Extremists Are Winning the War on Abortion

The rise of the radical anti-abortion movement has transformed statehouses, courts, and the White House. Experts worry violence will follow.
May 20, 2019, 3:27pm
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Photo by Finlay MacKay.

JACKSON, Mississippi — There is wailing and gnashing of teeth outside the Gates of Hell. Kneeling along the tarp-covered fence that surrounds Mississippi’s only remaining abortion facility are the men, women and children of Operation Save America, a deeply religious anti-choice group that’s been working for decades to end abortion in America. Quietly rocking on their knees, the asphalt cold on this early January morning, some members have put their foreheads to the ground while others are desperately grabbing the fence posts in front of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization.


Behind them, marching back and forth with arms outstretched, is Ante Pavkovic. He’s leading the group in prayer, and admonishing the congregation to protest more loudly. “You have to cry, guys!” he shouts. “So that the Lord takes heart and the devils inside hear you.”

“Think of the beautiful babies,” Pavkovic shouts. “The innocent lives being ripped apart and pulled from the womb. Receive the burden of the Lord and cry! Cry! Cry!”

A young woman kneeling with her forehead on the sidewalk begins to sob and Pavkovic gives a satisfied nod. “Good,” he says. “Keep it going. Some of us may need to look at pictures of aborted children again. That’s OK.”


Operation Save America protestors outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on January 23. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

The rest of the group starts murmuring more loudly, then shouting. Some are speaking in tongues. An older member of the OSA has prostrated himself in the driveway. Two small children sit next to their mother, watching with vague bemusement as she drives her fists into the air, cursing the pink structure behind the fence. “Please, Lord, close down this evil place! Shut down this shrine to Moloch!” she rails at the heavens.

The leader of OSA, Rusty Thomas, a squat bald man in his late 50s, is sporting for the occasion a jaunty, white cowboy hat. Thomas kneels a ways further down the phalanx of protestors, sobbing and babbling uncontrollably while his friend Chet Gallagher stands behind him and tries to force some sound from a ram’s horn. The Israelites used rams’ horns to crumble the walls of Jericho, but the Israelites must have used bigger — or holier — horns, because the walls of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization remain stubbornly intact.


OSA protestors kneel outside Mississippi's only abortion facility. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Earlier that day, a member of the congregation had asked me if I knew about Moloch, the god of child sacrifice. When I said no, he explained that Moloch is an ancient Canaanite deity who demanded child sacrifice and that every abortion clinic in America has a shrine to Moloch somewhere within its walls. He meant this quite literally. When members of OSA say that an abortion clinic is “a total hellhole,” they mean that the place is a literal conduit between the earthly realm and Hell, where Satan rules eternal.

He pointed at a triptych on one of the walls of the building. The panel on the left showed a couple bringing a small child to some kind of priest. In the middle panel, the couple and the child stood next to an angel with a sword, and in the last one, the smiling couple, sans baby, was walking away. The relief had been there since the building was used as an insurance office, but the demonstrators had latched onto it as proof of the building’s satanic use. “Tell me that’s not an illustration of child sacrifice,” the demonstrator said. I looked again at the blissful faces of the childless parents as they walked away from the heavily armed angel and had to admit the decoration wasn’t doing the clinic any favors.


The members of Operation Save America are considered extremists within the anti-choice movement in America. Rather than seeing themselves as pro-life, Operation Save America, in a shameless bit of appropriation, calls itself an abolitionist group. The blockades, pickets and sidewalk harassment they’ve become famous for are called “rescues.”


Anti-abortion protesters sing hymns outside the facility. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

The pro-life movement have spent almost half a century tinkering with gradual, political solutions, whittling away at Roe v. Wade and incrementally demolishing a woman’s right to govern her own body. In recent months, however, their work has become more overt: So far this year, 46 states have introduced more than 350 bills restricting abortion. Most recently, Alabama last week banned abortions at any stage of pregnancy unless a woman’s health is in grave danger. Two days later, Missouri passed a ban on abortions after eight weeks in nearly all cases. On May 7, Georgia banned abortions after a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. None of these laws make exceptions for survivors of rape or incest.

Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio have also voted in favor of so-called “heartbeat bills.” Since a heartbeat is often an early indicator of a pregnancy, these bills have been called an effective ban on abortion. You can’t abort what you don’t know is there, and once you know it’s there, it’s too late to abort it. And, because the states attacking abortion rights also have few clinics — in some cases, only one — getting an appointment quickly can be difficult or impossible. These challenges are, of course, all multiplied for women who are low-income or impoverished and may not be able to take time off from work or travel with little notice.


OSA supporter Alan Hoyle in front of the Mississippi State Capitol on January 22. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

While the legislation being passed will severely limit women’s rights, the pro-life approach may even seem moderate compared with “abolitionist” groups such as OSA and Abolish Human Abortion. They see no solution but the complete outlawing of abortion.

These groups represent a constant nuisance to abortion providers across the country. At best, they’re an inconvenience that clinics have learned to live with, using tall fences to try to keep the intruders out and volunteers to shepherd women in. At worst, providers perceive them as a danger to staff and patients, and a constant reminder of the often-deadly history of the anti-choice movement. What’s more, even as states around the country pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws, anti-abortion extremists are becoming more aggressive, and providers are facing even more threats.


“Hate mail and calls have skyrocketed in the last couple of years,” says Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers in America. According to their most recent numbers, internet harassment has risen exponentially, and picketing and obstruction have nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018, from about 54,000 incidents to 99,409 last year.


Hoyle argues with a clinic escort outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Even more strikingly, the more aggressive act of trespassing, when protestors make their way onto clinic property or force their way into the clinic itself, has soared from 78 in 2014 to a whopping 1,135 separate incidents in 2018. It’s a spectacular rise that, coupled with a dramatic shift in tone from politicians and leaders, has providers waiting for the next act of violence.

“The safety of our providers and the people who work with them is in danger,” Ragsdale says. “They put their lives and livelihoods on the line. Protestors target not only the providers but also their families. They go to their homes. They harass their children.”

Recent months have seen several instances of threats and violence against abortion providers. On March 2, Wesley Brian Kaster was charged with arson in connection with a fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Missouri. Kaster pleaded not guilty. In November, Maria Terry, a St. Louis woman, tweeted, “I'm gonna blow Up ALL YOUR FACILITIES AND CUT THE EYES OUT OF YOUR DOULAS." Terry later pleaded guilty to one violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and one count of making a threatening statement on the internet. And last July, an unidentified would-be arsonist attempted to set fire to a Planned Parenthood clinic in California.


Mia Raven, a clinic worker and women’s rights advocate in Alabama, said she always checks her car for explosives before driving, never takes the same route to work two days in a row, never sits with her back to the door, and never, ever leaves her house without a concealed firearm.

Extreme as these measures might seem, they have been proven necessary over and over again.


Anti-abortion protestor Austin Pilgreen outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Since 1993, there have been at least 11 deaths attributed to anti-choice extremism, most recently a mass shooting in Colorado Springs that killed three people in 2015. In addition to this are myriad assaults, attempted murders, kidnappings, acid attacks and anthrax threats. Diane Derzis, the owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, once owned the New Woman, All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, which was bombed in 1998 by Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber. One person died, and Derzis still has the charred remains of the clinic door. She says that these acts of violence are not isolated incidents but a natural extension of the anti-choice struggle in America. According to her, the violence against abortion providers is completely predictable, and the leaders of the anti-choice movement are to blame.

“Eric Rudolph was a believer,” she says. “But nobody is born that way. They develop into it until all they need is a little push to send them over the edge.”


OSA supporter Frank Campana argues with a clinic escort outside Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

That push, according to many abortion providers, is now coming from the very top. Ever since taking office, President Donald Trump has been a vocal supporter of the anti-choice movement, and his rhetoric has become increasingly extreme, to the point where many now feel it presents a clear danger to abortion providers. On February 25, after the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, Trump lashed out at pro-choice Democrats, accusing them, without evidence, of “executing babies after birth.” In his February 5 State of the Union address, he referred to lawmakers in New York who apparently “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”

Statements like these have become staples during his rallies — at a May 13 rally in Panama City, Florida he warned about Democrats “aggressively pushing late-term abortion allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb” — but are wildly misleading. The law in question would require doctors to use any means available to save the life of a baby born alive during an abortion. However, a fetus is only viable at around 24 weeks, and only a small fraction of abortions are performed after 21 weeks — it was 1.3% in 2015, the last year for which the CDC has made date available. Of these, only a minuscule fraction showed signs of life at birth. These abortions are most often caused by severe deformities or other health issues with the fetus. As such, it would face a lifetime of pain and severe disabilities, and so the medical staff, in concert with the parents, will sometimes make the excruciating choice to swaddle the baby and let it die, rather than expose the child and family to the trauma of medical treatments that will only prolong suffering.


In February, Trump also took aim at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, claiming, again without evidence, that the governor had said he would “execute a baby after birth.” This, apparently, was a reference to comments Northam had made saying that “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

When asked to comment, White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd P. Deere wrote in an email that “Unlike radical Democrats who have cheered legislation allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth, President Trump is protecting our most innocent and vulnerable, defending the dignity of life, and called on Congress to prohibit late-term abortions.”

Clearly statements like these are designed to rally a base that cares deeply about the abortion issue. But there’s a larger concern that the words and ideas espoused by powerful people might lead to violence.

“The leaders of the anti-choice movement lie about the science of abortion, about the Bible and about the procedure itself,” says Ragsdale. “All in the service of demonizing and dehumanizing abortion providers. You create outrage and you point that outrage at those you have dehumanized. What do you think is going to happen?


OSA supporter Brandon Owen Hornick preaches at pro-choice supporters outside of Mississippi State Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Linking the words of leaders to acts of violence is tempting but tricky. Some pointed fingers at Trump after the bombing campaign of Cesar Sayoc, the man who sent pipe bombs to prominent members of the media and the Democratic Party, saying he was likely inspired by the president’s vendetta against the media and Democratic politicians. Others have said Trump’s many digs at the Jewish community makes him partly culpable for the massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.

It’s hard to know with certainty why anyone does anything, and one should be careful linking the rise in threats against abortion providers to Trump or any other pro-life leader just because he calls them baby killers. But there is certainly correlation.


Activity by anti-abortion extremists has spiked since Trump took office, Ragsdale says. “The number of threats, harassment, picketing and trespassing — everything. He’s doing what the anti-choice movement has always been doing, but from a far larger platform. He’s doing it for a crowd that is already incensed and that is willing to listen to him.”

“President Trump and the entire administration have and will continue to condemn all forms of violence,” Deputy Press Secretary Deere wrote to VICE News.

As much as the constant barrage of threats and abuse presents a danger and a nuisance to abortion providers and patients, most people, even the activists themselves, acknowledge that the fate of Roe v. Wade won’t be decided on a sidewalk outside an abortion clinic, the presence of satanic demons not withstanding. While the early anti-choice extremists in the immediate aftermath of the Roe decision made their displeasure known in the streets, through sit-ins, blockades, bombings and killings, the hard edge of today’s movement has shifted decidedly into the corridors of power.

“What people don’t realize is that Rusty and groups like Operation Save America are making big speeches and a lot of noise,” says Robin Marty, pro-choice activist and author of “Handbook for a Post-Roe America.” “But the real threat is how groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, Students for Life and the Alliance Defending Freedom have been putting people in the Trump administration. All these people have been working for years to end abortion, and now they are in the room.”


Anti-abortion protesters pray while Thomas preaches outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

But the radical anti-choice movement deserves much of the credit — or blame, however you want to look at it — for creating the modern evangelical movement in America. The abortion issue galvanized and rallied Protestants in the country in a way that nothing had before — but it took some prodding and pulling. The early days of the post- Roe anti-abortion movement was dominated by the Catholic Church. Protestants believed firmly in the second coming of Jesus Christ, and that until he arrived they should keep their heads down and be good Christians. When the Rapture inevitably came, good Christians would be lifted up and bad ones cast down to Hell. If abortion was a sin, then the sinners would be punished soon enough. Protestants had the afterlife to worry about.

It took the teachings of evangelical philosopher and anti-abortion activist Francis Schaeffer to bring his fellow Christians around in the late 1970s. “He appealed to their sense of theology like no one else had done,” says James Risen, co-author of “Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War.” “He played on a sense among Protestants of ‘blood guiltiness’ — meaning that they were guilty of sin for having ignored the abortion issue and having done nothing about Roe. They had left the issue to the Catholics, and as a result, they, too, had blood on their hands.”


Ever since, it has been an article of faith among GOP candidates and presidents to pay homage to the evangelical voting bloc that plays such an outsized role in putting them in office. Through issues like school prayer, same-sex marriage, and abortion, the GOP ensures that evangelicals feel heard and validated for their support, without necessarily actually delivering much. Reagan, arguably the first president carried into office by the newly politicized evangelical movement, was a perpetual disappointment to the movement, despite being seen by many evangelicals as only slightly less pious than Jesus. Likewise, neither George H.W. Bush nor his son G.W. were the anti-abortion crusaders the evangelical movement had hoped for. The evangelicals have, despite some success in curbing the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, largely failed at securing the prize that brought them together as a movement in the first place: a complete ban on abortion.

“Ever since Reagan, the GOP have had this delicate balancing act with the anti-choice movement,” continues Risen. “The party wants to pay just enough lip service to it to convince evangelicals, but they don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade because they know that will mobilize the opposition.”

There’s plenty of evidence, though, that this dynamic is shifting — and strangely enough, it is not a shift reflected in the general population. The public’s views on abortion have remained relatively stable for the last couple of decades. To a remarkable degree, the success of the anti-choice movement is manifested in electoral victories rather than popular opinion. Although 36% of Republicans believe abortion should be legal in most cases, there are now only two Republicans in the Senate who support abortion rights. And in the House, there are currently zero Republicans who support abortion rights.


Lady Parts Justice League protesters outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay Mackay.

If the GOP of a couple of years ago was skittish when it came to overturning abortion rights in this country, the current party leaders show no such aversion. Republican politicians and activists seem to have taken a throw-everything-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-approach to the fight. In what the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank dedicated to advancing reproductive rights, is calling “a surge,” states are enacting a host of anti-choice laws, each more draconian than the last, in an effort to curb abortion rights — including heartbeat bills, which have been signed by governors in four states.

On May 15, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law that would make performing an abortion punishable with up to 99 years in prison. In Texas, state representative Tony Tinderholt feels that a century in prison is too good for abortion doctors and has proposed a bill that would allow patients and doctors to get the death penalty. It was given a hearing in April.


And it’s not just laws being passed. The extreme fringe of the anti-choice movement has been granted unprecedented access to the White House under Donald Trump.

Trump was and remains an unlikely champion for the evangelical, anti-abortion movement in America. He’s an admitted sexual predator with three marriages and several alleged extra-marital affairs under his belt. All that combined with a history of flip-flopping on the issue of abortion — he was once a Democrat and has described himself as a “very pro-choice” — made his background certainly enough to foster a healthy skepticism among the anti-choice movement. In fact, the country’s leading anti-choice group, the Susan B. Anthony List, in early 2016 begged Iowa voters to pick “anyone but Donald Trump,” arguing that he could not be trusted.

However, once the primaries were over and Trump was the nominee, the SBA List changed its tune, announcing that the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, would chair Trump’s pro-life coalition. In the course of a few months, the evangelicals in America had gone from barely concealing their disgust at the freewheeling philanderer to embracing Trump as anointed by God to protect the unborn.

OSA assistant director Jason Storms antagonizes clinic escorts outside the abortion facility. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

OSA assistant director Jason Storms antagonizes clinic escorts outside the abortion facility. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

So what happened?

There is no Republican road to the White House that does not run through churches. Previous Republican presidents knew this: Reagan was a staunch pro-lifer long before he was president, and both Bushes had, to some degree, built pro-life portfolios before running. Trump, seemingly flying into the campaign and the presidency by the seat of his pants, had no such background to fall back on, so nothing short of full-throated evangelical support would do the job. Trump knew this, but more importantly, the anti-choice movement knew it.


In the spring of 2016, SBA President Dannenfelser contacted her longtime friend Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president. Dannenfelser had come up with a list of demands for the candidate in exchange for the SBA’s support. Among other things, the letter demanded that Trump appoint pro-life judges and that he work to defund Planned Parenthood. He signed it. It was an extraordinary concession, and along with the enlistment of staunchly anti-choice Mike Pence, it convinced the movement that Trump, while not perfect, would be leaps and bounds better than Clinton.

“Trump is beholden to the movement,” says Mary Alice Carter, director of Equity Forward, a watchdog group that monitors the influence of anti-choice groups on policy. “And the policies from the administration reveal that they know that their support is important to him. There is very little daylight between the priorities of Susan B. Anthony’s List and policy coming out of the White House.”

“What Trump has really done is put the anti-abortion movement into the government,” says David S. Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University and author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.”

“He’s appointed two justices who are at best hostile to abortion and at worst willing to overturn Roe. He’s appointed lower-court justices who are in the same camp. Those two things alone are seen as huge victories, and so the evangelicals are willing to overlook everything else.”


Protesters outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

What’s more, Trump has actively staffed key positions with ardent anti-choice activists, some with close ties to fringe groups and limited experience in what their new jobs entail.

Before being selected to run the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd had worked as a lawyer for pro-life organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and he has served on the board of Front Royal Pregnancy Center. Front Royal is a so-called crisis pregnancy center, an often-times religiously motivated, and unregulated center that aims to dissuade women from having abortions. Before taking over the ORR he had no experience with the delicate work of caring for refugees and asylum seekers. One of his first orders of business was to make a spreadsheet of pregnant minors who had crossed the border from Mexico, tracking the gestational age of their fetuses and making it the government’s business to stop these minors from having abortions.


Additionally, several key staffers have links to organizations that peddle in extreme untruths and hateful rhetoric in their fight against abortion. Under Trump, groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a fiercely anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ group, and the Family Research Council, another vitriolic anti-LGBTQ group, have found positions of power. Earlier this year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar gave a talk at the Family Research Council, an organization known for outlandish claims such as that teen suicides would go down if kids were discouraged from coming out.

Health and Human Services deputy general counsel Matt Bowman has close historical ties with not only anti-choice groups but also anti-LGBTQ groups. He was once listed as a local contact for an Operation Save America protest in Wisconsin. The target for the protest was Disney’s alleged endorsement of homosexuality.

March Bell, the chief of staff at HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, has a history of perpetuating long-debunked myths and dubious attacks on Planned Parenthood, and was quoted by Right Wing Watch saying “Any interference in [Planned Parenthood’s] cash flow that we can bring through any kind of lawsuit… can shut down a whole state or a whole group of clinics.” Bell was the staff director and chief counsel for Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s unfounded investigation into allegations that Planned Parenthood was profiting from legal donations of fetal tissue. Many of the “facts” — including widely discredited video footage — supporting the investigation were supplied by Center for Medical Progress, a group with close links to Operation Rescue, an extreme anti-choice organization whose vice president was convicted in 1987 for conspiring to blow up an abortion clinic.


HHS is in charge of implementing health and welfare programs. The fox is very much in the hen house.


Rusty Thomas preaches in Riverside Church in Flowood, Mississippi on January 21. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

In a radio interview in mid-April, Michelle Bachmann, once a tea party favorite and an ardent evangelical doctrinaire, speaking of Trump said, “We will in all likelihood never see a more godly, Biblical president again in our lifetime.” The utter ridiculousness of this statement not withstanding, it illustrates the transactional nature of Trump’s relationship with evangelicals. “Trump doesn’t care at all about abortion,” says Cohen. “His base does, so he’s going to make it an issue every time he can. On the other side of that, Trump could have an affair every day and the religious right will still support him as long as he delivers.”

Mary Ziegler, a law professor and historian at Florida State University, echoes this.

“When the SBA says that Trump is the most effective president in history, that’s not ridiculous,” Ziegler says. “Because he’s been so suspect to them, he’s had to do more to prove himself and has done more in office than other presidents.”

Back in Jackson, in a sprawling church on the outskirts of the city that a sympathetic pastor has allowed Thomas and his crew to borrow, the mood is jubilant. It has been a good day. Exactly how and why is uncertain — they’d picketed the abortion clinic on a day when it was closed, so they’ve hardly stopped any sacrifices to Moloch. But the congregation, which is normally spread throughout the country and has gathered for three days of planning and strategizing, seems happy just to be together.

Pastor Cali from Sermon in the Park Church of Victoria, Texas, preaches. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Pastor Cali from Sermon in the Park Church of Victoria, Texas, preaches. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Picketing and clinic blockades is inherently limited in its success, and for the movement it is as much about staying visible as stopping abortions. Lately, clinic protestors, hindered by the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which says clinics may not be physically blocked, have started experimenting with other ways to interfere. In so-called Red Rose Rescues, protestors peacefully enter clinics to hand out roses to patients.

“They are poking at FACE laws to see what holds,” says activist and author Marty. “For every clinic they enter without being hit with FACE charges, they are setting a precedent, and they are targeting clinics that serve low-income individuals and that are shoddy and less likely to press charges.”


In this way, the grassroots arm of the anti-choice movement is working together with the political arm, nudging a federal judiciary to be ever more lenient to anti-choice policies and activists, creating an environment where abortion and the access to abortion is under pressure from below as well as above.

A band of clean-cut teenagers, most of them Thomas’ kids, are on stage, playing the kind of anodyne, soulless, Christian rock music that evangelicals have foisted upon the world.

When the music finally peters out Thomas takes the pulpit to celebrate the various local chapters who have made their way to Mississippi.


A child outside Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

“Where’s Alabama at?” he shouts, to cheers from a rowdy bunch in back. The Alabamians have plenty cause to celebrate. Only three abortion clinics remain in Alabama, and all three are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The newly signed law makes no exceptions for cases of rape and incest and allows abortions only in instances where the pregnancy presents “a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother.” What’s more, the sponsors of the bill — 67 out of 76 Republicans in the state Legislature are listed as co-sponsors — go out of their way to not only link the practice of abortion to atrocities throughout history but also explain how abortion in America is in fact much worse, writing that the number of abortions in the U.S. since Roe dramatically outnumber those killed in the Holocaust, Cambodian killing fields, the Rwandan genocide, and “Chinese purges.”

Pro-choice activists immediately denounced the bill and Planned Parenthood called it a “death sentence for women across this state.” It’s worth mentioning that the bill, the effects of which will disproportionately affect poor people of color and — obviously — women, was voted through by a GOP caucus where only 7 out of 76 members are women, and exactly none are people of color.


Next Thomas welcomes crowds from Arkansas — “Heck yeah!”— Idaho — “How’s that for long-distance?” — Oklahoma — “Right on!” — Florida — “I see you, Florida!” and a bunch of other states. There are around 100 activists in the room, all jumping to their feet, whooping and cheering at the slightest provocation. In the front row are minor anti-choice celeb Elizabeth Johnston, known online as Activist Mommy, and her brood of kids. Not far from her sits Pastor Matthew Trewhella, a close friend of Thomas’ and a signatory to what’s known as the Defensive Action Statement , which says that the taking of a life in defense of the unborn is justified, making the killing of abortion providers fair game.

The statement was written by the Army of God, a loosely organized anti-abortion group active in the 1980s and ‘90s and notorious for being linked to the most deadly attacks against abortion providers. Later Trewhella explains to me that he no longer believes that murder is justified in the fight against abortion. But he also thinks when the laws created by man break the laws of God, then the laws of men have no authority. He has a book about it that he’s trying to sell.

A girl prays while Thomas preaches outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

A girl prays while Thomas preaches outside the Capitol. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Operation Save America’s vision for the country isn’t political; it is biblical. The church teaches its children abstinence only, not because they believe it reduces unwanted pregnancies and the risk of STDs (it doesn’t) but because it’s what the Lord has ordained. They believe that Islam wants to subjugate the West and that there is a radical gay agenda. Their vision for the country goes well beyond abortion, and when politicians and policymakers start taking their calls and mimicking their talking points, there’s cause for concern. When Thomas’ son was terminally ill last year, he made a telephone call to Republican Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas, asking him to outlaw abortion in the state as his dying wish. The conversation, recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube, has the governor promising to pursue an outright ban.

What was once considered anti-choice extremism is now the party platform of the Texas GOP, and other states are following suit. Laws that even anti-choice groups like SBA once saw as too radical, such as the fetal heartbeat bills, are now mainstream. Most of these laws will be struck down in the courts, but abortion-rights foes only need one case to go to the Supreme Court for Roe to be overturned. Strangely, it doesn’t even have to be about Roe v. Wade.

“The heart of Roe v. Wade is that abortion laws are to be looked at with strict scrutiny, because it involves a fundamental right,” explains Cohen, author and professor of law at Drexel University. “Any case considering abortion brings up whether or not we should give them strict scrutiny or treat them like we would treat building codes or regulate milk. The case could be about admitting privileges, counseling restrictions or an abortion ban. Any of these could potentially topple Roe.” At the moment there are roughly 20 cases like these making their way through the judicial system.

None of these experts are optimistic about the future of Roe v. Wade. They all believe it will be overturned sooner or later. Most agree that it will happen after the 2020 election rather than before, since Trump will want to use it as a campaign issue. Currently five states have “trigger” laws in place — laws that will ban abortion completely if and when Roe falls. Several other states have similar laws in the pipelines. However, it is far from certain that the kind of draconian law introduced in Alabama, Georgia and other states will be the one that brings it down. Many think the new laws go too far, and will force the Supreme Court, if they go that far, to reject them.

Thomas in Jackson's Woodland Hills Baptist Church. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

Thomas in Jackson's Woodland Hills Baptist Church on January 23. Photo by Finlay MacKay.

The extremity of these laws have exposed a rift in the pro-life movement among those who want to ban abortion completely and those that favor an incremental approach. Trump laid bare this rift in a Tweet on Saturday, making clear that he favors a ban of abortion, that unlike Alabama and Georgia, makes exceptions for rape and incest. Underscoring the precarious nature of the anti-choice fight, he urged unity in the movement, tweeting that “If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!“

As with most other issues he wades into, Trump has increased the vitriol in an already remarkably ugly fight for women’s reproductive rights. Anti-choice extremists are emboldened by the president, and his attention and support has given the movement a new sense of urgency. Trump’s words may or may not might incite violence against abortion providers, but at the very least, the protestors who call in threats, who harass and picket, feel validated by the White House.

Alternatively, Trump can do what every Republican president before him has done: nothing. He can court the support of the anti-choice evangelicals and disappoint them. This carries with it its own risk of violence, the same way frustration with Reagan led to increased violence against abortion providers in the 1980s.

Either way, reproductive rights advocates are expecting an ugly time ahead.

“We’re going to see more violence toward 2020,” says Katherine Ragsdale, head of the National Abortion Federation. “One way or another Roe will fall or it might as well fall because of all the whittling away. People of means won’t lose access to abortion, but the majority of women, those of color, the poor, in rural areas; they will.”

Rusty Thomas isn’t convinced about Donald Trump. The president may be a step in the right direction, but he has a long way to go if he wants to catch up with Operation Save America. In a Facebook post after the signing of the Alabama bill, Thomas lamented that the bill did not go far enough. For one, it still has exceptions for the life and mental health of the mother, exceptions that Thomas believes that the pro-choice movement will exploit. He also believes women who have abortions should be punished.

In OSA’s world there is no excuse for ending a pregnancy. What’s more, Thomas believes the Alabama law is too concerned with being legal. “Any law we pass to outlaw abortion must defy and ignore the courts,” he wrote on the organization’s site. To the OSA, there is no law higher than God’s, and increasingly certain factions of the GOP are joining them. Ted Cruz’ father once said his son would bring about “the end times.” Roy Moore, who only lost his Alabama senate election by a hair said 9/11 and crime in the country was because we have “forgotten God.” Washington State congressman Matt Shea once outlined “The Biblical Case for War ”against “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists and establishment Republicans.”

“Trump doesn’t have the fullness of understanding yet,” Thomas says. “This isn’t political. We can’t escape God. Maybe it will be Trump, maybe it will be someone else, but sooner or later God’s will will be brought to America.”


Children and young adults listen to Thomas preaching at Woodland Hills Baptist Church. Photo by Finlay MacKay.