Former tight end Benjamin Watson was a standout in the NFL — he won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots — and he’s already a star in the pro-life movement.
In the year since his retirement after 15 seasons in the league, Mr. Watson has released a documentary on abortion, spoken at the March for Life and recently accepted a position as vice president for strategic relationships for the pro-life Human Coalition.
His arrival comes as the latest sign of a social and political shift on abortion as Black leaders increasingly take the helm in the pro-life movement, bringing with them an emphasis on justice and shaking up assumptions about Black fealty to the Democratic Party’s pro-choice platform.
“What you’re seeing now with Black people being more vocal about being pro-life — they’ve always been there,” Mr. Watson told The Washington Times. “I just think maybe those voices hadn’t had an opportunity to speak largely, whereas now, it’s starting to happen a little bit more. Which I think is a great thing.”
The 40-year-old Mr. Watson brings his own focus to pro-life issues, fueled by concerns about the high abortion rate in the Black community; a desire to address the social woes that can push pregnant women toward abortion, and the conviction that “Black lives matter” needs to extend to pre-born Black lives.
While the Black Lives Matter movement has in recent years stolen the racial justice spotlight, Black-led pro-life groups such as the National Black Prolife Coalition, the Frederick Douglass Foundation, the Radiance Foundation and the Restoration Project have been steadily building support under the radar.
Dean Nelson, who serves as Human Coalition vice president of government relations as well as chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, cited initiatives such as the coalition’s strategic partnership with the Church of God in Christ, a historically Black denomination.
“We do have greater number of African-Americans and African-American leaders that are involved in what we would call the pro-life movement, but at the same time, I think that you have a greater acceptance from the more traditional pro-life leadership to engage with more diverse communities,” said Mr. Nelson. “I think both things have happened simultaneously.”
Mr. Watson’s rising profile has the potential to open up more “on-ramps for pro-life Black and Latino people,” he said.
“Anytime you have a visible professional athlete, that’s a potential game-changer,” Mr. Nelson said. “With an issue like abortion that is often kind of divisive and difficult to talk about, the more that you have visible culture leaders, whether they’re in arts or entertainment or sports, I think that it helps to at least gain the attention of people who might otherwise not be thinking about it, and I think Benjamin does that.”
Mr. Watson, who previously served on the Human Coalition’s advisory board, said he views himself as a “bridge” on the abortion issue.
“I see my role as being somewhat of a bridge, a connecting point between those who have been in the pro-life movement and also those who have maybe been somewhat on the fence and trying to discover what this is all about,” he said. “It’s really just connecting them and letting people know about the great work of Human Coalition.”
He was attracted to the Dallas-based group’s hands-on approach to supporting pregnant women, children and families. The Human Coalition offers a host of resources in “key abortion-dense cities,” including social services, telehealth, and clinics in Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Raleigh and Pittsburgh.
“The main reason that I decided that this was an organization I wanted to be a part of is because they are not just simply being pro-birth,” Mr. Watson said. “They’re being pro-woman, pro-family, pro-preborn child. They see the injustice of abortion and are trying to stand in the gap and really support life in its totality.”
The Watson seven
His pro-life journey began at home in Norfolk, Virginia, with his Christian parents, whom he credited with instilling values and discipline in their six children.
“There has to come a point in your life where you make a decision and the spirit calls you, and you respond to the spirit,” Mr. Watson said. “I was very young when I became a Christian. I’ve grown since then, but I was raised in the home thankfully where my mother and father tried to raise us in the admonition of the Lord.”
As the eldest of six, he said, he vowed never to have six children himself. Instead, he and his wife, Kirsten Vaughn Watson, whom he met at the University of Georgia, have seven: three girls and four boys ages 23 months to 12 years.
“We had four kids in literally 4½ years. All singles,” Mr. Watson said. “So we got to the fourth very quickly and then had to decide, ‘OK, is that it?’ We had another one a couple of years later, and that was five. And I never wanted six, but my wife loves even numbers.”
After two miscarriages, which were “very terrible, very difficult,” they gave birth to identical twin boys, bringing their family from five to seven children.
“The joke with my dad was, you just went right past me,” he said.
The family has its own website called “the Watson seven,” and the parents host a marriage and parenting podcast called “Why or Why Not with the Watsons.”
Mr. Watson was drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, winning Super Bowl XXXIX with the team in his rookie year. He went on to play for four other teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, where he met Matt Birk, who connected him to the March for Life.
“I’ve had conversations in locker rooms about the pro-life issue, the same way I’ve had conversations about human trafficking and other things,” Mr. Watson said. “The great thing about the NFL is that even if we disagree vehemently, we love each other because we know each other and we’re able to respect each other because we work together. We have a common goal.”
He says he tries to bring that same perspective to his pro-life work, viewing himself as a bridge-builder who can help bring people together even on the notoriously divisive issue of abortion.
In his 2020 documentary, “Divided Hearts of America,” he discusses abortion with both pro-choice and pro-life advocates, including evangelist Alveda King, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Dr. Ben Carson.
He said he learned that Black voters frequently hold pro-life views even if they vote Democratic.
“The Black community is historically pro-life in the sense that the Black community, specifically the descendants of American slavery, have been a community that promotes life and cares about life,” said Mr. Watson. “The issue I believe has a lot to do with the political ties. Black people usually vote Democratic, which is not a pro-life platform in the political sense, but their sentiments many time support and cherish life.”
Indeed, Black pro-life leaders date back to at least the 1970s, when Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, helped found the National Right to Life Committee and served as president from 1975 to 1978.
While he disagrees with the Black Lives Matter Global Network on abortion — the group is adamantly pro-choice — Mr. Watson finds some common ground on social justice issues.
“When it comes to ‘Black lives matter,’ the idea in and of itself is not problematic. The idea that Black lives matter and the fact that you have to say that is indicative of a feeling that Black lives don’t matter,” Mr. Watson said. “When you look at statistics on health disparities, wealth disparities, education, incarceration, there’s still an issue with Black and White America in this country.”
He also doesn’t support the Equality Act, citing its implications for religious freedom, but he also isn’t willing to throw President Biden, or anyone else, under the bus. That isn’t his style, despite having played 15 years in the NFL.
“I believe we can still be passionate and have convictions and understand the gravity and importance of this issue — you’re talking about life and death. There’s a sense of urgency,” Mr. Watson said. “But at the same time, there are certain people you won’t reach if your first out of your mouth is an insult.”