Fetal Position: inside the world of Lia Mills, the 16-year-old leader of a new generation of anti-abortion activists
Lia Mills didn’t start Grade 7 with a plan to become famous. The year was 2009, and she was enrolled in a gifted class at Gordon A. Brown Middle School in East York. Everyone in her grade had to participate in a speech-writing contest. Winners would deliver their speeches in front of the school, and the school’s winner would battle district-wide. Most of Lia’s classmates chose serious, heavy topics such as human rights. Lia wanted to speak about abortion. She didn’t know much about it when she chose the topic, but the more she read, the more determined she became. She felt it was something God wanted her to do.
Lia’s parents, a plumber named Steve and a chartered accountant named Kimberley, are devout Christians who belong to a non-denominational Toronto church and are raising Lia, her younger sister and her two brothers in the faith. They are against abortion, but they’re not activists and have never been involved in the anti-abortion movement. Kimberley had never heard her daughter express any interest in the subject, and worried that it was too controversial. She asked if she wouldn’t change her mind.
Her teacher also felt the subject of abortion was inappropriate. She told Lia she couldn’t compete in the public speaking event unless she chose a different topic, and suggested some options. The librarian gave her books on Canadian heroes.
Lia is determined by nature—always has been. She was a competitive dancer, sometimes practising nine hours a week. Her mother describes her as a 747 engine stuck inside a paper plane body—a strong personality that can’t be swayed. Lia stood in front of her class and delivered her anti-abortion
To Lia’s surprise, her teacher was so impressed that she picked Lia to go on to the school level—but there were caveats. Lia had to perform her speech in front of two other teachers first. She was also asked to remove one line, a reference to God: “Fetuses are definitely human beings, knit together in the womb by their wonderful creator.” Lia prayed, and decided ditching the line would dishonour God, who had inspired her speech in the first place. She told her teacher she couldn’t do it; she would withdraw from the competition. Her teacher gave in. “It was like a sign that I was doing the right thing,” Lia says.
She gave her speech in front of the school. Her teacher—who, despite her own pro-choice beliefs, had become Lia’s biggest champion—worked behind the scenes to help convince the school’s principal that Lia’s was one of the best speeches and she should compete at the district level. Lia was ecstatic. Her friends handed out flyers encouraging everyone to cheer her on.
As Lia was preparing to compete, Kimberley decided to film her performing the speech. She planned to post the video on YouTube, to share it with friends and a couple of religious organizations whose research Lia had used. In the five-minute video, titled “12-year-old Speaks Out on the Issue of Abortion,” Lia stares into the camera, wide blue eyes locked on her viewer. “What if I told you that, right now, someone was choosing if you were going to live or die?” Her enunciation is exceptional. “Thousands of children are right now in that very situation,” she continues. “That someone is their mother. And that choice is abortion.”
Lia lost at the district level, but won on the Internet. When Kimberley first uploaded the video, the view count hit 25 pretty fast. Then 100. “Oh my goodness,” Lia told her mom. “Look at all these people.” Within a week, the views started climbing by the thousands, and then the tens of thousands. Lia knew her mom had a lot of friends, but 100,000—really? The family watched in amazement as the view numbers climbed past 1.2 million, putting Lia in the company of Hollywood starlets and cute kittens.
Whether she ever wanted it or not, Lia was now very, very famous.
The scrapbook Lia made to remember her first year as an anti-abortion activist is filled with thank-you notes. Some are from individuals, including women who saw her video and decided not to have their planned abortion; others are from major U.S. anti-abortion organizations. Among the pages, decorated with polka dots and sparkly cut-outs of the phrase “Love life,” there are also dozens of press clippings about Lia from the faith-based publications ChristianWeek, Clubhouse and the AFA Journal, put out by the American Family Association.
After the video went viral, Lia was inundated with invitations from both Canadian and U.S. anti-abortion organizations. They wanted her to talk about her story as much as her views on abortion. At the time, Kimberley handled the logistics on all the requests (Lia took over a couple of years later). Lia was shocked and flattered by all the attention. She accepted as many invitations as possible, and, because she believed she was performing God’s work, she did it for free.
Dozens of radio stations interviewed her, and she was featured on Spanish TV. One U.S. organization held a national video contest for youth called Lia’s Challenge. It handed out two $1,000 scholarships to kids who filmed their own original anti-abortion speeches.
Ministers of Parliament lined up to meet Lia. She shook the hand of Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht, without even realizing who he was; it was only later someone told her he was not just another fan. Lia received the Susan B. Anthony List Young Leaders Award, given to women under the age of 30, in D.C., and met congressmen and congresswomen. Wherever she went, people asked for her autograph.
At the annual March for Life rally on Parliament Hill in 2009, Lia was a featured speaker. Some 12,000 people attended. “I was like, ‘Wow that’s a lot of people right there. This isn’t class anymore,’ ” Lia says. Many of the people in the audience were in their teens and 20s. Standing on the Hill, she had an epiphany: thousands had dedicated their whole lives to the anti-abortion movement, but that was still not enough to stop abortion.
That first year Lia missed a lot of school, but completed her assignments ahead of time, on weekends and at night. Her fellow gifted class students frequently discussed abortion, even when they were supposed to be doing something else. “My teacher had to shut us up and be like, ‘Guys, no, right now we’re doing math,’ ” Lia says. “ ‘We’re not talking about justice issues.’ ”
Like most people in the anti-abortion movement, Lia describes herself as pro-life: the term embraces her belief that life begins at conception, that euthanasia is wrong, and that the dignity of life must be respected at all times. To keep spreading her message—to become a leader of the movement—would require work and a plan. Lia took over her YouTube channel from her mom and began to develop videos herself, tackling viewer requests and questions. She had a mission to manage.
Lia is now a tall, slim 16-year-old with mascaraed eyelashes and a sheet of highlighted honey-blond hair. Like many teens, she decorates her wrists with fat rubber bracelets. Hers, red and purple, say Life
She has the impressively elastic voice of a natural actress. When she jokes about stereotypes and prejudices about religious people who, like her, believe in prayer and God, her voice becomes gruff and low. When she pokes fun at her over-serious tone, it becomes goofy and high. And when she talks about saving the unborn, it burns with the fire of conviction.
Her ability to establish immediate engagement is why anti-abortion groups want her to educate and recruit other teens and tweens. She is a natural leader in what is considered a critical time for the anti-abortion movement—now, with many of the movement’s founding and most stalwart activists getting old and the anti-abortion war moving onto the Internet, they want to grow their youth bloc.
Lia says it’s still weird to think that she inspires people. In part, it’s this modesty that appeals to so many other teens. She can rhyme off the statistics, studies and arguments, but she never comes across as preachy. She is on all the time: relatable, approachable and genuine. When she says her generation can bring an end to abortion, she relays the belief with such bubbly enthusiasm, it’s contagious. And when she tells audiences that she and her friends spent her 16th birthday writing 4,500 anti-abortion postcards to MPs, it sounds fun, not loser-y.
While she sometimes accepts a small honorarium—$50 to $100—Lia says she is not motivated by money. She asks only that her travel expenses be covered. Even then, she travels cheaply, staying in guest rooms, on couches, or at bare-bones hotels and motels. She will endorse any initiative she finds exciting, and she is so excited about pretty much everything anti-abortion.
Lia appears in videos for the Campaign Life Coalition, the Canadian political arm of the anti-abortion movement, and endorsed a Toronto program to train high school anti-abortion leaders and launch anti-abortion clubs. When she isn’t busy educating other teenagers, she’s educating politicians. In late fall, she made her third trip to Ottawa with 4MY Canada, a youth-run group that lobbies MPs to support the anti-abortion position through legislation. She also participates in “life siege,” in which protesters cover their mouths with a piece of red tape inscribed with the word “life” and picket in silent solidarity with what they call the pre-born.
While abortion is often viewed as a settled issue in Canada—mostly because many politicians prefer not to talk about it—funding and access are variable (there are no abortion services at all in P.E.I., for example). The lack of clear legislation is equally untenable for the anti-abortion and the abortion rights movements. All the anti-abortion movement really needs is for teenagers to push the fight past the finish line. “I dream big,” says Lia. “I really believe I’ll see abortion end in my lifetime.”
It’s hard to gauge whether the movement is close to achieving its desired tidal wave of public support. One 2011 Environics poll, commissioned by the anti-abortion group LifeCanada, reported that 72 per cent of Canadian adults want to see some form of legal protection for “human life in the womb.” Nearly 30 per cent want that protection to start at conception. Last April, Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodworth put forth a parliamentary motion to form a commission to study when a fetus becomes a human being, protected under the law. The vote—203 against, 91 for—revealed a surprising amount of support for the anti-abortion cause, more than what most anti-abortion organizations expected. Young activists played a role in pushing MPs to support the motion: shortly after Woodworth tabled it, a 17-year-old named Alexandra Jezierski lobbied Canadians to mail 100,000 pro–Motion 312 letters to Stephen Harper and MPs. They sent 119,000. Jezierski credits Lia Mills for encouraging her to act. “She had a way of motivating me,” she says. “I just couldn’t sit still.”
If God chose Lia’s path, he did not make it an easy one. Her first YouTube video fuelled a firestorm of commentary. While a lot of people loved Lia, many hated her, too. A lot of the comments were well reasoned and rational, but others called Lia’s parents “scum” or “Christian drones” who used Lia as a puppet. There were plenty of crazies—commenters who said they hoped Lia would get raped (by a stranger, or a date, but ideally by her father) and be forced to carry the child to term. Others said, “It’s a shame you weren’t aborted.” She was called a “dumb bitch” and a “fucking christfag.” Someone wrote, “I would LOVE for this girl to get pregnant and find out her baby is deformed and will suffer all its life.” There were also hundreds and hundreds of death threats.
Kimberley and Steve shielded Lia from the scariest comments, deleting them as they showed up. Lia did not want to see the threats against her, either, but her parents felt if they hid everything negative from Lia she would have no idea how deep a chord her speech had struck. So they told her there were people out there who wanted her to get raped, who wished she had been aborted, who said they wanted to kill her.
Kimberley would lie awake wondering if someone would find out where they lived. As the threats became nastier and more numerous, members of the family’s church encouraged them to take the video down. Others felt it was something God wished for Lia’s life. Her parents couldn’t decide what to do. They thought, We didn’t mean for any of this to happen, and changed the video’s settings to private.
Almost immediately, the family was contacted by anti-abortion groups that wondered what had happened. They encouraged the family to pray. They believed Lia had a calling. Together, the Millses prayed and fasted—to strengthen those prayers and their communication with God. Then they called a family meeting.
Kimberley and Steve tried their best to keep neutral as they told Lia and her siblings that if Lia decided to continue campaigning against abortion, it would affect the whole family. Things would change in ways they couldn’t predict. The threats would likely never stop. Everybody had a vote, and the majority would rule. But it didn’t matter because there was no split: everyone voted for Lia to continue. Her older brother, 15 at the time, said, “Since when do we make decisions based on fear?” Lia’s sister, three years younger than her, echoed the sentiment. “This is something God wants for Lia,” she told her mom. “Who cares if it’s hard?”
As Kimberley suspected, the threats haven’t stopped. Comments on Lia’s videos (she has now posted two dozen) attack her appearance and threaten violence. Lia admits it can be nerve-racking to know there are so many people who don’t like her. There have been times, after dark, when she has avoided taking the TTC home from school.
While Lia has crafted her anti-abortion identity and fame under the surname Mills, it is not, in fact, her real last name. No one in the movement calls her by any other name; most don’t even know it’s a pseudonym, made up to protect her parents and her siblings, none of whom are in the anti-abortion spotlight. (When she makes new friends, many are surprised to discover she’s that Lia.)
Kimberley found it especially unsettling when, early last year, she discovered that an anonymous group had not only figured out Lia’s real surname, but also the full names and, in some cases, contact information of her family members. Lia and her family had no idea what the group planned to do with the information, but the fact that they had taken the time to dig it up made the threat clear enough. Her parents called the police—who said they could do nothing until the threats escalated from online to real life.
The family has since moved and fiercely protects their new address. I’m told only that they live close to, but not in, Toronto. Every time we meet, it’s at Edwards Gardens, near Lia’s old house and where the family used to love going cycling. Steve travels into the city almost every day for work (Kimberley has since left her corporate job to stay at home with her new son).
Kimberley believes, as only the truly devout can, that God will keep Lia safe from the people who despise her. “I’m not worried, ultimately,” she says. “I believe if this is something God’s called her to, God will protect her.”
It’s October 19, 2012, and Lia is onstage at Cardinal Carter Secondary School in Leamington, a town of 28,000 near Windsor. She is the main speaker for the Catholic school’s Grade 11 retreat day, an event dedicated to teaching students about the anti-abortion position. On a small table in front of the podium, and behind a pile of rosaries, is a sign that reads, “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” On the other side of the stage, Christian music heartthrob Chris Bray croons interludes. Students sing along and act out accompanying moves (it can’t quite be called dancing).
As Lia launches into the first part of her presentation, “The Case for Life,” members of the school’s Dignity of Human Life Club, all in the front two rows, listen rapt. Lia tells the audience about a recent Alberta case in which a young woman gave birth, killed the baby, tossed the body over a neighbour’s fence, had her second-degree murder charge downgraded to infanticide, and in the end was only convicted of improper disposal of a body, which, Lia says, meant she’d only have to spend 16 days in jail. The judge, Lia adds, characterized the woman’s actions as a “fourth-trimester abortion.” Her version of events wasn’t quite right. What the judge really said was, “While many Canadians undoubtedly view abortion as a less-than-ideal solution to unwanted pregnancy, Canadians generally understand, accept and sympathize with the onerous demands pregnancy and childbirth exact from mothers, especially mothers without support.” The woman, Katrina Effert, was convicted of infanticide; she received a three-year suspended sentence. By the time of her conviction, Effert had spent 221 days in custody; she had 16 days left to serve on her 90-day improper disposal charge.
It’s during the activity portion of the school retreat day, however, that the true influence of Lia Mills shows. The audience is split into groups to create anti-abortion slogans and cheers. In the hour that follows, students come up with and perform several different takes on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (“Hey, I just made you, and this is crazy. You have rights, because you’re my baby,” and another ending with “Do the right thing, keep your baby”), renditions of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” (“We will, we will, save you”), and even a take on “Gangnam Style” (“Pro-life style”).
The last group gets particularly loud cheers when one of its members vaults off the stage, shouting “pro-life,” as if he’s jumping into a mosh pit. Lia watches it all, impressed with the enthusiasm. She is gracious when students praise and thank her for her presentation on their way to and from the stage, even after the day is over and the bell has already rung for them to leave.
On the way home from Leamington, Lia is thrilled but tired. She has shared the anti-abortion message, her support and her story with a lot of people. After the school retreat day (and a brief nap), she makes the half-hour trip to Windsor to give the keynote speech at the Windsor-Essex Right to Life Association’s 39th annual dinner. There, in front of 350 people, many of them teens, she tells the audience not to be discouraged, but also that they must not be idle. Lia closes with a rallying cry: “Let’s not allow ourselves to be guilty of doing nothing.” She receives a standing ovation. After her speech, attendees—young and old—line up to get their picture taken with her. And, as midnight approaches and the crowd filters out, three young girls decked out in pink and sparkles—two of them in Grade 7 and one younger—grab the microphone, forgotten on the podium. “We’re Lia Mills’ number one fans,” they shout in unison from the stage. “Lia Mills is great!”
Lia will soon be able to drive herself to speaking engagements. Already, her video and speech topics are expanding to address subjects like birth control and abstinence—the latter of which Lia prefers, saying she has never had a boyfriend and doesn’t want one. (“I don’t think I’m ready,” she tells me.) She already talks about other right-to-life justice issues, such as euthanasia, and has added human trafficking to her list of things to fight against.
There’s also university to think about. Lia isn’t sure she wants to go. She knows she could do so much good anti-abortion work on a university campus, but she also wants to become a full-time activist and speaker—the next Craig Kielburger.
There was a time, back when the hype of the 12-year-old anti-abortion YouTube sensation had started to subside, when Lia had a choice to make. If she wanted to spread the anti-abortion message, she knew it was up to her to keep the momentum going. But did she even want to? She made the decision the same way she makes all her decisions, big and small: she asked God. She hears him—not like voices in her head, the elastic voice squeaks with laughter, but, yes, they have conversations. Every day, all the time, like you would with your best friend. It’s no surprise what he told her. He told her to keep fighting.