In the TikTok video, the woman leans against a closed door, with her mouth passed practically up against the wood.
“Whatever you’re going through, whatever circumstances, we can help you,” she says. “We can help you and your child and your family with anything you need.” The camera pans down to the pink rose in one of her hands, which has a paper tag slipped around it that reads, “It’s not too late!”
The woman is Kristin Turner, the communications director for Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, according to the tags on the video. And she is, the video claims, standing in an abortion clinic—and there are patients seeking abortions on the other side of that door.
This is, in anti-abortion lingo, a “rescue” attempt, in which the activists storm an abortion clinic and try to convince pregnant people to change their minds right before they get an abortion. This decades-old tactic has largely fallen out of favor among anti-abortion groups in recent years, thanks in part to the chance of getting charged with a crime and fears that such in-your-face protests can easily spin out of control.
But on TikTok, they’re evidently making a comeback.
With abortion clinics overworked and closing down in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturning, and with teenagers increasingly using TikTok as a search engine replacement for Google, the question of how the app handles abortion has never been more pressing. And Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, a relatively new anti-abortion group, is using TikTok to try to bring back “rescues.” The group has posted multiple videos of abortion opponents walking up to or into clinics, distributing roses, and trying to interact with abortion patients, according to a report released Wednesday by the left-leaning watchdog Media Matters for America. The research for the report was conducted by Media Matters researcher Jasmine Geonzon.
Another video of an apparent “rescue” at a South Carolina abortion clinic was posted last week. Anti-abortion activists filmed themselves walking into the clinic, talking to at least one patient, and leaving them a rose with a message that included the phone number for the Abortion Pill Reversal Hotline, an organization that claims it’s possible to “reverse” a medication abortion. (This is an unproven theory; a study that attempted to determine whether the “reversal” protocol worked ended early when three participants started hemorrhaging so much blood they had to go to the ER.) The person who posted the video referred to the clinic staff as “psychos.”
Asked about the “rescue,” a receptionist at the South Carolina clinic told VICE News that the clinic had “no comment at this time.”
In other videos, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising members explain how different types of “rescues” work and compare their strategy to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement—a common comparison in the anti-abortion movement, which one expert told VICE News is “almost entirely white.”
“TikTok should take these down,” said Media Matters Research Director Julie Tulbert. “We think it is a possible violation of their community guidelines against users not posting content about ‘encouraging coordinated harassment,’ because that’s very much essentially what rescues are and what PAAU is encouraging, is for other people to go out and do the tactics that they’re doing.”
Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising’s videos and account do not violate the platform’s community guidelines, a TikTok spokesperson told VICE News.
Abortion-related activism has long garnered views on TikTok. Back in 2020, “pro-choice TikTok” exploded with videos of Gen-Z abortion rights activists who acted as “clinic defenders,” filming their tense exchanges with the anti-abortion protesters who regularly gathered outside a Charlotte, North Carolina clinic.
However, in those videos, both the clinic defenders and the anti-abortion activists appear to play by the rules of engagement in clinic protests: Everyone seems careful to stay either on or off clinic property, depending on what side they’re on. Activists who trespass may be charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act. That law carries hefty penalties for people who block, vandalize, or use their body to stop a patient from getting an abortion, among other offenses.
“No PAAU action has ever violated the FACE Act and PAAU has no intention of planning or violating any federal crimes,” Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising Executive Director Terrisa Bukovinac told VICE News in an emailed statement in response to a detailed list of questions for this story. In one video, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising acknowledges that a “potential FACE charge” may be a consequence of more intense “rescue” tactics.
“It’s silly to describe talking someone back from the ledge of a life-ending decision as ‘harassment.’ Following that logic, suicide intervention is also harassment. We have a right to show ourselves engaged in non-violent civil disobedience,” said another group member, Elise Ketch. Ketch added, “We have no moral or ethical obligation to acknowledge the property lines of a business that murders people for profit.”
The group’s most infamous member, Lauren Handy, was indicted on FACE Act charges last year for allegedly blockading a Washington, D.C. abortion clinic in 2020, before Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising formed. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and the trial is set for August, according to court documents filed earlier this month.
“You can’t arrest an idea,” Handy said in a statement when asked for comment on the case. “Rescue is unstoppable.”
The same day news of Handy’s indictment broke, Washington, D.C. police said they’d found five fetuses in her home. In a press conference, Handy and Bukinovac said that they obtained the fetuses from a medical waste company truck driver, who was loading biohazard waste boxes outside a D.C. abortion clinic; Bukinovac told VICE News that they alerted the police. Handy, who had bragged years earlier about “regularly dumpster diving” at an abortion clinic to retrieve fetuses for burial, and Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising have since turned “Justice for the Five” into a rallying cry, as they see the fetuses as proof of wrongdoing by an abortion provider.
Despite the splash of that revelation, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising is still not one of the major players in the anti-abortion world; it has just over 4,300 followers on TikTok. (The similarly youth-focused Students for Life has over 54,000 followers.) But it appears to be garnering support from far larger groups: The top comment on Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising’s video of the woman talking through the clinic door is from Live Action, a far more mainstream anti-abortion group with millions of social media followers. Bukinovac said that she, Turner, and Handy all served jail sentences after that “rescue,” which took place in November 2021.
Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising is also making an intriguing pitch to young, would-be activists: You can be a liberal or a leftist, and oppose abortion. Its homepage includes colorful stickers that read “Black Lives Matter” and “trans rights,” alongside one that reads “protect the unborn” (complete with an image of a baby) and “direct action.”
Bukinovac said on a podcast last year that she’d been working with Randall Terry, who’s best known for leading the controversial anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, Operation Rescue organized massive protests that ground clinic operations to a halt and led to more than 70,000 arrests. The New York Times compared their protests to sieges.
“I have come to the conclusion that it’s time to bring the rescue movement back,” Bukinovac said on the podcast. (Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising now uses the hashtag #BringBackRescue and #operationrescue on TikTok.)
Turner, the woman in the “rescue” video, was cited and released last year after she and a group of other anti-abortion activists allegedly snuck into the Women’s Options Center at San Francisco General Hospital and, Turner told the San Francisco Chronicle, “gave roses to people considering abortion.”
“Four people allegedly invaded the Women’s Options Center by using a woman who pretended to be in need of counseling to illegally gain access,” the San Francisco district attorney’s office said in a statement about the incident. When a nurse approached, the anti-abortion activists “barged into the clinic and began filming patients and staff. Staff reported that these protesters were attempting to barge into operating rooms.” They also allegedly chanted the clinic doctor’s name and said, “We know who you are, we know what you do.”
The district attorney’s office said that the activists also went to the doctor’s home and placed stickers over the doctor’s front door and at neighbors’ houses that read, “A killer lives in your neighborhood.”
“Flyers were also distributed, displaying a QR code that led to a website that specifically named the doctor, provided false, inflammatory claims about abortion procedures, and attacked the doctor for providing abortion services,” the district attorney’s office said. “The doctor was frightened for their safety and the safety of their family, given that the doctor was targeted at both their home and work. The doctor was forced to change their entire personal routine and route to work out of fear for their safety.”
Turner told the Chronicle that the activists had recorded the encounter, but said that they typically blur out patients’ faces. (In videos posted to Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising TikToks, patients’ faces appear to be regularly blurred.) She told VICE News that no one had proven that the information in the flyers was inaccurate, that the district attorney’s office “speaks without knowledge of the situation in question,” and that she had been accused of “serious crimes for participating in ordinary nonviolent direct action tactics that are popular in the Bay Area.”
Bukinovac also told VICE News that she and Turner are not guilty of the civil charges the two are now facing in San Francisco and that the flyering is protected by the First Amendment. Their court date is tentatively set for May.
In 2021, the most recent year for which the National Abortion Federation has data, the federation found that reports of stalking of abortion providers increased by 600 percent, vandalism by 54 percent—including incidents where people fired bullets through clinic windows—and bomb threats by 80 percent, compared to 2020. In total, there have been at least 11 murders, 42 bombings, and nearly 500 assaults directed against abortion patients, providers, and the volunteers who help them, according to statistics from the National Abortion Federation.
“We unequivocally denounce the use of violence on both practical and moral grounds,” Bukinovac said, adding that all Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising activists sign non-violence pledges before actions.
Calla Hales, who runs abortion clinics in North Carolina, told VICE News that her Charlotte clinic was recently the subject of a “rescue” involving two young anti-abortion activists. It was the first “rescue” her clinic had ever experienced, but Hales said it had next to no impact. Her clinic is regularly protested by hundreds of people, and so this “rescue,” she said, was “deeply unserious.”
But the potential impact of posting these stunts on social media gives her pause.
“They’re being posted into these little vacuums, right?” Hales said of the videos of alleged rescues. “The people that are watching those think they’re successful. They think they’re great. There’s a potential to do harm in that, by inciting the wrong person or recruiting that wrong type of people, that actually do believe in these types of things.”
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