America’s anti-abortion movement has a new darling with an indisputable pedigree and a firm link to the heart of the White House: Charlotte Pence Bond, vice-president Mike Pence’s middle daughter.
Before he became Trump’s running mate, former Indiana governor and evangelical Christian Mike Pence worked for decades to erode reproductive rights, and has continued that work with vigor inside the Trump administration. This year, Trump became the first president to speak at the divisive anti-abortion March for Life, where he called himself the “most pro-life president” ever.
Now, anti-abortion organizations are increasingly turning to Pence’s daughter, 26-year-old Bond, to appeal to young people, who is wading into one of America’s most long-running and contentious culture war issues in spite of describing herself as “not very political”.
“I personally don’t believe abortion should be legal,” she told the Guardian in an interview. But, she added, “I’m not a politician.”
If you are familiar with Bond, it is probably through a popular series of children’s books about her pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo. She writes the books with her mother, the second lady Karen Pence, who also illustrates various scenes of Bundo’s life in Washington DC in watercolors.
Until recently, Bond was a student at Harvard Divinity School, but said she took a break to get married. In that time, she has moved to Visalia, California, 200 miles north-east of Los Angeles with her husband, and found a new interest in speaking to anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ groups.
“I joke with people that I’m really not very political, which everybody says, ‘You know, you’re in the wrong family for that,’” she said.
This might seem incongruous – abortion and LGBTQ+ rights are two culture war issues regularly used to rile American voters. But in Bond’s world, opposition to abortion and gay marriage is indeed not political. It is de facto.
“I don’t think there was a time that I considered being pro-choice,” said Bond.
Her speaking career has become busy lately. She took top billing at the 2019 Students for Life summit in August, a paid engagement according to the group. She headlined the youth rally at the March for Life, the nation’s largest anti-abortion protest held in the nation’s capitol each January since 1973.
The same weekend, she headlined at an event organized by the American Family Association. The theme of this year’s AFA Pro-Life Summit was “History Maker: Casting a Vision for a Post-Roe America”, referring to the landmark Roe v Wade supreme court decision that made abortion legal in the US.
Bond is now represented by Greater Talent Network, a speaking agency which also represents the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, and for whom she was once an intern. She joined their speaker roster roughly one year ago.
But despite her public speaking, untangling Pence’s beliefs on abortion is not easy. Asked whether she supported greater access to birth control, which could help reduce unplanned pregnancies and thus abortion, Bond said: “There honestly are a lot of different options. And I think that that’s really for policymakers to decide on and frankly offer. And I think that there’s been some progress on that.”
In fact, just one of Trump and Pence’s policies alone, the Global Gag Rule which blocks foreign aid from reproductive health organizations which offer abortion, could lead to an estimated 1.8m unintended pregnancies, 600,000 unsafe abortions and 4,600 avoidable maternal deaths, according to Marie Stopes International.
But access to birth control has always been contentious in America, and other family members of the Trump-Pence administration have gotten behind paid maternity leave. But even this, Bond said, she was unsure about.
“Maybe one day I’ll run for office and I’ll have a whole plan about it that I’ll be happy to talk to you about,” she said. Pressed on the matter, Bond said, “I wouldn’t say that I really have too much of an opinion on that right now that I’d like to speak openly about.”
Bond, like her evangelical Christian father, said she wants to encourage young anti-abortion activists to find reasons outside of faith for their opposition to abortion. But what are hers?
“After doing a lot of research on my own on this topic, I just personally don’t believe that abortion and the culture of a pro-choice culture is pro-woman,” she said, and pointed to “post-abortion stress syndrome.” The condition, not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association, is said to be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anti-abortion advocates have long alleged there are deleterious mental health effects stemming from abortions. But even high-powered abortion opponents, such as Reagan-era surgeon general C Everett Koop, have concluded psychological impacts of abortion are “minuscule” from a public health perspective.
A recent survey of more than 650 women across 21 US states and five years found 95% believed they made the right decision to have an abortion. The survey buttresses previous research with the same results.
The difficulty of Bond’s public statements, is they often conflict with the values of organizations she spends her time with. Her Bundo books, for example, were memorably trolled by comedian John Oliver on the HBO show Last Week Tonight. The show made a parody version of her book in which Bundo meets another boy bunny, and they get married – a finger in the eye to the Pence family and their work in opposition to gay rights.
The proceeds from Oliver’s book benefit gay rights charities. Bond bought a copy when it was published, saying she was, “happy to support charities and important causes”.
But when she took top billing at the American Family Association’s pro-life summit, she also spoke at the gathering of an organization whose work focuses on combatting the “gay agenda”. The hate-tracking organization Southern Poverty Law Center describes AFA’s work as “publicizing companies that have pro-gay policies and organizing boycotts against them”.
In the time since the Oliver book, Karen Pence also took a teaching position at the Immanuel Christian school in Springfield, Virginia. The school bans gay students and teachers. A former student at the school described it in an op-ed as a “hotbed of right-wing fanaticism, shoved down the throats of impressionable children at every turn”.
“People, I think, will panic a little bit when they hear of abortion being illegal because it reminds people of a time when abortion was illegal by different states,” said Bond, about the time before the 1973 Roe decision.
“I think on the policy side allowing states to decide on what they want their limits to be would be a good thing,” she said.
Effectively, that would lead to perhaps as many as two dozen states moving forward with abortion bans, and leave vast swaths of America without this reproductive healthcare. “But I’m not, you know, a politician,” she adds.