Twenty-nine-year-old Nada Higuera stood in the courtroom last April, her growing belly an accessory to her case briefs and plea binders.
As an attorney with Advocates for Faith & Freedom—a California-based non-profit law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty—Higuera was once again in Riverside County Superior Court Justice Gloria Trask’s courtroom to challenge the Reproductive FACT Act, or AB-775 (see “Free Speech vs. Forced Speech,” page 12). The statute, hailed by NARAL
Pro-Choice America as “historic,” and “set[ting] a precedent for the nation,” forces pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) statewide to advertise taxpayer-funded abortion and birth-control programs in their waiting rooms, signage and communications.
Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2015, the FACT Act was immediately decried by the pro-life community. Every Golden State PRC would have no choice if AB-775 became law but to tell clients not only that free or low-cost abortions might be available, but exactly where and how to obtain them. In other words: They would be forced to violate their own missions and moral convictions while providing free advertising for the opposition.
Higuera took the case because it was, in her words, “blatantly unconstitutional.” PRCs, she says, should have the same freedom of speech—or, in this case, non-speech—as everyone else.
Yet Higuera had a much deeper connection to the case she was arguing—one that had slammed into her as a teenager, but had since remained mostly out of sight and out of mind.
But now, a growing daughter tucked safely within her, Higuera’s spirit played host to the ever-present question: Should she tell them?
Higuera was raised in northern California, the eighth daughter born within a thirteen-year span to devout Muslim parents who had emigrated from Palestine. While her childhood was fairly “Americanized, and felt very much like a normal American’s,” as Higuera tells Citizen, it also included her mother wearing headscarves, her father praying to Mecca five times a day and attending mosque services. Everyone in her family spoke Arabic.
In 1992, Higuera’s parents took a fellow Middle Eastern immigrant under their wing, a man about her father’s age. He became like a trusted uncle—but quickly zeroed in on the youngest daughter, often getting Higuera alone starting around the age of 6.
“He would offer to help my parents with errands and then take me to work after hours. He would come up with all kinds of reasons,” Higuera says. “If I said no, my parents thought that was rude and questioned why I was not being obedient.”
His behavior soon turned sexual.
“My personality is a peacemaker, and I didn’t want to stir up trouble,” says Higuera, now 30. “I didn’t tell my parents anything. I never had the courage to say, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ ”
Even if Higuera had spoken up, she wouldn’t have known what to say. Her family was so shuttered about discussing sex that one sister had no idea what would happen on her wedding night. And as a child in elementary school, Higuera knew even less.
The years passed, and the abuse continued, unseen and unchecked. In the meantime, five of Higuera’s sisters entered arranged marriages—four of them before graduating from high school, with one becoming a bride at 14.
Though her siblings would eventually provide Higuera with 23 much-loved nephews and nieces, she saw how each sister with an arranged marriage grew deeply unhappy. And as her “uncle” kept sexually abusing her, Higuera followed suit: silently surviving.
That is, until she was 16, and took a pregnancy test. It was positive.
The girl who didn’t even realize that her abuser’s actions could create a child had no idea how to tell her family. So Higuera wrote a note to her sister, who then informed their parents.
“Anyone who got pregnant out of marriage was unclean,” Higuera explains. “It devastated my parents. [They] said, ‘We’re going to get this taken care of—your sister’s going to take you to get an abortion.’
“And within a few days, that’s what happened.”
There was no discussion at home before or after the procedure. Nor did anyone at the abortion facility discuss fetal development with Higuera or tell her what her options were.
“I remember [them] telling me I might bleed a little,” Higuera says.
The high school sophomore returned home, “kind of checked out” mentally, as Higuera says, to survive. After a stern upbraiding from a brother-in-law, Higuera’s abuser fled the country, unpunished.
Higuera couldn’t see how that was right. She was a good daughter who loved her family, innocent and sincere. Why had this happened?
It wasn’t until more than a decade later, when AB-775 required her to professionally revisit the world of unplanned pregnancy and abortion, that she would truly see how “our God of justice,” as she says, was “patiently healing and redeeming” her all along.
In 2005, Higuera bucked the family tradition of arranged marriage and went to college. As a student at Chico State University, she was unsure of her desired career but positive of one thing: She was pro-choice. A woman should have access to abortion, she thought, especially in cases like her own.
Today, she’ll tell you she was “repressing everything” back then with the gusto of a “typical female student at a liberal college.” It was more coping mechanism than true belief, since she received virtually no trauma counseling after her years of abuse.
“God knew I wasn’t ready [to deal with it],” Higuera says. “He’s been so patient through this whole process.”
A major part of that process was hearing the Gospel for the first time at 18 from a high school friend. The message and prayer resonated with Higuera, but as she joined the college scene, she pushed thoughts of Christ away.
“I thought it was crazy that you could be forgiven for all your sins [that would happen] tomorrow,” she says. “That struck me as so unjust.”
Even so, Higuera “knew there was a lot of power in the Gospel still.” The story of the Cross stayed with her, and after hearing it again at a friend’s church when she was 20, the former Muslim became a Christ-follower.
Her parents’ reaction was swift. Higuera was brainwashed, they said; Jesus was just a man and it’s blasphemy to say otherwise. What’s more, they insisted, if she maintained her Christianity, they had no choice but to cut all ties with her.
Higuera was initially devastated. Wasn’t professing faith in Jesus supposed to solve problems? That night, while reading her new Bible, she found 1 Peter 4:14: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (NIV). And then Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (NIV).
Instantly and ironically, reading that brought Higuera complete peace. And to her great shock, two weeks later her mother called and “acted like nothing had happened,” Higuera says. Indeed, her father gladly walked her down the aisle when Higuera married her Jesus-loving husband Grant four years ago, and since then, along with Higuera’s mother, “has been really pleased and surprised with Christians in general.”
Higuera had a rock-solid faith, a degree in criminal justice, a wonderful husband and a warm relationship with her parents, sisters and their children.
But what about the rest of her life? What was she supposed to do with her past abuse and abortion trauma?
Headed to Court
At a friend’s suggestion, a somewhat ambivalent Higuera took the admissions test for law school. To her surprise, she passed, and in 2010 found herself a student at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento.
“I ended up loving and being good at it,” Higuera says. “I still didn’t know why God would bring me through law school. I thought surely I wasn’t the typical lawyer.”
After passing the bar in 2014, Higuera heard about Robert Tyler, a partner at Tyler & Bursch, LLP in Murrieta, Calif., and the founder of Advocates for Faith & Freedom. She gave him a call, intrigued by the idea of becoming a faith-based attorney. Tyler hired her, not knowing her back story.
When the FACT Act passed in 2015, the pro-life plaintiffs assembled a legal team from the American Center for Law and Justice and Advocates for Faith & Freedom. As Higuera studied the merits of the case, she knew she wanted to take it—pro bono—but not necessarily because of its pro-life implications; instead, the constitutionality questions drew her.
Tyler tells Citizen he wasn’t surprised when Higuera stepped up.
“These types of cases attract some of the best lawyers because of the impact they have on society,” he says. “It requires a significant personal sacrifice of time and money to take [them on] … These cases separate great lawyers from the rest of the pack, and Nada has risen to the challenge.”
Higuera dove in, immersing herself in reading pro-life literature and interviewing the staff and clients of PRCs like the Scharpen Foundation. As she prepared her case, Higuera did not initially see how “God was using these [activities] to help me heal” from her past trauma. Since her conversion, she recognized the sanctity of life; wasn’t that enough?
“It was God slowly giving these little things, just working on my heart, knowing I was repressing [my abuse],” Higuera says. “Even though I knew my client provided post-abortion counseling and I needed it, I would never say, ‘Please help me, please counsel me.’ But working with people in the pro-life community—doing it from a legal perspective—allowed me to absorb everything.”
In early 2017, Higuera became pregnant with her daughter Nyla and continued working. She often felt Nyla move during legal proceedings, filling her with awe—even preborn, her daughter was advocating for life! As the pregnancy progressed, people often remarked on the uniqueness of a pregnant lawyer in court on behalf of preborn children and their parents.
“It fascinated them,” Higuera says. But how much more fascinated would they be, she wondered, if they knew everything?
To Glorify God
In her eighth month of pregnancy, after much prayer, Higuera decided to tell her boss and coworkers what had happened to her as a kid.
“I don’t necessarily want to publish my story all over the world,” she says. “But if it glorifies God, then I do.” And that story certainly gave the Lord all credit; no one she told had heard of an abuse survivor and abortive mother not only learning “the truth about abortion and the evil that it is” but also defending preborn children through California’s notoriously liberal legal system.
When Higuera thanked her boss for the opportunity to work the case—and heal—he returned the gratitude. “I was so thankful to her for sharing her testimony and putting in so many hours to defend life and liberty,” Tyler says. “I immediately told Nada that I was so impressed with how she has overcome so many obstacles to become such a wonderful person of faith.”
Finally speaking her story out loud made it clear that God had been quietly involved all along.
“Here I am, a pregnant woman going through these different stages, yet I can still just walk in [during any trimester] and get an abortion,” Higuera says. “So knowing the impact of what I did, being able to grieve that death and loss of a baby was just so real to me being pregnant. It was all part of the healing and redemption process.”
Indeed. And when Judge Trask ruled in favor of the Scharpen Foundation on Oct. 30—agreeing that pro-life clinics being forced to refer clients to abortion facilities is wrong—Higuera knew it was a true team effort, not only between herself and co-counsel, but also God and Nyla, who was born in September.
“Looking back at all the guilt and shame, and now God put me in courtrooms advocating for pro-life clinics—it’s so far from where I was,” Higuera says. “He did it so gently, so patiently. It was so personal to use this case to help me, to really understand His grace and love for me. It’s just amazing.”
For now, Higuera is busy not only with ensuring laws like the FACT Act stay unwritten and unpassed, but also settling into new motherhood.
Her hopes for Nyla, meanwhile, are fairly standard: To grow up knowing Christ, fulfilled, within a supportive community.
But Higuera does have another small dream for her second child.
“How beautiful would it be if she becomes a lawyer and can say, ‘Even when I was in the womb, I was in the courtroom, fighting for life?’”
Just like her mama.
Originally published in the January 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.