While Darlene is a nurse, Rebecca is an attorney. Which came first: pro-life or law school? After years of hearing her father say “you should be a lawyer!” as she bested him in arguments, she listened to him. While at law school, an experience with an abusive partner “turned my heart toward family law.” Once she became a practicing attorney in the mid-1990s, she worked with women being coerced into abortions. That rang a bell. “I had no idea how to start pro-life work.” Working with women one-on-one, one thing led to another. She now makes about 75 public speeches a year in defense of personhood, putting a face on the “exceptions.” She and Darlene both cite a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control indicating that about 23,000 pregnancies annually in the United States are reportedly the result of rape or incest. That represents a lot of abused women and children at risk.
While no-exceptions is a tough sell, Rebecca herself takes a gentle tone, with help from a big smile and an almost little-girl voice. “We need to speak words of life and value. Even pro-lifers need to be careful in the way they communicate. We want to change hearts and minds.”
So how can we build bridges? Rebecca speaks without hesitation. “Point out that rape and incest exceptions benefit the perpetrator. Abortion hides evidence of his crime. Protect a woman from rape and abortion, not from a baby. A baby brings healing. Also, I ask what you do to help survivors of rape. Some women [under state law] have to fight their rapist for custody of the baby.” She is a strong promoter for ministry to post-abortive women such as Rachel’s Vineyard.
Her toughest crowds? University students. She says that when she speaks on campuses, her talks are often promoted with a Feminists for Life poster with her face on it, and the legend, “Did I deserve the death penalty?” The posters are sometimes defaced with the word “YES” scrawled across them.
And she keeps coming back anyway.
For Darlene and Rebecca, this is personal. Neither had an easy road. Now, both are committed to changing hearts. Every exception has a face. These women won’t let us forget that.
I am indebted to Jim Luther for inviting me to participate in his interview with Rebecca Kiessling. Jim’s show, “The Intersection,” is aired on WSMN-AM 1590 in Nashua NH Thursdays at 9:07 a.m. Archived programs are available here.