Maddi Runkles is an 18-year-old senior at Heritage Academy, a small, conservative Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland. She is also pregnant and has admitted to breaking the pledge that all Heritage students sign, vowing to “[protect] my body by abstaining from sexual immorality and from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.” As the New York Times reported a few days ago, the school is punishing her by forbidding her from “walking” on graduation day in June and removing her from her position on the student council.
Runkles’ story became national news this week because her family enlisted the help of the feisty anti-abortion group Students for Life. Her cause is compelling to pro-life groups because of one obvious fact: If she had quietly procured an abortion, she would be walking at graduation next month with the rest of her class. “She made the courageous decision to choose life, and she definitely should not be shamed,” Students for Life’s president, Kristan Hawkins, told the Times. “There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way.”
Since the Times reported on Runkles, her dispute with the school has been widely discussed in pro-life and Christian circles online. One site praised her for committing “to raise her son instead of secretly killing him.” On Tuesday, the school’s administrator, David Hobbs, issued a statement in response to the hubbub. “Maddi is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral,” Hobbs wrote in a letter posted to the school’s website. The school is “pleased that she has chosen not to abort her son. However, her immorality is the original choice she made that began this situation.” It’s all very Saved.
Runkles is an ideal emblem for the pro-life cause. She has a 4.0 GPA, played on the Heritage soccer team, and describes herself as a “a practicing born-again Christian.” A few days after she learned she was pregnant in January, she found out she had been accepted to her dream school, the ultraconservative Bob Jones University. And she is fluent in the language and rituals of repentance: Rather than let Hobbs announce her pregnancy to the school, Runkles opted to make the public announcement herself. “I wanted to confess what I did and ask for forgiveness from my school,” she told Breitbart.
The problem of what to do with a pregnant teenager is not unique to small religious schools, of course. The tradition of separate “pregnancy schools” is slowly fading away, but for years public schools pushed pregnant girls into “alternative” schools or out of the classroom altogether. (About half of teen mothers drop out of high school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But the dilemma is particularly poignant in settings that preach against both premarital sex and abortion.
The scenario illustrates a rare divide between the pro-life movement and social conservatism more broadly. The latter has a general interest in discouraging “immorality,” as Hobbs put it in his letter. “You don’t want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, ‘Well, that seems like a pretty good option,’ ” the chairman of a large coalition of evangelical schools told the Times. (Runkles has not discussed the father of her child but has said he is not a student at Heritage and they don’t plan to marry.)
Pro-life activists do not tend to be sexual libertines, to put it mildly, but they are attuned to the way shame incentivizes abortion. Students for Life operates a program connecting pregnant and parenting college students with local resources, for example; the organization found Runkles through another pro-life Christian ministry called Embrace Grace, which provides emotional and practical support for single pregnant women. The worse a pregnant woman imagines her life with a baby—materially, socially, emotionally, etc.—the more appealing abortion seems. “Maybe the abortion would have been better,” Runkles told the Times. “Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.”
Hawkins said she and the Runkles family tried unsuccessfully to negotiate privately with the school to resolve the issue and only went public when the board refused to let her walk with her classmates. At first, in fact, the school said she would have to finish her classes at home but later relented. In a statement Wednesday morning, Students for Life said it has not been able to find a single example in the school’s 48-year history of a student being banned from walking at graduation for breaking the rule Runkles did.