Darlene Pawlik and Rebecca Kiessling: “Did I deserve the death penalty?”

Seventh in the Voices to Trust series.

Rebecca Kiessling of Save the 1  was conceived in rape, and she has one question about rape-and-incest exceptions to abortion regulation: “did I deserve the death penalty?”

Rebecca Kiessling

I interviewed Rebecca a couple of years ago. When asked about the no-exceptions position being a tough sell, she replied, “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….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.”

Darlene Pawlik of New Hampshire, also of Save the 1, is a trustee of New Hampshire Right to Life. She was conceived in rape and as a teenager was sexually trafficked.  Today, she speaks and writes about the need to defend life at all stages, regardless of the circumstances of conception. In a 2013 interview with me, Darlene said that when she decided to go public with her story, a friend advised her not to. Darlene went ahead anyway. “I said stop. No more secrets. I am the ‘exception.’

Darlene’s web site, thedarlingprincess.com, carries the tag line “Bad beginnings do not necessitate bad endings.” She writes, “I am so passionate about the value of every life; whether one is conceived with wine and roses, in a test tube or as a result of violence. I absolut[e]ly reject the utilitarian view that people are valuable only if they can contribute to society in arbitrarily contrived ways. We should all hold to the Declaration of Independence’s admonition that each of us is endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights: the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One’s right to life trumps all other rights.”

See a related post from 2013 about Darlene and Rebecca.

Pro-life candidates gather in Manchester

New Hampshire Right to Life’s political action committee showcased signers of its 2014 “Affirmation Statement” Thursday evening in Manchester, with guest speaker Rebecca Kiessling of Save the 1. (See coverage of a May 2013 interview with Kiessling and Darlene Pawlik here.) The deck at Murphy’s Taproom was the setting for a few speeches and a lot of mingling with New Hampshire candidates for offices ranging from state representative to U.S. Senate.

Rebecca Kiessling
Rebecca Kiessling (event photos by Ellen Kolb)

Kiessling, conceived in rape, takes “exceptions” legislation personally. When a law restricting abortion has an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape, “I’m that exception.” She campaigns nationwide for legislation respecting the lives of all preborn children. She urged candidates to keep two things in mind when faced with pressure to endorse exceptions. “First, don’t ever say [pregnancy from rape] is rare. It’s not. Twenty-seven thousand [children are] born every year as a result of rape. Don’t diminish, just defend. Number two, talk about our sense of justice in America. It is extreme to punish an innocent person for someone else’s crime, and we don’t do that. It’s un-American.”


Andrew Hemingway, Republican candidate for Governor
Andrew Hemingway, Republican candidate for Governor

Introduced by PAC chairman Darlene Pawlik as “the only pro-life gubernatorial candidate,” Andrew Hemingway began his remarks by reflecting on the New Hampshire state motto. “I am running for governor because I believe our state motto, Live Free or Die, is more than just a catchy marketing phrase. It’s a statement of principle. The first of our rights is the right to life.” Referring to the GOP, “As a party, I do not believe we should be backing away from this issue. This is a fundamental right.” He thanked his listeners before giving them a challenge. “I have traveled around the state of New Hampshire, and there is a re-awakening to the issue of life. I’m excited about it. Hopefully, all of us tonight will be more inspired, and we’ll meet candidates who will carry the torch. We’ll see a life-voters turnout in September. That’s what we need. And I don’t know how to express this enough: there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with the knowledge of these types of issues. You need to tell every single person voting in September how important this issue is. Candidates can only do so much. It’s you. We need you. Talk, talk, talk to as many people as you can.”

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Former U.S. Senator (and current candidate) Bob Smith
Former U.S. Senator (and current candidate) Bob Smith

Former U.S. Senator Bob Smith, running to regain his seat, got a warm reception from the crowd in tribute to his eighteen years as a pro-life leader in Washington. He took the mic and cast a sly glance toward WMUR-TV’s political reporter, James Pindell, who arrived just after Kiessling had finished speaking. Smith got a round of applause for urging Pindell to feature Kiessling and her story in his report on the event. Then, he turned to his own candidacy. “It’s been the highest honor and privilege of my entire political life, and indeed almost of my whole life, to stand on the Senate floor on numerous occasions, and before that the House floor, and stand up for life. The ultimate freedom, the ultimate liberty, is the right to be born. I just want to be a little bit personal here. We speak about this issue in general terms. ‘A woman’s right to choose.’ Or ‘a fetus.’ It’s very impersonal. But let me tell you something: it’s pretty damn personal when you get to know what happens. I’ve cried with women who have had abortions, I’ve cried over the babies who have died from abortions, and I’ve cried with people who’ve performed them and regretted them.” He said this election “is not about the big money. It’s really not. It’s about issues like this one. This is what matters. When the history books are written, you are the heroes. We [candidates] have the easy part. It’s you who are behind us that make us do what we do, because we believe. We know you believe. We know you want us to do the right thing and stop this atrocity. I spent eighteen years trying to stop it, and if God lets me, I’ll spend the next eighteen years and I WILL stop it.”

Also attending were candidates for state Senate and House who have signed NHRTL-PAC’s Affirmation Statement. The PAC uses the Statement as the first step in an endorsement process. The names of endorsed candidates will go online Monday, August 5 at nhrtlpac.org and will be updated throughout the campaign season.



More on Pain-Capable: why the rape/incest exception?

Note: The U.S. House voted late today to pass H.R. 1797, 228-196. Reps. Shea-Porter and Kuster (D-NH) voted Nay.

Those of us supporting H.R. 1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, are being called to task today by pro-life allies as the debate and vote are pending in Washington. Rebecca Kiessling (see my post about her here) and Abby Johnson, champions if there ever were champions, are turning their formidable fire on the likes of me for supporting a bill with exceptions.

First, I have to acknowledge that I hadn’t been aware of the exception when I wrote yesterday’s post. The copy of the bill I read had no mention of a rape/incest exception, although the usual life-of-the-mother clause is in there. Kiessling in a stinging commentary today reports that the rape/incest exception was added to the bill four days ago. She is unmoved by arguments that we need bills that will save at least some babies. “I would love to see an example where there was a law with a rape exception and someone went back to save the 1 and the rape exception was removed from the law,” she says.

Johnson posted this on her Facebook page today:

“Curious how some of you will answer this. If there was a bill proposed that only banned abortions for white people, but allowed them for everyone else, would you support it? If you are of the mindset ‘well, we save as many as we can’ mentality, then this type of bill would be right up your alley, correct?
My thinking is that this type of bill would be appalling for prolifers. People would be standing against it. But yet, when babies conceived in rape are dehumanized in this way, we continue to allow it and justify why it is okay?”

I disagree with Johnson that a comparison with race is at all relevant to H.R. 1797’s provisions. In fact, if it “dehumanizes” the children conceived in rape, it also “dehumanizes” the children who are at less than twenty weeks’ gestation and any children whose ability to feel pain has somehow not been documented. Remember, this is “pain-capable” legislation. It doesn’t humanize or dehumanize anyone. Like viability,”pain” is a subjective and slippery concept.

Even in the face of so much subjectivity, and in the face of disagreement with women whom I respect highly, I have still asked Carol Shea-Porter to support H.R. 1797, even as I slap my forehead over the people who added the exception to the bill.

Our current Chief Executive has threatened to veto the bill if it gets to his desk (which it won’t, thanks to Harry Reid and the pro-abortion Senate majority). The presence or absence of a rape exception did not play into his decision. Putting one in there seems pointless as a consensus-building tactic.

Kiessling has a point: rape exceptions tend to persist. She notes that the Hyde Amendment has kept that exception for years. I agree with her that it’s time to remove the exception. This does not mean I’ll refuse to support an appropriations bill that has a Hyde Amendment, on the grounds of the Amendment’s exceptions. I realize that this leaves me with a scarlet “C” on my forehead, “c” for “compromiser,” visible only to certain pro-lifers under certain conditions. After thirty years of activism, I don’t fold up when I hear that word, any more than I fold up when I’m called “anti-choice.” Let’s just get today’s work done, and that work is getting a vote in Congress on H.R. 1797.

Two “exceptions,” including a New Hampshire neighbor

Rebecca Kiessling
Rebecca Kiessling

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 ReardonVictims 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.