After Lila Rose mounted the dais in the East Room of the White House, she shook President Donald Trump’s hand before addressing the audience. With her glossy brunette hair and fire-engine red dress, her look was a far cry from the platinum blond hair and sweatshirt she donned over a decade earlier for one of her undercover investigations into Planned Parenthood.
It was July 11, 2019, and Rose was one of the conservative media figures invited to speak at the Social Media Summit, where Trump told the crowd he’d been following her work with admiration. On this day, Rose wasn’t slated to discuss abortion, per se, but she shared how social media platforms were censoring the pro-life group she founded, Live Action.
“We have been, for four years, banned from doing any advertising on Twitter, and they told us in order to reinstate our accounts, we’d have to stop calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and stop sharing our pro-life content,” Rose said, adding that Live Action had been permanently suspended from Pinterest. X, the platform formally known as Twitter, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Action had been taken against Live Action’s account for violating the misinformation policy, according to Pinterest.
Rose’s remarks elicited immediate applause and later, political attention. After the summit, politicians like Utah Sen. Mike Lee would take notice of what was happening to Live Action and use it as evidence of Big Tech’s purported bias against conservatives. Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer and Mike Braun sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter and called for an audit of the platform after a fact check of Live Action’s post.
Though Live Action sparred with Big Tech, it’s also true the organization and its founder went viral precisely because of social media.
Rose combined eye-catching graphics with real-life stories to engage a younger audience and get them to join her cause. But her position on the issue — that there should be no exceptions for the life of the mother and there should be a federal ban on abortion — challenges popular sentiment on the issue, even within conservative circles where some argue the issue should be decided by states and allow for certain exceptions. Among Republican voters, for example, the plurality who responded to the 2022 American Family Survey believe women should be able to have abortions during the first trimester.
It’s not the pro-life movement of yore
Tuesday is Election Day throughout America, and abortion rights are again on the ballot. In Ohio, voters will decide whether abortion access will be enshrined in the state constitution — the latest high-profile ballot measure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.
Nationally, Rose has emerged as a key figure in the abortion debate — and young conservatives have flocked to her.
Shunning stodgy talking points and surrounding herself with like-minded millennials, Rose comes across as a person seeking to give the pro-life movement a makeover. Like many who work against abortion, she’s a religious conservative. But Rose, 35, employs a different vocabulary — one that resembles human rights advocates more than televangelists.
This is similar to how pro-life activists talked before 1965, according to author Daniel K. Williams in the book “Defenders of the Unborn.” But that language might seem novel to anyone who grew up after Roe v. Wade became law in 1973.
“I believe this is the greatest human rights movement of the day,” Rose told me. “It’s fighting for the first right which is life and it’s fighting for that right for millions of pre-born children who have no voice.”
Reimagining the pro-life playbook has helped her emerge as more than a social media warrior.
“I think she’s been destined to be a leader in this movement for a long time, and she’ll continue to be a leader in this movement for many more years,” pro-life activist and former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson told me by phone.
“We have to completely ban abortion,” Rose said in a phone call. We talked just weeks after she said Trump had “disqualified himself from the nomination of our nation’s pro-life political party” because the former president called abortion an issue for the states.
A few weeks later, she would again criticize Trump after his Sept. 17 appearance on “Meet the Press,” where the former president said he thought Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “heartbeat” bill was “a terrible thing.”
This caused Rose to repeat her position: “Trump should not be the GOP nominee.”
After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, how Republicans approach abortion has ramifications at the voting booth — not always with rewards for Republicans. During the midterm election in 2022, analysts predicted a red wave, but some seats flipped to blue. Whether it’s supporting a total ban or rolling back restrictions, extreme positions on abortion tend to be unpopular with voters.
“Both of these extreme positions are unpopular, and that means politicians who are guided by these extremes are going to be out of step with public opinion in substantial ways, on both sides,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
And now on the brink of the 2024 election, some Republican presidential candidates like Nikki Haley and Trump are working to broaden their appeal.
Rose, meanwhile, has staked out an uncompromising position on abortion and been vocal in urging politicians to support a federal ban on abortion. The 2022 American Family Survey also found that the majority of Republican respondents wanted the states to legislate abortion, while Democratic respondents were the most likely to want a nationwide policy.
Some Republican lawmakers, including Lee, believe abortion should remain a state issue.
“We’ve been saying for nearly 50 years that this is not a federal issue. It should be primarily a state issue except in so far as we’re dealing with federal funding and things that are distinctively part of Congress’ role. So, now that Roe has been overturned correctly, we can’t suddenly make it a federal issue,” Lee said.
Rose is part of the throng of activists who believe “there are truly no medical situations in which abortion, the direct, intentional killing of a preborn baby, is necessary to save a woman’s life.” She also does not support an exception for rape.
Jenet Erickson, a Wheatley Institute fellow and family scholar who has staked out a pro-life position, says absolutist positions on abortion with no exceptions for rape or the life of the mother would harm the movement. “It does not allow for a real full honoring of women, of agency and of honoring life,” she said.
“It’s untenable for people, because all of us have deep compassion for someone who’s raped, who experiences incest, whose life is threatened and we have to create a world where we can honor those potential realities,” Erickson told me.
Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Greggory DeVore, director of the Fetal Diagnostic Center and clinical professor at UCLA, wrote that physicians may support Mississippi’s law defining 15 weeks at the latest point when abortion can be performed because of medical science developments.
“If the precedent changes with this new law out of Mississippi, it’s important for policymakers to be guided by the best medical science and the conscience of the community, which compels those of faith in particular to care for the most vulnerable, including and especially the women struggling with such a grave decision and the unborn children who deserve our care and protection,” DeVore wrote.
Rose stands in the midst of these disagreements as the pro-life movement works out its future.
The early years
Born in San Jose, California, to an evangelical Protestant family (Rose later converted at age 20 to Catholicism), she knew her parents were against abortion. At 9, she started to think about it herself after seeing a photo of an aborted first-trimester fetus in her parents’ copy of “Handbook on Abortion” by John and Barbara Willke, a well-known pro-life tract from the era.
“I discovered that there were 3,000 abortions every day at the time, and I felt convicted that something had to be done,” Rose said. As she grew into her teenage years, she explored other social causes to get involved with, but “kept coming back to the plight of the pre-born child as a great human rights issue.”
During her adolescence, she volunteered at a pregnancy support center with her grandmother. She also prayed outside local abortion clinics and hung fliers at local grocery stores.
So, one day, when she was 15, she gathered some friends in her parents’ living room — the club they formed would later become the organization Live Action.
“I wanted to build something bigger than myself,” Rose told me. “And I wanted to engage other young people and help them see what I saw — that this was the human rights abuse of our day and that we all had a role to play in fighting it.”
While a student at UCLA, Rose met James O’Keefe, the now ousted founder of Project Veritas, also known for its undercover investigations, at a training for conservative activists. The two became friends, eventually teaming up to investigate abortion clinics.
When Rose arrived on campus, she never saw any pregnant students there. “I assumed they must be either leaving school or having abortions,” she told me. “And so, I went to my student health center posing as a pregnant student, asking what advice they had for me.”
There, Rose said she was encouraged to get an abortion. She filmed the encounter and wrote about what she did in the inaugural issue of a student magazine she founded called “The Advocate.”
In March 2007, Rose went to two Los Angeles Planned Parenthood clinics and posed as a 15-year-old who was pregnant with her 23-year-old boyfriend’s baby, per Reuters. During her visit at the first clinic, she said she was told to lie about her age (because they would have to report statutory rape otherwise) and at the second clinic, she said she was once again pushed toward having an abortion.
Rose posted these videos online on YouTube and LiveAction’s website, and Planned Parenthood demanded she take them down due to California privacy laws. She removed the videos on LiveAction’s website, but they remained on YouTube and went viral, launching Rose into the public eye.
“I started to plan, through Live Action, national undercover investigative tours where we would go, over summer break, across the country: go to state after state, and go investigate clinics” to show what happened in abortion clinics, she told me.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder telling him about a group that has approached local clinics. “Once inside, these people have recorded ‘undercover’ videos of our conversations with our clinic staff and then selectively and maliciously edited these videos in an attempt to cast Planned Parenthood in a negative light,” Richards wrote.
Some pro-life advocates began to criticize Rose’s tactics as dishonest. “Even if Live Action-style stings were the only means available to turn the American public against abortion, Catholic teaching would still come down firmly against them,” wrote two fellow Catholics, Dawn Eden and William Doino Jr., at the time.
And Planned Parenthood started to take precautions. Johnson, who was working for the organization at the time, told me her clinic had a picture of Rose hanging in the office to “know what she looked like, so we wouldn’t let her in our clinic.”
As Live Action continued to release undercover videos, then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pence introduced HR217, a bill prohibiting “any entity that performs abortions” from receiving family planning grants. It was known as a bill “to defund Planned Parenthood.”
Rose joined him in a press conference on the steps of the Capitol when he announced the bill. She was 22.
Rose and her methods have changed. As Emma Green, then a staff writer for The Atlantic, put it, Rose became “more polished.”
“She has professionalized. That has allowed her to have longevity rather than just being a scandal-maker blip,” Green has said.
Live Action still does investigations, but the group now shares educational resources and clips from young adults speaking about the issue. And the organization has its own online course for replies to common arguments people make in favor of pro-abortion rights policies and also resources for pro-life activists and others.
But by 2019, the group was making headlines again.
That year, Facebook gave a “false” rating to two videos Live Action posted and blocked Rose and Live Action from promoting their content. Four U.S. senators — Hawley, Cruz, Kevin Cramer and Mike Braun — condemned the labeling and called for an external audit. Lee later wrote an op-ed for Fox News listing this incident as evidence of Big Tech’s bias.
The videos were flagged over the claim that “abortion is never medically necessary.” The notation was later removed from the posts.
Rose has argued this position on a few occasions. Her argument is physicians should induce labor early or perform a C-section as opposed to performing an abortion.
But not all those who are pro-life agree with her stance. It’s the norm for pro-life policies to include exceptions for the life of the mother. Matthew Loftus, a family doctor, wrote in The New York Times, “There is only one circumstance in which I think it is permissible — even right — to kill a baby in the womb: when the existence of that baby is killing the mother and removal is the only way to save her life.”
Loftus then described an instance where a patient of his had lost half of her blood and “waiting for a time when the baby could have been delivered safely was impossible.” He and other medical professionals had determined an abortion had to be performed.
“A human fetus has intrinsic human value,” Erickson explained, but when it comes to life of the mother, “you’re putting up two things against one another” and without this exception, “a mother is deprived of the ability to act in a way that is respectful of her life.”
DeVore wrote that laws should take into consideration that some birth defects, including fatal ones, can only be found after a woman has been pregnant for 15 weeks.
“Therefore, a mother already at risk for such a pregnancy may choose to continue her pregnancy knowing that if a malformation turns fatal she has options but is empowered to move forward with the hope of bringing a normal unborn child to term,” DeVore continued.
The media attention surrounding Rose’s claim landed her an invitation to the East Room, where she met the president and spoke about what she believes was bias at Big Tech. That year, she also had a cameo in the anti-abortion film “Unplanned,” which was based on Johnson’s memoir by the same name.
“It was a neat role for her in ‘Unplanned’ because she played a reporter, which was interesting because she’s usually the one being interviewed,” Johnson said.
‘Even more convicted’
Rose met her husband Joe through her older brother and married in 2018. She is now pregnant with her third child. Having a family has not only changed her personal life, but also her professional life.
“It made it more raw because physically experiencing pregnancy, hearing the heartbeat of your own child, feeling the baby kick and move, you just feel on a very intrinsic level the humanity of the baby,” Rose told me. “And it changes you and it convicts you.”
Rose said she “was even more convicted” to fight for life after giving birth.
Rose’s position on abortion has led her to sometimes disagree with others in the pro-life movement, such as Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who believes conservatives need to find compromise on abortion.
“What do you do when your movement is on the right side of an issue morally, but seems to be losing politically? That’s the question the pro-life movement needs to answer, and fast,” Anderson wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
He suggests passing “a pain-capable law today” and “passing a heartbeat bill later” after molding public opinion. “Running an absolutist pro-life platform now is the mirror image of the mistake Democrats have made running on an absolutist pro-abortion platform. Some tolerance for less-than-ideal laws is politically necessary,” Anderson argued.
Rose disagreed. “Instead of leading with compromise, the pro-life movement must lead with courage and strength,” she wrote in a response for The Wall Street Journal.
“Pro-life candidates should enter the political arena ready to fight for what is right,” Rose said. “Each must be ready to advocate the humanity of our youngest children and the need to support their families.”
Other pro-life activists like Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, have praised Rose’s relentlessness.
“Lila Rose is a longtime friend and a heroic leader who has been flipping the script and exposing the brutality of abortion from a young age,” Dannenfelser told me.
Whichever way both the GOP and the pro-life movement end up going, Rose remains committed to “not making compromises.”
Erickson sees the issue as not simply about compromising or not, but rather “addressing the complex realities that get women into a situation where they need an abortion in the first place.”
She continued: “It’s recognizing low-income women who are deeply impoverished, relational situations, those who hunger for committed relationships and it’s helping resolve those issues and valuing life in all of its developmental stages.”
On this point, Rose can agree.
“The pro-life movement works daily with thousands of women to help them through difficult circumstances and challenges so they are empowered to reject abortion and embrace the lives of their children.”
Correction: This article previously stated Lila Rose converted to Catholicism at age 21. She was 20.