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Is the Story of a 6-Year-Old Running For a Pro-Life Pregnancy Center Inspiring or Exploitative?

Described by a local news station covering the story as “a little girl with a really big heart,” 6-year-old Keelan Glass ran a half-marathon to raise money for a pro life charity. National news outlets chose to focus on her age and physical achievement, but should children be advocating for issues they don't actually understand?
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Described by a local news station covering the story as “a little girl with a really big heart,” 6-year-old Keelan Glass ran a half-marathon – 13.1 miles – to raise money for “a charity,” as national news outlets choosing to focus on her age and physical achievement put it. (Many reports claimed that Keelan is the youngest person to have completed a race of this length, but this was disputed by a few sources.) Sources closer to her home in Abiline, Texas, were more specific, describing how the first-grader went door-to-door soliciting donations to sponsor her race for the Pregnancy Resource Center, a pro-life so-called “crisis pregnancy center” in Abiline, running for LifeRunners, an anti-abortion running group her mother Tracy belongs to.

In matching blue LifeRunners t-shirts and identical blond ponytails, Keelan sat on Tracy's lap as her Mom told a local TV news reporter how the little girl decided to run: “I asked my girls, 'What gifts do you think God has given you? ...and Keelan said, 'I can run really fast,” ... So I said, 'How do you think you can use that gift to serve God's people?' And Keelan thought about it for a little while then said, 'I could run for babies just like you do, Mom.'”

Some questioned how healthy distance running is for a little kid, but Tracy has said in interviews that they consulted a physician before Keelan was allowed to run the half-marathon with her mother. Other critics wonder whether it's exploitative to use a 6-year-old to further a political cause.

“There's nothing wrong with fundraising,” says Betsy Brown-Braun, a Santa Monica, Calif., child development and behavior specialist and author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. “It's adorable when kids raise money for a new playground, or for victims of a tsunami, but those issues are on a level they can understand. Kids learn about philanthropy from their parents; of course we want to inculcate them with our beliefs. But it's a problem when it's pushed on them, and we're involving kids in political causes they don't have the maturity to understand.”

But Brown-Braun also says that it sounds like Keelan wanted to run and her mother was just being encouraging. Kids will adopt their parents' beliefs until they develop their own (if they ever do), after all. She agreed with me that the situation does sound unsettling at first. So I wondered, did Keelan's run initially sound slightly creepy to me because of her age or was it more because I'm adamantly pro-choice?

It's interesting how both conservatives and liberals are outraged when children participate in activism with their parents for causes they dislike. When Obama brought kids who had written letters to the White House in support of tighter gun-control regulations after the Newton, Conn., school shootings, conservative news outlets such as WorldNetDaily derided the president as using kids as “human shields.”  Yet they will applaud young members of church groups who attend anti-abortion protests. Similarly, liberals are often disgusted at the sight of 8-year-olds at pro-life rallies but appear to find it endearing and inspiring when a 9-year-old raises money for child slaves in Nepal selling her Mom's organic, fair-trade lemonade, or when kids learn about the plight of the underprivileged while sleeping in parks during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

But more specifically, I have a hard time with a 6-year-old raising money for crisis pregnancy centers, which are facilities that, pro-choice advocates charge, masquerade as healthcare clinics even though they don't provide medical services, give women inaccurate and incomplete information, are often unlicensed and take advantage of naïve, scared, young and often financially disadvantaged women and guilt trip them out of having abortions. These centers receive federal funding in many states –including Texas – are given for abstinence education programs. The New York Times reported last year that there are 1,800 abortion providers nationwide, but 2,500 pregnancy centers.

Slate reported in August:

"NARAL Virginia reached out to 56 of the 58 [crisis pregnancy centers] in Virginia with 77 phone calls and 10 in-person visits and found that 71 percent of them gave medically inaccurate information. Forty of them falsely claimed that abortion causes psychological damage, with one clinic vividly telling the client that 'the sound of a vacuum' would bring traumatic flashbacks. Women were falsely told that early-term abortions involve 'saline injections' to kill the embryo, and were led to believe abortions are performed with hooks.”

Earlier this year, NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Carolyn Cline, executive director and CEO of Involved for Life (IFL), a ministry partner of First Baptist Dallas that also runs a Dallas crisis pregnancy center and a mobile sonogram unit that parks near abortion clinics to prey on pregnant women.

Gross asks her: “You also have a program of -- life after abortion. And in the literature in your website, for that program, you talk about how abortion affects women differently, but they can suffer from something called post-abortion stress. And the symptoms of post-abortion stress include social and relational breakdown, sexual dysfunction, loss of self-esteem, nightmares, anxiety attacks, guilt and remorse, inability to enjoy previously enjoyable activities, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.

Is there anything in the scientific literature about post-abortion stress? Because I will say that the American Psychological Association says that they have found no link between, for example, depression and suicidal thoughts after an abortion -- or at least, after a single abortion.

CLINE: Yes, that's one organization that says that. But there are also medical studies that show that there's a link. You'll see, in our language, that we do not say everyone is going to experience post-abortion stress. But do I have women that come into my office and have experienced that? Absolutely. We certainly do.

The Pregnancy Resource Center in Abiline, which cute lil' Keelan raised money for, presents fairly neutral-sounding information on its website, although some of the abortion procedure descriptions seem unnecessarily graphic (and biased in that they replace the typically used “fetus” with “the unborn child”), such as their explanation of a Dilation & Evacuation (D&E): “The uterus will be scraped and the unborn child and placenta removed. After 16 weeks, the unborn child and placenta are removed, piece-by-piece, using forceps or other instruments.”

As the line separating church and state continues to blur, it appears that we'll be seeing more kids involved in pro-life free speech issues if recent cases are any indication. Earlier this year, a Minnesota school barred Annie Zinos, a sixth-grader, from sharing pro-life literature with her classmates. Her parents sued for violating her First Amendment rights. Some high-school girls in New Mexico handing out “fetus dolls” with pro-life messages attached to them to fellow students lost their case in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals when the court upheld the school's prohibition of the dolls.

In an article for the First Amendment Center, Charles C. Haynes wrote:

“Pro-life protesters in schools are a recent development, but students protesting for what they believe during the school day are a familiar part of our history. From Billy Gobitis refusing to salute the flag in the 1930s, to Barbara Johns organizing against miserable conditions in black schools in the 1950s, to Mary Beth Tinker wearing armband to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s, students of conviction have not been shy about exercising their First Amendment rights in public schools."

Regardless of your political views, the conversation changes when we're talking about kids of single-digit age, doesn't it? Shouldn't it? At what point – or at what age – does it become about a child's emotional development and not about the right to free speech?

In this case, I have to admit that little Keelan is probably going to be staunchly pro-life for years to come if not for the rest of her life, whether she's running pro-life fueled marathons or not. Her race for manipulative fake health clinics will probably not damage her development, nor does it mean that Tracy is a bad mother. But it does mean that no one should take Keelan's views on the issue seriously. Why? Because she's a 6 year old.