How Trumpism Fostered Anti-Choice Violence

The same violent brew of paramilitary warriors, white supremacists, and Christian militants that we saw descending on the Capitol building merged to oppose abortion with lethal force decades ago.

Two weeks ago in Tennessee a gunman shot out the door of a Planned Parenthood. As more researchers of the January 6 Capitol siege forecast months if not years of increased domestic terrorism, it is likely that some of it will be aimed at reproductive health care workers. Abortion opponents not only were part of the destructive melee at the Capitol—they also have modeled radicalization techniques used in building insurrectionary fever by successfully deploying incendiary lies and conspiracy theories.

The pro-life presence in Washington on January 6 has been, with few exceptions, largely underreported.

At the Capitol on January 6, anti-abortionist John Brockhoeft, a clinic arsonist associated with the Army of God, joined other anti-abortion militants such as Chad Estes, Bobby Lee and Dave Daubenmire, who said he had a crew of about 120 people with him.

West Virginia politician Derrick Evans, who was arrested for his involvement in the insurrection, had in 2019 violated a restraining order issued to prevent his harassment of an abortion clinic worker.

And Tayler Hansen, a proponent of Baby Lives Matter, was at the door where Capitol police fatally shot Ashli Babbitt as she attempted to enter the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber. 

Abortion Access Front has been identifying the most notorious anti-abortionists stoking insurrectionary fever, many of whom called for further violence and civil war. Numerous representatives from other anti-abortion organizations attended the Trump rally prior to the storming of the Capitol, some of them career anti-abortionists who regularly speak at the annual March for Life. 

Last year, President Trump became the first sitting president to address the March for Life in person. This personal appearance during the 2020 impeachment proceedings against him reminded conservative legislators of his support for the anti-abortion cause, which has enjoyed a transactional relationship with Trump. This year, another impeachment and another March for Life, this time forced to go online, warrant a good look at the contributions of the pro-life movement to Trumpism. 

Assaults on truth and science top the list of those contributions.  At the 2020 March for Life, Trump denounced a current abortion bill as allowing doctors to “execute a baby after birth.” The equation of abortion with infanticide is plausible to some people only because for decades the lie that terminating a pregnancy is the same as murder has migrated from religious belief into secular politics. The road to anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers was paved with anti-abortion contempt for truth, corruption of scientific knowledge, and deployment of junk science that has made pregnancy a crime for anyone who cannot afford a legal team to debunk the junk.

Would people have snubbed their noses at Anthony Fauci if physicians hadn’t for decades been depicted as quacks and bottom-feeders by anti-abortionists? Would we be seeing reports of medical workers sabotaging COVID-19 vaccinations if so-called “conscience clauses” hadn’t already been written into law? Such clauses allowed and encouraged pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, and employers to refuse to grant health insurance for contraception.

Trump’s February 2020 promise that the COVID-19 pandemic would one day disappear “like a miracle” was as false as his remarks about abortion at the March for Life just a month earlier. 

In the wake of the insurrection, Trump’s comments proved more than false; they’re incendiary.  Consequently, we are grappling with the same question about whether inflammatory rhetoric can incite violence, just as we were in the 1990s during the height of anti-abortion terrorism. “Pro-life” murder returned in 2009 when physician George Tiller was gunned down after decades of conservatives calling him “Tiller the killer.” This time, instead of conservative TV commentators, it was the president using incendiary language that incited violence.

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The same violent brew of paramilitary warriors, white supremacists, and Christian militants that we saw descending on the Capitol building merged to oppose abortion with lethal force decades ago. “Pro-lifers” who committed arson and murder also have been militia members and Holocaust deniers.

The defense of their lethal action often appropriates abolitionist and anti-segregation history. Some anti-abortionists denounce Black Lives Matter as anti-Christian, even as they call themselves freedom riders or champions of civil rights. The anti-abortion and white power movements have stoked each other, contributing to a climate in which many white people see themselves as victims of injustice and genocide.

How Trumpism Fostered Anti-Choice Violence
“White power and pro-life forces don’t always agree but they both benefit from and bolster Trumpism.” (Pam Lane / Flickr)

Sometimes sharing that siege mentality, legislators too often decry the violence of their shock troops but make policy that secures what the shock troops demand. In the 1980s and 1990s “pro-life” organizations and legislators condemned mass mobs at clinics and homicides of clinic workers but pushed policies that rewarded such militancy. Legislators and Cabinet members who have only recently separated from Trump have benefited from four years of support obtained by coddling him and his incendiary tweets that fueled conspiracist lies.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is a version of anti-abortion, anti-Semitic stories. They have circulated for decades in “pro-life” videos, fiction and memoir. Even if rates of terminating pregnancies are at a historic low, as they are now, abortions are depicted as more frequent and barbaric than ever before because, purportedly, Satanists organize them in accordance with a “doctrine of demons,” as one group currently sells it. Like QAnon conspiracism, such stories pit a satanic cabal craving baby flesh against humble heroes who can see what less enlightened people cannot.

Resembling QAnon followers’ fears of today’s pandemic, for example, is Gideon’s Torch. In this 1995 novel by Watergate felon Charles Colson, anti-abortionists plan to bomb Washington and hijack the airwaves of broadcast stations. They want to stop government-funded clinics from performing late-term abortions and secretly harvesting “fetal brains,” the key ingredient, they say, for curing AIDS.

This fiction of sacrificing babies for anti-Christian homosexuals traffics in the same blood-libel legend imbuing QAnon ideas that pedophilia and infanticide are organized for the benefit of Satan-worshipping democrats and Hollywood elite. They both are derived from an ancient anti-Semitic myth. White power and pro-life forces don’t always agree but they both benefit from and bolster Trumpism.

How Trumpism Fostered Anti-Choice Violence
A May 2018 protest in Chicago against Trump’s imposition of the gag rule. (Charles Edward Miller / Flickr)

As the new administration and a disintegrating Republican party contends with the aftermath of a violent insurrection propelled by lies, it is clear that we need a national rededication to facts. But correcting widespread misinformation is not enough when people are wrapped up in a story that tells them they are heroic resisters to tyrannical power. We are seeing both religious and secular militants embrace an apocalyptic sense of conflict between dark and light, absolute evil and absolute righteousness. This is not new.

Today’s mélange of right-wing militancy has been stewing a long time. The anti-abortion movement has kept a steady flame beneath it.

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Carol Mason is the author of three books on the rise of the right, including Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-life Politics. She is professor of Gender and Women's Studies at University of Kentucky and faculty affiliate of The Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.