Getting pregnant as a high school senior has proven difficult and life-altering for many, many of the teenage girls who have gone through it — whether they opted to have the baby or not. But, as far community support goes, announcing the predicament to your tiny, conservative Christian school with strict a strict morality code undoubtedly poses a unique challenge. That's what 18-year-old Maddi Runkles learned firsthand this year when her school banned the pregnant student from its graduation ceremony. But, with her family and anti-abortion groups backing her, Runkles is fighting back against the punishment that she feels is too harsh and shames her for not deciding to have abortion.
Runkles first found out that she was pregnant back in January. Among her initial reactions was to keep the news a secret, and it's not hard to understand why, considering where she goes to school. Runkles is one of 15 seniors at Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Maryland, a nondenominational Christian institution that requires all student to sign a pledge promising to not to engage in "sexual immorality," which here obviously includes premarital sex. But Runkles decided to be forthright with her school community, and the punishment was shift: After hearing appeals from her family, the Student Council President and Key Club Vice President with a 4.0 GPA was ultimately suspended for two days, removed from her school leadership positions, and forbidden from walking in her June 2 graduation ceremony. The baby's father does not go to Heritage.
And the student's situation gained national media attention; mainstream outlets like The New York Times picked it up. As her supporters — which include pro-life groups like the March of Dimes and Students for Life America — pressure the school to reverse its decision about graduation day, Heritage Academy principal Dave Hobbs issued an open letter to the "Heritage Family" on the school's website explaining the reasoning behind the decision. In it, he insisted that Ruckles was facing punishment "not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral" and clarified that the school was "pleased" that she did not have an abortion. Romper reached out to Heritage Academy for further comment but has not heard back. Hobb continued:
A wise man told me that discipline is not the absence of love, but the application of love. We love Maddi Runkles. The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her immorality that began this situation.
Ruckles herself, on the other hand, sees the situation differently. She believes that the school's consequences for her actions are demonstrably harsher that they were for other students who have violated the code of conduct, which also bans drinking alcohol, for example, according to The Washington Post. Even more importantly to her, though, is what punishing someone for having a baby instead of having an abortion communicates about the Christian pro-life message, as she told BuzzFeed:
My goal is to make people in the pro-life and Christian community realize that you can be against the killing of babies, but then when the girl chooses to keep her baby and her situation doesn’t meet your standards, you can’t just throw her out. That defeats the whole purpose of being pro-life.
March for Life president Jeanne Mancini told the Post she was "horrified" when she found out that the school won't allow Ruckles to walk at her ceremony. In her view, observing this could drive more women and girls to have abortions. "Usually when a woman is facing an unwanted pregnancy, especially a young woman, there is a sense of shame that comes into play and can have an impact on her decision and often does," she said, according to the Post.
Of course, Ruckles and others should never feel pressured into having an abortion, under any circumstances. But March for Life considers access to abortion to be "the greatest human rights violation of our time" and seeks to abolish it. Perhaps the best move here would be to respect a student's right to carry a pregnancy to term or to not — whatever is best for her.