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The New Face of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Three months ago, pro-life activists demanded Albuquerque's Holocaust and Intolerance Museum create a new exhibit to commemorate the victims of what they call “the American genocide.” What they really wanted was a municipal referendum forcing...

Grace Wyler

Grace Wyler

Mary Rose Short, 24, protests at the University of New Mexico in favor of Albuquerque’s late-term abortion ban last week. Photo courtesy survivors.la

Three months ago, dozens of pro-life activists—most of them teenagers—arrived unannounced in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Armed with images of fully developed, dismembered fetuses and a sign christening Albuquerque as “America’s Auschwitz,” they set up camp in front of the city’s modest Holocaust and Intolerance Museum and demanded a new exhibit to commemorate the victims of what they call “the silent holocaust,” or “the American genocide”—or the roughly 50 million abortions performed in the United States since the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973.

But what they really wanted was much less symbolic: A municipal referendum that would make Albuquerque the first city in the country to ban late-term abortions.

Doing so, critics believe, is the first step toward severely limiting abortion access in America.

One week ago, the young activists quietly returned. Their goal was to turn out residents to vote on a citywide late-term abortion ban. The group was small, made up of just six devoted members of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, a California-based anti-abortion group that travels the country rallying young people to the pro-life movement. In the days leading up to the vote, the “Survivors” attempted to energize the local grassroots, crisscrossing the New Mexico desert in a gold church van to canvass voters, pass out fliers describing so-called "fetal pain," and organize “prayer walks”—an unconventional get-out-the-vote strategy that involves walking in the street and asking God to “provide clarity over the ballot.”

“The Survivors are like the Marines,” said Lauren Handy, a 19-year-old Survivors intern. “We’re the first ones to come and the last ones to leave.”

In the end, though, their efforts fell short. By Tuesday evening, Albuquerque residents had rejected the measure, voting 55 percent to 44 percent against a proposed ordinance that would have prevented women from seeking abortions after 20 weeks.

It’s a big disappointment for the pro-life movement, which has embraced 20-week bans as a way of taking advantage of public discomfort over later abortion. Based on the disputed medical claim that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks, thirteen states have banned abortions after that point, and Republicans in Congress have introduced similar federal legislation. Had the Albuquerque referendum passed, it would have opened up new avenues for anti-abortion groups to pursue restrictions at the local level—an attractive prospect in blue states like New Mexico, where the Democratic-controlled legislature has repeatedly buried new abortion laws.

But while Albuquerque voters may have prevented a city-by-city epidemic fixed on wiping out abortion clinics, both sides warn that the seal has been broken. The referendum was an early testing ground, a chance for the pro-life movement to practice its new strategy—and another stark reminder, some believe, that the left is on defense when it comes to reproductive rights.

“We'll be back," Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy advisor for the Wichita-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, said after the vote tallies were in Tuesday night. "We learned a lot from this campaign, and we look forward to another try that will better reflect the true feeling of the voters on this subject.”

***

In many ways, the Albuquerque referendum was a glimpse into the depths of the pro-life psyche. And at the center, the id so to speak, are the Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Founded in 1998 by former leaders of Operation Rescue, the organization is essentially a training camp for emerging pro-life organizers, equipping young (Christian) militants with activism tools and leaflets, and then sending them out “on tour” to win over new recruits. As the name suggests, the group is based on the idea that anyone born after the Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973 has “survived” legal abortion.

"Abortion is real for us, because our generation has not known a time when it was illegal to kill babies,” Kristina Garza, the Survivors 26-year-old outreach director, tells me. It’s a few days before the Albuquerque vote, and Garza is riding shotgun in my rental car while I attempt to tail the Survivors van on Interstate 40. They’re looking for a good spot for “overpass cupping,” another pro-life campaign quirk that involves spelling out slogans with plastic cups in the chainlink fence over the highway. “It’s a good way for the team to blow off steam at the end of the night,” Garza says.

It turns out that in spite of their creepy name and holocaust museum theatrics, the Survivors are more like earnest camp counselors than hardened foot soldiers in the abortion wars. “This is the most alive I have ever felt, and the most appreciated for being alive,” Lauren Handy tells me.

Before she found the pro-life movement, Handy says, “I was in a dark place.” The Survivors gave her a sense of purpose, and a passion for “sidewalk counseling,” the pro-life term for convincing women outside of clinics not to have an abortion. “If you think your child is going to have a bad life, there is something deeply hurting you — I can empathize with that,” she says. “Before I was bitter, but now I am blessed for having had that suffering. I found a place where I am best used."

“Overpass cupping” above Interstate 40 before Albuquerque’s vote on a municipal late-term abortion ban Tuesday. Image: Grace Wyler.

In the car, Garza fast-talks me through her conversion to the pro-life movement. “For me, it’s really about social justice—I was targeted before I was born,” she says. “My mom was told to abort me because she was a Latina woman. There was no husband in sight, my dad was overseas, and the doctors immediately gave her a referral to an abortion clinic.”

As a 26-year-old Mexican-American woman from California’s Inland Empire, Garza doesn’t fit the conventional mold of an anti-abortion crusader, that is, white and old. In fact, virtually all of the pro-life organizers leading the Albuquerque campaigns were women under 35, and at least four of those women are Hispanic. They are part of a fresher, younger—and, in the case of Survivors, more militant— generation of pro-lifers that has taken the helm of the movement in recent years. And unlike their 1980s counterparts, though, these kids don’t want to blockade clinics or go to jail—the goal, Garza tells me, is to make the system work for them.

“Our generation lives with the reality that anyone of us could have been on the line,” she says, turning to face me in her seat. “It was legal to kill us. We had a target on our backs.” 

Tara Shaver, 29, in the office at Project Defending Life, an anti-abortion pregnancy crisis center across the street from Planned Parenthood in Albuquerque, N.M. Image: Grace Wyler.

In an apparent testament to the Survivors’ training, the Albuquerque referendum was driven by two of the group’s former interns, Bud and Tara Shaver. Self-described “Christian missionaries,” the Shavers were members of Operation Rescue in 2009, arriving in Wichita, Kansas, on the day that late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered in his church. After his death, two of the physicians who had worked at his clinic moved to Albuquerque to practice at Southwestern Women’s Options, making it one of just a few abortion clinics in the country to practice late-term abortions. The Shavers soon followed. Since 2010, the Shavers have engaged in what Tara calls “prayerful witness” at Southwestern Women’s Options, launching investigations into Tiller’s former colleagues, and routinely circling the clinic in a “Truth Truck” emblazoned with images of a dismembered fetus.

Although their initial plan was not to pursue a ballot initiative, when the option was suggested by other pro-life activists, the Shavers, and their friends in Wichita, went with it. It was a surprising foray into campaign politics for Operation Rescue, a de facto opposition research arm of the pro-life movement that primarily targets abortion clinics and doctors through investigations, rather than referendums. But while Tuesday’s results definitely showed the limits of Operation Rescue’s appeal—it turns out voters who hate the Truth Truck, or the fetal pain trick-or-treat fliers—it also opened up a new strategy that could help Operation Rescue shut down specific clinics at the local level, by taking their case straight to the voters.

Of course, abortion opponents have never had a lot of luck at the ballot box. Personhood amendments have been struck down in Colorado and Mississippi, and South Dakota voters rejected a categorical abortion ban twice. But the movement has never lacked activists with the single-minded faith to try again. “Once you start, you can’t stop—everything else seems totally worthless,” explains Mary Rose Short, a 24-year-old California native who has been on the road with the Survivors for two years. “Indulging yourself after this seems incredibly selfish.”

Does she have any plans for the future?

“Sometimes we joke about the crazy things we're going to do when abortion ends," Short says. "I might go to nursing school.”

@grace_lightning