FRC’s Anti-Choice Conference: How the Right Co-Opts Feminism and Racial Justice

Family Research Council (FRC)

Click here for our full profile on Family Research Council (FRC)

Last week marked the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the 40th anniversary of March for Life.  On January 21, antichoice activists gathered at the Family Research Council headquarters in D.C. for ProLifeCon, which focused on developing tactics for disseminating antichoice messages through social media and the internet. The conference marked another episode in the Right’s ongoing campaign attacking women’s bodily autonomy and access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. As PRA detailed in its Summer 2013 issue of The Public Eye, these efforts have relied heavily on rhetorical maneuvering seeking to reframe abortion as a women’s health issue and antichoice stances as authentic feminism.

Political Research Associates was watching and listening to the conference. Among the extensive list of speakers, three, in particular, help shed light on the ways in which antichoice activists co-opt the language of feminism, women’s rights, and racial justice to undermine access to abortion and comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Here is what they had to say: 

Bethany Goodman


Bethany Goodman

Bethany Goodman

First to take the stage was Bethany Goodman, Assistant Director of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, which coordinated the demonstration held on the National Mall later that day. Goodman’s remarks focused on the importance of using social media campaigns to increase support among millennials and to expand the Right’s base of support. Goodman, previously Assistant Director of March for Life’s digital strategy, discussed the organization’s social media theme, “Why We March,” and encouraged viewers to access March for Life content on Twitter, Facebook, and an iPhone application. All of this content was designed to draw attention to “the women who are harmed by abortion.” Later, Goodman claimed, “We want a culture of life … where we embrace women in a loving way.” Goodman’s remarks are reflective of a shift in antichoice rhetoric, away from moralizing arguments about abortion toward a strategy of framing antichoice arguments as having a woman’s best interest at heart—as even being “feminist.” Speaking eagerly about the “youthful pro-life generation.” Goodman concluded her speech by stating, “The theme of this march is adoption,” arguing that adoption should replace abortion.

Ryan Bomberger

Ryan Bomberger

Ryan Bomberger

The adoption theme was echoed by Ryan Bomberger, a cofounder and chief creative officer at the Radiance Foundation.  This antichoice, multimedia organization gained notoriety for its “Too Many Aborted” web and billboard campaign, which used inflammatory slogans such as “The thirteenth amendment freed us, abortion enslaves us.”  Under the pretense of advancing racial justice, Bomberger claimed that the billboards illuminated “the disproportionate impact of abortion in the Black community,” and that the billboards were simultaneously a “campaign promoting adoption.”  He continued by stating that adoption was “one of the only two life-affirming alternatives to abortion,” and that we currently live in a “culture of death.”  In an attempt to discredit a major provider of comprehensive reproductive healthcare, Bomberger described Planned Parenthood as “abortion-minded, abortion-centered” and claimed that it “continues to demonize adoption” through convincing pregnant women to seek abortions rather than choose adoption.  Yet Bomberger went further, accusing Planned Parenthood of supporting a “eugenics sort of mindset.”  Finally, like many of his fellow speakers, Bomberger also sought to recast antichoice as pro-woman.  Near the end of his speech, Bomberger reminded the audience, “You cannot ever forget the woman in this equation.”

Click here to see our full profile on Bomberger.

Jane Fuller

Jane Fuller

Jane Fuller

Jane Fuller, the executive director of Assist Pregnancy Center of Virginia, began her speech by discussing her choice to first drop the word “crisis” from the name of her organization and later to change the name of the organization to “Metro Women’s Care.” (Crisis pregnancy centers have been widely documented as presenting conservative, antichoice ideologies as “health care,” “supportive counseling.”) Fuller went on to contrast her clients’ descriptions of abortion clinics as “cold,” “dirty,” and as employing “indifferent staff” with her center, which she claims is “geared towards the age group we are trying to reach,” namely young people.

Fuller then praised a new Virginia law,  which requires women to receive an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before having an abortion, and discussed how this law has led to an increase in the number of women at her pregnancy center.  Virginia’s ultrasound law is part of a larger, coordinated strategy to pass incremental restrictions on abortion—primarily at the state level—in order to chip away at women’s reproductive freedom and ultimately to overturn Roe.  Like Bomberger, Fuller also accused Planned Parenthood of exploiting women, stating, “Anyone who can take infanticide and promote it as quality healthcare knows how to manipulate.”  She called on activists to shift their focus from the unborn baby to the pregnant mother and to “focus on her and her needs.” Fuller’s rhetorical maneuvering mirrored that of Goodman and Bomberger.

All three speakers seek to co-opt the language of women’s rights in order to reframe antichoice policies as authentic feminism and, in the case of Ryan Bomberger, racial justice. Even though the antichoice movement’s strategies may be retooling for the 21st century, with social media integration and prayer smartphone applications, many of their messages are thinly veiled forms of arguments that have circulated for 41 years since the Roe v. Wade decision—arguments now veiled beneath the disguise of women’s rights and racial justice.

**Owen Jennings contributed to this article

PRA’s Rachel Tabachnick Discusses Reproductive Autonomy in Rolling Stone

PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick is appearing in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine, discussing how the Religious Right has successfully integrated its unpopular social agenda into the broader conservative economic agenda.

Check out the excerpt below, and click here to read the full article “The Stealth War on Abortion.

Rolling Stone logoKoch money, through various “social welfare” organizations it supports, has helped fund a significant part of the pro-life agenda, even though the Koch brothers, like Pope, have never taken a personal interest in reproductive politics, and David Koch has even stated his support for marriage equality. “They know the policies they want wouldn’t be attractive to enough people unless they also included the social-conservative policies, so what’s happened is they’ve merged the social and economic agenda into a single product,” says Rachel Tabachnick, an associate fellow at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. “This is not new, it’s a project that goes back decades,” she says, “and it’s one in which the war on reproductive rights is a non-negotiable part of the deal.”

Connecting the fiscal and social agendas into a single, conservative “worldview” has been the goal of conservatives since the Reagan era. To outsiders, the Tea Party, with its focus on cutting taxes and spending, might seem to rule the party. But looks can be deceiving. Evangelicals, long outsiders in the GOP power structure, now hold large sway in the party through organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. “I’d say it’s kind of baked into the cake,” Ralph Reed, the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said recently on MSNBC.

“This is what progressives don’t understand,” says Tabachnick. “The public is so obsessed with the big battle between Democrats and Republicans that they miss the larger philosophical and legal underpinnings developed by this permanent think-tank structure that has been working behind the scenes for years. And now they’re in a place where regardless of what’s happening with the Supreme Court, they are ready to maximize every opportunity because of the extremely well-funded partnership between the free-marketeers and the religious right that’s helping to overhaul the country from the bottom up.”


finalfrontierRolling Stone‘s article makes several mentions of the “State Policy Network,” a national group of well-funded conservative organizations dedicated to swaying the national political scene through influence in state legislatures. Senior PRA fellow Fred Clarkson recently published a thorough exposé on the danger of the State Policy Network’s influence. You can read “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics” by clicking here.

Following the Money: A Template for Oppression

David and Charles Koch Image courtesy of

David and Charles Koch
Image courtesy of

These days, it seems everyone is familiar with the billionaire conservative Koch brothers (to some level or another). Their influx of excessive cash into our political system has resulted in both the Tea Party as well as Citizens United. At their basic level, David and Charles Koch are libertarians who back measures which will allow them to conduct business with as minimal government regulation as possible.

So why have they spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the anti-choice cause? Especially considering they previously have donated large sums of money to stem cell research?

The answer is simple and shouldn’t be all that surprising: it’s good for business.

While the Kochs may not really believe in the rights of medically non-viable fetuses, by claiming this belief with organizations such as Freedom Partners, Americans for Prosperity, and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, the Kochs gain access to far more support than they would if they limited their agenda to their primary cause of business deregulation.

A report by Adele M. Stan of RH Reality Check details the complex and secretive flow of millions of anti-choice dollars coming from the Koch brothers, which then go through pass-through organizations [also known as “secret banks” due to their 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) statuses], and eventually filter down to anti-choice organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), Americans United for Life Action (AUL Action), and the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC).

Just as important as the investigative details provided by Stan are the overarching implications of such behavior. We would be mistaken to view this flow of money as an isolated problem, unique to the reproductive health realm of human rights. Rather, this one instance is indicative of a larger problem. From reports like Stan’s, we can begin to build a template that helps us better understand both the mobilization of conservative voters and the subsequent disenfranchising of women, children, and many types of minorities.

When “philanthropists” or any sort of big spenders give money to politically driven (and overwhelmingly conservative) groups in order to forward their own agendas, they unleash such groups’ ability to spend as freely as they care to. Such spenders enable organizations which might otherwise struggle to gain footing, allowing them to better mobilize, advertise, self-promote, donate, and support candidates and campaigns. This generally ensures their political message will be widespread. These organizations, already apt at appealing to the religious beliefs of prospective supporters, can now use their wallets to do so as well.

The Kochs and others are opportunists. As was observed during a recent phone conference centered on Stan’s report, “[religiously driven voters] are going to take their pound of flesh, and the Koch brothers are happy to enable them.”

The collateral of these practices is truly devastating. At the feet of the Koch brothers, we see women stripped of their basic right to healthcare. When looking towards other areas of social justice, we should consider this: virulently anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is a 501(c)(4) and currently under IRS investigation; almost half of the National Rifle Association’s programs are 501(c)(4)s; and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS [also a 501(c)(4)] spent over $20 million on ads during the 2010 Senate elections.

This all leads to the question: what can we do to stop this? The IRS is already looking into many of these organizations, but their progress is slow due to accusations this past summer that they have specifically targeted Tea Party aligned groups.

There is still work that can be done outside of the IRS by the public.

Investigative research and reports like Stan’s help inform the public about the inner workings and manipulative behavior of donors like the Koch brothers. We need substantive details in order to understand the larger picture. Every time behavior like this is uncovered and thoroughly researched, we have another opportunity to better understand the way the system is being used to both profit the abusers and harm others.

For example, an emerging consistency is larger organizations starting “action” arms that are specifically 501(c)(4), while the organization as a whole remains a 501(c)(3).  Among others, the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, Americans United for Life, and the Family Research Council do this.

Legal Fights
Organizations like Freedom Partners and CCAP have not always been able to keep their donors anonymous. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision is the primary thing that allows corporations to file for tax-exempt statuses under which they do not have to reveal their donors. Applications for 501(c)(4) status more than doubled after this ruling. The 501(c)(4) Reform Act of 2013, which has been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means, would amend the 2010 ruling in hopes of ensuring that such corporations cannot heavily influence politics as they have been for the past three years. Urging support for this is essential.

Information is power. Ideally, people should look into a groups’ financials and inner workings before they give their money or any other form of support. This folds back into both the research and legal standpoints because the two are essential tools that promote the ability to make empowered decisions. It may be quite obvious, but the more widespread and available this information is, the more empowered people there will be.

Perhaps most important to take away from all this is to always remain curious and question the source of money—whether it is where it is coming from or where it is going, the devastating impact is undeniable.

Issue Brief: This Month in Reproductive Justice

reproductive health SLIDE

Every Friday, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue. This week, we are recapping the last month in Reproductive Justice.

One Court Strikes Down Texas Anti-Abortion Restrictions, Another Reinstates
On Monday, a federal district court struck down a provision of the recent restrictions on Abortion rights Texas had set to go into effect on October 29th. The restrictions, signed into law on July 18th by Governor Rick Perry, required physicians that provide abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital. The proposed restrictions caused an instant political and media backlash, most notably when State Senator Wendy Davis held an 11-hour filibuster to block the vote on the measures. Although state legislators claimed the provisions were meant to protect the health of women, they were widely condemned as an attempt to deny abortion coverage to over a third of all women in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Texas population opposed the restrictions, and medical experts across the country claimed it would provide no medical benefits, and would in fact “jeopardize women’s health and safety.” In the ruling, the judge noted that the law had “no rational relationship to improved patient care.” While the ruling was a victory for reproductive rights, the ACLU reported that ‘less than an hour after the decision, the state of Texas had already filed its appeal” against the federal ruling. On Wednesday, a panel of three judges (all George W. Bush appointees) granted Texas’ request for a stay on the lower courts ruling, effectively placing the restrictions back into place for now.

Outrage Erupts in England Over Gender-Based Abortions
Christian groups across England are planning lawsuits against two doctors who arranged for the abortion of female fetuses for parents who had wanted boys. Over the past year, the Daily Telegraph began an undercover investigation of abortion clinics, secretly filming doctors that “agreed to terminate fetuses for sex selection purposes.” The investigation caused a media uproar across the country and a subsequent investigation by the British Government. On October 7th, the Government announced it would not charge the doctors, claiming the Abortion Act of 1967 “does not expressly prohibit gender specific abortions.”, and held a debate in parliament over the issue two days later. Numerous anti-choice groups have begun preparing lawsuits against the doctor

In El Salvador, A Miscarriage Can Lead to Jail Time
El Salvador is currently one of five countries to have a total ban on abortion, and outlaws abortions even in cases of rape or when a mother’s health is at risk. The controversial ban sparked worldwide attention this summer when government officials refused to let a dying woman have an abortion, even after it was determined that the baby had no chance of survival. A report by BBC News this past Thursday found from 2000 to 2011, over 200 women have been accused of using a miscarriage as cover up for a suspected abortion. 49 of these women were convicted of murder, with prison sentences ranging from 12 to 35 years. The report also underlines that all the accused women came from the public health sector, and were “overwhelmingly poor, unmarried and poorly educated.” Not a single case started from the private health sector, where it is estimated that thousands of abortion procedures take place annually. Defense Attorney Dennis Munoz Estanle, who represented 29 of the convicted women in court, says these women were used by a criminal justice system “that needs women to make examples of.”

New Abortion Restrictions in Ohio Push Legal Boundaries, Closes Clinics
Since the appointing of Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis to the state medical board in 2011, Ohio has passed extensive restrictions on abortion clinic procedures.  Under one of the new restrictions, public hospitals are barred from making transfer agreements with clinics, resulting in clinics across the state being unable to find a willing private hospital to sned patients to in the case of an emergency. In the past month, two more clinics have closed while another clinic appeals a state order to close, bringing the overall total to five clinics closed in 2013, leaving only nine remaining in Ohio. Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a challenge to these new restrictions in state court, arguing that they violated the “single subject” rule in the Ohio Constitution since the restrictions were passed through an unrelated budget bill. Pro-Choice advocates say these restrictions as tip-toeing federal law by both limiting access to abortions, and shaming the women who enter clinics through questionable methods. Starting this month, abortion clinics in Ohio are required to ask all patients if they would like to see an ultrasound of the fetus and feel its heartbeats.

Documentary Highlights Risks For Physicians Who Perform Late-Term Abortions
Earlier this month, the documentary After Tiller was released, which profiles the four doctors remaining in the U.S who “still openly offer the controversial third-trimester procedures,” following the murder of Dr. GeorgeTiller in 2009. Third-trimester abortions are a highly controversial procedure, opposed by many on both sides of the abortion debate, who view them as being too close to childbirth. Tiller, who performed third-trimester abortions through his clinic in Kansas, was shot to death during a service at his local church by an anti-choice radical. Instead of focusing on the political debate surrounding abortion, the documentary highlights the every day risks these doctors face and the emotional toll inflicted on both them and their patients. To little surprise, the ProLife Action Leaguestill found a way to be offended by the politically neutral film, claiming it was filled with “contradictions and moral blindness.”

Annual “1 in 3” Aims to Directly Confront the Stigma of Abortion
October 22nd marked the beginning of the 1 in 3 Campaign Week of Action, a grassroots campaign put together by the Advocates for Youth organization. The campaign aims to show the American public that abortion is more mainstream than people realize, while confronting the negative stigma associated with abortion that “continues to impact women’s experiences with their reproductive health.”The campaign takes its name from recent studies that show about 1 out of 3 mothers will have an abortion at some point in their lives. Despite being a common health care procedure, many of these women are fearful to openly talk about their experience. The organization believes the fear to speak out is directly associated with the increased attacks on women’s reproductive rights. The campaign centers around the stories of many women who have bravely shared their testimonies in a new book published by the organization to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade, which made the right to have an abortion legal across the country.

House Republicans Attempt to add “Conscience Clause” to Obamacare
In a last second move, the GOP-controlled congress attempted to add a provision to the Affordable Care Act during their most recent attempt to defund the law. Under the new ACA guidelines, companies with over 50 workers are required to provide insurance plans which cover contraception coverage. Though religious organizations are exempt from this requirement, it was not enough to satisfy House Republicans. Just days before the federal government shut down, conservatives added a “conscience clause” to their funding bill. The move was seen by many as as a symbolic attempt to add their social views into the battle over Obamacare, despite having little relevance to the overall debate and no chance of being passed.

Nebraska Court Rules Teenage Girl “Too Immature” to Have An Abortion
On October 4th, the Nebraska Supreme Court denied a 16-year-old girl’s request for an abortion, claiming she lacked the maturity to make the decision by herself. State law requires pregnant women under 18 to obtain written consent from a parent or guardian before they can have an abortion. The young woman in this case, who became pregnant in May, was placed in foster care months earlier after the parental rights of her biological parents were terminated on the grounds of abuse. Upon becoming pregnant, the woman requested a consent waiver from the state, fearing her foster parents would refuse due to their religious beliefs. The court ruled she was not mature enough to make the decision on her own since she was dependent on foster parents, despite not being her legal guardians. Attorney Catherine Mahern, who represented the young girl, noted this story is only one example in an alarming trend. “The real story here is how many girls in foster care are getting pregnant,” she said. “It’s shameful.” According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute in 2011, 33 percent of women in foster care become pregnant before the age of 18, over double the national average at 14 percent.

Lawsuit Challenges Fetal Protection Laws In Wisconsin
This past July, a pregnant woman was arrested in Wisconsin after informing her doctor of a previous drug addiction, on the grounds of “endangerment to her unborn child.” Under a 1998 state law known as the “cocaine mom” act, welfare authorities can confine a pregnant woman who uses drugs and alcohol to “a severe degree and refuses treatment.” Despite years of sobriety, which was validated by a urine test, the doctor and a local social worker informed the police of the woman’s prior drug problems. Upon being arrested, she was brought to the county commissioner, who disregarded her plea for a lawyer, though “the court had already appointed a legal guardian for the fetus.” She was ordered to attend a drug treatment center for 78 days. In response to the ruling, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women filed a federal suit against the state on October 2nd, arguing the law is unconstitutional. In their official statement, the group argues that the law “deprives women of physical liberty, medical privacy, due process and other constitutional rights,” and creates a nature of fear around pregnant women seeking care. The suit also notes hundreds of similar cases, in which “low-income and minority women affected disproportionately.” Wisconsin is currently one of four states with similar fetal protection laws.

Local GOP Party Backtracks After Comparing Abortion to Slavery
On the morning of October 30th, the Republican Party of Chisago County, Minnesota posted a meme depicting a slave auction with the caption “Pro-Choice. Against Slavery? Then dont buy one.” The picture caused an instant media backlash and the group deleted the meme the same afternoon. In a statement responding to the controversy, the Party refused to name who created the picture, but noted they were “very sorry that something so clearly improper (either intended or in poor taste) ever made it to our page”, and that the Republican party “believes in Freedom for all Americans regardless of race or religion. It is after all where the Republican Party came from in its origins, the anti-slavery movement.” But not everyone was offended by the piece though. Minnesota Republican Party Secretary Chris Fields, who is African-American, told the local StarTribune that he saw “absolutely nothing offensive about that (Facebook) post.”




Profiles on the Right: Operation Rescue

operation rescue

Operation Rescue is a militant anti-choice organization functioning out of Wichita, Kansas. It was founded in 1986 by radical fundamentalist Randall Terry who united pro-life activists under the slogan “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” In the 1990s, the numerous groups espousing Operation Rescue’s ideologies coalesced and split into two distinctive groups: Operation Rescue West, which rose in prominence and later became known simply as Operation Rescue, and the more broadly-focused Operation Save America. There has been ongoing strife between founder Randall Terry and Operation Rescue president Troy Newman over the rights to the name Operation Rescue, which Newman currently possesses and Terry contests.

Before the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) in 1994, the Operation Rescue movement incited and lead sit-ins to block access to abortion clinics. The high point of its actions is considered to be the six-week event it titled the “Summer of Mercy in 1991.” By their own account, thousands of activists blocked the entrances to three abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas with over a thousand reported arrests. The event also featured the infamous Christian Right personality Pat Robertson, among other speakers. Since FACE, however, Operation Rescue and its affiliates have had to resort to more roundabout methods of opposition to abortion rights. Currently, a large part of their efforts to undermine women’s health centers is focused on discrediting existing clinics. Their website prominently features videos and articles citing instances of botched abortions, unsanitary conditions, and malpractice suits. Before his murder, Operation Rescue launched an all-out legal campaign against Dr. George Tiller over the course of seven years and protested his clinic heavily.

In 2002 Operation Rescue moved to Wichita, Kansas from California, and in 2006 it bought and closed an abortion clinic in town, turning it into their headquarters and a “memorial to the pre-born.” After the murder of Dr. George Tiller, Operation Rescue attempted to buy his clinic and turn it into a memorial as well, claiming it was “hallowed ground.” Dr. Tiller’s family closed the clinic permanently and their bid to purchase it ultimately failed. Two years after Dr. Tiller’s death, in partnership with Maryland Coalition for Life, they bought a property across from the Georgetown office of Dr. Leroy Carhart, his former colleague and fellow late-term abortion provider, and opened a sort of pro-life resource center that functions much like a crisis pregnancy center, luring women seeking abortion services away from unbiased care.

Although Operation Rescue has numerous statements on its website distancing itself from violent activities, including an entire page dedicated to statements denouncing their founder Randall Terry, their language and tactics are both aggressive and inflammatory and they should not be divorced from the statistics citing increased violence against abortion clinics. They prominently feature web links to Pro-Life America’s abortion provider database,, which lists the names, pictures, addresses, and phone numbers of abortion providers in the United States. They refer to clinics as “abortion mills,” clinic escorts as “deathscorts,” and abortion in America as the “American Holocaust.” Their website and many other public materials contain graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. They train “sidewalk counselors” to harass and divert women seeking care at abortion clinics.

Operation Rescue maintains a fleet of ten “truth trucks”—medium size trucks with large, graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and slogans on the sides. They appear along with protestors at any major event liable to draw a huge crowd, with special attention to gatherings of pro-choice supporters such as Planned Parenthood fundraisers or the Democratic National Convention. Their stated mission is twofold, both to “make the horror of abortion an unavoidable issue, and to make the Lord Jesus Christ paramount in our nation.” This mission is consistent with their endorsements of right-wing politicians who legislate based on thinly-veiled and narrow interpretations of Christian scripture. In 2006, its tax-exempt status was revoked by the IRS for violating prohibitions on electioneering by nonprofits.

Recently, Operation Rescue made headlines in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which it has named the “late-term abortion capital” of America to draw the attention of other like-minded pro-life groups. The New York Times published an article on the actions of Bud and Tara Shaver, trainees of Operation Rescue, who staged a protest at the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque, insisting that the museum include an exhibit on the “American genocide” of fetuses and distributing fliers with the faces and names of abortion providers in the area, a tactic which has also been used by Operation Save America. Operation Rescue and groups like it have been responsible for the tightening restrictions on abortion services and providers, and their involvement in politics should not be overlooked. An Operation Rescue defense lawyer, Richard Macias, was nominated and serves on Kansas’s Board of Healing Arts, which licenses and disciplines physicians in Kansas, and many more politicians are sympathetic to their cause.

Laying Siege to the Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi

By Michelle Goldberg
The Public Eye Magazine – Fall 2006

On Tuesday, July 18th, for the first time in ten years, protesters arrived on Dr. Joseph Booker’s block in Jackson, Mississippi. They went door to door, ringing bells and telling people that their neighbor, the state’s last abortion provider, is a baby killer. A few weeks before that, protestors showed up at the Raleigh, North Carolina, home of Susan Hill, the owner of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the clinic where Booker works. Soon the death threats started coming. “There is a feeling that things are ramping up,” Hill says. “The protestors that we see in various places are more vocal, screaming, not just protesting.” In her experience, clinic violence is often preceded by just this kind of heightened rhetoric.

The last abortion clinic in Mississippi is under siege. In mid-July, Operation Save America — previously known as Operation Rescue — held a week of protests outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The next week, another anti-abortion group called Oh Saratoga! commenced its own seven days of demonstrations. Impatient for a change in the Supreme Court, anti-abortion forces are determined to make Roe v. Wade functionally irrelevant in the state, and they believe they’re getting close

A decade ago, there were six clinics in Mississippi. Yet the combination of constant harassment and onerous regulations led one after another to shut down, and since 2004, Jackson Women’s Health Organization has stood alone. Closing it would be the biggest victory yet in the anti-abortion movement’s long war of attrition. This makes Mississippi an alluring target.

Operation Save America is not what it used to be and on the surface its Mississippi sojourn certainly didn’t look victorious. There were at most a few hundred demonstrators in Jackson. That meant that women coming to the clinic had to brave a gauntlet of shouting people, many holding massive photos of aborted fetuses. But this was a far cry from the days when Operation Rescue brought tens of thousands of protestors to cities like Wichita and Buffalo during the early 1990s, where they tried, and sometimes succeeded, in physically shutting clinics down.

Clinic blockades are far less frequent these days, due largely to both a public backlash and a legal crackdown. Not long after Operation Rescue’s most high-profile demonstrations, a number of abortion providers were murdered, and their deaths sent the militant wing of the movement into disrepute. Then in 1994, partly in response to the killing of Florida abortion doctor David Gunn, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. FACE makes it a federal crime to use “force, threat of force or physical obstruction” to block access to reproductive health services, and imposed prison sentences and fines up to $250,000. The law also allows clinics and health care workers to bring civil suits against violators.

“We’ve been sued for millions and millions of dollars,” says Flip Benham, the head of Operation Save America. A Texan with ruddy, sun-cured skin, and short brown hair, he has the hearty manner of a high school football coach. “Thanks to the media, we’ve been painted with the broad brush stroke of being violent folks because of a few loose cannons, who aren’t even Christian, who blew up abortion mills and killed abortionists. So what happens is, folks are afraid. There are new laws in place now that weren’t there in the 1990s, like FACE.”

The result has been a drastic decline in Operation Rescue’s fortune and its clout. As legal judgments piled up, Benham, who took over the group’s leadership in 1994, changed the group’s name to Operation Save America in an attempt to get out of paying. It didn’t work. “Planned Parenthood came into our office and confiscated every computer, every file, every piece of paper, every pencil that we had,” he says.

Yet Benham and his crew can still make life difficult for reproductive health workers in Mississippi. The protests create a constant, low-level state of emergency among the clinic’s staff, intimidate many of the patients, and add to the tension that plague doctors already living with the omnipresent threat of violence.

Hill owns five clinics throughout the country, and she has to be on constant alert. Over the years, her facilities have been subjected to 17 arsons or firebombings, as well as butyric acid attacks and anthrax threats. One of the doctors who was murdered, David Gunn, worked for her. “Fortunately we’ve been safer in the last few years for whatever reasons,” says Hill. “Thank God there haven’t been the shootings.”

By and large, the people who showed up in Jackson so far are not nearly as belligerent as their rhetoric. Historically, though, the doctors who’ve been targeted by protests — especially protests that demonize them personally — are the most likely to be assaulted or killed by extremists. “All we can say is, when protests at a clinic go up, that’s when there tends to be a shooting,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “There seems to be some link.” Many of the abortion providers who have been shot, including George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. George Patterson in Mobile, Alabama, Gunn and John Britton in Pensacola, Florida, and Barnett Slepian outside Buffalo, New York, were first the subject of repeated demonstrations and threats. Their names were put on hit lists and wanted posters, and information about them circulated throughout the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement.

Even if the movement’s extreme wing wasn’t represented in Jackson, it has some support there. The most faithful of the Jackson clinic demonstrators is a local man named C. Roy McMillan, who sees protesting abortion as his full-time job and says he’s been arrested 65 times. McMillan is one of thirty-four signatories to a 1998 statement that calls the murder of doctors who perform abortions “justifiable…for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.” He describes the late Paul Hill — the murderer of gynecologist Dr. John Britton and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Herman Barrett — as a friend.

So Dr. Booker has reason to worry. He’s long been one of the gynecologists singled out by militant anti-abortion forces. He’s been stalked repeatedly, and during the 1990s, he was put under the protection of federal marshals. “We were very fearful he was going to be killed,” says Smeal. He had a police escort during the recent protests, but if he’s fearful, he won’t admit it. A 62-yearold black man with a trim, white-streaked mustache and goatee, and a stud in his left ear, Booker says anti-abortion harassment has been increasing but he dismisses the protesters as “more bark than bite. If you don’t get intimidated, they get frustrated and don’t show up as much.” A Pittsburgh native who was educated in San Francisco, he describes himself as “a Yankee, pro-choice, outspoken, and black. And that’s a bad combination in Mississippi.”

Race is an omnipresent issue at the protests, though it shows up in unexpected ways. The clinic’s staff and most of the patients are black; the majority of the protestors are white. Still, the demonstrators see themselves as the heirs of the civil rights movement — they carry pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., compare the pro-choice movement to the KKK and call abortion “black genocide.” What they generally refuse to do, though, is support government measures that might ease the burdens of poverty in the state’s poor, black communities — or help women better control their reproductive lives. Mississippi’s high rate of unplanned pregnancies, says McMillan, is due to the “moral degeneration of the black culture, and I submit it’s caused by the welfare mentality.”

The protests are just one side of the vise that the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the women it serves are caught in. Both are also being squeezed by an ever-expanding panoply of anti-abortion legislation that’s made Mississippi the most difficult state in America in which to terminate a pregnancy. Even as the Jackson Women’s Health Organization hangs on, the state offers the country’s clearest view of the religious Right’s social agenda in action. It’s a harbinger of what a post-Roe America could look like.

On July 19, a white taxi that says “Choose Life” on its side pulled into the parking lot of the Jackson Women’s Health Center. Out jumped one of the clinic’s surgical technicians. Her boyfriend is a cab driver, and his boss, the owner of Veterans Taxi, has emblazoned the anti-abortion message on every car in his fleet. Opposition to abortion is everywhere in this state — more than an ideology, it’s part of the atmosphere. Recently, Mississippi came close to following South Dakota and banning most abortions; many expect it will do so during the next legislative session. The local government leads the nation in antiabortion legislation. Mississippi is one of only two states in America where teenagers seeking abortions need the consent of both parents, forcing some mothers to go to court to help their daughters override a father’s veto.

Many cars have “Choose Life” license plates; the state gives much of the proceeds from the plates to Christian crisis pregnancy centers. More than two-dozen such centers operate in the state. They look very much like reproductive health clinics, and they offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but they exist primarily to dissuade women from having abortions. Like other crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, those in Mississippi tell their clients that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, infertility and a host of psychiatric disorders, none of which is true. And although the women who come to them are virtually all both sexually active and unprepared for motherhood, they also counsel against contraception, believing that abstinence is the only answer for the unwed. At Jackson’s Center for Pregnancy Choices, which gets around $20,000 a year in money from the Choose Life plates, a pamphlet about condoms warned, “[U]sing condoms is like playing Russian roulette…In chamber one you have a condom that breaks and you get syphilis, in chamber two, you have an STD that condoms don’t protect against at all, in chamber three you have a routinely fatal disease, in chamber four you have a new STD that hasn’t even been studied…”

According to Barbara Beavers, a former sidewalk protestor who now runs the Center for Pregnancy Choices, as many as 40 percent of the pregnancy tests the center administer come back negative. Some of the women who take them live with their boyfriends, making a commitment to abstinence unlikely. But Beavers is unapologetic about her opposition to birth control, in part because she thinks a woman whose contraception fails might feel more entitled to an abortion. “They think, it wasn’t their fault anyhow, so let’s just go ahead and kill it,” she says.

Already, places like the Center for Pregnancy Choices are leading public dispensers of reproductive health advice in Mississippi. The schools teach either abstinence or nothing at all. Besides private physicians, the only places that provide birth control prescriptions are the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the offices of the State Department of Health.

For women seeking to avoid pregnancy, there are other hurdles. According to a survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation, of 25 pharmacies in Jackson, only two stock emergency contraception (EC). Even when the pharmacies do carry EC, individual pharmacists may refuse to dispense it; Mississippi is one of eight states with “conscience clause” laws protecting pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives. Dr. Booker says he has written several EC prescriptions, only to find his patients unable to fill them.

Not surprisingly, Mississippi has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, and the highest teenage birth rate. It is tied with Louisiana for America’s worst infant morality rate. According to The National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of the state’s children under 6 live in poverty. The immiseration of Mississippi’s women and children isn’t solely the result of diminished reproductive rights, of course. But it’s clear that enforced ignorance and lack of choices play a major role. “You would be surprised what they don’t understand about their own bodies,” Betty Thompson, the former director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, says about the clinic’s patients.

For the anti-abortion movement, though, Mississippi isn’t lagging behind the rest of the nation. Rather, it’s the vanguard. “We’re not waiting for the president, we’re not waiting for the Congress, we’re not waiting for the Supreme Court to be packed,” says Benham, the head of Operation Save America. “This issue can’t be won from the top down. When you’re on the streets and you see these battles won over and over again, when you see the statistics of abortion dropping, you begin to realize hey, this battle is being won.”

Indeed, the same strategy at work in Mississippi is being used all across the country. According to the National Abortion Federation, 500 state-level anti-abortion bills were introduced last year, and 26 were signed into law. The number of abortion providers dropped 11 percent between 1996 and 2000, and almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack abortion services.

Abortion rights won’t disappear in America in one fell swoop, and they can’t be protected by a single Supreme Court precedent. Congress’s ban on adults taking a minor who is not their child across state lines for an abortion, and South Dakota’s attempt to ban abortion outright, are making headlines. But the more gradual erosion of rights often escapes people’s view. Through a combination of militant street actions and punitive legislation, Roe v. Wade is being hollowed out from the inside. The right to an abortion doesn’t mean much if there’s no way to get one.

Michelle Goldberg is a contributing writer for and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.