GettyImages-1148051271.jpg

 A deeply troubling anti-abortion movement is quickly gaining steam across the United States, going from the fringes to the mainstream in just a matter of years. As Prism reported yesterday, the so-called abolitionist movement’s beliefs and ideologies are shaped by men like Rusty Thomas and Matthew Trewhella, pastors and longtime anti-abortion activists who believe violence against abortion providers is justified.

Thomas and Trewhella now work closely with abortion abolition organizations such as Oklahoma’s Abolish Human Abortion and Free the States, which view themselves as separate from what they call the “secular pro-life movement.” More importantly, these groups—led by Russell Hunter and former-gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher, among others—believe that abortion constitutes homicide and that people seeking abortion care should be criminalized and subject to the death penalty.

Prism wanted to know: What is it like for clinics and reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates in Oklahoma, a state that has had an active anti-abortion movement for decades and now seems to be home to the abortion abolition movement? Katie Knutter, a longtime abortion advocate in the state and a board member of Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, said, “It’s definitely scary.”

“Whether they make it explicitly clear or not, they are tied to the militia movement because of who they work with, and they are definitely advocates for this sovereign states ideology,” Knutter said, referring to the idea that a state should be able to override the federal government. “It’s very disturbing because we’ve seen time and time again that these are the groups that are willing to take action outside of the law. These guys actively speak out against the federal government [in relation to abortion]. I don’t know if people in the state understand the overlap between the violence we saw before and what we’re seeing with these [abolitionists] today.”

The rise of the abolitionists

Oklahoma has been no stranger to the extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement. In 1996, a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow was bombed. In 1997, a Tulsa abortion clinic was attackedwith Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, and gunshots over the course of a few weeks. Nationwide, violence against clinics and care providers exploded in the 1990s as dangerous anti-abortion organizations such as Operation Rescue and Operation Save America—groups Thomas and Trewhella are tied to—began targeted campaigns against care providers and clinics, culminating in the murders of three abortion providers.

Around this time, Norman, Oklahoma, saw its own uptick in anti-abortion activism. It regularly took the form of harassment and trespassing, but sometimes it veered into far more violent territory. From January to June 1993, anti-abortion activists went to trial in Norman’s municipal court eight times. In one of those instances, an anti-abortion activist was convicted of assault and battery for attempting to push abortion clinic manager Debby Burns into a car and then pulling her away from it. Burns is still the clinic manager at the Abortion Surgery Center in Norman, where her husband, Dr. Larry Burns, has provided abortion care for 40 years.

Knutter has witnessed the rise of Oklahoma’s abortion abolitionists. Her work around reproductive health, rights, and justice began in 2009, when she was a student at the University of Oklahoma. This was around the same time that pro-choice advocates on campus began to encounter a new group called Abolish Human Abortion. In their first few years, Knutter said, they mostly put up flyers and passed out leaflets that used “inflammatory” language, comparing abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. As time went on, Knutter said, their tactics became “more disturbing.”

During Knutter’s time at the University of Oklahoma, a “crisis pregnancy center” called the Eden Clinic held a fundraising event on campus that coincided with a Women’s History Month event hosted by the department of women’s and gender studies. The fake clinic’s fundraiser was attended by a former state representative from east Norman, Aaron Stiles, who, according to a student’s account, threatened students with arrest while physically pushing his way through their group and taking photos. A news article about the altercation was published, drawing the attention of Abolish Human Abortion. The abortion abolitionist group made and disseminated what Knutter called “wanted-style posters,” featuring the images of students taken by Stiles.

“This kind of thing isn’t new in the anti-choice movement, but it felt different in Oklahoma. Something was shifting,” Knutter said.

The Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice board member said she lost track of Abolish Human Abortion around 2012 when she took a job in Kansas, a stronghold of Operation Rescue and the site of the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion care provider in Wichita. Prior to murdering him in his church, anti-abortion groups terrorized Tiller. In 1986, they bombed his clinic, and in 1991, Operation Rescue blockaded Tiller’s clinic for nearly six weeks as part of what it called the “Summer of Mercy.” In 1993, a member of the Christian terrorist group Army of God attempted to assassinate Tiller and shot him in both arms.

Knutter is now back in Oklahoma and said that it’s “disturbing” to see how far Abolish Human Abortion has come. The organization’s founder, Russell Hunter, went on to co-found Free the States, a seemingly well-funded and well-connected nonprofit that has close connections with Oklahoma lawmakers, including Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk, a self-identified abortion abolitionist who in 2019 introduced Oklahoma Senate Bill 13. The bill would ban legal abortion in Oklahoma and make it a crime to access abortion care or assist someone in accessing care, subjecting all parties to life in prison. 

Abortion violence

Julie Burkhart has been in close proximity to anti-abortion violence and told Prism that there are real reasons to fear the abolitionists in Oklahoma.

Burkhart is the founder and chief executive officer of Trust Women, which has clinics in Wichita and Oklahoma City. Burkhart started the organization after the murder of Tiller, who was her boss for seven years. During the so-called Summer of Mercy, Burkhart worked at Wichita Women’s Center. But the harassment and violence experienced by patients and clinic staff is not a thing of the past. According to the latest statistics available from the Feminist Majority Foundation, which tracks anti-abortion violence annually, nearly half of U.S. abortion clinics in 2018 experienced at least one incident of severe violence, threats of severe violence, and/or severe harassment. One in four abortion clinics also experienced the most severe types of threats and violence, including death threats, stalking, and blocking of clinic access.

During Free the State’s February conference in Norman, Burkhart said, the harassment that patients and clinic staff received at Trust Women’s Oklahoma City clinic was “particularly bad and aggressive.” Several anti-abortion protesters trespassed on the clinic’s property. More generally, Burkhart said, she regularly has to call the police on protesters.

“The Oklahoma Police Department has not been helpful. Officers come out and do the minimum and then I’ve literally seen them walk over and tell the [anti-abortion protesters] that they sympathize with them. To me, that’s frightening. It leaves me wondering if the police would really have our back if something happened at the clinic. My feeling is that no, they wouldn’t,” Burkhart said.

Abolitionists in particular seem to make a point of harassing and stalking anyone associated with the clinic, no matter how far removed they are from providing abortion care. Several years ago, when Trust Women’s Oklahoma City clinic was being renovated, Abolish Human Abortion activists harassed construction workers and contractors who were working on the building. Protesters with the group filmed workers and then somehow identified them, found out if they attended religious services, and sent the footage to their church pastors, according to Burkhart. 

A hidden agenda?

When Burkhart first encountered abolitionists around 2009, she said, she was taken aback by their appearance, something that was also noted by Knutter. “When I first saw them protesting at the University of Oklahoma, I noticed that they were all youngish, white, hipster-like guys,” Burkhart said, noting that, in her experience, anti-abortion protesters are often middle-aged men and women who identify as “pro-life.” Seeing young, bearded, and often tattooed white men on the frontlines was a marked shift.

Burkhart isn’t the only one who’s made this observation. In 2017, The New York Postfeatured a video of Jeff Durbin, calling him an “extremist hipster who wants to execute women who have an abortion.” Durbin is a close partner and associate of Abolish Human Abortion and Free the States. He is also a pastor at Arizona’s Apologia Church and the leader of the anti-abortion group Red Door Ministry.

“The anti-choice movement definitely has a history of ties to white supremacists,” Burkhart said. “I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here, but it’s definitely something we wonder about—especially because they’re so closely aligned with guys who were in militias.”

As Prism previously reported, the path Free the States is attempting to take to abolish abortion runs through state sovereignty; it hopes that Oklahoma could nullify Roe v. Wade. This approach is popular among white nationalist groups, who believe that state governors, legislators, and judges are morally and legally obligated to “interpose,” or put themselves between the Supreme Court and laws they believe to be unjust. These same tactics are commonly used to advance neo-Confederate agendas. Like neo-Confederate groups, abolitionists also incorporate advocacy of traditional gender roles and hostility toward democracy, and strongly oppose homosexuality. Both neo-Confederate and abortion abolitionists have made serious inroads in the Republican Party.

“I don’t think people have a clear understanding of all the scary ties these abolitionists have, and I wonder, if they did know about all of these connections, if they would make an effort to distance themselves,” Burkhart said. “But I also think [abolitionists’] agenda is largely hidden. They’re not like the guys before them who put it all out in the open. Maybe that’s the lesson they learned from them.”

Do not engage

For advocates on the ground, understanding the ideology of this particular wing of the anti-abortion movement—and dealing with its tactics—takes a toll. Priya Desai and Danielle Williams, members of Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, told Prism that one of their members was pregnant when abortion abolitionists began organizing to classify abortion as homicide. Abolitionists knew her name and where she worked, and they regularly harassed her. Desai said the experience traumatized her. The group also reports that abolitionists have harassed and stalked a provider in Norman at his home “on multiple occasions,” and that in 2019, when Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice hosted a series of events that drew abolitionist protesters, one of the abolitionists was seen walking through the parking lot and recording the license plate numbers of attendees.

“As matter of safety, because we are vastly outnumbered and underresourced, we have a strict ‘do not engage’ policy when they are around. They will verbally [assault] and even come close to physically assaulting and provoking anyone who gives them head space. They are particularly insufferable and violent to be around,” Desai said. “My concern for providers, patients, and advocates is the mental toll it takes to deal with such dangerous people. The level of safety planning and constant vigilance can be absolutely draining.”

And it is hard not to respond to their harassment, especially when anti-abortion protesters go out of their way to get a reaction. This was the case with a Tulsa, Oklahoma, Peaceful Presence Clinic escort, who, Desai said, was “verbally assaulted” by an Abolish Human Abortion protester, who repeatedly told her that “God took her husband as a warning to her.” Naturally, the escort had a very strong response to the protester’s taunts.

Knutter said it’s wise to take abolitionists seriously, especially given their extreme ideology and their ties to the militia movement. But it’s not the public-facing figures she’s concerned about.

“As with any militia or anti-abortion group, it’s not the leaders I think will engage in violence,” Knutter said, noting that Scott Roeder, the man convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Tiller, wasn’t a leader or even a prominent member of the anti-choice movement. “If you’ve worked in clinics long enough, you know that it’s not really the person who you see protesting every week that you have to worry about; it’s the person who comes from out of state who’s been influenced by the rhetoric, and they’re showing up for one purpose.” 

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.