The story of a high school senior whose pregnancy has barred her from walking at her graduation and removed her from her student leadership positions has sparked a debate within the pro-life community.
A story at the New York Times spells out how a spokesman for 18-year-old Maddi Runkles’ Christian high school – Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Md. – stood by the decision, calling it an internal matter. The original story concedes that the internal debate is a difficult one between policies that affirm life and policies that affirm traditional moral teachings on premarital sex.
Over the past few days, two camps have arisen in pro-life circles about the incident. One sides with Students for Life of America (SFLA) – who supported Runkles in the NYT story – saying that the school shouldn’t have penalized her for choosing to keep her baby. The other includes The Blaze’s Matt Walsh, who took to Facebook to defend Heritage Academy’s decisions.
Regardless of where you are in the debate, one inescapable fact is that Runkles – a young woman of an age to start college – is a member of a demographic extremely vulnerable to the temptation of abortion.
Statistics from the Guttmacher institute – a research arm of Planned Parenthood – show that young women of high school and college age account for over 45 percent of all abortions performed. Furthermore, a 2009 study also found that girls at private religious schools were more likely to have abortions than their counterparts at public schools, statistically speaking.
Ergo, for every Maddi Runkles, there are scores of other girls whose children will never see the light of day in large part because of the multitude of pressures these young women face.
How could the school have responded? And what are other institutions doing to affirm the lifesaving choices that girls like Maddi have made in the face of this kind of pressure and uncertainty?
Debbie Capen was once in Runkles’ shoes and made the choice to abort – a choice she deeply regrets. Now she helps other young women in the same tough situation make the choice for life in her role as the executive director of Mira Via, a maternity home in the Charlotte, N.C., area geared toward helping young single moms choose life and college at the same time.
Historically affiliated with Catholic Belmont Abbey College (BAC) in the area, Mira Via – Latin for “miraculous way” — is a program that offers pregnant women and young moms in college the resources, instructions, shelter, and childcare they need for up to two years in order to finish a degree.
For Debbie Capen, programs like this are simply part of being consistently pro-life in an institution’s beliefs as well as its policies, especially when the choice for life is as counter-cultural as it is today.
“Society has taught that being burdened with a child is some sort of a punishment,” Capen tells me over the phone, with the baby in her lap audibly cooing in the background. “We live in a culture where everything is supposed to be as easy as possible and as pain-free as possible. So when young women come to us, it’s like they have a cloud over their head with all these worries and concerns and that it is the end of their lives and they don’t know where to go.”
However, the staff at Mira Via work to lift this cloud through education, assistance, and time to sort out those issues. Once those worries are dispelled, Capen says, the moms typically experience a sense of not only relief, but joy. This allows them “not to see the child as a punishment, but as a gift,” she adds. And she loves seeing that change take place.
“It’s one of the most amazing transformations,” Capen says. “To witness that moment where they realize that they don’t have to feel this pressure, that it’s up to them to choose the fate of this child, then they can welcome the child with joy. By the time they leave our program, they all can’t believe that they were so afraid of this.”
When asked about situations like the one described by the New York Times, Capen says that adding consequences to a situation that already has enough of them is unfair, unnecessary, and unhelpful.
“[The mother] cannot escape the visible consequence [of her actions], whereas the father of the child does not have a visible consequence that everyone can see,” she explains. “Consequences are natural. The child is the natural consequence to her situation that does not need to be added to with the component of shame.”
“This young woman may have fallen down in her own personal walk,” Capen concludes, “but now she has gotten up and chosen to take the next good step, and she should not be punished for taking the next good step.”
And while women staying at Mira Via can go to any school they wish, BAC also offers them assistance in the form of two years of free tuition to help them finish their degrees.
“For us as a college, we were put in a position to figure out how we could help,” explains BAC spokesman Rolando Rivas. “So, it was important for us to step up and do equally to what the monastery had done and try to find a way to help support these young ladies at this critical time.”
Mira Via was the first program of its kind in the U.S., but it is no longer alone. One of several other such programs is located at the College of St. Mary in Omaha (CSM). CSM’s Mother’s Living and Learning program is currently ranked number one in the nation for student residential maternity homes, according to the Cardinal Newman Society.
Lacy Dodd Miske got pregnant during her senior year at the University of Notre Dame in 1999. She was able to keep her child and her future career thanks to the support of pregnancy resource centers in the local community and her hometown, as well as a delayed active duty start date in the U.S. Army.
After a five-year stint in the military, she moved to Charlotte with her daughter, where she started her civilian career. She felt called to give back and worked at Mira Via. She served on the board of directors for six years, until a military assignment for her husband – whom she met and married after the birth of her daughter, now 17 – moved her away.
She too says that piling on to a young woman’s situation when she has chosen life is unnecessary.
“If a student becomes pregnant, a Christian school and community should show support for the young woman’s decision to have the baby and not create a stigma around it, whether at the high school or college level,” says Lacy. “It is a lack of resources which is a huge cause of abortion. Schools need to show more openness and support for the choice for life.”
Capen also shares some personal experience with the girls she helps. She herself had an abortion as a young woman because “she had no other choice.” Now she works with several young moms who have found themselves in the same place.
Capen recalls one instance at a pro-life rally where she was confronted by the director of an abortion clinic. Capen was holding a sign: “I regret my abortion.” She recalls how the director of the clinic came out and “stuck a finger in my face,” informing her that pro-lifers were, in her own view, “shaming women through the front door.”
“As someone who was post-abortive, I understood because I got it,” she says. “I did not want to disappoint anybody. I did not want to hurt anyone in my family.”
“By providing organizations like Mira Via,” she explains, “it alleviates all of those fears and shame factors” that drive women through the doors in the first place.