Megan Lessard describes the history of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. and explains that it is an important part of the growing threat posed by the far right.
Blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic is a violation of federal law, but anti-abortion protesters were undeterred when they tried to shut down Washington Surgi-Clinic in the District of Columbia on October 22. More than a dozen activists from the anti-abortion group Red Rose Rescue surrounded the clinic and barred patients from getting through the doors. Some chained themselves to furniture in the waiting room. The protesters resisted arrest, forcing police to physically carry them from the building.
Red Rose Rescue activists had staged over two dozen actions since the founding of the group in 2017, but they had never attempted a clinic occupation. They had maintained an image of nonviolence and compassion, passing out roses to abortion patients as an offering of “life, peace and love.” The action at the District clinic was a tactical escalation, a throwback to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the militancy of the anti-abortion movement was at a feverish high. “Traditional lock and block Rescue happening right now!” a Red Rose Rescue organizer posted on Facebook during the October 22 takeover. “¡Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!”
Public opposition to abortion has been largely a product of top-down political engineering. Conservative operatives of the 1970s needed to replace desegregation with a new enemy that would galvanize a Republican Party base. Politicizing abortion proved to be a smart move. Catholics and evangelical Protestants, groups that had regarded the other with side-eyes for generations, forged powerful new political alliances. The Christian Right became a formidable voting bloc, helping Ronald Reagan crush Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections.
But if the abortion culture war was initially born of political opportunism, it has endured in large part because restricting abortion is good for capitalism. Feminist organizer Jenny Brown argues that the fight over abortion is often wrongly framed purely as a cultural issue. In reality, the anti-abortion movement serves as “the enforcement arm of an economic system that pushes the costs and burdens of child rearing onto families and relies on women’s unpaid labor.”
It makes perfect sense that the anti-abortion movement gained its footing during the rise of neoliberalism, which meant cutbacks to the safety net and an erosion of the common good. Increasingly, the nuclear family replaced the state as the primary guarantor of social welfare. The demand for women to have children and figure out how to raise them on their own, without any support from the state, could not have been higher. The ruling class learned that if people would not willingly gestate and give birth to new generations of workers, labor could be extracted through coercion by making it more difficult to prevent or end pregnancies.
But if abortion restrictions served the interests of the ruling class, the abortion discourse became a mass phenomenon. The abortion discourse became a vehicle with which people expressed fears about the changes wrought by global capitalism and shakeups to the social order threatened by the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements. Abortion clinic protests served both of these objectives: they disrupted abortion access while providing a venue for this collective expression of anger and anxiety.
A large number of abortions in this country are performed at free-standing clinics—making them a prime target for political organizing. Clinic protests have been remarkably effective at drawing together a diverse right-wing base. The parking lots and sidewalks around them function as a commons for conservatives of all political tendencies, from aging parishioners clutching rosaries to the Proud Boys. Walking a gauntlet of protesters is just part of what it takes to access reproductive healthcare in the United States.
For over forty years, abortion clinics in the U.S. have served as a theater for right-wing spectacle, featuring pickets, religious processions, arson, and even murder.
Early anti-abortion activists borrowed language and tactics directly from the civil rights movement. In the 1980s, Operation Rescue rose to prominence by leading clinic sit-ins and blockades. In the summer of 1991, the group staged a nearly seven-week campaign of intimidation against three abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas. The event drew thousands of protesters from across the country. They mobbed the clinics, blocking the doors, chaining themselves to fences, and lying down in the road to disrupt traffic. Hundreds of people were arrested—some more than once.
While Operation Rescue leaders were careful not to make explicit calls for violence against abortion providers and clinics, their use of graphic propaganda, incendiary rhetoric about “killing babies,” and mass demonstrations got the job done. In 1992, Operation Rescue distributed wanted posters with the face and address of Florida abortion provider David Gunn; the next year, Gunn was murdered by an anti-abortion protester outside a clinic in Pensacola.
The anti-abortion movement has long attracted extremists of various stripes. Eric Rudolph, a disaffected former army recruit who had dabbled in the white supremacist Christian Identity movement as a teenager, carried out a deadly bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Though he saw “global socialism” and the “homosexual agenda” as major threats to Western society, Rudolph says the bombing was chiefly a response to the “abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand” by the government. Rudolph also confessed to bombing two abortion clinics and an Atlanta lesbian bar.
Geographical historian Johan Pries writes that the far right is “deeply concerned with … territorial control over space often connected to a specific set of practices defining fascist masculinity in terms of a virile and battled-hardened homo-sociality.” The terrorist attacks carried out by Eric Rudolph were very much a masculinist bid for control over public space. They were an attempt to restore a gendered spatial order in which (white, Christian) men enjoy unqualified access to public life and women are relegated to the domestic sphere. Like many perpetrators of mass violence in the U.S., Rudolph was an angry, entitled white man with a long list of personal failures. And he was looking to reclaim the social dominance he felt was his birthright—a birthright that had been snatched by uppity feminists, queer people, and non-Christians.
At the heart of right-wing ideology is a desire to maintain traditional social hierarchies and divisions: borders between public and private, man and woman, citizen and non-citizen. The anti-abortion Right leverages power through what philosopher Giorgio Agambden describes as the “constant need [of modernity] to redefine the threshold of life that distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside.” The anti-abortion discourse is a fabric of bold assertions about when life begins and what divides the pregnant body from the fetus. It is border vigilantism on the most intimate level. But policing the reproductive capacity of people assigned female at birth can be disguised as something much more benign. It is difficult to pass a firebombing or murder off as anything but naked violence; so-called pro-life sidewalk counseling can look scarily legitimate.
Between 1982 and 2000, the U.S. lost almost a third of its abortion providers as anti-abortion activists waged a campaign of terror against them, their patients, and bodily autonomy more generally. But the anti-abortion Right did not go unopposed. A thriving grassroots movement for sexual and reproductive freedom mobilized to protect clinics from right-wing attacks. If the successful 1991 takeover of abortion clinics in Wichita by Operation Rescue was any indication, activists knew they could not rely on the police to keep clinics open. It was the mass mobilization of activists, not cops, that thwarted attempts by Operation Rescue to repeat their Wichita strategy the following summer in Buffalo, New York. For days, activists held off the anti-abortion militants by forming locked-arm lines of defense around Buffalo clinics. The event was intended to be a siege, but it petered out after two weeks when Operation Rescue failed to close a single clinic.
Facing opposition from activists on the ground, the anti-abortion movement began to curb some of its more overtly violent tactics. The heavy fines imposed by the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act further deterred protesters who were otherwise undaunted by the prospect of serving jail time. But the FACE Act came with a cost: it helped to demobilize the more radical street-based wing of the reproductive rights movement, shifting responsibility for protecting abortion access back to cops and the courts.
The FACE Act did not succeed in depoliticizing abortion clinics. Professionalized reproductive rights organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood pushed a strategy of non-engagement, channeling movement energy into fundraising and electoral politics. Right-wing forces continued to occupy the sidewalks and streets around free-standing clinics, but now with less opposition.
Anti-abortion rhetoric softened, making it harder to call out the misogyny and homophobia. Thundering condemnation morphed into compassion. Women were no longer cold-blooded murderers, but victims of a predacious abortion industry. Crisis pregnancy centers cropped up, luring women in with offers of free diapers and parenting classes. These superficial acts of charity could be weaponized against the mainstream reproductive rights movement, whose narrow framework of “choice” does fail to serve the needs of poor and working class people.
The anti-abortion movement also got savvier about its public image. The children of the old guard learned to trade in some of the dead fetus agitprop for curated social media feeds. Anti-abortion demagogue Flip Benham continued to rail against Islam, and queer and transgender people as director of Operation Rescue splinter group Operation Save America. But Benham’s twin sons helped to found Love Life, an anti-abortion ministry that, by coincidence, shares a name with a 2020 romantic comedy series. Its members wear matching baby blue t-shirts.
Every Saturday, so-called Love Life sidewalk counselors live stream their attempts to intercept patients outside of abortion clinics and persuade them to continue their pregnancies. Like a sports broadcast, announcers in a studio provide running commentary. Love Life began in North Carolina but now has chapters in New York, Georgia, and Idaho, with plans to expand even further. The group has taken advantage of the growing diversity of the evangelical movement. Love Life New York partners with churches across the city and the surrounding region, resulting in a membership that is multicultural and intergenerational. Women of color serve in highly-visible roles as chapter directors and field coordinators (though white men still occupy top leadership positions).
If violence was the crucible that forged the anti-abortion Right of the 1980s and 1990s, Love Life activists are bound together by affect, by the soft rock of Christian worship bands, and charged public witness. Members gather in the hundreds outside of targeted abortion clinics, outnumbering clinic escorts and defenders. In the era of COVID-19, they have continued to mobilize, in defiance of official stay-at-home orders. Yet there are no cries of “baby killer,” no blockades. As disconcerting as it might be to encounter a crowd of people praying outside of a medical facility in matching outfits, Love Life leaders can claim, with a straight face, that they come in peace.
Peel back the shiny, friendly exterior of the post-millennial anti-abortion movement, and the same retrograde elements will still be there. The ability of the movement to adapt to the political moment is a strength—and what makes it so dangerous. In periods of seeming quiescence, it still grows, attracting the types of people—suburban, middle class, clean-cut—who give it the respectable cover until somebody signals that it is safe to let the monsters out again.
The anti-abortion scene in Spokane, Washington perfectly illustrates the cross-pollination that keeps the anti-abortion movement—and associated right-wing contingents—flourishing.
Matt Shea had represented Spokane Valley in the Washington House of Representatives for more than a decade when, in December 2019, a state inquiry found him responsible for perpetrating acts of domestic terrorism. According to the report, Shea had helped plan and execute the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed far-right militias. The inquiry also named him as a key figure in the virulently nativist Patriot Movement.
This was not the first time Shea had stirred up controversy (not counting when he was accused by his former wife of domestic assault). A four-page set of instructions on how to prepare for a Christian holy war, written by Shea, was leaked to the media in 2018. Shea names five terms of surrender for infidels; in descending order, these include: “obey biblical Law,” “no communism,” “no idolatry or occultism,” “no same-sex marriage,” and, number one on the list, “stop all abortions.” The manifesto stipulates that refusal to submit should result in death.
Expelled from the Republican Party caucus in the Washington House of Representatives after the terrorism inquiry, Shea did not file for re-election. Instead, he took over as campus pastor at Covenant Christian Church in Spokane in May 2019, replacing Ken Peters, who left to found a “Patriot Church” in Tennessee. Peters also left behind his side project, a campaign of abortion clinic harassment he dubbed the Church at Planned Parenthood (TCAPP).
The idea behind TCAPP is simple: local pastors hold worship services directly outside the local Planned Parenthood, which the group refers to as the “gates of Hell.” Citing concern for patients, Planned Parenthood has sought an injunction against TCAPP. But its organizers remain adamant that TCAPP is about prayer and worship, not activism. And so they continue to gather. TCAPP draws hundreds of people, including lots of kids. Matt Shea has led services. Convicted child killer Jake Eakin, now an anti-abortion activist, was involved with the project at one point.
The group is also building bi-coastal bridges. In October, TCAPP hosted two evangelical street preachers from New York, Bevelyn Beatty and Edmee Chavannes. Promoting the hashtag #JesusMatters, Beatty and Chavannes were arrested in July for defacing Black Lives Matter murals. The women, who ally themselves with the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, say they became radicalized after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo passed landmark state abortion legislation codifying Roe v. Wade.
Beatty and Chavannes have been a constant presence at the Manhattan Planned Parenthood since early 2019, verbally harassing patients and employees and, on more than one occasion, blocking the front doors. The two co-hosted a #JesusMatters rally with none other than Flip Benham, that old doyen of the anti-abortion movement, in June 2020. The baby blue t-shirts of Love Life streaked the crowd.
The anti-abortion Right is a broad-tent movement. Some members truly do believe in protecting fetal life. Others are motivated by a fear that white populations will soon be demographically eclipsed by racial and ethnic minorities —an anxiety that Donald Trump has stoked so effectively. The alt-right variation on this theme is an aggressively masculine Western chauvinism, which makes space for men of color who share the misogyny, hatred for the Left, and taste for street violence characteristic of white nationalists.
The anti-abortion movement is a hydra that cannot be voted out of existence. And if the newfound boldness of Red Rose Rescue and the #JesusMatters demonstrators is a harbinger, we may soon see a resurgence of the early-movement militancy that damaged clinics, terrorized patients, and killed providers.
For years, even many leftists deferred to large, professionalized nonprofits on abortion rights strategy. Calls to donate to Planned Parenthood, sign online petitions, and vote for Democratic Party candidates were mainstays of what was largely a hands-off, non-confrontational approach. Clinic protesters were a nuisance, to be sure, but the real fight was taking place in boardrooms and courts. We just needed to vote the right people into office and everything would be taken care of.
That era is over. With Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the demise of Roe v. Wade is all but certain. But a post-Roe world might not look all that different from where we are today. For many people—primarily poor or working class, young, rural, undocumented—abortion is all but inaccessible. After years of making concessions and ceding ground, the moment calls for bold demands centering the right to have children, or not have children, on our own terms, in safety and in dignity.
We will need to use all possible tools at our disposal: civil disobedience, mutual aid, marches, sit-ins, strikes, creative actions to bring the fight to the doorsteps of our oppressors. We can look to the feminist uprisings in Latin America and Poland for inspiration. And, closer to home, we can look to the radical tradition of clinic defense, revitalized by groups like Charlotte for Choice, We Engage, and New York City for Abortion Rights.
For the Left, fighting the Right has come to mean confronting it wherever it emerges. Over the last four years, anti-fascists have been committed to deplatforming white supremacists, disrupting their university speaking engagements and shutting down their rallies. The murder of George Floyd sparked a massive uprising for racial justice. People from all backgrounds took to the streets, reclaiming public spaces that have long been under threat by development, privatization, and the repressive state forces tasked with defending capital at all costs.
It is time now to mobilize in the same way against the anti-abortion movement. In the fight against reactionary populism, it is a tactical error to dismiss anti-abortion activists as fringe fanatics. Doing so ignores the centrality of reproductive control to right-wing politics and the crucial role that abortion clinic protests play in galvanizing a broad right-wing base. Racial justice is a feminist fight; class struggle is a feminist fight; reproductive justice is your fight, too.
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Megan Lessard is a member of New York City for Abortion Rights.