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The anti-abortion abolitionist movement is dangerous. Here's what you need to know

Cloee Cooper & Tina Vasquez March 11th, 2020
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by Cloee Cooper and Tina Vasquez

June Medical Services v. Russo, the Supreme Court case regarding Louisiana’s 2014 admitting privileges law, has serious ramifications for the future of abortion rights in the United States. But there is a segment of the anti-abortion movement that doesn’t appear all that concerned with the outcome. If this seems odd, it’s because they never sawRoe v. Wade as a valid ruling, they don’t view the Supreme Court as a legitimate legal authority, and they dismiss the foundation of the Constitution.

Say hello to the so-called “abolitionist” movement, comprised of white men who say the pro-life movement is too secular, abortion constitutes homicide, and that people seeking abortion care should be criminalized and subject to the death penalty. This ideology is largely informed by longtime anti-abortion leaders with ties to militia movements. While this may sound like a fringe group, their movement is gaining steam and political power in abortion battleground states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Indiana—and there is serious cause for concern. Not only do they advocate for bills that would make it possible to subject people to death for having an abortion, but the movement’s leaders are influenced by—and work alongside—men who once signed a statement that framed the murder of abortion providers as "justifiable homicide."

While abolitionists agree with the pro-life movement on opposing abortion, they see themselves as fundamentally opposed to the majority of that movement. They criticize the pro-life movement for compromising with the Supreme Court and accepting Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. Abortion abolitionists advocate for bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus and God into “conflict with the culture of death.” They associate all abortion with evil and believe it is incumbent upon them to root it out. Rather than regulate abortion, they want to criminalize it. Rather than compromise with political leaders, they seek to create a moral high ground based on a biblical worldview and have people join their movement.

Abortion abolitionist groups have increased their organizing efforts under the Trump administration, claiming the federal government is “anti-Christian” and that the pro-life movement doesn’t support their cause. It should come as no surprise that while diminishing the authority of the country’s legal institutions, these groups are capitalizing on the latest wave of anti-abortion laws by advocating for the most extreme bills and pushing state legislators to do the same. But sometimes it seems lawmakers need little urging. Republican Rep. Matt Shea of Washington, who engaged in domestic terrorism against the United States, introduced an abolitionist bill in Washington. The bill was delivered to Shea’s office by Jake Eakin, the youngest person in Washington state history to be tried for murder as an adult. Now a born-again Christian, Eakin is the “leader of an extremist, increasingly vocal anti-abortion group targeting women,” according to theDaily Beast. That group? The abortion abolitionists, of course.

Prism has done the work of combing through the horrifying online materials of the so-called abolitionist movement, including manifestos published online by Free the States, an Oklahoma-based organization that advocates for state sovereignty—the idea that a state should be able to override the federal government—as a way of abolishing abortion. Here’s what you need to know.

Why do they call themselves abolitionists?

Simply put: They want to abolish abortion because according to their leaders, abortion is  “murder from the moment of conception” and abortion care is “child sacrifice.” This belief is wholly inaccurate, of course. Abolitionists view their anti-abortion ideology as “the practice of consistent biblical Christianity.” For them, ending abortion is the “quintessential Christian issue.”

People in their movement regularly co-opt racial and immigrant justice frameworks, and men in the abolitionist movement purport to believe they are modeling themselves after the anti-slavery abolitionists of the 19th century. Even further, people in this segment of the anti-abortion movement regularly compare abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. For example, the Oklahoma-based abortion abolition organization Free the States argues for state sovereignty as the key to ending the “American abortion Holocaust.”

The self-identified “abolitionist” title is also quite literal, in that people in this movement want to get rid of all exceptions for abortion, including rape, incest, or when a pregnant person’s life is in danger. They are calling for the “total and immediate” criminalization of abortion, effectively extending the laws against murder to apply to abortion.

Who are they?

The leaders in the current iteration of this movement are men like Russell Hunter, the co-founder of Free the States and his other Oklahoma-based group, Abolish Human Abortion. Hunter has spent years documenting his harassment against pregnant people seeking abortion care.

There’s also Jeff Durbin, founder of End Abortion Now, an “outreach ministry” of Durbin’s Apologia Church in Arizona. End Abortion Now trains churches to form an “abortion clinic ministry,” and shares tactics for engaging lawmakers. The primary tactic is the organization's six-point plan that calls for “ministering” before city councils “to instruct magistrates on their duty to preserve innocent life within their jurisdiction,” according to the organization. In other words, they ask local city councils to turn their cities into “sanctuaries for the unborn.”  

As the New York Times recently reported, there is a larger “sanctuaries for the unborn” movement nationwide, led by so-called pro-life organizations like the Personhood Alliance, which took credit for helping pass the first ever county level “sanctuary for the unborn“ in Yadkin County, North Carolina, last year, and Right to Life, which has been supporting “sanctuary for the unborn” resolutions and ordinances in other parts of the country. But these abolitionists view themselves as separate from the pro-life movement, even though there is overlap in their work regarding sanctuaries for the unborn. Generally speaking, abolitionists like Hunter and Durbin think the pro-life movement has failed on eliminating abortion and claim the pro-life movement won’t support their goal to criminalize pregnant people seeking abortion care.

According to Free the States, leaders in their movement decided in 2011 there needed to be a “reformation” in the way that Christians fight abortion, which reignited the abolitionist movement in the United States. What the men behind Free the States fail to mention is how their beliefs and ideology are largely shaped by Rusty Thomas and Matthew Trewhella, men who pose a real threat because they believe violence against abortion providers is justified. Thomas is the national director of Operation Save America (OSA), an organization known for the targeted harassment of abortion care providers, including protesting in their neighborhoods and distributing flyers with their photo and home address. In the 1990s, three abortion providers were murdered following an OSA harassment campaign.

OSA is considered the successor of the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue. While the splintering of the two organizations is sometimes framed as Operation Rescue’s attempt to distance itself from the violence advocated for by OSA, Operation Rescue is hardly moderate. As Right Wing Watch reported, at one time the second in command of Operation Rescue was a woman who spent time in prison for attempting to bomb an abortion clinic. Operation Rescue’s president, Troy Newman, also once wrote that the United States government has “abrogated its responsibility” to execute abortion providers.

Trewhella is an early Operation Rescue activist who formed Missionaries to the Preborn in Wisconsin and became a leader in the pro-violence wing of the anti-abortion movement, urging churches to “teach their congregations to fight.” In 1994, Planned Parenthood revealed Trewhella and his anti-abortion associates’ organizing activities, which included distributing manuals on how to set up paramilitary militias. Before the trial of Michael Griffin for the 1993 murder of abortion care provider Dr. David Gunn, Trewhella and 33 others signed the “defensive action statement” that called the murder of abortion providers “justifiable homicide.”

Part of the media arm of Durbin’s ministry, Apologia Studios has regularly given a platform to Thomas, Trewhella, and other members of the extreme anti-abortion movement that sprouted up in the 1990s. Many of these men were also featured speakers during the February Free the States conference in Oklahoma.

The overlap of two movements

As it turns out, there is significant overlap between the abolitionist wing of the anti-abortion movement and the Patriot movement, a loose organization of extremists in mostly rural areas, comprised of both organized militia members and so-called sovereign citizens, who are united by their deep distrust of the federal government.

Frederick Clarkson, an expert on the Christian right and a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, said anti-abortion activists and militias were “sometimes literally the same people,” according to his work in the 1990s as a researcher for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, where he focused on the violent anti-abortion movement and the rising militia movement.

At the time, Clarkson said that many researchers were treating the two movements as separate, but for the militia movement in the 1990s, “preparing for violence against abortion clinics and providers was a chief aim,” Clarkson said. He reported on this connection in 1998 for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Given the resurgence of what is now the abolitionist movement, which includes the same players from the militia movement in the 1990s, Clarkson is concerned by how little understanding there still seems to be concerning the overlap between the anti-abortion movement and militias.  

One of the prime examples Clarkson points to is minister Paul Hill, who murdered abortion provider Dr. John Britton and his security escort in Pensacola, Florida, in 1994. Prior to the murder, Hill, who received the death penalty, wrote a 13-page memo about how killing abortion providers was acceptable because it was a defense of “the unborn.” In his memo, he called for the formation of Christian militias to engage in theocratic revolution. Along with Trewhella, Hill signed a statement calling the murder of abortion care providers “justifiable homicide.” Like Durbin and Hunter, Hill also compared abortion to slavery and the Holocaust.

The Patriot movement and the contemporary abortion abolitionists continue to find common ground. Last year, a bill attempting to abolish abortion in Washington state was widely supported by abolitionists. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Matt Shea, who both planned and participated in domestic terrorism against the United States when, beginning in 2015, Shea worked with a militia leader to plan and execute the armed takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a 41-day anti-federal government protest. According to a 2019 report from the Washington State House of Representatives, Shea was closely associated with armed militia and was using his prominence in the Patriot movement to dispatch armed militia against government officials.

Last month, not a single state Republican signed on to expel Shea from the Washington legislature. In prior years, Shea was also active in the early formation of the law enforcement wing of the Patriot movement, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which came under fire during the Obama administration for voiding gun control laws and for aligning with militia leaders to support standoffs against the federal government. A recently surfaced video of Shea filmed in 2013 features the lawmaker telling a congregation of supporters they should be stockpiling food, supplies, and ammunition for a potential civil war between “patriots” at home and “loyalists” from Washington, D.C.

“Arm yourselves. Arm your families. Arm the church,” Shea said in the video.

Shea isn’t the only state representative who has spoken out against the federal government and advocated for the abolition of abortion. Oklahoma Republican State Sen. Joseph Silk is a self-identified abolitionist who introduced SB 13 in 2019 to reclassify abortion as homicide. He is strongly allied with Free the States, appearing at their February conference and leading several sessions about abolishing abortion in the state of Oklahoma. He has spoken extensively about his experience introducing so-called abolitionist legislation. As Media Matters reported, Silk spoke at a campaign rally hosted by Operation Save America in March 2018 for then-gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher. Fisher also identifies as an “abolitionist” and as part of his platform, he expressed a commitment to “defy the federal government” and “make Oklahoma the first abortion-free state.” After his campaign failed, Fisher and his staff funneled their resources into Free the States, which became a tax-exempt organization in 2019.

What exactly do abolitionists believe?

The organizing efforts and ideology of abortion abolitionists are largely informed by Trewhella’s work as a published theorist regarding the Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate, which is the idea that government is a ministry of God, intended to administer and enforce his laws. When leaders fail to conform to God's law, it is up to lower government officials—the lower or lesser civil magistrate—to remove them and restore godly order. This is a theory closely held by End Abortion Now and Free the States, as evidenced by Durbin’s efforts to pressure local jurisdictions to become sanctuaries for the unborn, and Hunter’s efforts to focus on state anti-abortion laws.

Abolitionists advocate for political and religious authorities to submit to God, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court. They believe state governors, legislators, and judges are morally and legally obligated to interpose—meaning to put themselves between the Supreme Court, as long as it is upholding Roe v. Wade, and the “victims who are being deprived of their God-given right to life.” Like much of the Patriot movement and elements of the Christian right, they do this through embracing nullification, the attempt to push a state, city, or municipal government to declare a law written by a higher governing body illegal and/or void within its jurisdiction. This tactic has most commonly been used to advance a neo-Confederate agenda.

Reproductive justice advocates working in states with active abortion abolitionist movements have serious concerns about these groups and their deadly ideologies. In part two of this mini-series, Prism speaks to a care provider and advocates in Oklahoma about the effect these movements have on pregnant people seeking care.

Tina Vasquez is the gender justice reporter at Prism. Cloee Cooper is a journalist and a research analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank that investigates right-wing movements.

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