The legislative aide was skeptical. “I never understood why you would force a woman to carry a child who was born dying,” she said, “someone who the mother cannot take care of; who is going to be a burden, and only suffer for the short life that he or she would have.”

“Well,” the lobbyist replied, “I would say that no child is a burden — because every human being has an intrinsic humanity that would not be mitigated by the fact that they’re dying or sick or disabled.”

Exchanges like this take place often in legislative offices or on statehouse steps, but the setting this time was a classroom at the National Right to Life Academy.

The art of persuading those indifferent or hostile to the pro-life message is but one of the tactics Academy students are refining during six weeks of rigorous, day-long classroom lectures, independent study, and debate simulation at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).

Their instructor and mock interrogator this particular afternoon is Mary Spaulding Balch, National Right to Life’s state legislative director, who cautioned the would-be lobbyists to exhaustively drill themselves in every statistic pertinent to their arguments. “Credibility is our biggest asset,” Balch advised.

Founded in 1973, the non-sectarian National Right to Life Committee represents more than 3,000 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Internships have been offered for almost two decades, but this summer’s Academy — in session from July 2 through Aug. 10 — represents the organization’s first systematic, college-level education curriculum.

“We saw this as just one more way to help train America’s future pro-life leaders,” said executive director David O’Steen. “Students coming through this course — as broad as it is and intense as it is — will be equipped to go out and educate and speak and organize in all aspects of the movement.”

While the problem of abortion dominates any study of pro-life issues, the Academy’s participants are engaging the full continuum of right-to-life concerns, from conception to natural death. The ethics and biology of assisted suicide, euthanasia and lifesaving medical treatments are included.

“We’ve always recognized that the quality of life ethic which devalues unborn life equally devalues unwanted grandparents, and those deemed not to measure up because they have Spina Bifida or Down syndrome,” explained Burke Balch, the Academy’s academic director and head of the National Right to Life Committee’s Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics. “So we are putting just as much emphasis on equipping them to be engaged in those battles.”

Pro-Life Veterans

The inaugural class of five Academy students — ranging from an incoming college freshman to a new college graduate — is comprised of veterans of the pro-life movement, and each has definite goals to employ skills learned at the Academy and elsewhere.

“I have memories of being a 3-year-old in a stroller with pro-life signs on the side of the road,” recalled Vanessa-Faith Daubman of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a Catholic and a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. As a member and, this fall, acting president of the campus group Penn for Life, Daubman quickly realized the gaps in her peers’ pro-life knowledge when a Cemetery of the Innocents display was erected on campus.

“So many people came up to me and said, ‘This is true? This is this year, right?’” Daubman, a nursing student, remembered shocked reactions when she clarified what onlookers didn’t suspect about the statistics: “‘No. This is every week — and this is just in our state.’”

Academy scholars have immersed themselves in the strategy of capturing the fragmented attention span of a society accustomed to sound byte simplifications of complex issues.

“They’re giving us very concrete examples of how to argue for the life of a terminally ill patient or of an unborn child,” Oliver Barbier, a political science graduate of the University of Chicago, said of his Academy instructors. Barbier, a winner of the 2003 National Right to Life Oratory Contest in his home state of Massachusetts, plans to work as a pro-life lobbyist.

“Our culture has normalized it, so now people don’t actually think about it as the taking of a human life. … It’s very difficult to overcome 20 years of this indoctrination,” Barbier, a Catholic, observed. But he is nonetheless eager to try.

John Seago, a senior philosophy and Biblical studies major at Southeastern College at Wake Forest, N.C., shares Barbier’s determination. Since his high school graduation, Seago has, on winter and summer college vacations, served as a legislative researcher for Texas Right to Life.

“My ultimate goal is to run for either the House or the Senate on a state level,” explained Seago, a Baptist resident of Willis, Texas. “The argument and the discussion has already been shaped for our culture — there are already terms that are commonly used that have a connotation against the pro-life point of view,” he said. Reshaping that lexicon is high on Seago’s list of professional priorities.

“I want to really have an influence on the policies and the ethics and the morals of our society,” shared Eileen Crosby of Elk River, Minn., an incoming Catholic freshman at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. “There’s a lot that people my age just don’t know about abortion and euthanasia. ... A third of our generation is gone because of abortion, and we can never change that — but we can change the future,” said Crosby, who hopes to become a social worker.

Tristen Cramer, president of Cornell Coalition for Life at Cornell University, said the Academy has added valuable tools to her pro-life arsenal.

“I feel more equipped. … We’re learning everything there is to know,” the Lander, Wyo., resident and government/Near Eastern Studies major explained. Cramer, a non-denominational Christian and junior this fall, has her sights set upon law school.

Academy students have ventured beyond the confines of the classroom for occasional field trips, including Fourth of July fireworks, a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a meeting with Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J.

Smith, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, was impressed with the dedication and enthusiasm he witnessed during a visit with the students to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few lawmakers among that group one day,” the congressman predicted. Smith advised them to remain grounded in prayer, and to avoid discouragement. “By their commitment and their work, they will save lives — and underline ‘will’; it’s not a matter of speculation. They’re needed in this fight as never before.”

Kimberley Heatherington

is based in Fairfax, Va.