Lila Rose: A Sweet Face to Accompany Extreme Anti-Abortion Claims
by Kathryn Joyce
These days anti-abortion ingénue Lila Rose needs no introduction. In advertisements for this year's Values Voter Summit, an annual conservative Christian confab, Rose was a headline attraction. While former Attorney General Edwin Meese required a note of background, Rose, like fellow speaker and antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, was advertised by name alone. In LifeSiteNews, a Christian anti-abortion news service, Rose is often known simply as "Lila," a one-name celebrity for the anti-choice right.
For those outside the fanclub, Rose is the early-20s activist and UCLA graduate who founded Live Action, an anti-abortion group that came to fame in 2008 for its high-profile "sting operation" against Planned Parenthood: a series of four taped phone calls wherein clinic employees awkwardly accepted donations targeted for black women's abortions after Rose's collaborator claimed he was worried about black birth rates and complained that affirmative action would decrease his own progeny's prospects.
The sting was one of many. Rose followed this "Racism Project" with the 2008 "Mona Lisa Project," which culminated in the release of hidden camera footage of a baby-faced Rose posing as a 13-year-old girl pregnant by her 31-year-old partner. The pained responses of clinic nurses and staff, who -- head in hands -- told Rose that they're obligated to report instances of statutory rape and that she shouldn't mention her boyfriend's age if they were to help her access services, amounted to an even larger coup. And in 2011, Live Action released another series of stealth videos featuring a make-believe "pimp" inquiring about STD and contraceptive services for the underage or undocumented immigrant girls working for him to demonstrate its view that Planned Parenthood enables sex trafficking, too. While most clinic staff responded to the visits with suspicion, reporting license plate numbers to local and federal law enforcement, one manager came across as an eager co-conspirator, and a conspiracy theory born on the fringes of anti-abortion extremism became headline news.
Rose's stunts netted her significant media attention, an alliance with top movement leaders and a $50,000 award from the anti-abortion and abstinence-only group, the Gerard Health Foundation. She's also been supported with guidance from the Leadership Institute, a training ground for conservative stars, recognition as a "Young Leader" from the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List and guest appearances on the full roster of Fox News talk shows.
Body and Soul for Conservative Activism
While the movement-building infrastructure of the Right has long been a boon to many rising conservative stars, from Bush-guru Karl Rove to far Right activist Grover Norquist, Lila Rose's boosters are particularly enthusiastic. A homeschooling grad with seven siblings, and a pretty brunette with film aspirations, Rose is described widely, in both gushing homeschooling blog profiles and by veteran leaders of the movement, as the "fresh face" of anti-choice activism. (Fresh as an adjective for Rose is used a lot.) Or as the Boston Globe put it, she's a girl with "the soul of Phyllis Schlafly in the body of Miley Cyrus." That's a combination that has long gone far in conservative politics in which the looks of female pundits of the Right are touted as their triumph over liberals, and more significantly, young women are tapped to deliver a message that seems less palatable coming from a man.
In a heavily produced video from the 2010 West Coast Walk for Life, over an ominous synthetic soundtrack, Rose denounces Planned Parenthood's use of "dehumanizing terms, [meant] to turn a woman against her child." She is speaking from a podium before a crowd of young activists, an older man standing at her shoulder, flanked by protesters holding "Men Regret Lost Fatherhood" signs. It seems like an appropriate image.
In 2010, I interviewed an obscure but important figure in the anti-abortion movement, New Jersey's Rev. Clenard Childress, founder of the website BlackGenocide.org and a longstanding proponent of the idea that abortion is a stealth eugentic assault on African Americans. It's a drum Childress has been banging for years, but in the past two, the idea has taken off, featured in a number of controversial billboard campaigns in cities across the U.S., as well as a popular conspiratorial documentary film. While Childress's influence is at the heart of this new movement theme, he told me that his proudest accomplishment in his 10 years of activism is how his website inspired Lila Rose.
Childress isn't the only older, male anti-abortion activist praising Rose as a revelation for the cause. Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition has, as well, noting that the image Rose brings is as important as anything she's saying. "There is this stereotype of who we pro-life leaders are, and for the most part it would be white middle-aged religious men trying to impose their will on women," Mahoney told the Los Angeles Times. "So now with Lila, you bring this young, fresh college student that completely blows any stereotypes away. No one is going to accuse Lila of being mean, vindictive, and harsh."
It's a bit of branding Rose seems to embrace, with her soft-touch headshot ubiquitous on Live Action's website. The Right has always had a handful of places for women who get a chance to lead in exchange for disseminating a message of subservience. Since before the days of Rose's fellow Values Voter Summit speaker Phyllis Schlafly, Right-wing women have have made a name for themselves by telling other women to refuse a career, respect their husbands' authority or embrace traditionalism. In the extension of this model to the anti-abortion movement, women granted leadership positions most commonly make the argument that abortion victimizes women, who are transformed into moral -- or in Rose's case, literal --children. Abortion providers, meanwhile, become the bogeymen of elementary school warnings -- child snatchers or pedophiles, plotting to lure women in.
Follows the Scripts
In all of this, Rose's exposés track closely with the script of anti-abortion extremists in recent years, who have augmented their attacks on abortion as the destruction of innocent life by painting abortion providers as criminals with ulterior motives: whether to further a racist agenda or to prop up pedophiles and sex traffickers. In at least two of these themes, Rose has followed the footsteps of the man she has called her inspiration: Mark Crutcher, the founder of Waco, Texas, anti-abortion group Life Dynamics Incorporated, which released the 2009 "black genocide" documentary "Maafa 21." (It's worth noting that purity of motive is less important than results. Rose's collaborator on the Planned Parenthood fundraising scheme was James O'Keefe, a fellow hidden-camera activist whose pretend racism sounds a lot like things he's said in real life, such as the mock "Affirmative Action bake sale" that O'Keefe, a white man, held in college days, where he sold cookies and brownies for different prices to students of different ethnicities to mock affirmative action policies.)
After Maafa 21's splashy launch, Crutcher's 2010 fundraising appeals promised donors a follow-up act that would involve Rose.
The storylines aren't new, but until Rose, they existed on the outskirts of the anti-abortion movement. Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, a staunch anti-abortion activist with ties to the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue, spent years targeting murdered abortion provider George Tiller for allegedly covering up evidence of underage sex -- with every minor patient viewed as evidence of statutory rape. Operation Rescue has offered rewards of $25,000 for information implicating abortion providers in a list of 15 crimes, ranging from non-reporting of child sex crimes to HIPPA medical privacy violations to overbilling or substance abuse. In 2010, convicted abortion clinic arsonist Jennifer McCoy accused an abortion provider of violating HIPPA for tossing her out of an Illinois clinic when she attempted to pose as a pregnant woman. In 2002, Crutcher himself made an early run at Rose's exposé by having an actress call abortion providers while claiming to be underage. And in 2007, 10,000 copies of a pamphlet published by Crutcher's Life Dynamics, denouncing Planned Parenthood as "Klan Parenthood" and juxtaposing images of lynchings with those of aborted fetuses, under the slogan "lynching is for amateurs," were mailed to minority neighborhoods in Waco.
Lila's mainstreaming of fringe anti-abortion conspiracy theories has poisoned the political environment in a way that the same accusations from male movement leaders and outwardly recognizable extremists could not. After a Florida county revoked half a million dollars in public funding for Planned Parenthood, local activists thanked Lila Rose, Live Action and Life Dynamics -- in that order -- for providing the raw material for their campaign.
"I realize that we live in a war -- in a culture war -- right now," Rose told Jesus Christ Television in a 2010 interview about her undercover work, "and I want to be a warrior." She advised viewers at home to pray for guidance on which talents they can best employ for the cause. "God will lead you. That's what I did and that's what each one of us can do."
Rose seems to have found her role as a ventriloquist for ideas shaped among anti-abortion extremists of the far Right, giving a fresh and sincere gloss to some of the most cynical arguments the anti-choice movement has produced. For abortion rights supporters seeking to counter these old smear tactics, given new life by sympathetic young female advocates, an important first step will be to remind the public where these bad ideas came from in the first place.
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