Comment: Why a U.S. House candidate’s ad shows her giving birth

Katie Darling is a long-shot in Louisiana, but she makes a point only in a way a new mother can make.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

Katie Darling, an account executive for a Louisiana tech company, was seven months pregnant when Roe v. Wade was overturned in June. Her pregnancy had been classified as high-risk and she was terrified that, if something went wrong, “My doctors wouldn’t know what kind of care they were allowed to provide me,” she told me on Monday.

Her first reaction was to tell her husband they needed to immediately move out of Louisiana. Her second reaction was deciding to stay and run for Congress instead. This week she released a campaign ad unlike any I have ever seen.

“I’m Katie Darling, and I live on a farm in St. Tammany Parish,” begins the ad, with Darling speaking over images of her husband and her daughter tending to their chickens. She introduces her pregnancy with a close-up on her rotund belly, saying, “and there’s someone else who is going to be joining us.” As Darling criticizes Louisiana’s strict abortion ban — “We should be putting pregnant women at ease,” she says — Darling and her husband are shown driving to the hospital. Darling is next seen in a hospital bed; close-ups of her grimacing face make it apparent she is in labor.

We see an IV drip, and watch as she clutches the bed rails and a doctor steps to the end of the birthing bed. Finally, we watch as, seemingly topless, Darling lays back in bed practicing skin-to-skin contact with her just-born son. In the final seconds of the ad, Darling sits up in her hospital bed, still topless and appearing to nurse, and says she is running for Congress to create a better world “for him.” She’s referring to her son, but she also seems to be making the point that access to abortion care can benefit all Americans and American families, not just women.

My conversation with Darling happened just two hours after the ad had been released, and it had already gone viral. Many female friends had sent it to me. Darling explained that she’d wanted to show that the narrative “that abortion is anti-child or anti-family is not true.” That it’s possible to be a devoted mother and still deeply support abortion access, and that antiabortion activists shouldn’t be allowed to corner the market on family values.

Her decision to run for Congress rather than flee Louisiana, she said, was grounded in her realization that, “If we don’t codify Roe, there won’t be anywhere in the country we could go that’s safe.”

Darling’s chances of winning are, frankly, small. The district in which she’s running is represented by Steve Scalise, the Republican House minority whip, who has held the seat for 14 years. In 2020 he won reelection with 72 percent of the vote.

But Darling’s chances aside, this is a remarkable ad. As a genre, campaign ads tend toward the masculine, even the ones attempting to boost female candidates (I’m looking at you, Lauren Boebert and Amy McGrath). In general, candidates seem determined to convince voters they can muscle Washington into submission. So they air spots where they’re chopping wood, putting out fires, revving their engines. In 2022, candidates have depicted themselves as shooting-range aficionados, or showed up as the gun-twirling sheriff in an ad styled as Western. One Georgia candidate’s campaign ad featured himself shooting at a wheelbarrow full of paper in the forest. (The paper represented “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan for America.”)

Katie Darling’s ad is about strength of a different kind. Her ad positions motherhood as its own form of qualifying toughness, and childbirth as the original flex. In one shot, her husband sits on the hospital room sofa, head bowed. He is there to support her, but in the end, this is a feat of strength that only she can perform. The ad is at once tender and agonizing, intimate and universal, anxious and peaceful.

Darling told me that responses to her ad had been flooding in, and “99 percent of them” had been positive. The few that were negative were from people who argued that she was showing something too personal and intimate. That, Darling told me, was also part of her point: Pregnancy and childbirth are intimate experiences, best left to the purview of pregnant people and doctors rather than to legislative bodies.

While watching this ad, what I kept coming back to was the concept of expertise. Who is qualified to legislate certain issues, and what is the nature of their qualification? The messaging implicit in Darling’s ad is that, not only have her experiences as a recently pregnant woman informed her opinions about abortion rights, but they have also made her uniquely experienced and qualified to have those opinions to begin with.

No matter the outcome of Katie Darling’s race, people will and should be taking note of how this ad was constructed and what it means. It stands in stark relief to the gun-shooting, wheelbarrow pushing, wood-chopping, play-acting candidates. She looks like a mother, and they look like little kids.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.

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