Erin Hawley: The Woman Arguing Against the Abortion Pill

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It was 2014, and Erin Morrow Hawley was fighting against the egg-laying hens of Missouri. Specifically, a new requirement that chicken cages have enough space for the hens to stand up, turn around and stretch out.

A law professor from five generations of ranchers and the wife of Senator Josh Hawley, Ms. Hawley joined a challenge to California, which required more spacious enclosures for hens laying eggs to be sold there. The state where she taught, Missouri, sold a third of its eggs to California, and Ms. Hawley believed that a blue state had no right to impose its values and rules on Missouri’s farmers.

She joined in a lawsuit against California’s attorney general at the time, Kamala Harris. A judge found that the challengers could show no direct injury and dismissed the case. Ms. Hawley continued teaching, and Ms. Harris became Joe Biden’s vice president.

Ten years later, Ms. Hawley, 44, is now at the center of one of the country’s most heated cultural battles about bodily autonomy, gender roles and abortion. On Tuesday, for the first time since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court will once again consider nationwide limits on abortion access. And Ms. Hawley is slated to be the woman standing before the justices, arguing to sharply curtail access to the abortion pill.

The case centers on the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, a commonly available drug used in the majority of abortions in the country. Limiting medication abortion is a next frontier for the anti-abortion movement in the post-Roe era.

Ms. Hawley represents a group of anti-abortion doctors and an umbrella group of conservative medical associations that claim that the abortion pill — approved more than two decades ago — is a danger to women. The F.D.A. has pointed to substantial scientific evidence that the medication abortion is safe.

Ms. Hawley views the cause as similar to her fights against government interference, rooted in her experience of ranch life.

“You see how those regulations impact people that are really living on the ground, and sometimes for good and sometimes maybe not for good,” she said in an interview with The Times earlier this month. “And so being pro-life, and believing that every child, no matter how small, no matter if they’re not yet born, is invested with inherent dignity and worth — government action can have a lot to say about that as well.”

She argues that federal approval of the abortion pill went forward without enough consideration of possible side effects and dangers, and that subsequent changes to enable greater access have ignored health risks to women.

The government lawyers in this case, led by Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, have argued in court filings that Ms. Hawley and her legal team offered scant evidence of real injury, and that declarations from “seven identified doctors” were “often vague or conclusory.”

Ms. Hawley’s particular background makes her ideal for this moment. Her longtime interest in limiting the power of the administrative state is well suited to speak to the current court’s conservative supermajority, which has welcomed cases challenging regulations on everything from herring fish to machine guns and, now, abortion.

Ms. Hawley brings her credentials not only as a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. but as a millennial Christian mother. An evangelical believer who forefronts her identity as a wife and mother of three, Ms. Hawley works for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerful conservative Christian legal group. She represents the ideals of womanhood many in the anti-abortion and conservative Christian movement seek to elevate.

Until now, Ms. Hawley has been best known as the wife of Senator Hawley, Republican of Missouri, who actively sought the overturning of Roe and has supported anti-abortion legislation.

In a campaign ad for him, Ms. Hawley starred as an everyday mom, playing with their children in the kitchen, while he took the spotlight. But she will be one of a few women to argue a prominent abortion case at the Supreme Court for the anti-abortion side.

Even anti-abortion leaders often said “who?” or “Josh’s wife?” when asked about Ms. Hawley. Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, has met her at events supporting Senator Hawley but did not realize that Ms. Hawley was arguing the mifepristone case.

“There are millions of conservative women all over our country who are educated and powerful and love their families, similar to Erin Hawley,” Ms. Nance said. “She is actually fairly typical of young millennial conservative Christian women coming up through the ranks.”

But it may be Ms. Hawley, not Sen. Hawley, whose work will most power the anti-abortion cause.

“I think it may be more accurate to say that he’s Erin Hawley’s husband,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor and historian at University of California, Davis, said of the senator. “I think people are just beginning to see how influential she is.”

Erin Morrow was born into a family of frontier women and grew up on a cattle ranch near Folsom, N.M., population roughly 50. The foundation of her great-great-great grandmother’s homestead is still visible on the land, where family lore says that as a young widow, she outwitted marauding bandits.

The oldest of three daughters, Ms. Hawley was raised mainly by her mother after her parents divorced. Her father, a former national rodeo champion who struggled with alcoholism and depression, died by suicide when she was in high school, a pivotal moment she has spoken about on her podcast. Her mother, Shari Morrow, ran the family’s ranch, WineCup, and started teaching Erin to ride horses before she could walk.

“She was there when the bus came home, and often she’d throw us on horseback, and we’d help her move cattle, and we were able to sort of participate in her job in a small way,” Ms. Hawley said in the interview with Times reporters. “She was just a wonderful example of putting her family first but also doing something she loved and cared about.”

Her mother, a registered Democrat in the 1990s, had wanted to be a veterinarian, and for a while her daughter did too. Ms. Hawley studied animal science at Texas A&M University and considered a doctorate in genetics. But an internship for the House Committee on Agriculture sparked her interest in regulatory law.

Ms. Hawley started law school at the University of Texas in Austin, then transferred to Yale Law School, where she was a senior editor on the law review.

She clerked for J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a Reagan appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and for Chief Justice Roberts in 2007.

There, her desk faced that of another clerk from Yale, Josh Hawley, and they secretly dated. He persuaded her to get married, when she was skeptical after having grown up “in a home with a marriage that wasn’t ideal,” she said in a podcast, and they moved back to his home state of Missouri.

When they searched for jobs, she impressed the faculty at the University of Missouri’s School of Law and expressed interest in filling a need to teach tax law. The school offered jobs to both of them.

Together they started the Missouri Liberty Project, “dedicated to promoting constitutional liberty and limited government.” But her husband’s career soon took the lead in their lives. As he campaigned for the U.S. Senate, she wrote a devotional book for mothers, drawing spiritual lessons from the lives of her children while comfortably weaving in references to modern theologians like Stanley Hauerwas. Her light textual analysis of original Greek words in the Bible echoes her approach to interpreting the Constitution in her legal work.

“Why can’t a high-powered lawyer also share that side of her life? Why not? That is her foundation, that is who she is,” said Julie Holmquist, who edited the book.

Ms. Hawley had expected her husband to pursue a political career after their children were grown. When they felt God calling him to run for office, she packed the family onto the campaign bus. The couple voted at their home church, The Crossing Church, an evangelical Presbyterian congregation, and the Hawleys moved to Washington.

Only a few months into her role as a lawyer for the conservative Christian legal advocacy group A.D.F. in 2021, Ms. Hawley flew to Mississippi to strategize on the Dobbs case, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Ms. Hawley and her infant daughter arrived on time, but her babysitter did not. In the middle of the meeting, the baby let out a wail.

As Ms. Hawley tells it, this moment encapsulated her purpose, both as a Christian mom and as a lawyer aimed at dismantling the right to abortion. On the couple’s podcast, she described her baby’s crying as “a tangible reminder of why the Dobbs case might matter so much.”

At a speech after the Dobbs oral argument, Ms. Hawley said she had “been blessed to have a front-row seat on this case.” She added, “As a conservative mother, I can tell you it has been the project of a lifetime.”

Ms. Hawley has notched other legal victories, becoming synonymous with conservative social-issue cases. She worked on 303 Creative, the case in which the Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of a Colorado web designer who cited the First Amendment in refusing to serve same-sex couples.

Ms. Hawley is currently helping the Idaho attorney general defend the state’s abortion ban from a challenge by the Biden administration.

Even with the pressure of a first-time oral argument, she said she remained calm because the decision was ultimately up to God.

“Christians are called to work with excellence but also to rest in the knowledge that God is sovereign, and that we can trust the results to Him,” she said. “To have the faith that all of it is in His hands, I think does help.”

Julie Tate and Kitty Bennett contributed research.


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