Against the Grain—A Day in the Life of Serrin Foster

Serrin Foster is bombing. All around the Temple University lecture hall, bored faces drift in and out of attention—expressionless college women staring and still, college men telegraphing their waning interest by twisting in their seats. A round woman’s tiny eyes glare coldly from beneath her eyebrow rings.

I’ve been assigned to shadow Foster on her exhausting schedule of barnstorming appearances at universities. She has a mighty reputation for changing the hearts of students. But now, at the end of a hectic 20 hours—Villanova at eight last night, a lunchtime appearance at Rowan University in Glasboro, New Jersey, today, and now Temple—it looks like Foster has hit a wall.

She tries her jokes—the ones where the president of Feminists for Life (FFL) becomes a nightclub comedian, using the funny voices, the hand gestures, everything. She’s a woman who can tell a joke.

But not here. Temple University puts out a tough crowd.

Alas, Foster and her hosts, the Pro-Life Student Alliance of Temple, knew it would be so. The warnings had started days earlier. Signs advertising the FFL event had been torn down or defaced. When we arrived that evening, trudging through the mud that is Philadelphia’s first sign of spring, the foyer of the Tuttleman building was littered with big “Pro-family/Pro-choice” signs.

“They don’t want us to be here,” Foster said.

The 40 or so students gathered to hear Foster are mostly women. Not even the pro-lifers are smiling. The student who introduced her asked those with differing opinions to be respectful. It set an ominous tone. Would they start chanting soon? Blowing whistles? Would they get violent?

And I wonder: What will I possibly write about this? How will I tactfully explain her failure?

But then, as things seem to have reached their lowest point, Serrin Foster performs a miracle.

It begins with her telling the students what she calls the “dirty little secret of women’s studies departments”—that the first feminists were pro-life. Vehemently pro-life. A couple of quotes bring the point home (Sarah Norton: “Perhaps there will come a time when…an unmarried woman will not be despised for her motherhood…and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with”; Susan B. Anthony: Abortion “will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to her crime!”).

“If women were fighting for the right not to be considered property, what gives them the right to consider their baby property?” Foster asks.

She’s on a roll, now. Eyebrows are lifting, and drowsy heads come to attention. Foster describes how the feminist  movement was hijacked by the abortion movement. She describes pro-abortion pioneer Larry Lader’s “eureka” experience: “Aha, I have it!’ And he goes to the leadership of NOW [the National Organization for Women] and says ‘Look, little ladies. If you want to be educated like a man and paid like a man and promoted like a man—and hired like a man—then you can’t bother your employer with your fertility problems.”

In a mocking voice, Foster imitates the patronizing boss man: “Ooo, is your tummy feeling bad because you have morning sickness? Ooo, you want time off because you’re going through labor? Does the poor baby have mumps now?” Women nod.

Then, Foster gets to the centerpiece of her talk: FFL’s College Outreach Program. She asks the students if they’ve ever seen a pregnant woman on campus. This being 2003, the students knew plenty of pregnant girls in high school—girls who dropped out or who were out “sick” for a whole semester. But that changed in college.

Twenty-year-old Temple student James Barrera took note. He said there were 2,000 students in his high school and 30,000 at Temple. “I know no pregnant women here. But in high school I did.” He finds that “disturbing.”

So does Foster. One-fifth of all abortions are performed on college women. “What sort of services does your university offer to pregnant women?” she asks. Several, probably—all abortion-related.

“No compassionate person, pro-choice or pro-life,” she says, “wants to see a teenage girl drop out of school and face a lifetime of poverty because she became pregnant. They say I have a free choice. But without housing on campus for me and my baby, without on-site daycare, without maternity coverage in my health insurance, it sure doesn’t feel like I have much of a choice.”

Foster challenges students—all students, regardless of their feelings about abortion—to go to the administration building and demand a real choice.

The message connects. And with it, you feel a change in the room. Suddenly, the jokes from Foster get belly-laughs. The students—even the ones I thought were hostile—are nodding in agreement.

I look at Eyebrow-Rings. Her grumpy face has relaxed into a smile. Foster makes a point about family values— “Women treated men like a check and diminished fatherhood”—and Eyebrow-Rings’s hands come together over her black backpack in a silent clap of agreement.

Victory.

Foster the Feminist

Serrin Foster, 47, is a native of Washington, D.C. Dressed in hip, professional black, she’s the face of Feminists for Life. There’s more to FFL than Serrin Foster, and there’s more to Serrin Foster than FFL, but the two are inextricably intertwined.

Patricia Heaton (Ray Romano’s wife on the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond) tells me that even though FFL is small, “opponents think the group is strong and powerful, because Serrin is strong and powerful. She’s the embodiment of what we feel about women. To think that the only thing a woman can do with a child is abort it is demeaning to women and undermines everything that the women’s movement has been working on since the suffragettes.”

Margaret Colin (the press secretary in Independence Day and Tom Selleck’s girlfriend in Three Men and a Baby), who, like Heaton, is an FFL celebrity spokeswoman, sums Foster up rather well: warm and feminine, not artificial or a control-freak matriarch. Not scary.

“She’s very articulate and very feminine and she doesn’t put people off by a strong designer look,” Colin tells me. “She allows herself to get passionate. She’s funny. She gets a kick out of what she does.”

And both celebrity spokeswomen note one thing you just can’t miss about Foster.

“She talks a mile a minute.”

“She talks faster than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Foster was a child when she learned how to use her most formidable skill—speaking—to make her way in the world. In eighth grade, when she wore knee-length socks, was gaining weight, and was new to her Northern Virginia public school, she was the frequent target of three bullies. Their leader once pulled Foster’s long snake of middle-school hair and stepped on it, kicking her books out of her hands with the other foot.

She wasn’t able to face them until the three volunteered for the class debate on smoking. No one would oppose them—until Foster raised her hand.

Now she spends her time talking, talking, talking—sharing her ideas with people in key places, like Congress and colleges. Talking about FFL. Like a happily married couple, it’s hard to imagine Foster and FFL apart. And like the story of a husband and wife, the tale of how she met the organization is charged with a powerful sense of providence.

In 1993, Foster was working in Washington for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill and reading the classifieds section in order to word a want-ad for her organization. She came across the advertisement for FFL and had to catch her breath. It was love at first sight.

Though she wasn’t looking for a new job, she interviewed, becoming more intent on it even as FFL almost stopped considering her. She was too far out of reach, earning twice as much annually as their entire organization’s income. But Foster wouldn’t be deterred. She took a nasty pay cut, stepped in as executive director, and began the remarkable story of an organization’s new success.

’70s Feminists

It’s not that the old organization was unsuccessful. I remember seeing members at pro-life conferences in California in the ’80s. They were known for their very clever, very in-your-face bumper stickers. A friend pointed one of them out at a snack bar in Santa Clara, California. She was dressed like a hippy in the preppy ’80s. They weren’t your typical pro-lifers. But they were very passionate.

One of the first things Foster faced was a split in the movement between the lesbian vegetarian pro-life feminists—who naturally saw lesbianism and vegetarianism as integral parts of pro-life feminism—and a larger, more culturally mainstream strand of ’70s feminists.

The mainstream won.

Those old-style liberal feminists are still very much a part of FFL. But when Foster joined as its executive director, she brought the ’90s with her. Working with her board and stepping on toes here and there (changing the name of the newsletter from the beloved Sister Life to The American Feminist, for instance, started a fight), she developed a more focused organization.

“Serrin eats, breathes, and lives” FFL, one of the group’s board members, Marion Syverson, says in an article about the group. “She is dedicated to this cause like no one else I know. The arguments are frequently best framed by her.”

Hunting Enemies

Surprisingly enough—considering her aggressive approach—it’s hard to find anyone to criticize Serrin Foster.

I know, because I spent every off-hour for two weeks searching for someone. The Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and NOW all promised to call me back. And didn’t. Even Planned Parenthood wouldn’t give me a comment. And it was the group that called FFL’s 1997 Question Abortion campaign “the newest and most challenging concept in anti-choice student organizing.”

Striking out with the Left, I wondered if conservative pro-lifers might find Foster’s message a bit much: Refuse to choose, expect it all, go to school, and demand they pay for your baby. What I found surprised me.

Judie Brown, of the American Life League, has the reputation of being to the pro-life movement what Life cereal’s Mikey is to breakfast (“He won’t eat it. He hates everything!”). She gave me a glowing report about FFL.

“I believe they have examined the culture and decided that in order to save the lives of preborn babies and save women from the tragic aftermath of aborting their own children, they must address the very situations in which such mothers find themselves,” Brown said. And that means, almost exclusively, finding options for mothers who are in school, at work, and in imperfect circumstances.

Some pro-lifers question the awards FFL has given to the likes of Martin Sheen. But money-conscious conservatives were Foster’s opponents when she first started—and won—a fight against one of the provisions of the Contract With America that banned increased welfare benefits for added children.

Now, however, Foster’s enemies are few. One 20-year-old Rowan University student is the best I can do, I’m afraid. He told me that Jesus was responsible for his abortion views, and he wasn’t warm and happy after Foster’s talk. “I resent having to pay through tuition and taxes for irresponsible people’s ‘choices,'” he said.

Kristin Patterson, Villanova class of 1994 and a 31-year-old mother of three, disagreed. “I’m a little hesitant to subsidize child care for others when I have sacrificed a career and money to raise my own,” she says. “However, Serrin makes a strong point that unplanned pregnancies are a reality, and we have to offer these women a free choice and many alternatives to abortion.”

Dorm Days

The College Outreach Program was Foster’s brainchild. This is the vehicle through which FFL—Foster, really—goes to university campuses and convinces pro-choicers and pro-lifers to work together to give women real alternatives to abortion.

And pro-lifers will tell you it’s about time somebody did it. It’s the crucial battleground. In universities, students form the opinions that they’ll have for a lifetime.

Most high-schoolers would vote like their parents if they had the chance. College graduates, getting their first serious bills, no longer have the luxury of challenging their beliefs deeply. But for college students sitting in a dorm room, parents are something half-remembered and far away; real responsibility exists in the imagination of the uptight. The mind of the college student is wide open, ready to set itself in one block of concrete or another until retirement.

Besides, each year our universities refresh the ranks of our teachers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, journalists, and preachers. What they believe matters. Their view today is the Prevailing View tomorrow.

And when it comes to abortion, dorm-room conversations trend in one direction: pro-abortion. A UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey, which included 38 Catholic colleges and universities, interviewed freshmen and then caught up with them four years later.

According to Catholic World Report, in 1997, 61 percent of the freshman class at nonsectarian, four-year colleges said they supported keeping abortion legal. Four years later, 72 percent of the same students said abortion should be kept legal, an increase of 11 percent.

At Catholic colleges, the increase was a bit sharper—a 45 percent pro-abortion freshman class became a 57 percent pro-abortion graduating class, a 12 percent increase. Colleges and universities are machines churning out pro-abortion voters.

Why not try to influence these opinions while they’re still forming? Why not bring the pro-life message into the universities?

Crisis Centers

FFL has assembled a kit for students who want to increase their college’s support for pregnancy and parenting. The kit includes guides on counseling pregnant women, information on establishing paternity and collecting child support from fathers, and brochures describing the many options other than abortion—getting married, raising the child alone, asking the child’s grandparents or other family to care for the baby, and open and closed adoption.

Parts of these kits have been used, from Georgetown to Notre Dame to Berkeley. Suzanna Kennedy, 20, a sophomore at the University of San Diego (USD), heard Foster’s talk earlier this year, and her pro-life group took up the challenge. “We found that there were weaknesses in our school policy. There’s a lack of child care and no specific policy for housing,” she told me. “I had a neighbor my freshman year who became pregnant her first semester. I saw her go through a lot. She ended up choosing life, and she ended up having to leave USD.” Kennedy doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else, and she has been meeting with college administrators to make sure it doesn’t.

Pro-life college women like Kennedy are starting to get noticed by the secular media. The March 30 New York Times was beside itself with shocked surprise in the article, “Surprise, Mom: I’m Anti-Abortion,” by Elizabeth Hayt. It reported on rising numbers of college pro-lifers, and the passion of student pro-life groups.

And in January, National Public Radio interviewed Berkeley pro-lifer Molly Bowman about her campus initiative. She told All Things Considered that she was trying to get baby-changing tables installed on campus and that pro-abortion students were helping. “The student government has given us funding. We had a rally last year with Serrin Foster, the president of Feminists for Life, which was great. We met with NOW beforehand and said, ‘We’re glad you guys are out here. This will be great. I’m glad this can be a civil debate and rally.’ And it turned out very well.”

On the Road

I begin my 20 hours with Serrin Foster on the phone. Rushing around a hotel room, she mixes up the order of universities we’ll be visiting the next day and asks me not to interview her right before the talks: She needs to psyche herself up for the students.

“Can I drive with you from Philly to New Jersey?” I ask.

She considers the question. “Are you creepy?”

Then Foster has to go: She’s due at Villanova, where more than 100 people come to see her. Mostly pro-life, mostly thrilled, they fill the lecture hall.

Afterward, a pro-choice student thanks Foster for her presentation. Crisis passes out a brief opinion survey to the Villanova audience; they register a deep resonance with Foster’s feminist message, answering questions by quoting her.

Bryn Mawr and Jefferson City Medical School students campus-hopped to the talk, bringing horror stories of being marginalized at their own schools. They’re “anti-choicers” in the most hostile of atmospheres. And this has turned them into pro-life feminists with attitude.

Brighid Heenan, a 19-year-old from Bryn Mawr, was typical. She says she’s pro-life “because of family and feminists who taught me to actually think rather than accept paternalistic crap from NARAL.”

Foster is wired after the day’s high-octane experience of public speaking and one-on-one clashes. She’s finally able to fall asleep at 6 a.m.—about the time I’m passing through Manhattan on the way to our meeting.

When she meets me in the hotel restaurant, I’ve exhausted the possibilities of the day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the cleaning lady is putting away the continental breakfast, and Foster has to beg for hers. “I knew I’d have to grab for it,” she says. “I do everything last minute.” Before she’s able to drink her last-minute tea, two students whisk us off to Glasboro, New Jersey.

At Rowan, Foster’s talk is held in the middle of a cavernous student center. The podium is perched on an out-of-place-looking stage in a lounge surrounded by vendors selling college necessities: coffee, food, and embossed accessories. It’s not ideal for Foster’s purposes—hard to hold an audience’s attention—but it’s great for me. Here, I can observe real college students coming into contact with an articulate pro-life message—some of them for the first time.

It’s a real, new-millennium secular university crowd, with a self-described 19-year-old liberal atheist pro-lifer and a 20-year-old pro-choicer who says his opinion on the matter was shaped by Descartes. Predictably, other groups looking for a crowd have leafleted the student room the day of the talk. “How Is Your Sex?” asks one flier. “An intelligent discussion surrounding sexuality for students by students.” Sponsors: The Gay/Straight Alliance, NAACP, Progressive Student Alliance, United Latino Association, and Black Cultural League. “All Are Welcome & Refreshments Will be Served: Residential and Campus Life Student Center Approved.”

I don’t know what to expect from students in this world. But I quickly learn two things. First, in our relativistic age, young people don’t have opinions about abortion, they have stories about abortion. The details of the lives of the people they know have determined their positions, one way or the other.

Second, students are pro-abortion not because they don’t believe a fetus is a human life, but because they’re terrified. Every student to whom I put the question directly seems to know in her bones that abortion is killing. But for those who are pro-abortion, the alternative, having a baby, is unthinkable—they don’t want to be pregnant, they don’t want to be in labor, and they don’t want to be a parent.

Foster’s talk is made for a crowd like this.

The Default Position

The enormous FFL banner that frames Foster’s head has a succinct message that proves irresistible to many passersby: “Refuse to choose.”

Melissa Ringlora, a pretty, slight 19-year-old freshman, is one of these. She listens intently to the talk, and when questions and answers start, I get her attention.

She’s pro-choice, she tells me.

But what about all the things Foster is saying: Do they sway her? Naw, she protests, noticing her friend, Chris Corozza, 18, approaching us.

“I’m starting to see her point,” says Corozza, motioning to Foster. When Ringlora hears this, she nods vigorously. Pro-choice is the default position, but if your friends give you permission, you can be pro-life.

“Boys are idiots,” Corozza explains. “They think they can use a woman just to score.”

I find out both are Catholic, and both are part of the statistic about students who change their opinions in school: They’re just starting to be pro-abortion.

Before long, they’re repeating to me verbatim sentences from Foster’s talk. “They should give women more choices,” Corozza says. When I ask them about the rights of the unborn, Ringlora tells me, “I try not to think of the unborn. When I do, I become pro-life.”

I also notice Michelle Whitescarver, an 18-year-old freshman, walk into the back of the room, listen, then rush to the FFL table to grab brochures. She shows them with great animation to a boy, all the while staring at Foster.

He notices the free donuts at the back of the room, and I descend on Whitescarver as he descends on the donuts. She has dark hair, thick glasses, and the energetic confidence of an ambitious student. I ask her position on abortion, and she answers by describing an experience. It’s exactly the kind of experience Foster has come to address.

“A girl I knew got pregnant. The guy cried when she said she wanted the abortion, so she had the baby. She’s miserable now, always dropping the kid off with her mom.”

The baby’s name is Caitlyn. She’s nearly two.

Are you saying, I ask, that your friend wishes she had aborted Caitlyn?

“She’d rather have aborted her. Yeah. She wanted to go to college with me and do all the things we planned to do together,” she said. “She feels she should have done it because she would have been able to have her life. What about the life that she could have led? She wishes she could go to college. But she’s halted where she is.”

I’ve never met someone who wished she had aborted her two-year-old. What’s the baby like?

“There are strong facial traits in my friend’s family with females going way back,” Whitescarver says. “They all look the same. Caitlyn has those traits.”

She wishes she had killed the child who looks just like her mom? Just like her grandma? Just like her?

Whitescarver doesn’t answer. The donut guy returns, and I walk away.

Meanwhile, Foster is talking, talking, talking. Delivering a pro-life message to the walking wounded.

“Why do women have abortions?” she’s asking. “Coercion by family or friends. Or family members who say, ‘That baby will ruin your life.’ Can you imagine picking up a baby and saying, ‘You’ll ruin somebody’s life!’ Babies don’t ruin people’s lives. Poverty ruins peoples’ lives. Lack of health care, lack of education: Those are the things that ruin people’s lives.”

Animated, her voice rising, she delivers the same message she did last night. The same message she’ll give at Temple tonight, jolting students out of their awkward calm.

“Women have to take responsibility for this, because when we chanted, ‘It’s our bodies, it’s our choice,’ up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, we were also saying, ‘It’s our problem: It is time to set aside the rhetoric and horror stories and fundraising tactics and think again about how we can help women in need.”

Applause.

Tom Hoopes

By

Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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