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The Link Between the Capitol Riot and Anti-Abortion Extremism

In 1988, a young Baptist minister in Buffalo named Daren Drzymala launched Project House Call, a series of protests in which he and fellow anti-abortion activists picketed the homes of local abortion providers. One of their first demonstrations occurred that September, on Yom Kippur, outside the home of a Jewish ob-gyn named Barnett Slepian. A few months later, on the third night of Hanukkah, they targeted Slepian again, and also another Jewish abortion provider, Shalom Press. The protesters prayed and sang Christmas carols outside their targets’ windows.

Local councils in Buffalo soon passed bans on the picketing of private residences. But the anti-abortion activists’ fixation on Press and Slepian did not end there. In April, 1992, pro-life groups—Drzymala was among them—gathered in Buffalo for the “Spring of Life”: two weeks of demonstrations and attempted clinic blockades. On the eleventh day, some fifteen hundred protesters gathered outside Press’s medical office for a candlelight vigil; that day was also Yom HaShoah, an Israeli national holiday that commemorates victims of the Holocaust. Keith Tucci, the leader of the Christian anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, and other activists at the vigil repeatedly referred to Press’s office as a “death camp.” Tucci told the crowd, “This is the international day to remember the Holocaust, and this place is where the Holocaust continues to happen.” (Much of this abortion-protest history is recounted in the masterful book “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America,” by Eyal Press, a New Yorker contributor and the son of Shalom Press.)

Press and Slepian were far from the only abortion providers working in western New York in the spring of 1992. But, at this vigil, they were the only ones mentioned by name. Six years later, an anti-abortion extremist named James Kopp killed Slepian in his home, while Slepian’s wife and children were present, by shooting him through the window of his kitchen. It was a Friday night; Slepian had just returned from synagogue. When Kopp testified at his own trial, he referred to legalized abortion as a “holocaust.”

For a half century, a conspiracy-minded brand of anti-abortion extremism has been part and parcel of white-supremacist movements. The Ku Klux Klan referred to legalized abortion as a genocide against the white race. Anti-abortion leaders such as Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, and Robert Cooley, of the Pro-Life Action Network, frequently alleged that most abortion providers were Jewish. Today, the QAnon conspiracy, which helped inspire the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6th and continues to threaten similar plots, can be seen as a twisted metonym for generations of anti-Semitic pro-life propaganda: child molestation and cannibalism take the place of abortion, while “George Soros” and “global cabal” stand in for Jews. In this world, a one-and-a-half-million-dollar grant awarded to Planned Parenthood by the Open Society Foundations becomes evidence of Soros personally offering political cover for Planned Parenthood’s lucrative trade in “baby body parts.” “The QAnon obsession with vulnerable children is very similar to the blood-libel myth,” Carol Mason, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics,” told me.

It is no coincidence that, for example, the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon promoter who has blamed deadly wildfires in California on a “space laser” financed by the Rothschild banking firm, has also called abortion “genocide” and supports an pro-life amendment to the Constitution. Donald Trump, too, understood the salience of anti-abortion messaging to the nativist and white-supremacist segments of his base. In April, 2019, Trump told a rally of supporters in Green Bay that Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, endorsed infanticide; months earlier, Trump made similar statements about Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia.

The centrality of anti-abortion extremism in the larger landscape of the anti-government far right has received new attention since January 6th. John Brockhoeft, who was convicted of firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic in Cincinnati, in 1985, and of conspiring to bomb another abortion clinic in Pensacola, in 1988, live-streamed from outside the Capitol. Derrick Evans, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, who was a fixture at the state’s sole abortion clinic during 2019—according to the Washington Post, he harassed staff and even broadcasted a patient’s arrival via Facebook Live—entered the Capitol. (He was charged with two federal misdemeanors and resigned his seat; his lawyer said, in a statement, that he was an “independent activist and journalist, who has long exercised his constitutional rights to engage in peaceful protest.”) And at least one person at the Capitol was carrying on a family tradition of sorts: Leo Brent Bozell IV, who has been charged with three federal offenses, is the grandson of L. Brent Bozell, Jr., who led a “Mass of the Holy Innocents” and a subsequent march on George Washington University Hospital, in D.C., in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.

A widely circulated photograph from the events on January 6th showed Christine Priola, a Cleveland high-school occupational therapist, as she stood on the dais in the Senate chamber holding a sign that read “The Children Cry Out for Justice.” The next day, she submitted a letter of resignation to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, in which she stated her intention “to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia,” and that she did not agree with her “union dues, which help fund people and groups that support the killing of unborn children.” A week later, federal prosecutors charged her in connection with entering the Capitol.

The tendency to view an anti-abortion stance as synonymous with patriotism, and to think of those who seek and provide abortions as “others,” is not exclusive to the United States—restrictions on abortion rights in other countries often have nativist origins. A total ban on contraception and abortion that took effect in Romania in the nineteen-sixties, for example, was cast as a patriotic effort to boost the national birth rate. It succeeded, but it also resulted in hundreds of thousands of children being abandoned to horrifying state-run orphanages. In Ireland, where abortion was prohibited until 2019, national identity and politics were so “entrenched in Catholicism that women have consistently perceived terminating pregnancies as tantamount to terminating their national belonging,” Carol Mason wrote, that same year, drawing on scholarship by the historian Cara Delay.

In the U.S., the constitutional rights of women seeking abortions are perpetually in flux, sometimes owing to judgments made at the highest levels of government. On Tuesday, Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, signed into law a near-total ban on abortion procedures in the state. “It is the intent of the legislation to set the stage for the Supreme Court overturning current case law,” Hutchinson said, in a statement. One of Amy Coney Barrett’s first decisions as a Supreme Court Justice, in January, was to join the conservative majority in agreeing that women seeking medication abortion have to procure the necessary pills from a doctor or an in-person clinic rather than by mail, despite the coronavirus crisis. Last spring, multiple states, including a thirteen-hundred-mile swath of the south-central U.S., used the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to declare abortion services nonessential. These bans were eventually overturned by court order, but in the meantime they created a surge of patients at clinics in other states, and also a spike in demand for second-term abortions from women whose treatments had been delayed, as Amy Reed-Sandoval, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote, in a recent paper. Drawing from her field research at an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, Reed-Sandoval described “many Texans who, in their first trimesters of pregnancy, had to drive 16 hours to Albuquerque (while being told that they must stay at home) to swallow an abortion pill, turn around, and drive 16 hours to get home.”

Reed-Sandoval’s research depicts women facing unwanted pregnancies in abortion deserts as a type of migrant, negotiating uncertain, often treacherous borders. This logic can extend to physicians who regularly travel great distances to perform abortions in areas of the country where willing doctors are scarce—they, too, are a kind of migrant labor force, conscripted into rootlessness to perform their jobs. These “abortion migrants” are subject to stigma, danger, and a battery of often cruel and irrational restrictions. (Eliza Hittman’s superb feature film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which was released last year and is winning new accolades during awards season, trails two Pennsylvania teen-agers as they travel to New York City for abortion care, tallying the obstacles and indignities that they face with a quiet, mounting fury.) Reed-Sandoval told me that a few of her interviewees found it striking that their patients were forced to violate stay-at-home orders to obtain an abortion, only to arrive at a clinic to see lines of pro-life protesters defying the same orders.

The nativist, anti-Semitic tropes that dominated anti-abortion extremism for decades had an awful clarity. Those sentiments are still present among extremists today, if slightly harder to isolate amid the churn of floating signifiers (“Rothschilds”) and conspiracy theories that dominate the rhetoric. Last December, at an anti-lockdown protest in Los Angeles, Gina Bisignano, who owns a beauty salon in Beverly Hills, was captured on video telling a counter-demonstrator, “I bet you had an abortion this morning.” A month later, she was arrested on charges including “aiding in the destruction of government property” at the Capitol. According to a court filing, Bisignano told the crowd, “We will never let our country go to the globalists. George Soros, you can go to hell.”

Source: The Link Between the Capitol Riot and Anti-Abortion Extremism

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