How White Nationalists Are Hijacking the Anti-Abortion Movement

The growing overlap between anti-abortion activism and far-right extremism has started to spill into the real world in high-profile ways.

On New Year’s Eve, a fire ripped through the last Planned Parenthood in East Tennessee, turning the Knoxville abortion clinic into a hunk of rubble. As the ruins smoldered, some anti-abortion activists and members of the far-right celebrated online.

A Telegram meme account affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang, responded to the literal fire with a string of fire emojis. “Aww, what a shame,” they wrote. “That will set their genocidal plans and baby parts market back for months.”


“I don’t know how the fire started, but I think we can all agree that the fire was more effective than any amount of anti-abortion marches, protests, fliers, websites, podcasts, videos, donations,” wrote another Telegram user. 

The day after the fire, a private Telegram channel by the name of “Aryan Arsonist” posted, “This could be you. It's so easy it’s laughable. Burn abortionists.” 

Local authorities soon determined that the fire was, in fact, arson. The “Aryan Arsonist” channel was removed for violating Telegram’s terms of service.

A few weeks later, the youth-oriented white nationalist group Patriot Front showed up to anti-abortion rallies in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Members of a similar group, America First, also appeared at the D.C. rally. And last summer, members of the Proud Boys provided “security” for an Oregon anti-abortion event, hosted by a pastor whose organization also has a presence in Knoxville. It’s undeniable: The growing overlap between anti-abortion activism and far-right extremism has started to spill into the real world in high-profile ways.

The Venn diagram between far-right extremists and anti-abortion activists has been partly driven by Christian nationalism, which believes that God intended the U.S. to be a fundamentally Christian nation and that immigration, vaccines, and abortion threaten American values. This fusion of hard-line Christianity with patriotic fervor enjoyed a renaissance during Donald Trump’s presidency; his years in the White House, experts told VICE News, fueled a rise in Christian nationalism. That ideology functions as a gateway drug to draw mainstream abortion opponents into the far-right.


“They might hear this stuff, but they might not know how to understand the rhetoric behind it and just think it’s about patriotism,” said Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to mainstream anti-abortion activists. “And the next thing you know, they’re following some white supremacist dude.”

Public-facing and internal chats from far-right extremist groups suggest that their interest in the politically connected anti-abortion world may also be driven by a desire to attract new recruits and make friends in high places.

The breakdown of barriers between the extreme right and mainstream GOP also comes at a critical juncture for the anti-abortion movement, as the Supreme Court is likely just months away from gutting Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. If the millions-strong movement no longer has to focus on dismantling Roe, experts fear that it could splinter and its adherents could become more hardline, even violent—particularly since activists’ policies and tactics have already drifted further rightward and violence against abortion providers is now on the rise.

“The anti-abortion movement, over time, has not always been a peaceful movement either,” said Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. In the 1980s and ’90s in particular, abortion clinics and providers were targeted with bombings and assassinations by fanatics. “The appearance of groups that either are associated with violence or are shoulder to shoulder with people who are is certainly an escalation in anti-abortion politics,” Belew added. 


One of the living legacies of that history, convicted clinic bomber John Brockhoeft, was among those cheering at the Knoxville Planned Parenthood clinic’s destruction—and one of the many anti-abortion personalities who showed up at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“Investigators said that in this case the building was so utterly destroyed they may never be able to determine the cause,” Brockhoeft wrote in a Dec. 31 Facebook post, alongside a story about the fire. “As cheered up as I already am, I hope they’ll be able to prove it was arson.”

Almost every January, pandemic permitting, thousands of young anti-abortion activists swarm the streets of Washington, D.C., demanding the end of legalized abortion. It’s the March for Life, the anti-abortion crowd’s Coachella—except the acts tend to include the archbishop of the Kansas City archdiocese instead of Beyoncé. 

This year, a handful of young men holding crucifixes, waving “America First” flags, and chanting “Christ is king” joined their ranks

They were “Groypers,” supporters of Nick Fuentes, a 23-year-old white nationalist livestreamer who marched in Charlottesville at Unite the Right and has just been subpoenaed for his alleged role in the Capitol riot. 

There’s no question that Fuentes is a white nationalist. Still, he strategically touts himself as a Christian nationalist to gain legitimacy within mainstream political movements and drag the conversation toward the fringes. 


“Christian nationalism really provides a bridge between the mainstream right and the white nationalist movement, so they can lean on the language of the Christian nationalism movement to propagandize and socialize people to their beliefs,” said Cassie Miller, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The patriarchal movement wants to subvert women and put their bodies under the control of men, and it believes that women's roles are as a mother and a homemaker, but that abortion is also part of the plan to commit genocide or the Great Replacement.”

Abortion—the idea that people, in this case white women, can choose to end their pregnancies—is anathema to this position. 

One day after his followers joined the March for Life, Fuentes lambasted the anti-abortion movement’s largest annual gathering as weak. 

“I support the March for Life, but let’s not pretend the leadership of the March and the pro-life movement in general haven’t set the anti-abortion cause back with their shameful capitulation to second wave feminism. There’s no teeth in it at all,” read a post Fuentes shared on his Telegram channel, which boasts 45,000 followers, from another channel called the “Classical Theist.” 

“And the next thing you know, they’re following some white supremacist dude.”


Fuentes regularly uses his platform to spew racism, antisemitism, and misogyny. One of his recurring themes is the “white genocide” conspiracy theory. “If you are a white male zoomer, remember that the people in power hate you and your unborn children and they will try to genocide you in your lifetime,” he tweeted last year. 

By aligning himself with Christianity and “traditional values,” Fuentes has successfully established high-profile political allies. One of them is Republican Arizona congressman Paul Gosar, who was the keynote speaker at the 2021 America First Foundation’s conference “AFPAC” and recently defended Fuentes as a “young conservative Christian.” 

Fuentes and his ilk are largely the byproduct of the highly politicized Trump era. The former president was, and continues to be, worshiped by many of his followers as a Christlike figure, imbuing polarizing social issues with even more urgency. The issues weren’t seen as matters of “left” versus “right” but as primordial battles between good and evil, real Americans and treacherous infidels. And these same cultural forces led thousands of angry Trump supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Pastor Ken Peters, another Christian nationalist leader, spearheads a network of so-called Patriot Churches and has used it to spawn a multi-state anti-abortion group known as the Church at Planned Parenthood. The organization describes itself as “a worship service at the gates of Hell”—that is, a protest at Planned Parenthood. 


One of their protest sites was the now-demolished Planned Parenthood clinic in Knoxville. Peters told Rolling Stone that his organization was totally unconnected to the fire.

“I pray no one was hurt in the fire, that any criminals be prosecuted, and that abortion completely end in America,” Peters tweeted the day of the fire. “Do it, Lord.”

It’s difficult to determine whether far-right leaders are seriously committed to the issue du jour—in this case, abortion—or if they’re just looking to boost their brand and lure new members. Optics-savvy, opportunistic far-right groups have repeatedly found ways to exploit the deep divisions and national upheaval around the pandemic, resulting in the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric and the ideological symbiosis of conservative politics with the far-right fringe.

Last month, uniformed members of the preppy, fitness-obsessed white nationalist group Patriot Front gatecrashed two separate March for Life events, in Chicago and Washington, D.C., carrying a flag that read “Strong Families Make Strong Nations.” In a leaked audio recording posted by Atlanta antifascists in December, Patriot Front leader Thomas Rousseau can be heard assuring members that they’d be warmly received by anti-abortion activists on the ground. 


Members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front march on Constitution Avenue near the National Archives in Washington, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

“Do not worry too much, because these are going to be very well planned, and we will be among friends at these events,” Rousseau said. “These people at these March for Life events have really come to support us over the years.” It’s not clear if Rousseau was telling the truth about having built allies within the mainstream March for Life movement, or if he’d even had any contact with event organizers beforehand. 


But leaked chats from Patriot Front’s private servers obtained by antifascists and published by media collective Unicorn Riot did offer a glimpse into how Rousseau, an obsessive micromanager and propagandist, instructed members to adjust their conduct to make them seem more approachable. “The aim is to be more understated, friendly, in smaller groups, and get as many flyers out as possible,” Rousseau wrote in December. 

They had mixed success blending into the crowd. In Chicago, anti-abortion activists confronted the group, demanding that they lower their shields and calling them “an embarrassment.” In Washington, D.C., they found a few sympathizers. “Dope flag,” one March attendee told a Patriot Front member handing out flyers, according to a video of the interaction. “Stay safe, guys,” said another. 

But overall, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. A police escort created physical distance between Patriot Front members and the main march. Long before the march had ended, Patriot Front peeled off and left the city via public transport or rented U-Hauls. 

Afterward, the president of March for Life released a statement condemning “any organization that seeks to exclude a person or group of people based on the color of their skin or any other characteristic.”


“Part of the success of the anti-abortion movement has been in obscuring the links between the mainstream and the fringe.”

Patriot Front leadership certainly treated the March for Life events as recruitment and propaganda opportunities. However, the leaked chats revealed that many rank-and-file members and prospective applicants hold strong views on abortion—and suggested that their radicalization journey started with anti-abortion activism. 

“The white power movement and the militant right has shown over and over again, when it faces issues that are highly popular and highly charged, like anti-abortion activism, many times they will just use that as an opportunistic galvanizing strategy rather than as a site of heartfelt belief,” Belew said. 

And that strategy has worked. One 22-year-old Patriot Front applicant from Texas identified himself as a Christian nationalist and said he’d previously been an active member of the Church at Planned Parenthood, Christian nationalist Ken Peters’ anti-abortion group. A 23-year-old from Colorado told interviewers that he attended March for Life three years in a row, between 2018 and 2020. A 28-year-old from Arizona, who described himself as a Christian first and a National Socialist (neo-Nazi) second, said he “despised” Margaret Sanger for founding Planned Parenthood. 


The Proud Boys have also spied opportunity in the anti-abortion movement. Since the Jan. 6 insurrection, they’ve been on a national PR tour, drumming up local support around a range of social issues. (At least 40 members of the group are facing charges for the Capitol riot.) In Salem, Oregon—which has emerged as a hotspot for political violence and been the backdrop to several bloody brawls between far-right groups and leftists—they’ve provided “security” for the Church at Planned Parenthood, offering to protect the event from “antifa.”

“We have the Proud Boys across the street,” Peters, from the Church of Planned Parenthood, said in a livestream from one Salem event in July, turning the camera to a group of men in the group’s uniform. “Oh, my goodness, thank God for the Proud Boys.” At least two of those events last summer descended into violence, as Proud Boys joined by other far-right activists brawled with counterprotesters outside the clinic, resulting in several arrests. 

(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE in the mid-1990s. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys in 2016.)   

It’s hard to ascertain whether the Proud Boys in the Pacific Northwest genuinely care about abortion or whether, frankly, they were looking for another chance to brawl leftists. Some chapters, however, do seem to take a passionate stance on the issue. The Ohio Proud Boys chapter used their public-facing Telegram channel to go on a lengthy rant deploring the “barbarism in which our society finds itself” as a result of “mothers who, denying their very nature, agree to kill their own child” via abortion. 


Anti-abortion fanaticism, anti-government fervor, and white Christian movements have long orbited one another. When they’ve collided, they’ve proven to be dangerous, even deadly.

As long as there have been laws against abortion in the U.S., language about the need to “preserve whiteness” has been used to justify them. In the 1800s, concerns about maintaining “the reproductive capacity of Anglo-Saxon women” were used to justify criminalizing abortion across U.S. states. 

In 1994, once the modern anti-abortion movement had taken shape, the Ku Klux Klan hosted a rally to support a man who was eventually convicted of murdering an abortion provider. An Aryan Nations representative said fighting abortion was “part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.”

At some points, some white supremacists and abortion opponents were openly cozy.

In 1985, the Ku Klux Klan drew up “Wanted” posters for doctors who performed abortions; by the 1990s, abortion opponents were doing it too. After the murder of yet another provider in 1994, one prominent anti-abortion leader told the New York Times of the Klan, “Fundamentalist Christians and those people are pretty close, scary close, fighting for God and country. Some day we may all be in the trenches together in the fight against the slaughter of unborn children.”


Eric Rudolph, who was deeply immersed in the white supremacist Christian Identity sect, carried out at least four bombings between 1996 and 1998 that killed two people and injured more than 100. Two targeted abortion clinics. In his 2005 confession, Rudolph said he was trying to send a message about the “abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”

Rudolph and other anti-abortion hard-liners found sympathetic ears among white supremacist and armed “patriot” groups active at that time. A 1998 Southern Poverty Law Center report remarked that “these-once distinct movements increasingly share an enemies list that includes the federal government, homosexuals, abortion facilities, and non-‘Christian’ religions.” 

This history leaves anti-abortion activists, even those in the mainstream, susceptible to far-right talking points.

“The average person who is an anti-abortion person doesn’t know who Nick Fuentes is,” said Butler, the chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re just gonna look at people like him and others and say, ‘Well, they’re anti-abortion. My church says I should be pro-life. I don’t want to be pro-choice.’ You glom onto all of that stuff.”

Even within its own borders, the anti-abortion movement has spent much of the last few years moving toward the right. In the wake of Trump’s election, activists at the outskirts of the movement—who were often quicker to embrace Trump than the abortion opponents at the helm of top organizations in Washington, D.C.—pushed for bills that openly defied Roe and banned abortion early into pregnancy. State legislatures started to pass these bills, once dismissed as politically toxic. Now, one 15-week abortion ban is at the center of the case that could overturn Roe—a validation of fringe, hard-line policy.

“Part of the success of the anti-abortion movement has been in obscuring the links between the mainstream and the fringe,” said Karissa Haugeberg, an associate history professor at Tulane University who has studied the anti-abortion movement. “The fringe has always helped move the discourse farther to the right, and the center has appreciated that pull but has always had to pretend that they’re not a part of it.”

Today, the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue maintains a website listing names, photos, and business addresses of known abortion providers. A disclaimer says this information should only be used “to aid in the end of abortion through peaceful, legal means.”

As the U.S. finds itself in the throes of rising political violence and GOP policymakers increasingly cater to the fringe of anti-abortion politics, clinics and providers continue to find themselves in the crosshairs. The National Abortion Federation reported that in 2020, abortion providers reported increases in stalking, vandalism, and violence and death threats. In 2019, providers said they experienced 24 incidents of assault and battery; by 2020, that number had shot up to 54.  

“If you frame everything as an existential threat and a fight over good versus evil, you can really demonize your political opponents and make them seem not like political opponents but enemies,” said Miller, the Southern Poverty Law Center analyst. “We've seen them apply that frame to people like abortion activists or people who are advocating for vaccines. Public health officials. People who are pushing for inclusive education.”

“Then you can justify much more extreme action,” she added.

Almost a year before the Planned Parenthood clinic in Knoxville, Tennessee, went up in flames, someone fired a shotgun through its front door.

Tory Mills, director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, said that she felt safe at the Knoxville clinic. She never felt shy about telling people where she worked, and found that when she did, people responded positively.

But things have changed.

“That started to shift a little bit in the last few years, with the beginning of the Trump administration,” Mills said. “People [are] feeling emboldened to both say and act on some of these feelings, which, let’s be clear, have always been there but were starting to be seen to be OK to say out loud.”

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