On the eve of the March for Life, one of the most visible leaders of the pro-life movement described how her son, who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, proves the conference's theme that “every life is a gift.”
Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, had just given birth when doctors asked for repeated blood tests on her first baby boy, Gunner. On St. Patrick's Day 2009, three months of tests culminated in what she describes as “every parent's nightmare.”
“We got the call that my first son, Gunner, did in fact have Cystic Fibrosis, an incurable, deadly disease,” Hawkins said. “It was and still is one of the most deeply felt, painful moments of my life.”
Her husband, heartbroken, lost faith in God, something he is only beginning to regain.
“At the time that Gunner was diagnosed, my husband swore up and down that he would never have another child again, that he would never pass on this deadly gene to another child,” she said.
However, by that time she was already pregnant with their second son, Bear.
“I looked at him, said, 'Oops,' and that was it,” she said with a smile.
Fear hung over the second pregnancy – but it was different another way. She had a pro-life OB/GYN during her first pregnancy, who did not pressure her to have invasive prenatal tests and screening. Her second team demanded such tests before they even confirmed that she was expecting.
She denied all testing that might put her child at greater risk, but the urging continued from all quarters.
When her family visited a Cystic Fibrosis care facility in Minnesota, a geneticist on her “care team” told her, “My job is to help families who have children with CF make sure they don't have any more children with CF.”
“I'm sitting there – I'm pregnant with my second son, my husband is an emotional wreck. … I'm holding Gunner, this beautiful baby boy, and she's telling me he's a mistake, and no more Gunner's should be born,” Hawkins said, with evident emotion. “This is what we're talking about when we talk about this culture of death.”
Medical pressure mounted, even at her most vulnerable times.
“Moments after I delivered Bear, they were offering to put an IUD in me. Then they offered to put Norplant in me. They kept coming back trying to get me on the birth control pill right away,” she said.
“First of all, I just delivered a son. I wasn't thinking about sex ever again,” she quipped.
Even as she was struggling with the effects of sedation, she told her husband, “I was so afraid of what they were going to do even without my consent.”
Neither Bear nor her third son, Maverick, shared their brother's condition. Gunner, she said, is “a bossy big brother” to both, but they all share great fraternal affection.
In addition to his life of Tae Kwon Do, Gunner – who turns six next week – has a passion for learning. Lately, he has wanted to learn more about Cystic Fibrosis. “How's he going to take the news when he finds out the prognosis for survivors?” she asked.
Hawkins, who is endlessly caricatured in the hostile media as a pro-life diehard with a bullhorn, broke down in tears and briefly paused her speech.
The moderator of the March for Life's Culture of Life seminar, NRO editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez, interjected, “Kristan told me, 'I don't talk about myself.'”
Her dedication to her son began a new life for everyone. To be near the best health care facility, they have moved to Minnesota, 14 hours away from family, friends, and an extended support network. She is homeschooling him to avoid germs and sickness from other children.
Despite the challenges, the social pressure, and “the endless daily – and I mean daily – phone calls with the insurance company,” she would not trade a minute of her experience with him.
“Gunner's been a profound blessing on my family's life,” she said.
Even as she spoke to the crowd of hundreds, uncertainty hung over her.
“I'm pregnant with my fourth now,” she said. Her first girl, whom she has already named Gracie, is due in May. She does not know if she, too, will have CF.
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“I know that if it weren't for my strong pro-life beliefs – if my beliefs had not been cemented in high school and college – I like most people in the country, like 90 percent of CF parents when they find out the shocking news, I could have been tempted into aborting my children,” she said.
Her experience as the mother of a child others would label “disabled” only steels her commitment to assure that all life is cherished and protected. “It gives me hope,” she said. “I'm going to work even harder to abolish abortions like that, to save children like that.”
Through her work on campus, she has optimism for the future of the pro-life movement – but the integrity and dignity of children with special needs is an area that is sorely in need of support.
“We have an uphill battle,” she admitted. “This generation is pro-life. But when it comes to the question of what do you do when there is a fetal abnormality, we're losing that question.”
“We need to change that. We need to counter that and say, 'Why would you say that?'” she said.
She encouraged everyone – including many in the crowd who had children or siblings with developmental delay themselves – to post pictures of children with CF, Down syndrome, Trisomy 18, or other special needs. Personalizing and humanizing them makes aborting someone like them unthinkable.
“Talk about abortion regularly,” Hawkins said. “Talk about these children – that they are precious and that they have a right to life.”