In a sea of graduates this month, Maddi Runkles stands out. Runkles is a young mom who got a commencement from high school like few others.
Maddi, a 4.0 student, president of the student council and a soccer player, was seven months pregnant on graduation day. She was given a two-day unofficial suspension and removed from leadership positions for violating her Christian school’s moral code, which is understandable. But then her school decided that, as an unmarried, visibly pregnant teen, she could not walk with the rest of the class during graduation. That was when the college pro-life group Students for Life stepped in, giving Runkles her own graduation ceremony in a Methodist church near her home in Boonsboro, Maryland.
Millie Lopus, director of the Women’s Care Center in Baltimore, which provides help for women of all ages facing an unexpected pregnancy, was in Runkles' situation two decades ago. In Lopus' case, she was pregnant in college, and thankfully received the support necessary to avoid the pain of abortion and choose adoption for her child. The Jesuit president of Loyola University, where she was attending school at the time, “couldn’t have been more supportive,” she recalled in an interview with me. The president also shared his sadness that there were no “pregnant women on campus anymore.” His hope was not that more college women would find themselves pregnant, but that if they did, they would feel that they had the support to have their babies one way or another. Instead, he well knew, abortion is too often the solution to an unexpected pregnancy.
Similarly, Kristen Hawkins, president of Students for Life, says that when she decided to hold a graduation for Runkles, she wasn’t looking to encourage anything but the support of students who find themselves pregnant. She wants to inspire “hundreds of Christian schools to re-examine their treatment of pregnant students,” she says. “Abortion is a Christian problem,” she says, with “over half of women who have abortions (identifying) as Christians and more than 40 percent of those (being) regular churchgoers.”
“If Christians would stop seeking abortions, stop identifying as ‘pro-choice,’ and stop voting for politicians who support abortions, we wouldn’t have abortion in our nation,” Hawkins tells me. “Period.”
“I actually had a mother come up to me at Maddi’s graduation,” Hawkins shares. “At first, I thought she wanted to chastise me for helping to take Maddi’s story public, but I was wrong. She began crying and told me that she was in Maddi’s exact shoes when she was 18, a senior at a Christian school, and pregnant out of wedlock. She said she chose wrong and is so proud of Maddi for standing up and choosing life, doing what she failed to do.
“Becoming pregnant under difficult circumstances and yet still choosing life for her child was something we thought deserved to be celebrated,” Hawkins said. “Maddi is a courageous example to others in her situation, and we hope young women who are facing similar circumstances look to Maddi and her story and decide to choose life.”
The graduation ceremony included $16,000 in scholarship money and 7,000 messages of support. “We want to change campuses so that no young women ever feels like she has to choose between the life of her child and her education,” Hawkins explains. “We know choosing life will be difficult for her, but we want her to know that we are walking with her every step of the way and seeking true social justice with her. Granting Maddi a college scholarship was a way that we could tangibly help her achieve her educational goals while having her child. Her college degree will mean that she and her child will have the best chance of living a life out of poverty.”
Beyond Runkles, Students for Life has a Pregnant on Campus initiative, active on both Christian and public schools, to make sure women know that they can’t be discriminated against, "to support women and educate them on both on- and off-campus resources, and lobby the school for diaper decks, childcare and lactation rooms.”
“Our goal is to let pregnant students know that they don’t have to choose between their child and their education,” Hawkins explains, “Both are possible and we are here to help.”
Embracing this approach could mean not only a graduation for Maddi Runkles but for our abortion politics. Real choices on a campus near you. That’s not a political agenda, but a human way to approach life.