We Need a Left Strategy for Confronting the Anti-Abortion Movement

The anti-abortion movement has grown increasingly militant in recent years — and increasingly successful. The liberal pushback isn’t cutting it. We need a leftist strategy to defend abortion rights.

Abortion rights activists rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019.(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Abortion access has been uneven and inadequate for decades. But with the recent announcement that the Supreme Court will hear a major abortion case next term concerning a Mississippi state law that would ban almost all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy, the threat has reached new levels.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization strikes at the heart of the precedent set in Roe v. Wade in 1973 that abortion is permitted until fetus viability, generally at around twenty-four weeks. As it hears the case, the Supreme Court will consider one clearly delineated question: whether or not “all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” Mary Ziegler, author of Abortion and the Law in America, said recently that the court taking up the case could result in overturning Roe, but it could also get rid of viability as the point at which states can ban abortion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, sixteen states have attempted to ban abortion before viability but have been stopped by court order. If the court upholds Mississippi’s fifteen-week abortion ban, it would directly challenge the protections guaranteed under Roe and make it even more difficult for people in these states to access abortion care.

Anti-abortion groups celebrated the court’s announcement. March for Life stated, “States should be allowed to craft laws that are in line with both public opinion on this issue as well as basic human compassion, instead of the extreme policy that Roe imposed,” and Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said, “This is a landmark opportunity for the Supreme Court to recognize the right of states to protect unborn children from the horrors of painful late-term abortions.”

This is the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive attacks on reproductive health care. After an emboldened religious right gained more access to power with Donald Trump’s dedication to their demands, many in the anti-abortion movement feel that the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade is within reach.

In this new climate, with the Republican Party taken over by pro-life conservatives and Republican-controlled states passing ever-bolder bans on abortion, it’s more urgent than ever for abortion rights supporters to have a clear strategy and a powerful message to combat these extremist forces threatening our bodily autonomy.

It’s no surprise that anti-abortion activism outside of clinics has been on the rise. In 2017, the National Abortion Federation documented a sharp increase in trespassing and obstruction at its member clinics, as well as nearly double the number of threats of violence against doctors and staff compared to 2016.

Powerful and well-funded anti-abortion advocacy groups like National Right to Life Committee, Susan B. Anthony List, and Americans United for Life, as well as religiously affiliated nonprofits like 40 Days for Life, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Focus on the Family, have made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Republican elected officials. Many conservative Catholics and evangelicals are mobilized through their churches to support the anti-abortion cause by voting for pro-life politicians, supporting anti-abortion legislation, and participating in anti-abortion activism like 40 Days for Life and the national March for Life in Washington, DC, which draws tens of thousands from across the country.

Organizations dedicated to anti-abortion activism have proliferated in recent years, with the public space in front of abortion clinics as one of the battlegrounds. Anti-abortion protesters have turned clinics into politically charged spaces for decades, using a variety of intimidation and harassment tactics. The response of most mainstream reproductive rights organizations and clinic administrators in recent years — to deny the politicization of clinics, ignore protesters harassing patients, and discourage counterprotesters or clinic defenders from showing up and engaging with antis — is starting to give way to an understanding that new strategies are needed.

The response from abortion supporters has to be a better politics, not a claim at neutrality — a politics that centers the material needs of people seeking reproductive health care, that recognizes abortion access as part of a wider fight for reproductive justice, and that stands up to anti-abortion protesters, connecting their religious extremism to white supremacy, anti-LGBTQ activism, and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Anti-abortion activists today use a mix of old and new clinic protesting tactics. Some have carefully rebranded themselves as the gentler, more inclusive side of a movement known for its aggression, violence, and punitive judgment against those seeking abortion. Groups like Love Life and Live Action are mobilizing a new generation of enthusiastic activists, appealing to young people by co-opting the language of feminism, human rights, and racial and social justice.

Other organizations have been influenced by the playbook of old-school extremist organizations that have been around since the late 1980s, such as Operation Rescue, now Operation Save America, which promotes tactics like invading clinics and blockading entrances, and which has been associated with domestic terrorists who have murdered doctors and bombed clinics.

Anti-abortion activism outside of clinics appears to be returning to levels of mobilization not seen since the 1990s, and the battle over abortion access plays out in local, state, and federal courts without mobilizing the enormous grassroots support that originally animated the movement that first won the legal right to abortion. Abortion advocates and the feminist left can learn from the historic and current strategies of the anti-abortion movement. We can use this knowledge to inform our own strategy and message, appealing to wider audiences through more expansive demands and mobilizing people through direct-action campaigns and democratic organizations.

We can challenge abortion protesters at clinics and at the same time play a role in building a robust reproductive freedom movement that goes beyond protecting the right to legal abortion, but that also mobilizes feminist activists to fight for reproductive justice while challenging religious extremism, nativist white supremacy, and oppressive gender norms.

Anti-Abortion’s Roots in the Religious Right

The religious groups participating in anti-abortion activism today are loosely part of the larger religious right ecosystem, with the broad aims of overturning Roe v. Wade and abolishing abortion — or making abortion “unthinkable,” as many anti-abortion activists say — as well as promoting conservative gender norms, family values, and moral law.

The religious right and the Christian nationalist movement have been building political power and collecting victories on the legislative front for decades. As part of an effort to mobilize evangelicals as a voting bloc, conservative activists and political consultants, working with religious leaders, seized on abortion in the late 1970s as the activating issue to refashion previously politically averse evangelicals into engaged political actors who could help the Republican Party win elections. The prevalence of evangelical activists in the anti-abortion movement proves the effectiveness and longevity of this effort. Evangelical missionary groups and resources targeting children and young people have been around for decades but have grown in size and political power the past ten to fifteen years.

Organizations like the Child Evangelism Fellowship specifically focus on converting young children and teenagers to fundamentalist Christianity. Anti-abortion organizations like Students for Life and National Right to Life focus on activating college-age young people, hosting sidewalk missionary boot camps, pro-life retreats for students, and conferences that feature young activists, religious leaders, and political figures like Charlotte Pence Bond, daughter of former vice president Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, former governor of Wisconsin.

Lila Rose, a millennial anti-abortion activist who founded the organization Live Action when she was fifteen and who earned a following by going undercover at Planned Parenthood clinics to expose their supposed illegal activity, speaks at pro-life conferences around the country, and Live Action claims to reach millions of people through their social media platforms. They have 400,000 followers on TikTok, and much of their content features young women using feminist and social justice rhetoric.

Operation Rescue is the most notorious of the early groups to target abortion clinics. Founded by Randall Terry in 1986, their slogan was “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” They rose to national prominence when over 1,200 Operation Rescue activists were arrested protesting at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, and in the following years, branches and independent rescue organizations popped up around the country.

Operation Rescue activists.

The largest branch, Operation Rescue West in California, organized 182 clinic blockades resulting in 11,732 arrests in 1988, and 201 clinic blockades resulting in 12,358 arrests in 1989. At its peak in 1990, the national organization had a staff of twenty-three and received over $1 million in annual donations.

The innovation of Operation Rescue was to borrow tactics and language from the civil rights movement and apply them to the anti-abortion movement. Calling for the protection of the rights of the unborn and the abolition of abortion, Operation Rescue promoted civil disobedience as a tactic. Sit-ins to obstruct clinic doors, barricades in front of entrances, invading clinics and destroying property, sealing doors shut, and organizing hundreds of protesters to harass patients as they walked into clinics were all highly effective tactics, with the aim of ceasing normal operations and intimidating patients and clinic staff.

Operation Rescue was especially ruthless in their harassment of doctors and clinic staff, and they stated in training materials and books their goal of embarrassing, harassing, and intimidating clinic workers until they quit their jobs or left town. Some of the tactics they used included:

tracking down license plate numbers to obtain addresses of clinic employees, then follow them to supermarkets, hotels, and other public places where they can be confronted. Snap photographs. Run video cameras. Find Social Security numbers and check financial records. Infiltrate clinics by posing as patients. Befriend a clinic worker’s son, then preach to him about the sins of his mother. Dig up dirt through court and other government records. File as many lawsuits as possible.

During the “Summer of Mercy” campaign in 1991, Operation Rescue organized a forty-six-day protest of three women’s health clinics in Wichita, Kansas, including the clinic run by Dr George Tiller, who was shot by an anti-abortion extremist in 1993 and then murdered by a different extremist in 2009. The campaign involved a series of clinic blockades, occupations, and harassment of abortion providers, clinic staff, and patients that resulted in the closure of the clinics for days at a time and the arrest of 2,700 anti-abortion protesters. The campaign was considered successful by anti-abortion protesters and culminated with a rally that featured conservative Christian activist Dr James Dobson, founder of the hate group Focus on the Family

At a summer-long boot camp hosted by Operation Rescue in Florida in 1993, lawyers advised the group how far they could push freedom of speech and privacy laws in order to successfully harass and intimidate clinic staff and patients, including the use of surveillance equipment and bomb and death threats left on home and clinic answering machines.

Patricia Windle, owner of three women’s health centers in central Florida that have been targeted by anti-abortion protesters for decades, especially by Operation Rescue in 1993 and 1994, says that her patients were brazenly stalked and had their names emblazoned on picket signs, her employees were threatened with death, and their children were subjected to harassment. Her clinics had three attacks with butyric acid, which they put under the front doorframe, in mailbox slots, in the front-door keyhole, and around the window frames.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, confronted Patricia Windle, saying, “We will make your lives a living hell,” and was quoted as saying to another abortion provider, “When I, or people like me, are running the country, you’d better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we’ll execute you.”

Feminist activists successfully countered Operation Rescue’s attempt at another “Summer of Mercy”–style campaign in Buffalo, New York, in 1992. By mobilizing thousands of pro-abortion activists from around the country — despite resistance from pro-choice groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), which refused to endorse the action nationally — feminist supporters were able to outnumber and out-organize the opposition, keeping clinics open and demoralizing the anti-abortion activists.

Abortion rights activists clash with anti-choice Operation Rescue members outside the Buffalo clinic.

After Operation Rescue’s defeat, Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, was forced to express support for those defending the clinics. “We support clinic defense,” she told a CNN reporter. “We have seen that this is a strategy that works.”

After years of clinic blockades and violence, the murder of Dr David Gunn in March of 1993 outside a Pensacola, Florida, clinic and the attempted murder of Dr Tiller in August of 1993 outside his Wichita, Kansas, clinic spurred Congress to pass new federal legislation to address the violence committed against reproductive health care facilities and providers. The passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994 was an important legal tool that drastically decreased aggressive anti-abortion activity and violence outside of clinics by allowing for injunctions against protesters and levying prohibitively high fines on those engaging in blockade activities.

In 1994, 52 percent of clinics reported experiencing severe violence (classified as blockades, invasions, bombings, arsons, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, death threats, and murder); that number declined to 20 percent in 1999 and 2000. The massive show of support by abortion activists in Buffalo and elsewhere, plus the new hurdles imposed by the FACE Act, took the wind out of the sails of the rescue movement by the mid-1990s. But it never disappeared.

Evangelical Christian minister Flip Benham became director of Operation Rescue in 1994 and changed the name of the organization to Operation Save America in the late 1990s; they have remained active and regularly organize mass protests at clinics, especially in the South and Midwest. As part of their survival strategy, Operation Save America toned down their violent tactics and attempted to distance themselves from more extreme fringe groups like Army of God, a domestic terrorist organization that has openly promoted killing abortion providers and whose members have committed acts of kidnapping, attempted murder, and murder.

The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Current Clinic Strategy

Decades later, in 2017, the loosely organized and mostly Catholic-affiliated Red Rose Rescue movement was founded by two longtime anti-abortion activists looking to restart the rescue movement. Cofounder John Ryan has been arrested more than three hundred times and was recently acquitted of terrorism charges for allegedly making a bomb threat against a Planned Parenthood clinic. Monica Migliorino Miller, another cofounder, is a theology professor who was part of a group in the late 1980s that took fetal remains from the medical waste drums of a Chicago clinic to photograph and use as props during “mass burial services.”

Modeled after tactics used by Canadian pro-life activist Mary Wagner, who gained notoriety in anti-abortion circles for invading abortion clinics in Toronto and offering patients red roses to symbolize life, the movement and those inspired by it have conducted dozens of “rescues” in the past few years. Many of those involved are Catholic clergy members who say they are standing “in solidarity” with unborn children and practice nonviolent resistance by refusing to leave clinic waiting rooms and going limp when police arrest them for trespassing. Some activists have chained themselves to furniture, and others have openly violated probation by invading clinics after previous arrests.

“We feel there is no reason why we can’t engage more directly. Who is drawing the boundary lines here? They are,” said Miller in 2018, after playing a lead role in a coordinated day of Red Rose Rescue clinic invasions in September 2017 in Michigan, Virginia, and New Mexico. Father Fidelis Moscinski, part of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who leads a monthly pro-life service at the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, followed by a protest outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, has been arrested many times in the past few years for staging Red Rose Rescues at abortion clinics in New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland, including some during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent years have seen attempts to more deeply engage evangelical churchgoers in the anti-abortion movement, and to encourage religious leaders to take their anti-abortion message out of the churches and to abortion clinics, where they can “minister” to those most in need of spiritual guidance. The religious nonprofit Love Life was founded in 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina, by local businessman and evangelical Christian Justin Reeder, with support from influential leaders in the pro-life movement like Jason and David Benham, sons of former Operation Rescue director Flip Benham.

After expanding to Raleigh and Greensboro, in fall 2019, Love Life opened a headquarters in New York City and organized weekly “prayer walks” with up to 150 participants to the Planned Parenthood clinic on Bleecker Street. They train “sidewalk counselors” or “sidewalk missionaries” to intercept patients as they enter the clinic and use misleading information and promises of church support in an attempt to convince patients not to follow through with abortion appointments. Another plank in their mission is to promote “post-abortion counseling and recovery” to bring women who have had abortions back into the church and train them in anti-abortion activism.

Love Life attempts to portray themselves as the gentler and more media-savvy side of a movement long known for aggression, misogyny, and violence. With a well-designed website, a robust social media presence, and professionally produced videos, they appeal to a diverse audience of conservative Christians. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they continued to harass patients outside of clinics in North Carolina and New York, resulting in some arrests outside of a clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, in late March 2020 for violating stay-at-home orders.

In spring 2021, Love Life announced that they were expanding across the country, training sidewalk counselors at “missionary boot camps” to take up a regular presence in fifteen new cities and calling for religious leaders to adopt an abortion clinic in their area to bring their congregants to. Love Life has been part of the shift to rebrand the anti-abortion movement as peaceful and up-to-date with social justice rhetoric. They have also embraced digital platforms to build an audience, hosting a live weekly show streamed across their social media channels and featuring on-the-ground updates from sidewalk missionaries outside of abortion clinics around the country. Many of their young sidewalk missionaries also maintain active pro-life social media accounts, encouraging their friends to get involved in sidewalk ministry.

Over the past six months, abortion rights activists and clinic escorts have been coordinating efforts to track Love Life’s activity and disrupt their weekly livestream updates at multiple clinics in North Carolina and New York.

The Co-optation of Racial and Social Justice Language

Many in the anti-abortion movement and the religious right more broadly have spent years reaching out to conservative black religious leaders and highlighting their work on racial equality and inclusion. Many young activists in the pro-life community have co-opted the language of racial and social justice, propagating the myth of abortion as “black genocide,” an idea that has spread beyond anti-abortion fringe groups and into Republican political talking points. (The potency of the black genocide myth is due in large part to the real and recent history of state-sanctioned eugenics policies that forcibly sterilized large numbers of black and minority women, and that promoted harmful experimental birth control and other coercive reproductive health care policies to women of color.)

Influential millennial anti-abortion activist Lila Rose has been quoted saying that “Abortion is a leading killer of Black lives in America,” and anti-abortion billboards targeting black women began appearing around the country in 2010, including one in liberal New York City’s Greenwich Village with the message, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

Another important aspect is the mainstream reproductive rights movement’s slowness in acknowledging and responding to the racial inequalities  in reproductive health care access and outcomes. This failure to reckon with our flawed history is part of what is preventing the abortion rights movement from gaining ground and attracting a new generation of racially diverse activists.

It also allows the false argument that abortion poses a unique threat to black lives to be effectively weaponized by the anti-abortion movement. It’s not difficult to point to the hypocrisy of the pro-life movement handpicking which lives they care about. It’s more difficult to engage in self-criticism, and to actively integrate a defense of abortion access within a wider struggle for reproductive justice.

Filmmaker Yoruba Richen, who released a short documentary in 2017 examining how fears of black genocide became part of mainstream anti-abortion activism, Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside the African-American Abortion Battle, realized not only how potent the black genocide argument could be in parts of the black community, but how it had spread much further, becoming a common talking point of anti-abortion politicians. In a 2018 interview, she said, “I think the anti-abortion movement did earlier work of looking at the racial aspects of this in ways that the mainstream white abortion movement hadn’t done.”

Evangelical preachers and anti-abortion activists Bevelyn Beatty and Edmee Chavannes have been effective at wielding the myth of abortion as black genocide in their messaging and combining it with religious fanaticism, aggressive tactics outside of clinics, and social media spectacle. The two women, who run an evangelical street ministry called At the Well, have spent much of the past few years traveling around the country hosting livestreamed protests outside of abortion clinics featuring prominent anti-abortion figures like Flip Benham, and reaching thousands of conservative Christian followers on Facebook and YouTube.

In summer 2020, in response to the Black Lives Matter uprising, they rebranded their anti-abortion protests #JesusMatters and have since made a name for themselves outside of anti-abortion circles by speaking out against the Black Lives Matter protests and in support of Donald Trump. They were arrested last June for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter mural outside of Trump Tower and livestreamed other attempts to paint over BLM murals in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In Seattle, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, they were escorted through the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) by members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys and thanked the group for their support in a subsequent livestream. Beatty was interviewed on Fox News last June saying that the Black Lives Matter movement was hypocritical for protesting anti-black police violence while supporting Planned Parenthood when “the number-one killer of African Americans is abortion.”

After befriending the Proud Boys last summer, Beatty and Chavannes have been seen with many high-ranking members, including leader Enrique Tarrio, and both proudly attended the Capitol riot on January 6 and have insisted that the presidential election was stolen from Trump. New York attorney general Letitia James brought civil charges against them in February, blocking them from violating clinic access (FACE) laws with “obstructive, threatening, harassing and violent activity.” Beatty was captured on video slamming a staff member’s hand in a door, shoving a volunteer patient escort attempting to enter the facility, slapping a different volunteer in the face, and threatening to knock an escort unconscious.

The tactics used by activists outside of clinics at the #JesusMatters protests have alarmed many clinic workers for their aggression; they have been seen blocking entrances and physically harassing clinic escorts and clinic defenders. At the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lower Manhattan, they were arrested for attempting to block clinic doors and being physically abusive. They employ theatrics on their livestream, taunting clinic defenders, praying loudly and speaking in tongues, and insulting clinic workers and doctors.

Their verbal and physical harassment of clinic workers and their effective use of social media has led to a lot of attention in the anti-abortion movement and increasingly in far-right circles, and raises fear among clinic staff worried about a return to the violence of past decades.

What Should Our Response Be?

The disputes among reproductive rights advocates on how best to respond to the harassment and violence against abortion providers, clinic staff, and patients have been going on for decades. Without a mass organized feminist movement like there was in the 1960s and 1970s, and with the professionalization and NGO-ification of much of the reproductive rights movement, political decisions are left to pro-choice nonprofit organizations like NARAL and administrative leaders at Planned Parenthood. These trends have contributed to a defanged, depoliticized, and historically weak reproductive rights movement that is now struggling to respond to the increasingly brazen attacks on abortion access and the rise in anti-abortion activism at clinics.

While decisions affecting the safety of clinic staff and patients should be made by those who best understand their unique conditions, the longtime resistance to any kind of counterprotesting or clinic defense by the mainstream pro-choice movement has meant that growing right-wing anti-abortion activism often goes unopposed, both outside of clinics and in other public spaces like anti-abortion rallies, marches, and events.

Because many in the reproductive rights nonprofit world prefer to focus their efforts on legislation, litigation, and supporting pro-choice elected officials, they have also effectively been part of the move away from grassroots organizing. This shift is part of the broader trend in the progressive movement of channeling activist support toward less threatening action such as contacting elected officials and donating to nonprofits that can professionally advocate on activists’ behalf.

While the work of pro-choice nonprofit organizations, especially those involved in legally blocking many abortion restrictions through the courts, is critically important and worthy of support, deferring to their decisions around political priorities and tactics has played a role in limiting the strength, reach, and imagination of the reproductive rights movement.

There are many political and historical factors that have contributed to the replacement of a multifaceted ecosystem of grassroots feminist organizing with a handful of nonprofits and an even smaller group of people who influence their direction. Our current environment of mass political disaffection and limited time and attention contributes to the feeling that we must appear united and not divide our scarce resources by disagreeing over tactics like opposing anti-abortion forces amassing outside of clinics. Abortion providers, especially independent clinics, are up against such tremendous obstacles and are so desperate for funds and support that anything that pits pro-abortion activists against providers is extremely harmful in this moment.

A multiplicity of strategies and tactics is needed to combat the forces effectively chipping away at abortion access and oppose the evolving and aggressive tactics of anti-abortion protesters. Discouraging activists from opposing antis outside of clinics has played a role in stifling a militant reproductive freedom movement that could be mobilized in huge numbers to protest abortion restrictions and laws targeting abortion clinics, as well as support other targets of these religious hate groups, especially the LGBTQ community.

Making connections between abortion access and racial inequalities in health care, housing insecurity, and the need for parental leave and more social support for working-class families are what will bring new activists to a wider movement that fights against all these injustices.

The tide is starting to turn, as abortion restrictions pile up and become increasingly draconian. Some abortion providers who were previously opposed to clinic defense or any engagement with the antis outside of their clinics are now trying new tactics, like directly engaging and calling out the masses of antis, livestreaming their encounters to build support and awareness, and coordinating with other clinics around the country to share information and ideas. TikTok videos showing abortion supporters reading the lyrics of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” to antis praying outside of clinics and documenting their antics have gone viral and brought more attention to the harassment that patients and staff face outside of clinics.

There has even been some recognition of the benefits of clinic defenders by the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lower Manhattan, especially when confronted with more aggressive antis and limited by their policy of no direct engagement. The staff at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Bleecker Street also successfully pressured the administration to remove Margaret Sanger’s name from the flagship clinic, in recognition of her checkered history with the eugenics movement.

While the majority of the anti-abortion protesters claim to adhere to peaceful tactics and condone violence, these groups can serve as breeding grounds for more extreme elements of the movement and inspire religious extremists to take violent action in promotion of their cause. Abortion supporters can call out their hypocrisy by bringing more awareness to their harassment of patients and connecting their supposedly peaceful antics to other forms of far-right violence.

Abortion activists need to exploit the weaknesses in the anti-abortion movement and counter it with an expansive and militant movement that unapologetically fights for free and equal access to abortion while participating in building a unified movement to address the many connecting injustices that those who are most marginalized face.