Life’s Work: A Conversation with Dr. Willie Parker

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This article appears in the Fall 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Dr. Willie Parker. (Photo credit: Chad Griffith courtesy of Atria Books).

In his new book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Dr. Willie Parker recounts his conversion from a fundamentalist Christian who abhorred abortion to what he calls his current ministry as an itinerant abortion provider working in some of the most underserved areas of the Deep South. It’s a trajectory that helps him make the case that supporters of legal abortion need to reclaim a moral and religious narrative for choice.

It’s a provocative argument in a nation that often equates opposition to abortion with religious faith. But Parker shows how supporters of legal abortion can draw upon faith practices and moral language to make the case for abortion rights. It’s a much-needed corrective at a time when abortion retains its power as the most pivotal wedge issue in modern political history, helping to corral many evangelical and Catholic voters for Donald Trump and once again tempting Democrats to equivocate in an attempt to woo “faith” voters.

Parker’s book shows that while abortion will always be deeply entwined with religious and moral narratives, it’s up to progressives to rewrite those narratives in ways that highlight and respect bodily autonomy and free choice as absolute moral goods. And he makes a compelling argument that the much-lauded “moment of conception” that undergirds so much religious anti-abortion rhetoric is smoke-and-mirrors. Parker challenges us to see beyond the fog of sentimentality and moralizing that allows opponents of abortion to cow even well-meaning progressive women to acquiesce to laws that reduce women’s humanity.

This July, he spoke with Patricia Miller for PRA:

PM: You write in your book that you believe that as an abortion provider you’re doing God’s work and compare yourself to a “twenty-first century Saint Paul, preaching the truth about reproductive rights.” This notion may seem challenging, even heretical, to people accustomed to seeing abortion as a secular practice, not only wholly divorced from people or practices of faith, but often antithetical to them.

WP: Most people are familiar with my identity as a women’s health provider, so they automatically assume that precludes an identity of ministry. But I dispense with the notion that there is a difference between the secular and the sacred. For me, I derive that sense of the sacred from my calling to help women in need realize their God-given gifts and agency. For me, that’s the faithful approach. To talk about my life’s work in these terms is a counter-narrative to all the mischief that is being done in the name of Christianity.

“Abortion isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it’s a thing.”

The book isn’t a polemic for abortion; it’s a defense of the agency that’s essential to what it means to be human. Abortion isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it’s a thing. My sense of working through religious custom on reproductive rights is that there is nothing heretical about being a Christian and providing abortion care. Nothing about choosing to terminate a pregnancy puts a woman outside of God’s love.

You write that it’s a lack of scientific understanding of reproduction and the idea of God as “a meddler” that allows people who oppose abortion to turn people of faith against themselves. This is the idea that everything is “God’s will” and that conception and birth are somehow uniquely miraculous and, therefore, not open to human interference. But you note that conception is a “morally neutral, purely biological event” and that a “pregnancy that intimates a baby is no more sacred than an abortion.”

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Dr. Willie Parker (Credit: 37 INK/Atria Books)

This book on a moral argument for choice is my attempt to diffuse the tension between a religious understanding of reproduction and a scientific understanding of reproduction. The fact is pregnancy is a biological process that happens to happen in women. But our culture also has a sentimental notion about the primacy of motherhood in women’s lives. This is why we have made reproductive health a moral issue. There is no other type of healthcare that we force people to ask permission for, often in humiliating and intrusive ways. Imagine if we asked a man to go through what we put women through to get an abortion.

You write that it’s this sacralization of motherhood—not just among people who oppose abortion but also by upper-class liberal women who “became enraptured with the sonogram image they saw at the obstetrician’s office” and plunged full-force into competitive motherhood—that has allowed a widespread maternal conservatism, a “blurry consensus about the ‘sanctity of life’” to take hold.

There is a cultish preference for motherhood embedded into our culture. If motherhood is always the higher value, then even liberal women don’t revolt when laws are enacted that force women to become mothers. And many women in blue states are somewhat insulated from the devastating impact that anti-choice laws can have on Black women and poor women, especially in the South, so they look away.

This strategy isn’t an accident. You note that the battle over choice is largely fought over the bodies of Black women and poor women because they’re the ones who most acutely feel the impact of waiting periods and other laws designed to discourage choice. But you say the real target of these laws is White women and that the “thing that all too many white anti-abortion activists really want … is for white women to have more babies, in order to push back against the browning of America.”

The culture war over abortion is being fought over the lives and bodies of Black women and poor women This can make women of means blind to the significance of poor women controlling their fertility [since wealthier women, and White women, are less likely to directly lose access]. But it’s a sleight of hand. The goal is to limit access [to abortion] for all women, especially White women. Men have to be able to assert control over all women’s fertility because the traditional family remains the repository of White heteronormative culture.

 At the same time, you criticize the “Black genocide” movement launched by White anti-abortion activists to get Black people to see abortion as an “assault by white America on blacks” as nothing more than a sham perpetrated by organizations like Priests for Life and Life Dynamics.

The Black genocide movement is [a] joke, especially its claims that Planned Parenthood is the main perpetrator and Margaret Sanger its primary architect. Looking back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, it was Eastern Europeans who were the target, not people of color. But the antis want [to] change the terms of the debate and frame abortion as systematic racism by health care institutions against Black people, which means even White women will acquiesce to new limits.

 You hold that one reason the anti-abortion forces have been so successful in the last decade is that “progressive and humanist people have failed to offer a moral, spiritual, ethical, or religious case for abortion rights and so have ceded those arguments to their opponents.”

The antis seized the moral high ground 40 years ago with phrases like “pro-life,” and abortion rights activists haven’t mounted a significant moral or religious counterargument. But every great justice cause has been waged in moral terms. The reset is that abortion is a human rights issue, not a religious issue. Scripture is largely silent about abortion. The “sanctity of life” rhetoric was lifted from the Roman Catholic catechism and grafted onto the Moral Majority to create single-issue abortion voters. We need to start with the premise that reproductive rights are human rights and human rights are the kind of rights that are neither derived from nor provided by the state. Abortion is a process that happens to play out in the bodies of women and is a health and human rights issue for women. Women have a human right to decide their own futures and live their lives as they see fit. Women are entitled to both the negative and positive outcomes that come in a free society.

Some Democratic strategists and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders are arguing just the opposite: that the Democratic Party needs to be more accepting of pro-life voters if it wants to be competitive across the country. They argue that supporters of choice need to be “reasonable” and allow the party to bargain away abortion rights like it was any other political chit. Is this the way forward for the Democratic Party?

The Democrats are never going to out Republican the Republicans. This formulaic approach to politics flies in the face of the need to generate genuine social capital. Rather than coming up with a progressive body politic, the Democrats decide if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Their political moves are always reactive because they don’t stand for anything, so they latch on to abortion as the factor that made the difference in Republican wins.

“The Democrats are never going to out Republican the Republicans.”

A major plank in the Democratic platform is that the party is pro-woman and pro-reproductive rights. But then they decide that this is “an” issue not “the” issue. The Democratic Party says that women are central to their constituency, but then they equivocate on reproductive control and run the risk of isolating a key part of their base. This is a shameful thing to be talking about after the Women’s March, but if they accommodate the Blue Dog Democratic demands, there is no authenticity around reproductive rights. If the party is now supporting pro-life Democrats, that means we have one-and-a-half parties against reproductive rights and one-half of a party for reproductive rights. No political party is standing firmly for reproductive rights.

 What’s the solution here?

I think there has to be a test of authenticity. Maybe women and people of color have to become single-issue voters—that’s how essential reproductive choice is. For me, reproductive rights are the issue because they determine so many other things. If Democrats are going to be the party of progressive values, then they need to rebrand reproductive choice as essential to progressive politics.


Whole Woman’s Health’s Unexpected Win for Science

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This article appears in the Fall 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In June 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-abortion TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law that threatened to shutter all but a handful of the state’s clinics by requiring them to meet costly ambulatory surgical center standards and for their doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals.

The law, known as Texas Senate Bill 5, was an example of how the anti-abortion movement has used false scientific claims to incrementally cut off abortion rights. Americans United for Life (AUL), a “bill mill” that provides anti-abortion model legislation for conservative lawmakers,1)Erica Hellerstein, “Inside The Highly Sophisticated Group That’s Quietly Making It Much Harder To Get An Abortion,” Think Progress, December 2, 2014, available at: recommends these restrictions under the guise of its “Women’s Protection Project,” which deploys false claims about women’s health to enact medically unnecessary regulatory obstacles that force many clinics to close.2)Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: (Meeting detailed ambulatory surgical standards, for instance, would require prohibitively expensive renovations for most reproductive health clinics without improving quality of care. And requiring hospital admitting privileges presents a particularly absurd catch-22, since some hospitals only grant privileges to doctors regularly needing to hospitalize patients—a rarity for abortion providers.3)American Civil Liberties Union, “TRAP FAQ Fact Sheet,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: ) This has been an effective tactic; by the time of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling, at least 18 clinics in Texas had closed due to the law’s requirements.4)Brittney Martin, “Abortion down 14 percent in Texas since new restrictions closed clinics,” accessed October 17, 2016, available at:

Prior SCOTUS decisions upholding abortion restrictions deterred advocates from attempting legal challenges to much of the legislation chipping away at reproductive rights. But this time, the Supreme Court delivered a significant victory. Writing the majority opinion in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the lower court’s argument “that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty,” such as whether Texas’ restrictions were medically warranted. Ironically, Breyer’s opinion built on case law established by a prior ruling that upheld restrictions on abortion access, but which also established that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.”5)Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, June 27, 2016, available at:

Beyond protecting the rights of Texas women, with this ruling Breyer established a new standard: no longer would the courts turn a blind eye while conservative state legislators use junk science and specious claims about women’s health to circumvent the prohibition enshrined in Roe v. Wade on creating an “undue burden” to abortion access.

The ruling established a new standard: no longer would the courts turn a blind eye while conservative state legislators use junk science and specious claims about women’s health to circumvent the prohibition enshrined in Roe v. Wade on creating an “undue burden” to abortion access.

It’s been a longstanding right-wing tactic to deploy false evidence to support TRAP laws such as the one at stake in Whole Woman’s Health, and to misleadingly claim that there is scientific uncertainty around an issue or procedure by putting forward its own dubious research. Writing for The Public Eye a decade ago, Pam Chamberlain concluded that advocates of “Biased, Agenda-Driven” science should be seen as “efficient cogs in the machinery that drives the current movement to limit women’s reproductive health and freedom.”6)Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda.” June 4, 2006, available at: Devoted to undermining medical evidence as “fraudulent,” anti-abortion scientists substitute their own discredited “facts”: for instance, the persistent claim that abortion causes breast cancer, which disregards the findings of multiple large-scale peer-reviewed studies and conclusions from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.7)Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield, “From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims,” July 13, 2016, available at:

This right-wing research almost never makes it into peer-reviewed journals that screen for flaws in methodology or analysis that yield biased results. For instance, the American Cancer Society details the methods of rigorous studies on abortion and breast cancer, explaining how factors such as recall bias, in which “women with breast cancer are more likely to accurately report their reproductive histories, including a history of having an abortion,” can produce the appearance of a link where none exists.8)American Cancer Society, “Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: In a rare case in which a study claiming a link between abortion and mental illness successfully passed itself off as legitimate, journal editors later discovered significant errors that led them to disavow the finding as unsupported by the data.9)Sharon Begley, “Journal disavows study touted by U.S. abortion foes.” March 7, 2012, available at: So when scientists talk about reaching “scientific consensus,” they mean findings supported by overwhelming agreement from peer-reviewed sources and experts—not from a proliferation of illegitimate, ideologically-driven studies.

But that’s not the way “science” is being used in making anti-abortion law. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) coined the incendiary nonmedical term “partial-birth” abortion to help pass a federal ban on a late-term procedure.10)Julie Rovner, “‘Partial-Birth Abortion:’ Separating Fact from Spin,” February 21, 2006, available at: The resulting 2003 Act asserted, “A moral, medical, and ethical consensus exists that the practice of performing a partial-birth abortion … is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.”11)Partial-Birth Abortion Act, Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: Reproductive rights advocates challenged the ban in Gonzales v. Carhart for denying access to a standard late-term abortion practice, intact dilation and extraction (intact D&E, also known as D&X) without an exception to protect women’s health.

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

Rally in front of the Supreme Court during the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt hearing on March 2nd, 2016. Photo: Victoria Pickering via Flickr. License:

In explaining the Carhart decision, which upheld the ban, swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy assumed (admitting he lacked “reliable data”) that some women suffer regret and depression after abortion and would “struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound” upon learning details of the procedure. This concern suggests the influence of a popular piece of anti-abortion science, “Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome,” a condition not recognized by the American Psychological Association or American Psychiatric Association in which women are supposedly traumatized by regret.12)Susan A. Cohen, “Abortion and Mental Health: Myths and Realities.” Guttmacher Policy Review. August 1, 2006, available at: Kennedy further wrote, “There is documented medical disagreement [on] whether the Act’s prohibition would ever impose significant health risks on women…The Court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”13)Gonzales v. Carhart, April 18, 2007, available at:

However, as a press release from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pointed out at the time, this was not in fact an area of medical uncertainty. Rather, the release explained, “This decision discounts and disregards the medical consensus that intact D&E is safest and offers significant benefits for women suffering from certain conditions that make the potential complications of non-intact D&E especially dangerous.”14)The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “ACOG Statement on the US Supreme Court Decision Upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.” April 18, 2007, available at:

In affirming the unfounded argument offered by the ban’s defenders regarding “scientific uncertainty,” the Court set a disheartening precedent for reproductive rights advocates—and provided encouragement for anti-abortion advocates seeking to undermine the meaning of scientific uncertainty by stacking their own flawed studies against peer-reviewed research.

NRLC argued in a January 2015 memo that Carhart would support their new legislative focus, the “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” which again used nonmedical terminology to stir emotion while obfuscating the actual practice being restricted—dilation and evacuation, the non-intact D&E procedure that Carhart pointed to as a sufficient alternative.15)Mary Spaulding Balch, “Constitutionality of the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” January 2015, available at: The NRLC aims to appeal to Justice Kennedy’s apparent personal discomfort with abortion with this as well as another legislative focus: 20-week abortion bans that are based on an alleged fetal capacity for pain, despite medical evidence to the contrary.16)Amy Littlefield, “Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year,’” July 12, 2016, available at:

The recent decision in Whole Woman’s Health, though, breathes meaning back into science and cracks the foundation of the right-wing strategy of using manipulative, junk research. The ruling immediately thwarted efforts to maintain similar TRAP laws in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.17)Laurel Raymond, “The Texas SCOTUS Decision Is Already Toppling Other Abortion Restrictions,” June 28, 2016, available at: . In August, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), whose lawyer Stephanie Toti argued the Whole Woman’s Health case, threatened legal action if Texas enacts legislation based on a new AUL model bill that would require abortion providers to bury or cremate aborted fetuses. This measure is intended to raise clinic costs by claiming ludicrous public health risks (like HIV contamination of the water supply) and using manipulative rhetoric about fetal dignity.18)Teddy Wilson, “Texas’ ‘Fetal Remains’ Rule Could Draw Legal Action,” August 2, 2016, available at: A CRR press release stated: “the regulations offer no public health or safety benefit and therefore fly directly in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt.”19)Center for Reproductive Rights, “Center for Reproductive Rights Calls on Texas to Abandon Latest Unconstitutional Attempt to Restrict Safe, Legal Abortion,” August 2, 2016, available at: .

The Whole Woman’s Health decision and the reasoning given for it provided an energizing victory not just for reproductive rights and justice supporters, but more broadly for policy grounded in rigorous, evidence-based science. The Right relies on biased science in other areas as well, such as abstinence-only education or denying transgender rights. Whole Woman’s Health has already motivated lower courts to strike down voting restrictions that are based on “mostly phantom election fraud.”20)Mark Joseph Stern, “Voting Rights on the March,” August 1, 2016, available at: .

The impact of the assault on science goes beyond the courts and legislative arena to influence conservative movement mobilization as well. From the 72 percent of Republicans who deny human causes of climate change to the 40-odd percent of Americans who believe in creationism over evolution, the confident dismissal of reputable scientific sources is a core part of the U.S. right-wing identity today.21)Zach Kopplin, “ ‘I Believe in Science’ Should Not Be a Showstopper,” July 29, 2016, available at: . In studying the persistence of climate change doubt in the face of 97 percent scientific consensus,22)John Cook, et al. “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming,” April 13, 2016, available at: Yale University professor Dan Kahan found that “people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview.”23)Joel Achenbach, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” March 2015, available at:

Right-wing organizations can take advantage of this disposition by broadcasting misinformation suited to their agenda. For example, at the July 2016 NRLC convention, one workshop promised to expose the fraud behind “a cold, callous, commercial abortion and aborted baby parts trafficking chain”—an attack on Planned Parenthood, which was falsely portrayed as selling fetal tissue in manipulated footage released in 2015 by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group presenting itself as a legitimate medical watchdog organization.24)National Right to Life Committee, “Schedule NRLC 2016.” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: (The workshop was led by Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of The Radiance Foundation, infamous for putting up billboards claiming that abortion is a form of “black genocide.”25)Malika Redmond, “Profiles on the Right: Ryan Bomberger.” September 12, 2013, available at: .)

Planned Parenthood protest in Washington, D.C. Photo: American Life League via Flickr. License:

Planned Parenthood protest in Washington, D.C. Photo: American Life League via Flickr. License:

These approaches may be based on fabrications, but they serve their function well: energizing believers and providing an enemy—the “fraudulent” scientific establishment—to rally against. And sometimes, a justification to go further. As former PRA analyst Chip Berlet has written, “coded” rhetoric in which leaders rely on demonization and conspiracy theories often helps incite “scripted violence,” where leaders can engender a violent response from followers without technically calling for an attack.26)Chip Berlet, “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” 2014, in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1954. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag; “Toxic to Democracy,”; “What is Demonization,” . When violence occurs, the broader movement can dismiss the perpetrator as mentally disturbed or a lone wolf. (Some commenters have referred to this psychological phenomenon as “stochastic terrorism.”27)David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” August 9, 2016, available at: .)

Although multiple Republican-led investigations of Planned Parenthood following the “fetal tissue” videos failed to yield evidence of wrongdoing (and one actually indicted the video producers instead), blockades, threats, and violence targeting abortion providers increased.28)Charlotte Alter, “T here Was a Dramatic Spike in Threats Against Abortion Providers After the Planned Parenthood Videos,” April 5, 2016, available at: . In November 2015, three people were fatally shot at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.29)Carol Joffe, “Anti-Choice Violence: Why Colorado Springs Is Different.” December 2, 2016, available at: . The confessed shooter stated his belief that Planned Parenthood sold “baby parts” as motivating the attack.30)Matt Vasilogambros, “What the Planned Parenthood Shooter Wanted,” April 12, 2016, available at: .

These attacks demonstrate the uniquely dangerous confluence of false science and coded rhetoric in the movement against abortion rights. Illegitimate science has provided an effective tool to conservatives in blocking vital policy initiatives—even life-saving policies at a global scale, as with climate change. In addition to endangering women’s health by abridging reproductive rights, the tenor of anti-abortion science creates a further hazard of imminent violence against reproductive health providers and bystanders.

Despite Whole Woman’s Health’s stand for scientific integrity, the Right won’t readily abandon a strategy that’s long helped it mobilize supporters and pass legislation. Anti-abortion advocates hold out hope that many restrictions will continue to pass constitutional muster and tout the importance of the next Supreme Court nominee. Meanwhile, AUL and NRLC continue to offer a large repertoire of model bills based on junk science,31)Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: . from the 20-week “fetal pain” bans, to requiring doctors to read scripts fabricating risks from abortions, to banning telemedicine services for rural areas only for abortion and not other medical care.32)National Right to Life Committee, “Webcam Abortion Bans,” July 7, 2016, available at: . Until they’re brought under court scrutiny, laws undermining reproductive rights based on misinformation and fraudulent science will stand across the country.

About the Author

Alex DiBranco is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale, studying the U.S. New Right. She was formerly PRA’s Communications Director and has written for outlets such as Alternet, The Nation, and

References   [ + ]

1. Erica Hellerstein, “Inside The Highly Sophisticated Group That’s Quietly Making It Much Harder To Get An Abortion,” Think Progress, December 2, 2014, available at:
2. Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
3. American Civil Liberties Union, “TRAP FAQ Fact Sheet,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
4. Brittney Martin, “Abortion down 14 percent in Texas since new restrictions closed clinics,” accessed October 17, 2016, available at:
5. Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, June 27, 2016, available at:
6. Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda.” June 4, 2006, available at:
7. Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield, “From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims,” July 13, 2016, available at:
8. American Cancer Society, “Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
9. Sharon Begley, “Journal disavows study touted by U.S. abortion foes.” March 7, 2012, available at:
10. Julie Rovner, “‘Partial-Birth Abortion:’ Separating Fact from Spin,” February 21, 2006, available at:
11. Partial-Birth Abortion Act, Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
12. Susan A. Cohen, “Abortion and Mental Health: Myths and Realities.” Guttmacher Policy Review. August 1, 2006, available at:
13. Gonzales v. Carhart, April 18, 2007, available at:
14. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “ACOG Statement on the US Supreme Court Decision Upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.” April 18, 2007, available at:
15. Mary Spaulding Balch, “Constitutionality of the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” January 2015, available at:
16. Amy Littlefield, “Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year,’” July 12, 2016, available at:
17. Laurel Raymond, “The Texas SCOTUS Decision Is Already Toppling Other Abortion Restrictions,” June 28, 2016, available at: .
18. Teddy Wilson, “Texas’ ‘Fetal Remains’ Rule Could Draw Legal Action,” August 2, 2016, available at:
19. Center for Reproductive Rights, “Center for Reproductive Rights Calls on Texas to Abandon Latest Unconstitutional Attempt to Restrict Safe, Legal Abortion,” August 2, 2016, available at: .
20. Mark Joseph Stern, “Voting Rights on the March,” August 1, 2016, available at: .
21. Zach Kopplin, “ ‘I Believe in Science’ Should Not Be a Showstopper,” July 29, 2016, available at: .
22. John Cook, et al. “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming,” April 13, 2016, available at:
23. Joel Achenbach, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” March 2015, available at:
24. National Right to Life Committee, “Schedule NRLC 2016.” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
25. Malika Redmond, “Profiles on the Right: Ryan Bomberger.” September 12, 2013, available at: .
26. Chip Berlet, “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” 2014, in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1954. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag; “Toxic to Democracy,”; “What is Demonization,” .
27. David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” August 9, 2016, available at: .
28. Charlotte Alter, “T here Was a Dramatic Spike in Threats Against Abortion Providers After the Planned Parenthood Videos,” April 5, 2016, available at: .
29. Carol Joffe, “Anti-Choice Violence: Why Colorado Springs Is Different.” December 2, 2016, available at: .
30. Matt Vasilogambros, “What the Planned Parenthood Shooter Wanted,” April 12, 2016, available at: .
31. Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: .
32. National Right to Life Committee, “Webcam Abortion Bans,” July 7, 2016, available at: .

From Phoenix to Geneva, Criminalizing Queer is More Than Just a Gay Thing

monica jones

Monica Jones illustration by Micah Bazant.

While anti-sodomy laws are very clearly designed for the purpose of criminalizing homosexuality, countless other legal restrictions result in significant ramifications for LGBTQ people, particularly transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex people. So-called “crimes against nature” and laws against “lewd behavior,” for example, have been frequently misused by law enforcement officials to profile and attack individuals who do not conform to societally determined gender stereotypes that govern “appropriate” masculine and feminine behavior and appearance.

In March, Monica Jones stood trial in Phoenix, Arizona after being arrested under one of these dangerously vague and overbroad laws—the city’s manifestation ordinance, which targets people suspected of “soliciting an act of prostitution.” In her own words, Monica Jones—a black, transgender woman—argues that she was arrested for “walking while trans,” a phrase born out of the constant profiling of transgender women as sex workers (and the resulting criminalization of them).

A 2005 Amnesty International report documented this disproportionate targeting by police, concluding that “subjective and prejudiced perceptions of transgender women as sex workers often play a significant role in officers’ decisions to stop and arrest transgender women.” This trend is further advanced by programs like Project ROSE, a “prostitution diversion” program jointly developed by 15 partner organizations, including the Phoenix Police Department, Arizona State University School of Social Work, and Catholic Charities.

As explained in a February 2014 article by Molly Crabapple featured in Vice, “Project ROSE is a Phoenix city program that arrests sex workers in the name of saving them. In five two-day stings, more than 100 police officers targeted alleged sex workers on the street and online.  They brought them in handcuffs to the Bethany Bible Church. There, the sex workers were forced to meet with prosecutors, detectives, and representatives of Project ROSE, who offered a diversion program to those who qualified. Those who did not may face months or years in jail.”

What makes Project ROSE unique from other diversion programs designed to offer education, rehab, or community service opportunities in place of incarceration, is that Project ROSE is preemptive – it profiles and arrests suspected sex workers and then forces them into faith-based programs without due process or a conviction. Of course, if a participant doesn’t qualify (as was the case for Monica Jones) or refuses to participate in the program, they’re transferred directly into the criminal punishment system. Jones, who had actively campaigned against Project ROSE as a member of the Phoenix chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a social justice network dedicated to the rights of sex workers, believes that she was especially targeted due to her activism.

All of this is happening under the guise of anti-trafficking efforts – an arena that is increasingly dominated by conservative Christian groups (that also stand against LGBTQ people, abortion, and comprehensive sex-ed programs). While they purport to be nobly fighting the exploitation of children and poor, defenseless women, the work of these groups inevitably plays out in yet another surreptitious attack on LGBTQ people—especially transgender women of color—cisgender women, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

In January, Global Action for Trans* Equality and the American Jewish World Service released a comprehensive report—The State of Trans* and Intersex Organizing: A case for increased support for growing but under-funded movements for human rights. In it, the authors offer an overview of common human rights violations perpetrated against trans* and intersex people, including discrimination in education and the workplace, violence (ranging from verbal and sexual abuse to murder and suicide), lack of legal status or recognition resulting in a myriad of challenges and limitations (or extreme requirements to obtain accurate identity documents such as sterilization, surgery, a mental health diagnosis, or even psychiatric hospitalization), lack of access to quality healthcare, and discrimination in gender-segregated services and institutions such as public restrooms, homeless shelters, and prisons. Additionally, intersex people are often confronted with further layers of invisibility, ostracization, medicalization, and infanticide.

These violations and barriers extend far beyond the anti-homosexuality laws that garner the bulk of the (already limited) attention paid to international LGBTQ human rights issues, which tend to focus exclusively on the plight of gay, cisgender men. Meanwhile, transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex people continue to suffer untold harm, resulting from societal stigma that’s quietly codified into law.

But locally and globally, activists continue to fight for their rights. On the same day that Jones was standing trial in Arizona, advocates working with her traveled to Geneva for the UN Human Rights Council’s review of the U.S. government’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992. The ICCPR requires that rights be recognized regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, and other factors (unfortunately, not including sexual orientation or gender identity). Opponents of these human rights advocates, however, were also there in force, including Sharon Slater, co-founder and president of Family Watch International (FWI).

FWI is based in Gilbert, Arizona (just outside Phoenix). While maintaining a relatively low profile in Arizona, Slater is well known in international “family advocacy” circles, and has established significant influence at the UN, especially amongst delegates and diplomats representing “underdeveloped” countries. By asserting that the West is imposing its corrupt, “anti-family” values on the rest of the world, and that those in the “developing world” are the last brave holdouts against the “homosexual agenda,” she gains favor with those who find themselves struggling under the weight of a global economy that’s designed to exploit and indebt, trying to assert some semblance of true independence and autonomy despite being financially colonized and internationally demeaned.

In 2011, Slater brought these neocolonial tactics to her own backyard, hosting 26 UN delegates from 23 different countries at a policy forum in Phoenix designed to train diplomats in how to “better protect and promote the family and family values at the UN.” FWI, of course, has an extremely limited definition of what and who constitutes a family, and her campaigning amongst international decision makers has far-reaching effects on the rights and protections granted to anyone who dares fall outside the boundaries of her restrictive vision of man/woman procreative marriage.

What happens at the UN can seem far removed from what’s happening in Small Town, AZ, but there are distinct correlations. When international policy fails to extend the protection of human rights to include sexual orientation and gender identity, the persecution and imprisonment of LGBTQ people remains unchecked, and people like Monica Jones are left with no formal recourse to protest violations of their rights. Sharon Slater understands the power of global politics, and is effectively using her influence to ensure that LGBTQ people remain oppressed and unprotected.

In Phoenix, Jones is fortunate to have a tremendous support team, advocating with and for her, but in other parts of the world, organized and resourced resistance can be hard to come by. Those of us with access and the ability to provide support, affect change, and interrupt the onslaught of attacks on LGBTQ people and sexual and reproductive health and rights – both locally and globally – must step up, because standing with Monica Jones means standing with countless more, united in the dream and vision of collective liberation.

UPDATE: On January 26, 2015, Monica Jones’ conviction was overturned. The higher court ruled that the initial judge erred when he upheld the city code as constitutional, and when he denied a jury trial. The full ruling is available here, via the ACLU.
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ISSUE BRIEF: This Month in Reproductive Health

reproductive health

Every week, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue! This week, we’re recapping the last month in Reproductive Health.


Koch Brothers Donate $8.2 million to Anti-Choice Groups
The Koch brothers, not particularly well known for their support of social issues, are in the spotlight again. A recent report published by Politco revealed that the “Koch’s secret bank” donated $8.2 million to the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC), the legislation and advocacy arm of anti-choice CWA. CWALAC has already lobbied for the bills that effectively banned all abortion 20 weeks after fertilization in Texas, and now with this donation, one can only assume what moves will be made next following the financial boost.

Conservatives Use Abortions in India to Propose American Anti-Choice Bills
Conservative politicians sink to a new low by exploiting India’s “missing girls” for their own anti-choice propaganda. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks (R) and New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith (R) have discussed the sex-selection abortions occurring in various states of India where some potential Indian girls are aborted, resulting (in Haryana) a ratio of 832 girls for every 1,000 boys. Instead of discussing the sexist injustices that have caused alarm for human rights advocates, these politicians are co-opting it as a basis to ban all abortions. Human rights advocate, Mallika Dutt, noted that, “Claiming to ‘protect’ women’s rights by denying women rights makes absolutely no sense.”

Oklahoma Abortion Case Moves to SCOTUS
Despite multiple court successes by the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice to block a 2011 law that restricted the way doctors could administer abortion-inducing medication, the state of Oklahoma continues to appeal their lawsuits. Two victories issued by the state judge and Oklahoma Supreme Court has not stopped the state from appealing the case of Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court for more clarification on the law. Depending on whether the Supreme Court allows the lower courts’ decision to stand or whether they’ll look into it themselves can determine how significantly reproductive rights will progress.

Mississippi Anti-Choice Groups Make Unfounded Complaints About State’s Last Abortion Clinic
Anti-choice groups, including Leaders of Pro-Life Mississippi, Physicians for Life Mississippi, Mississippi Right To Life, and Pro-Life Action Network have filed a complaint with the health department of Mississippi, claiming the Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the only abortion provider left in the state—has been failing to accurately report its data. Despite having no independent evidence to prove the clinic is lying about its statistics, these anti-choice organizations continue to push state health officials into looking at JWHO and its compliance with the law.

NY Times Publishes Report Validating “Pseudoscience” Anti-Choice Propaganda
The New York Times recently published an article entitled “Complex Science at Issue in Politics of Fetal Pain,” which essentially promoted bad science as good. Writer Pam Belluck offered multiple opinions in the debate over so-called “fetal pain,” but presented them as equally valid. One of these opinions came from a policy director at a national anti-choice group. The notion of “fetal pain” has already been dismissed as pseudoscience by Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, but the newspaper still printed this study as an objective look into the subject matter. Rather than discussing scientific evidence, or simply not presenting the story at all, the New York Times legitimized a falsity being pushed by anti-choice propaganda.


Men-For-Choice Group Holds Fundraiser in D.C.
NARAL Pro-Choice America held its ever first annual “Men for Choice (And the Women Who Love Them)” fundraising event September 18 in Washington D.C. While reproductive rights are always and foremost an issue related to people who can bear children (in this case generalized as women, but can include trans* men and non-binary people), NARAL decided to rally the people who cannot (in this case, generalized as men), but who support reproductive rights by honoring them at the event. NARAL is calling its function a success, with pro-choice men, including notable figures such as Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s son Nathan Daschle attending in support of a woman’s/person’s right to choose what to do with their bodies.

Pro-Choice Group Rallies Against New Mexico Anti-Choice Bill
Once again, another bill proposal is undergoing the process of hindering a person’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city council voted to put a bill on their November ballot that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. The Albuquerque chapter of WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend) is fighting back, issuing a call-to-action to intervene on the proposal. With support from members of the community as well as local and national women’s groups, including NOW (National Organization for Women); Respect ABQ Women; NM Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Young Women United; and Personhood for Women, WORD will be busy working to oppose any ballot measure that would strip away the reproductive rights of the citizens in Albuquerque.

California Passes New Law Expanding Access to Abortion
California is likely to soon put a new law into place promoting reproductive rights and ensuring their proper place in the Golden State. As of this writing, the state is simply awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature to enact the law, which will expand the number of medical professionals who can legally perform abortions. This broader access will allow nurse practitioners and trained physician assistants to perform abortions, giving women the ability to have early abortions and avoiding delayed procedures in the case of locating the nearest doctor possible. In addition, California legislators are working to ensure abortion clinics are not held to the impossible standards which have closed many clinics across the United States.

Rutgers Holding 40th-Anniversay-of-Roe Conference
On October 11, the Center for Reproductive Rights will co-sponsor “Beyond Roe: Reproductive Justice in a Changing World” at Rutgers School of Law for the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Speakers at the event are expected to not only focus on constitutional rights, but the broader themes of reproductive justice and reproductive oppression. The scheduled topics will range from abortion regulation to justice in child birth, with Byllye Avery, founder of Black Women’s Health, to present the keynote speech.

Women of Color Call for Repeal of the Hyde Amendment
On the 37th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, women of color gathered together to call for legislators to repeal the law banning federal Medicaid coverage for abortions. Jessica González-Rojas of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Eleanor Hinton Hoytt of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum wrote an article for RH Reality Check discussing the struggles women of color have had dealing with the limits on reproductive rights, saying that the Hyde Amendment “violates principles of racial and economic justice.” On its 37th anniversary, these leaders and organizations, along with their supporters, pushed to spread information about this injustice, creating the “All Above All: United to Restore and Sustain Abortion Coverage for Low-Income Women” campaign.

Next Friday: This month in LGBTQ

Profiles on the Right: Dr. Richard Land

Dr. Richard Land

Dr. Richard Land

Dubbed by Time Magazine as “God’s Lobbyist,” Dr. Richard Land is the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of Southern Baptist Convention, and serves as the Commissioner on the Unites States Commission on International Religious Affairs.  With 16 million members, the Southern Baptists are second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Land speaks to millions of listeners on the radio through Christian broadcasting networks and frequently appears on television and before Congress. He maintains an image of respectability and moderation, although his views are decidedly anti-LGBT when it comes to sexual minority issues

Land has recently been appointed as president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) in Charlotte, N.C., which offers undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. programs in evangelism and classic apologetics.

Land advocates for a constitutional amendment to “protect marriage.” He believes gay marriage will “harm families and society” and that “God’s plan for marriage and the family is the only reliable foundation for society, anything else is a dangerous and faulty substitute that will lead to society’s ruin.”  Land was one of many notable right wing evangelicals to sign and endorse the “Manhattan Declaration,” a religious manifesto co-authored by evangelical leader (and Watergate felon) Charles Colson and Catholic intellectual Robert George that, among many things, opposes gay marriage and women’s right to abortion.

Land has said on his radio show, Richard Land Live, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, “Will destroy the American military,” and that “gay service members are twice as likely to sexually harass someone,” and “absent fathers and weak fathers produce gay children.”

In 2011 Land signed a letter urging Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) to defund Planned Parenthood, stating this issue was “non-negotiable.” Part of the letter read, “Planned Parenthood, a scandal-plagued abortion company, no longer deserves hundreds of millions in federal dollars each year while it continues to abuse innocent young victims.”

Next Profile

Scared Chaste, Scared Straight: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education in U.S. Schools

The welfare reform law of 1996, premised on the unproven claim that poor women’s failure to marry is the cause of high rates of family poverty in the United States, promoted an abstinence-only-until-marriage policy that teaches that sex outside the context of marriage is intrinsically dangerous, both physically and psychologically.1 Relying on scientifically inaccurate information and notions of shame, this policy poses a threat to all youth. But it poses a particular threat to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, who are already subject to widespread harassment and violence in the nation’s schools.

As of 1999 nearly one third of the nation’s high schools were promoting abstinence only, while excluding information about contraception and safer sex education.2 A study of 43 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia found that more than 10 percent of the abstinence- only funds had been granted to “faith-based entities” in 22 states.3 A further 40 percent of the funds were spent through other private, but nonreligious, entities.4 Twenty-eight of the 42 state and territorial jurisdictions sampled prohibited organizations providing abstinence-based education from providing information on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) if asked by a student or other client. A further five jurisdictions provided no guidance one-way or the other.5

Research has shown that sex education that promotes the delay of first intercourse but simultaneously teaches safer sex practices is more effective than abstinence-only education. A World Health Organization review of 35 sex education programs around the world documented the relative ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education in stemming the spread of STDs.6 Youth in the United States have higher rates of unwanted pregnancy and STDs than their counterparts in Europe, where comprehensive sex education is the norm.

A report released by U.S. Surgeon-General David Satcher in early 2001 also questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. Satcher noted that there has been little research to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular type of instruction.

A report released by U.S. Surgeon- General David Satcher in early 2001 also questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. Satcher noted that there has been little research to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular type of instruction. More comprehensive education programs that also provide information on condom use have proven effective in stemming disease transmission and pregnancy among already sexually active youth. Yet safer sex education has not been shown to increase or hasten sexual activity among youth. According to Satcher:

To date, there are only a few published evaluations of abstinence-only programs. Due to this limited number of studies it is too early to draw definite conclusions about this approach. Similarly, the value of these programs for adolescents who have initiated sexual activity is not yet understood. More research is clearly needed.

Programs that typically emphasize abstinence, but also cover condoms and other methods of contraception, have a larger body of evaluation evidence that indicates either no effect on initiation of sexual activity or, in some cases, a delay in the initiation of sexual activity. This evidence gives strong support to the conclusion that providing information about contraception does not increase adolescent sexual activity, either by hastening the onset of sexual intercourse, increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse, or increasing the number of sexual partners. In addition, some of these evaluated programs increased condom use or contraceptive use more generally for adolescents who were sexually active.7

Abstinence-Only and Prevention Efforts to Stop Sexual Diseases and Teen Pregnancy

Several states and municipalities have rejected or stopped applying for federal disease prevention funds out of a mistaken belief that accepting abstinence-only funds precludes them from accessing federal funds for sex education. Nebraska decided not to reapply for HIV prevention grants from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because HIV prevention has traditionally combined abstinence promotion with safer sex education. Since 1997 Nebraska has limited all state-sponsored sex education to an abstinence-only-until-marriage message. Following lobbying from the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, Nebraska’s Education Commissioner decided not to reapply for CDC funds.8

In 1998, Ohio state legislators passed a law preventing the state’s Department of Education from spending CDC funds awarded to it until it agreed they would only be used to teach abstinence. More than two years passed and an agreement between the department and the legislature was not worked out. Language that would have required programs to “emphasize” abstinence, but not limit their approach only to abstinence education, was rejected by hardliners. As a result, $1 million was forfeited, although only 10 percent of those CDC funds were earmarked for HIV prevention; the rest were for other health initiatives, including tobacco use prevention, diabetes, and cancer prevention.9

The Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department also voted in 2001 to limit sex education efforts paid for with state dollars to the abstinence-only-until- marriage approach.10 The New Jersey and Maine legislatures considered bills, which would mandate abstinence-only education in those states’ public schools.11 Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced in March 2001 that he wanted to take $1 million in state funds for family planning services at health clinics and redirect the funds into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Florida already has 35 abstinence- only education programs funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds and run by private organizations.12 While Arkansas has long limited state-funded “sex education” to an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, a bill that would further restrict sex education was introduced last year.13

Scared Chaste: Abstinence- Only’s Reliance on Fear, Shame, and Misinformation

Abstinence-only-until-marriageapproaches to sex education are counterproductive, dangerous, and even harmful to the youth who are subject to their messages. Premarital sex is presented as intrinsically harmful. Relying on shame and fear, abstinence-only spreads inaccurate information about STDs and contraceptives; presents rarely occurring, worst-case scenarios as routine and common; stigmatizes and evokes hostility toward people with AIDS; and largely ignores homosexuality except as a context for HIV transmission.14 At least two curricula, however, are explicitly hostile toward lesbians and gay men.15

“[T]here is no such thing as ‘safe’ or ‘safer’ premarital sex,” warns FACTS, one such curriculum. “There are always risks associated with it, even dangerous, life-threatening ones.”16 Echoing Pat Buchanan’s claim that AIDS is “nature’s retribution” on “the poor homosexuals” who “have declared war on nature,”17 Sex Respect, another abstinence-only curriculum, teaches the following:

Is this [AIDS and other STDs] nature’s punishment for sex outside of marriage? No, not at all. These are natural consequences. For example, if you eat spoiled food, you will get sick. If you jump from a tall building, you will be hurt or killed…If you have sex outside of marriage, there are consequences for you, your partner, and society.18

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) documents numerous ways in which the incidence and effects of several STDs are misrepresented in abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.19 SIECUS warns that these scare tactics can discourage students from seeking treatment for STDs, such as chlamydia, which are easily curable if treated early on.20

Condoms are presented as a dangerous and ineffective form of birth control: “Relying on condoms is like playing Russian roulette,” declares Me, My World, My Future.21 Condom failure rates are overstated; and the failure of users to properly use condoms is inaccurately translated into an intrinsic defect in the product.22 FACTS warns that even if condoms are properly used, they may still allow “the transmission of HIV/AIDS.” This flies in the face of CDC and other scientific research, which finds condoms highly effective in stopping the spread of STDs when used properly.23

Skewed information about HIV/AIDS is common in abstinence- only-until-marriage curricula. Sex Respect devotes three paragraphs to the possibility of contracting HIV through “French kissing.” This is based on a single case investigated by the CDC in 1987, which may have involved transmission due to bleeding, open-mouth sores. However, kissing is generally not a risk factor for HIV transmission. People with AIDS are also stigmatized as dangerous bearers of death. Sex Respect warns, “How can you tell if someone has AIDS? There is no way for you to predict. Anyone can be carrying your death warrant.”24

Scared Straight: Heterosexism, Sexism, and Antigay Bias in Abstinence-Only Curricula

Heterosexist gender stereotypes about boys and girls are widespread in abstinence- only curricula. Boys are presented as sex-crazed, and girls as less interested in sex than they are in finding love. Girls are warned about “the way you dress sending messages.” Sex Respect warns, “Watch what you wear. If you don’t aim to please, don’t aim to tease.” Feminism is blamed for promiscuity: “the liberation movement has produced some aggressive girls today, and one of the tough challenges for guys who say no will be the questioning of their manliness.”25 Girls are portrayed as primarily responsible for rejecting the sexual advances of boys.26

In reaction to a growth in sex education and antihomophobia initiatives in the early 1990s, conservatives pushed “parents’ rights” laws and parental notification laws in states across the United States, requiring teachers to provide advance written warning to parents prior to addressing issues of homosexuality in class.

Programs that focus on abstinence-only-until-marriage are detrimental to LGBT youth, those youth questioning their sexual orientation, the children of LGBT parents, and LGBT teachers and administrators in the nation’s schools. Homosexuality is largely ignored except as a context for HIV transmission. But homosexuality is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, stigmatized. For example, Sex Respect teaches students that “[R]esearch and common sense tell us the best ways to avoid AIDS are: Remain a virgin until marriage…Avoid homosexual behavior.”27 When homosexual sexual practices are noted in this context, they are portrayed as “unnatural behavior.”28

At least two abstinence-only curricula are overtly hostile toward lesbians and gay men. Clue 2000 engages in the standard right-wing tactic of conflating homosexuality with pedophilia and incest when it notes that “[a]mong Kinsey’s most outrageous and damaging claims are the beliefs that pedophilia, homosexuality, incest, and adult-child sex are normal.”29 Facing Reality assures teachers and parents that presenting homosexuality as intrinsically dangerous is actually in the best interests of students, and is not homophobic. It also repeats the outdated notion of AIDS as a gay disease:

Many homosexual activists are frustrated and desperate over their own situation and those of loved ones. Many are dying, in part, due to ignorance. Educators who struggle to overcome ignorance and instill self-mastery in their students will inevitably lead them to recognize that some people with AIDS are now suffering because of the choices they made…Teachers, in order to preserve an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, should feel confident that when examining health issues and moral implications of homosexual behaviors, they are not engaging in an assault on a particular person or group.30

The irony of that last sentence is particularly rich: Abstinence-only-until-marriage education is by definition a suppression of alternative points of view, and involves the supplanting of a method scientifically proven to be effective in decreasing the spread of STDs with another, unproven method. Yet this approach is constructed as “preserv[ing] an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.”

Studies have shown that LGBT youth who receive gay-sensitive HIV instruction in school tend to engage in risky sexual behavior less frequently than similar youth that do not receive such instruction. In a random sample of high school students and HIV education instructors in Massachusetts, among sexually active heterosexual and homosexual youth, gay youth reported more sexual partners, more frequent use of substances before engaging in sex, and higher rates of pregnancy. However, those gay youth that received gay-sensitive HIV instruction reported fewer sexual partners and less frequent substance use before sex.31

Impact of Abstinence-Only and “Parent’s Rights Laws” on Safe Schools Initiatives

The often explicitly antigay and stigmatizing language of abstinence curricula can have a chilling effect on discussion of homosexuality in the schools, including attempts to deal with incidents of antigay harassment of LGBT students and the children of LGBT parents. In reaction to a growth in sex education and anti-homophobia initiatives in the early 1990s, conservatives pushed “parents’ rights” laws and parental notification laws in states across the United States, requiring teachers to provide advance written warning to parents prior to addressing issues of homosexuality in class. It also followed by a few years the “no promo homo” laws enacted by many states in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which restrict any neutral or positive mention of homosexuality.32 When taken together, these policies create a context that may have a chilling effect on open conversations about issues facing LGBT students and the children of LGBT parents, including issues of verbal and physical harassment.

People continue to get infected with HIV unnecessarily because some public health professionals and many elected officials have abdicated their responsibility to deal with HIV/AIDS as a public health issue. Instead, too many impose their narrow vision of morality on the rest of the population and promote policies which have failed to prevent the continued spread of this disease. Thus abstinence-onlyuntil- marriage education may in fact contribute to the transmission of HIV and other STDs.

The link between sex education, abstinence promotion, and LGBT youth was vividly displayed in recent comments by Boston University president John Silber, who called for the disbanding of a gay-straight alliance at a university-run high school. Boston’s gay newspaper Bay Windows reported September 12, 2002:

Silber ordered academy headmaster James Tracy to disband the school’s two-year old GSA last week, saying it didn’t belong there because it encouraged teen sex. “We’re not running a program in sex education,” Silber told the Sept. 7 Boston Globe. “If they want that kind of program, they can go to Newton High School. They can go to public school and learn how to put a condom over a banana.” According to a Sept. 6 Globe story, Silber threatened to cut funding to the school if the GSA wasn’t shut down.

Efforts to silence and stigmatize homosexuality can have devastating effects on LGBT youth. A recent NIH-funded study of Latino gay and bisexual men found a correlation between experiences of homophobia and increased likelihood to engage in HIV risk behaviors. It also found that family acceptance and the presence of an openly gay role model while growing up correlated with lower incidence of HIV risk behaviors.33 The promotion of homophobia and ignorance about AIDS and other STDs hurts all students, but especially those who are gay or from gay families.

The Connection with State “No Promo Homo” Laws

South Carolina bans discussion of “alternative sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted disease.”34 Arizona law prohibits “instruction which: 1) Promotes a homosexual life-style. 2) Portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style. 3) Suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”35 Alabama requires that any mention of homosexuality stress “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”36 And Texas law is almost identical to Alabama’s statute.37

How do these restrictions play out? Kay Coburn, an administrator with the Temple, Texas Independent School District, told Human Rights Watch that there is “no discussion of homosexuality,” nor “any message in the curriculum about how homosexuals might protect themselves from HIV. Abstinence is the only message. The traditional family is where you have sex. The curriculum doesn’t address sex outside this structure.”38

Cheryl Cox, a health teacher and member of her Robinson (TX) High School health education advisory council, noted that coverage of homosexuality and other “lifestyle options” was “not needed or necessary… I can’t see it ever being acceptable to discuss homosexuality, as it’s a very conservative community. It’s a topic that I’m not supposed to be talking about because of the standards set forth by the community and by the health advisory board.”39

Terry Cruz, an abstinence educator in Laredo, TX, told Human Rights Watch that “probably the only time I touch on the subject [of homosexuality] is with HIV, referring to how HIV originally started.”40

Abstinence Efforts Likely to Dominate in Near Future

People continue to get infected with HIV unnecessarily because some public health professionals and many elected officials have abdicated their responsibility to deal with HIV/AIDS as a public health issue. Instead, too many impose their narrow vision of morality on the rest of the population and promote policies which have failed to prevent the continued spread of this disease. Thus abstinence-only-until-marriage education may in fact contribute to the transmission of HIV and other STDs.

Although HIV and AIDS has disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men, increasingly those living with HIV or AIDS are heterosexual, female, and African American and Latina/o women and children. Within the gay and bisexual male community, men of color, particularly younger men of color, are at greater risk for HIV/AIDS. For example, in New York City one recent study found that four percent of White homosexually active 15- to 22- year-old men are HIV-positive, while 10 percent of Latino men and 22 percent of African American men in this age bracket are HIV-positive.41 From 1999 to 2000, 69 percent of new HIV infections were among Black and Latino individuals, most of them men who have sex with men.42

Federal incentives favoring abstinence-only education are likely to become more entrenched under President George W. Bush. As governor, Bush opposed sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Bush told the Washington Times in July 1999 that he supports abstinence-only education, arguing that teaching safer sex and abstinence together “sends a contradictory message that tends to undermine the message of abstinence.”43 Bush told young people that they should avoid sex until they are in “a biblical marriage relationship.”44 Bush also supports educational grants for churches and faith-based groups to promote abstinence-until-marriage.45

Abstinence-only sex education, while strongly supported by President Bush and a conservative Congress, does not enjoy widespread support among the U.S. public. According to a national study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, there exists a strong disparity between what is actually taught in sex education programs and what parents actually want.46 One of the strongest disparities exists for homosexuality. Seventy-six percent of parents of 7-12th graders felt that sex education should cover homosexuality, while only 41 percent of students reported the topic was actually covered.

Policy Recommendations

Age-appropriate, publicly funded sex education programs should be offered nation-wide which provide comprehensive, factual information about sexuality. These can promote abstinence but must also provide information on safer-sex techniques that significantly reduce the risk for transmission of STDs and pregnancy. They should avoid gender stereotypes and the stigmatization of homosexuality. They should not be allowed to contribute to the widespread harassment and violence against LGBT youth in the nation’s schools.


1 Each year since 1996, nearly $100 million in government funds have been spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage education, ostensibly aimed at preventing teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births. The Bush Administration has sought a substantial increase in abstinence-only-until- marriage funds during the welfare reauthorization of 2002.
2 Sharon Lerner, “An Orgy of Abstinence: Federal Funding Pushes No-Sex Education Into the Mainstream,” Village Voice, August 1-7, 2001. Available at Abstinence activists are so extreme that they advocate against masturbation, a nearly universal human activity. The National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s “Abstinence Survival Kit” warns that “sexual self-stimulation” may “eventually leave the person unable to respond sexually to a real person.” “It’s the first sign of sexual addiction,” warns Leslee Unruh, the Clearinghouse’s president.
3 Adam Sonfield and Rachel B. Gold, “States’ Implementation of the Section 510 Abstinence Education Program, FY 1999,”Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 33, no. 4 (July/August 2001), pp. 166-172. Available at
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, pp. 168-169.
6 Mariella Baldo, et al., “Does Sex Education Lead to Earlier or Increased Sexual Activity in Youth?” Paper presented at the IXth Annual International Conference on AIDS Berlin, (Geneva: World Health Organization), June 6-10, 1993.
7 David Satcher, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Behavior (Washington, DC: Office of the United States Surgeon General, 2001), p. 11. Available at
8 Martha Kempner, “Controversy Over CDC’s Research to Classroom Project,” SIECUS Report, vol. 29, no. 6 (2001), pp. 4-5.
9 Ibid., p. 9.
10 Ibid., p. 5.
11 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
12 Martha Kempner, “State-Level Debates Over Abstinence- Only-Until-Marriage,” SIECUS Report, vol. 29, no. 6 (2001), p. 7.
13 Kemper, “Controversy,” p. 13.
14 Ibid., preface.
15 Ibid, pp. 46-47.
16 Ibid., p. 19.
17 Patrick Buchanan, Syndicated column, June 23, 1983, Cited in Sean Cahill and Erik Ludwig, Courting the Vote: The 2000 Presidential Candidates’ Positions on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 1999), p. 21.
18 Kempner, “State-level,” p. 18.
19 Ibid., pp. 25-28.
20 Ibid., p. 26.
21 Ibid., p. 33.
22 Ibid., p. 32.
23 See Questions and Answers on Condom Effectiveness, CDC Update (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control, 1997), and Philip Kestelman, and James Trussell, “Efficacy of the Simultaneous Use of Condoms and Spermicide,” Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 5 (1991), p. 227, both cited in Kempler, “State-level,” pp. 34-35.
24 Kempler, “State-level,” p. 31.
25 Sex Respect, cited in Kempler, “State-level,” p. 44.
26 Kempler, “State-level,” p. 54.
27 Ibid.
28 Sex Respect describes anal intercourse as “unnatural behavior.” Of course, anal intercourse is a behavior practiced by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Ibid., p. 29.
29 Ibid., pp. 46-47.
30 Ibid., p. 47.
31 Susan M. Blake, et al., “Preventing Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Gay, Lesbian, And Bisexual Adolescents: The Benefits of Gay-Sensitive HIV Instruction in Schools,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 91, no. 6 (2001), pp. 940-946.
32 As a result of such a law, teachers in Merrimack, NH, declined to teach Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because a female character disguises herself as a man, and declined to show a video about Walt Whitman that mentioned that he loved men. See Mary Bonauto, Background Information on “No Promo Homo” Policies (Washington, DC: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators’ Network, September 16, 2002). Available at
33 Rafael Diaz and George Ayala, Social Discrimination and Health: The Case of Latino Gay Men and HIV Risk (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2001). Available at
34 See South Carolina Code Ann. 59-32-30(A)(5). Cited in Human Rights Watch, Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States; Texas: A Case Study, vol. 14, no. 5 (September 2002), p. 35.
35 See Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. 15-1716. Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
36 See Ala. Code 16-40A-2. Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
37 See Texas Health and Safety Code 163.002(8). Cited in Ibid., p. 35.
38 Interview cited in Ibid., p. 36.
39 Interview cited in Ibid., pp. 36-37.
40 Interview cited in Ibid., p. 37.
41 Richard Elovich, “Beyond Condoms…How to Create a Gay Men’s Culture of Sexual Health,” POZ (June 1999).
42 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “With CDC HIV Infection Rates on the Rise, New NGLTF Report Examines Direct Impact of Discrimination on Latino Gay Men,” (Washington, DC: NGLTF, July 12, 2001). Available at
43 AIDS Action Council, “Election 2000 Presidential Candidate Report,” (August 1999). Available at; Cynthia Dailard, “Fueled by Campaign Promises, Drive Intensifies to Boost Abstinence-Only Education Funds,” The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2000). Available at
44 David Broder, “Bush Defends Gun Record, Pushes Teen Abstinence,” Washington Post, June 22, 1999, p. A4.
45 “Bush Promotes Abstinence for Teenagers,” Associated Press, June 22, 1999.
46 Tina Hoff and Liberty Greene, Sex Education in America: A Series of National Surveys of Students, Parents, Teachers, and Principals (Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000). Available at

John Salvi, Abortion Clinic Violence, and Catholic Right Conspiracism

Most of the news coverage of John C. Salvi 3d has portrayed him as a confused person making nonsensical statements alleging conspiracies against Catholics. In fact, almost all of Salvi’s conspiratorial statements echo paranoid scapegoating theories long circulated by a specific sector of right wing anti-abortion organizations active in the Boston area and nationwide. Some of these aggressive anti-abortion groups call abortion providers evil and claim to be fighting an “abortion Holocaust.” A few of these anti-abortion militants suggest that abortion providers deserve death.

While Salvi clearly shows signs of emotional disturbance, his view of himself as a crusader against an evil conspiracy is rooted in the small but militant wings of the Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion movements. Even though Salvi has been found guilty in the Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings that left two women dead and several persons injured, it is still difficult for many people to see the political side of the Salvi case. There is still a widespread lack of knowledge about the beliefs of the right wing conspiracist subculture-and there is still an attitude of denial that groups promoting conspiratorial worldviews have growing influence in our political system. This aspect of the Salvi case has not been adequately covered by the news media.

Before his arrest Salvi met with a Catholic priest and demanded to distribute lurid photographs of aborted fetuses, charging that the Catholic Church was not doing enough to stop abortions. He confronted his parish on Christmas Eve 1994 for failing to live up to his interpretation of the Catholic faith and its obligations. He quoted the Biblical book of Revelation; and told his parents of wanting to confront Satan. Shortly after his arrest he released a handwritten note alleging conspiracies of freemasons, conspiracies to manipulate paper currency, and conspiracies against Catholics. He told the court he supported the welfare state, Catholic labor unions, and opposed abortion. He has talked about the Vatican printing its own currency and a specific conspiracy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob. Far from being unique, all of these ideas appear in right-wing Catholic, Protestant, and secular political publications available in the Boston area.

Conspiracy theories range in their complexity, irrationality, and degree of bigotry. They are spread in a mild form by the John Birch Society-primarily through its magazine The New American; and in a more virulent racist and anti-Semitic form by the Liberty Lobby-primarily through its newspaper, The Spotlight, but also through a syndicated radio program, Radio Free America. Other leading purveyors of conspiracy theories include the Lyndon LaRouche network and a number of right-wing Christian groups. The whole spectrum of conspiracist allegations can be found on computer networks including the Internet, on radio and TV talk shows, on short-wave radio, through fax networks, and in hundreds of small books, pamphlets, and flyers available through the mail.

Magazines found in Salvi’s residence included The New American and The Fatima Crusader, both published by right-wing groups promoting conspiracist theories and vociferously opposing abortion and homosexuality. Allegations of a freemason conspiracy are contained in a book sold by Human Life International, a right-wing Catholic anti-abortion group that prints the photographs of fetuses Salvi distributed prior to his arrest. One Catholic right newspaper that promotes the Freemason conspiracy theory is The Michael Journal, published in Canada but distributed in the Boston area. The specific allegation of a conspiracy linking the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob is made in publications of the Lyndon LaRouche network. No one can claim to know the specific source of Salvi’s ideas, but at some point Salvi clearly intersected with persons who guided him to material from right-wing groups opposing abortion. One does not find issues of The New American or The Fatima Crusader, or material from Human Life International, at the corner newsstand. They are circulated in a distinct right-wing subculture.

The idea that a conspiracy of Freemasons controls the economy through the manipulation of paper money is based on conspiracy theories originally spread in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Salvi’s Freemason theory is one current variation of these earlier theories, and persons who embrace this theory often point to Masonic symbols on the dollar bill as evidence of the conspiracy. The basic premise of this worldview is that a conspiracy of secret wealthy elites controls the US. Variations on these themes include overtly bigoted theories concerning Jews, theories of a secular humanist conspiracy of liberals to take God out of society, One World Global Government theories, and many others. Symptoms of the corrosive nature of this alleged conspiracy are seen variously as abortion, homosexuality, the feminist movement, sex education, Outcomes Based Education, the environmental movement, and various others.

The freemason conspiracy theory is spread by persons who have real clout in the political arena. Pat Robertson is a leading conservative evangelical whose Christian Coalition is credited with helping elect many Republican US senators and representatives. Robertson promotes the freemason conspiracy theory and other forms of conspiracism in his books and on his TV program, “The 700 Club,” which is seen daily in the Boston area on the cable Family Channel. Robertson’s book The New World Order, published in 1992, is filled with right-wing conspiracist lore, much of it laced with references to Jewish bankers that contain, at the least, echoes of anti-Semitism. Some of the cites in Robertson’s book trace back to notoriously antisemitic sources. Discussions of freemason and other scapegoating conspiracies appear throughout Robertson’s book and will be discussed in detail later.

Salvi discussed his interest in the militia movement, the armed wing of the larger patriot movement, where conspiracy theories flourish. According to an article by Sarah Tippit of Reuters:

“While living in Florida in 1992, Salvi talked to a friend about joining a militia and once expressed interest in a particular camping trip with a militia from the Everglades, said his former employer, Mark Roberts of Naples, Florida. ‘Salvi had mentioned being affiliated with some bivouac thing in the Everglades. They were camping and he wanted to go,’ said Roberts, who employed Salvi for maintenance work. Shortly before moving to New England in 1992, Salvi stopped at Roberts’ house and showed his gun. He had sawed off its barrel and installed a silencer, Roberts said. ‘He said he was going to shoot cans in the woods, but he didn’t want to make any noise,’ Roberts said. ‘That worried me.'”

A major element of many conspiracy theories, including those circulated by the militias, is that the country is composed of two types of persons: parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom, with the producers being the hard-working average citizen in the middle. This is the theory of right-wing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control banking and manipulate paper currency. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society. Salvi echoes this scapegoating refrain when he complains about persons on welfare. In the current political scene this dichotomy between parasites and producers takes on elements of racism because the people at the bottom who are seen as parasites are usually viewed as people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic, even though most persons who receive government assistance are White. Jews are frequently scapegoated as being part of the parasitic elite at the top.

That some persons who choose to act violently against the named scapegoats are also suffering from some form of emotional distress or mental illness does not negate the fact that they were groomed by a scapegoating social movement. Clinic violence is not the only result. In recent years there has been a disturbing number of threats and attacks against not only abortion providers, but also environmental activists, gays and lesbians, Jews, and even feminists. The scapegoating of welfare mothers and immigrants of color could also lead to similar acts of intimidation and injury. The pattern of violence against environmental activists has been chronicled in David Helvarg’s War Against the Greens, published by the Sierra Club.

In some cases scapegoating conspiracy theories are adopted by persons who believe we are in the Biblical “End Times” described in prophesies in the book of Revelations as a time when there will be literal confrontations pitting true Christians against Satan and the Antichrist. The idea that we are in the End Times is growing in right-wing Christian evangelical circles. While predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, there are small groups of orthodox and charismatic Catholics that also are embracing End Times theology. Like Salvi, they point to the book of Revelations and discuss actual struggles with Satan and the antichrist. These views are hardly marginal on the Christian right. End Times themes have appeared on Pat Robertson’s the “700 Club.” Just after Christmas 1994, the program carried a feature on new dollar bill designs being discussed to combat counterfeiting. The newscaster then cited Revelations 13 and suggested that if the Treasury Department put new codes on paper money it might be the Mark of the Beast.

In recent years, the most militant anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue have been influenced by the theology of Christian Reconstructionism, or dominion theology, which argues that true Christians must physically confront secular and sinful society and return it to God. Though predominantly composed of right-wing Protestants, a similar movement among doctrinaire Catholics has emerged. The trajectory of Philip Lawler from the editorship of the Boston Archdiocesian publication The Pilot, to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to Operation Rescue is one example of this drift toward militancy. In the spring of 1994, Salvi joined with 300 anti-abortion demonstrators outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts where pamphlets were circulated that cited Operation Rescue as claiming that 18,000 abortions were performed annually at the facility.

The two main sectors of the US right that share a substantial degree of scapegoating conspiracism in their core ideology are the nativist right with its populist America First orientation; and the new Christian right, based primarily on Protestant evangelicalism but incorporating a growing segment of right-wing Catholics. Many in the new Christian right are in fact theocrats, in that they desire a government run by men seen as carrying out God’s will.

Both the theocratic right and nativist right have supporters and leaders that emerge from the Catholic right, and who have formed coalitions with the Protestant right and secular right over issues of morality and economic policy. Examples of leaders emerging from the Catholic right would be nativist Pat Buchanan, currently a presidential candidate running in the Republican primaries; and Paul Weyrich, a leading Catholic right figure with significant influence in the Republican Party. Weyrich’s main base of operations is the Free Congress Foundation (FCF) in Washington, DC which he founded and still leads. Weyrich commissioned a FCF study titled “The Homosexual Agenda” written by Fr. Enrique Rueda, another Catholic right ideologue, that alleged a vast conspiracy of homosexuals to infiltrate government agencies. Rightwing Catholic activism, however, is a relatively small phenomenon. According to Catholics for Free Choice, “Only a tiny fraction of US Catholics-less than 200,000 people out of a diverse community of more than 50 million-have deliberately and consciously aligned themselves with Catholic organizations on the ‘religious right.’

Certainly a person like John Salvi does not represent the mainstream of Catholicism, the anti-abortion movement, or the US political right, but he expresses the views of a durable subculture with conspiracist views that target scapegoats. Scapegoats can be injured or killed by persons-no matter what their mental state-who act out their conspiratorial beliefs in a zealous manner. The failure of political and religious leaders to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that demagogicly spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous dynamic.

Human Life International

Human Life International (HLI) is a right-wing Catholic anti-abortion group with a chapter in Massachusetts. HLI promotes a highly orthodox vision of Catholicism that is critical of liberal Catholics around the issues of abortion, sex education, homosexuality, and feminism.

HLI publishes and distributes books that feature conspiracist thinking and misogyny with titles such as Sex Education: The Final PlagueThe Feminist Takeover, and Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism. As mentioned previously, HLI distributes the book New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies, by William T. Still. The book attacks the Freemasons as part of a conspiracy to control the country through the issuing of paper money. The book is also sold by right-wing groups other than HLI. According to Still, his book:

“…[s]hows how an ancient plan has been hidden for centuries deep within secret societies. This scheme is designed to bring all of mankind under a single world government-a New World Order. This plan is of such antiquity that its result is even mentioned in the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.”

As the comment citing Revelations suggests, the battle against the conspiracy is the battle between good and evil. The back cover blurb of Still’s book confirms this by stating that the plan “to bring all nations under one-world government” is actually “the biblical rule of the Antichrist.”

In discussing the allegation that the Federal Reserve is part of the conspiracy, Still incorporates references to the Rothschild banking interests in a way that reflects historic antisemitic bigotry alleging Jewish control over the economy. Still’s book is endorsed in a back-cover blurb by D. James Kennedy, Ph.D., senior minister of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. According to Kennedy’s blurb:

“Regardless of your views about the coming of a world government, Bill Still’s new book will make you reassess the odds. He traces the historic role of secret societies and their influence on the “Great Plan” to erase nationalism in preparation for a global dictatorship. He allows the facts to speak for themselves, as he sounds an ominous warning for the 21st Century.”

Kennedy is an influential figure in the Protestant theocratic right, and his national conferences draw luminaries from the Republican Party such as former vice-president Dan Quayle. Kennedy is not the only leading figure in the Protestant right to dabble with conspiracy theories.

HLI founder Fr. Paul Marx and other authors published or distributed by HLI have made bigoted allegations about Jewish doctors and abortion that have drawn rebukes for anti-Semitism from more responsible leaders in the Catholic Church. Msgr. George G. Higgins took on this issue in a column published in Catholic New York:

“Over the years, Human Life International…has proven a divisive force within the pro-life movement, frequently attacking the Catholic Hierarchy of the United States both individually and as a conference for what Father Marx viewed as lapses from ideological purity. Alongside this, there has been what I would call a flirtation with anti-Semitism.”

Msgr. Higgins notes that the “official teaching of the Church…clearly condemns forays into anti-Semitism,” and that HLI’s practice of listing many bishops as advisers creates confusion among persons who might have difficulty distinguishing “the preachments of HLI from the official teaching of the Church, which clearly condemns forays into anti-Semitism.”

In a devastating critique of Human Life International in Planned Parenthood’s Front Lines Research, newsletter, investigative journalists Karen Branan and Frederick Clarkson review the routine promotion by HLI of conspiratorial, hard right, theocratic, and anti-Semitic ideas.

Although this report was issued in April of 1994, months before Salvi’s shootings, most mainstream accounts of Salvi’s allegations of a conspiracy against Catholics by freemasons were dismissed as unintelligible ravings, even though most of Salvi’s rhetoric is identical to the allegations made in publications distributed by HLI, or at workshops held at HLI conferences. This failure to conduct even the most rudimentary research into the conspiratorial allegations of the militant hard right anti-abortion movement allows reporters to sidestep the political content, and report each act of violence against reproductive health workers as an isolated, anecdotal occurrence. Ideology and motivation are thus dismissed through a combination of journalistic ignorance, disinterest, and lack of resources for the type of in-depth reporting that could expose the dangers posed by conspiratorial anti-abortion groups that promote scapegoating that motivates some to acts of violence.

John Birch Society

While Protestants make up the core membership of the JBS, there have always been Catholic and even a few Jewish members of the Society. Sexuality is one broad topic that provides a point of unity for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish ultra-conservatives who often agree that comprehensive sexuality education, abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, and gay-tolerant curricula. The spread of AIDS allowed the JBS to link their support for traditional patriarchal family relationships to their conspiracy theory of the Insiders. According to the Birchers, “AIDS is just one of the bad effects of removing all the moral barriers and allowing perversion to prosper;” and sex education in schools is “fundamentally subversive,” according to Birch literature. The JBS also distributes pamphlets titled “The Truth About Aids” and “What They Are Not Telling You About AIDS.” Statements by Catholic right activist Charles E. Rice in one of the Birch AIDS pamphlets demonstrate how far the society is willing to take its opposition as well as the use of veiled references:

“The natural law, instituted by God, is the story of how things work. Homosexual activity is not a civil right. It is contrary to nature, and AIDS is one of its harmful effects. The AIDS pandemic is a social evil; so is the homosexual conduct that causes it. It is past time for the law to deal with those evils. And a first step would be to recall the edict of the Supreme Legislator in Romans 1:26-32.”

That passage in Romans is widely interpreted in the Christian right to be an edict against homosexuals and others who engage in what is called “unnatural” sex…specifying that “those who do such things deserve death.”

Rice writes for the JBS magazine and sits on the US advisory board of Human Life International. Rice wrote an article for the April 4, 1994 issue of the John Birch Society’s magazine, New American, a copy of which was found in John Salvi’s possession.

Most of the issue is devoted to a look at the relationship between fear of crime and increasing government erosions of civil liberties, especially relating to the Second Amendment and gun ownership.

The article by Rice on capital punishment, however, is especially significant in light of recent clinic violence, especially the Salvi case. Titled “The Death Penalty Dilemma,” the article argues that it is legitimate to oppose abortion while still supporting the death penalty. Some Christians oppose both abortion and the death penalty, viewing the opposition to taking of all life as a philosophical seamless garment. But in the article “The Death Penalty Dilemma,” Rice, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, argues that being for the death penalty while opposing abortion as a “right-to-life” issue is philosophically consistent. Rice concludes his article on capital punishment with a section subtitled “A Right to Life Issue,” with the following three paragraphs:

“Capital punishment is obviously a `right to life’ issue. But it is often oversimplified. One could legitimately argue against both abortion and, on prudential grounds, capital punishment. But the two cases are not the same since the unborn child is innocent and the convicted murderer is not. One could therefore also legitimately argue against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. The liberal position today, however, is to oppose the killing of convicted criminals but to approve the killing of innocent children in the womb. It is a symptom of debased humanism to protest a murderer’s deserved punishment while acquiescing in the killing of innocent children through abortion.

“All human life is precious because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. But God also gave us free wills and made us by nature social beings with the inclination to live in community and the moral duty to act in accord with the common good of that community. It is fair to say that one pressing need of the human community, in the United States as elsewhere, is to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers.

“In this context, the imposition of capital punishment can be seen as a means to restore respect for innocent life. The prudent use of the death penalty can emphasize, as no other penalty can, that malefactors are responsible for their own actions and that the deliberate, willful taking of innocent life is the most abhorrent of all crimes precisely because the right to life is the most precious of all rights.”

While the message is veiled, one way to read the above paragraphs would be to assume that imposing the death penalty on abortion providers was morally justifiable for a society, and that a person might justifiably choose to exercise their free will and carry out their “moral duty to act in accord with the common good of [the] community” by killing an abortion provider “to restore respect for innocent life and to protect innocent members of the community against aggressors, whether abortionists or more conventional killers.” Similar arguments have been made in some militant anti-abortion circles, and Rice certainly was suggesting Biblical support for the idea that homosexuals should be put to death in his earlier article for the JBS about AIDS.

The Fatima Crusader

The basic message of The Fatima Crusader is that we are in the apocalyptic end times and facing a direct struggle with Satan; and that the actions and religious devotions of true Catholics must be based on end times warnings and predictions from appearances by the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ before Catholic faithful. The Fatima Crusader is just one of many formations in the Catholic Church that focus their devotion on the Virgin Mary, in what constitutes a diverse Marianist subculture within the Church.

In the worldview of The Fatima Crusader the Russian tyranny can come in many forms. In The Fatima Crusaderthe clear editorial position is that the predictions at Fatima refer to the threat of a Russian-style collectivist One World Government ushered in by socialists, liberals, secular humanists, homosexuals, abortionists, and followers of the new age spirituality movement. As Father Gruner observes:

“Already the errors of Naziism and Communism have invaded this country by the kinds of things that took place in Waco, whereby banned gas, forbidden to be used in international warfare, was used on citizens of the United States.”

The Fatima Crusader also weaves in conspiracism references to the prophesies about the end times struggle against Satan and the Antichrist mentioned in the Book of Revelations. In an article in the Summer 1994 issue ofThe Fatima Crusader, Charles Martel writes in an article on “The Antichrist” that “The Church is in a shambles” characterized by:

  • Open rebellion against authority,
  • Enthusiasm for abortion, contraception, divorce, etc.,
  • Addition of many clerics to Marxism,
  • Presence of un-Catholic teachings in seminaries and universities,
  • Widespread and well-organized homosexual network,
  • Acceptance of New Age belief as the latest of ecumenism.

Michael Journal

One rightwing Catholic Journal that writes about the parasitic nature of financial elites is the Michael Journal which celebrates the memory of Father Coughlin “Who courageously denounced the bankers’ debt-money system.” According to the Michael Journal“The Illuminati are elite men, those on the top, who control the International Bankers to control, for evil purposes, the entire world.” Followers of the Michael Journal lobbied against the Massachusetts seat belt law, believing it was a step toward Satanic One World Government. Much of John Salvi’s rhetoric echoes themes in the Michael Journal. The Michael Journal also carries articles about “Tha Apparitions at Fatima.”

The Burlington Patriot Movement Meeting

There is no indication that Salvi attended patriot or militia meetings in Massachusetts, but the movements are active in the state, and overlap with anti-abortion militants. A patriot movement meeting was held in November 1994 at the high school auditorium in Burlington, MA. The seventy-five people who attended the public meeting heard speakers decry the failure of government to meet the needs of average Americans. Several speakers argued that this failure was driven by a vast and even satanic conspiracy. Attendees ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s and they came from Massachusetts and several surrounding states including New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Leading anti-abortion organizer Dr. Mildred Jefferson, an African-American women, spoke about problems with the medical profession she witnessed as a surgeon. Jefferson’s speech tied groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800s. Jefferson is a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life committee and a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

During the meeting, attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den’s Gun Shop in Lakeville, Massachusetts. One book offered instruction in the use of the Ruger .22 rifle. Other books contained diagrams on how to build bombs and incendiary devices. One title was Improvised Weapons of the American Underground.

You could even purchase the book Hunter by neo-Nazi William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance. Hunter is a book that describes parasitic Jews destroying America, and extols the virtues of armed civilians who carry out political assassinations of Jews and homosexuals to preserve the white race. Pierce’s previous book, The Turner Diaries, was the primary sourcebook of racist terror underground organizations, such as The Order, in the 1980s.The Turner Diaries still is circulated by the neo-Nazi movement, and includes a section describing the bombing of a federal building by the armed underground. Timothy McVeigh, charged with a role in bombing the federal building in Oklahoma, is reported to have passed out copies of the book The Turner Diaries. Leaflets from the National Alliance attacking the New World Order and “minority parasites” have appeared in Cambridge, Somerville, and other Boston-area communities.

One speaker, Ed Brown, runs the Constitutional Defense Militia of New Hampshire. Brown passed out brochures offering “Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures.”

Persons concerned with anti-abortion violence have watched with growing alarm as persons affiliated with the most militant wing of the anti-abortion movement began to interact and link up with persons in the armed militia movement. An early example of this tendency was revealed by Planned Parenthood at a press conference in August of 1994 where a videotape documentary was released showing the Rev. Matthew Trewhella of the Missionaries to the Pre-Born calling for the formation of an armed citizen militias. Trewhella’s call came as he addressed a statewide meeting of the hard right US Taxpayers Party in Wisconsin.


Dominion theology is a relatively new current in Christian theology, which argues that godly men, no matter what their view of the end times, must assert control over secular society. Dominionists frequently assert that the US Constitution is superseded by Old Testament Biblical law. Christian Reconstructionism is the most extreme form of dominion theology.

Militant anti-abortion activist and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry writes for the dominionist magazine,Crosswinds, and has signed their Manifesto for the Christian Church, which proclaims that America should “function as a Christian nation” and that the “world will not know how to live or which direction to go without the Church’s Biblical influence on its theories, laws, actions, and institutions,” including opposition to such “social moral evils” as “abortion on demand, fornication, homosexuality, sexual entertainment, state usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties, statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in the public schools.”

Dominion theology plays the same role in urging militancy within rightwing Protestant circles as does the Fatima admonitions in rightwing Catholic circles. The central theme of stopping abortion in Protestant dominionism provides a common point of intersection with militant Catholic anti-abortion activists, so it is little surprise to find right-wing Protestant anti-abortion activist Randall Terry working closely with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler. Schiedler in turn is on the US board of advisors to Human Life International, as is Charles E. Rice, who authored the previously-mentioned article comparing capital punishment and abortion in the issue of the John Birch Society’s magazine New American. The editor of HLI Reports is William Marshner, a right-wing charismatic Catholic who works closely with the Free Congress Foundation’s Paul Weyrich, himself an ultraconservative Catholic.

Marshner resigned from the editorial board of the ultra-conservative Catholic magazine Fidelity after that magazine criticized the far right Catholic lay group Tradition, Family, and Property for its anti-democratic and proto-fascist tendencies. Weyrich supports the work of Tradition, Family, and Property, long active in the anti-abortion movement, and has invited it into coalitions with the National Right to Life Committee and more mainstream conservative groups including the Republican National Committee.

Father Paul Marx, founder and chairman of Human Life International, launched the “Conversion Corps for Mary” to raise funds for the “continuing conversion of Russia,” and reminded his supporters in a fundraising letter that “When appearing to the children of Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary promised the world she would convert Russia. To do this Mary first brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But Father Marx goes on to link the ending of abortion in Russia to its eventual conversion as prophesied by Mary. HLI opened an office in Russia to engage in that work. Paul Weyrich has also mentioned the prophesies of Our Lady of Fatima to raise funds for his work in Russia.

These connections and overlaps are cited not to suggest some sinister conspiracy, but to demonstrate that there is a milieu in which right-wing Catholicism, the Fatima prophesies, dominionism, end times beliefs, and anti-abortion activism are linked.


Social movements that embrace scapegoating make serious dialog within the democratic process difficult or impossible. Instead of engaging in a political struggle based on debate and compromise, those who believe in evil conspiracies want to expose and neutralize the enemy, rather than sit at the same table and negotiate. Our Constitutional democracy is based on informed consent, not hysteria and witch-hunts fueled by demagogic allegations of conspiracies. That persons who embrace paranoid conspiratorial worldviews will come into conflict with legitimate law enforcement seems inevitable, given that their perceptions of a vast conspiracy lead them to inappropriate assessments of even the most innocent interactions with government officials. It was the government’s failure to understand this dynamic that resulted in the tragic incidents of government over-reaction and excessive use of force against the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians, in Waco. That both the Weaver family and the Branch Davidians embraced theological end times views is of great significance, and indicates that as we approach the millennium, the number of incidents with a potential for violence will increase. It seems clear that the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was at least in part in retaliation for the government’s misconduct at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

At the same time, persons concerned about civil discourse and democratic dialogue must also oppose the attempt by government officials to use the incident of terrorism in Oklahoma City to justify a range of repressive legislative initiatives that grant law enforcement the power to use widespread surveillance and infiltration of noncriminal groups of dissidents, claiming this will help stop terrorism. A series of Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and media reports in the 1970’s demonstrated there was no evidence that widespread infiltration and surveillance of dissident groups had a significant effect on stopping criminal activity or terrorism, but did have a significant effect in abridging civil liberties and chilling free speech. In this volatile political moment, we must cautiously guard against the dangers of right-wing bigotry and violence, and government overreaction in response to these very real divisive and dangerous problems.

Demagogic right wing groups that spread conspiracy theories targeting scapegoats do not attract much attention as serious players on the US political scene. While these groups are relatively small compared to the general population, they are increasing in size and fervor. The primary reason for a lack of public awareness about these conspiratorial social movements is that few mainstream media outlets have reporters that have made a serious study of right-wing political and theological belief structures. Even when reporters have educated themselves and submitted in-depth articles, middle-level and senior-level editors resist serious coverage of these topics. Arguments given to reporters for not running text explaining the political-and often conspiratorial-contentions of militant right-wing groups cluster around five main arguments:

  • Giving coverage to these groups only builds their credibility;
  • Readers will find the material too complex and confusing;
  • Actually reporting the conspiratorial allegations will make it seem as if the media are trying to make fun of the group;
  • These groups are insignificant so explaining their worldview is pointless;
  • People who believe these things must be insane and thus don’t deserve serious coverage.

None of these reasons justify what is essentially self-censorship that denies citizens the ability to become informed about these groups and draw their own conclusions over the potential for violence these groups may be generating.

Political and religious leaders also frequently dismiss right wing groups with conspiracist views as marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, right wing conspiracist groups have little chance of achieving their goals in the long run, but in the short run they can temporarily acquire and employ real political power and disrupt the democratic process. On an individual basis the scapegoating unleashed by conspiracist groups too frequently results in physical attacks on persons seen to be in league with the scapegoated group of evil-doers. This lack of meaningful coverage is especially dangerous when it comes to the hard-right anti-abortion movement. Until these issues are explored thoroughly in the mainstream media, and public figures speak out against the conspiratorial scapegoating and dehumanization by right-wing Protestant and Catholic anti-abortion militants, there will be more people like John Salvi resorting to violence in the belief that they are carrying out God’s will.

Chip Berlet is an analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. This study is adapted from the forthcoming book, Too Close for Comfort: Rightwing Populism, Scapegoating, and Fascist Potentials in US Political Traditions, by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons of the to be published next fall by South End Press.

Footnotes are contained in the full 40-page report available from Political Research Associates for $10. Title of full report: “The Increasing Popularity of Right Wing Conspiracy Theories. Including a discussion of statements by John C. Salvi, 3d. Allegations of a Freemason Conspiracy and Other Scapegoating Conspiracist Theories Within the Catholic Right, Protestant Right, Anti-Abortion Movement, Patriot Movement, and Armed Militia Movement.”

For More Information:

On Human Life International in general, on the book distributed by HLI, New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies, and the relationship between anti-abortion militants and the militias: Contact Sandi Dubowski or Claire McCurdy, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (212) 541-7800.

On the relationship of Human Life International to the anti-abortion movement: Contact Catholics for Free Choice, (202) 986-6093.

A version of Fred Clarkson’s two-part article on Christian Reconstructionism appears in the book Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, edited by Chip Berlet and available from bookstores or directly from South End Press.

On history of conspiracy theories and nativism, and spread of conspiracy theories into mainstream politics: SeeParty of Fear, by David H. Bennet. New York: Vintage, 1995 (revised second edition). See especially pp. 424-428, 472-475.

For a general overview of the political right: See Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, by Sara Diamond. New York: Guilford., 1995

For conspiracy theories and the modern far right, see Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus, by James Corcoran. New York: Penguin, 1990.