We’ve been told repeatedly that the Republican Party is the party of morals, family, and decency. Georgia Rep. Calvin Hill attempts to embody all three of those during his crusade to save college campuses from sex indoctrination pushed by professors teaching classes like “Sexuality and Society” or “Queer Theory.”
But his political face is one thing. As a business man, he’s actually making a profit off of sex items and gay pride paraphernalia.
the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Jim Galloway reports that, while Hill may think that sex is too hot of a topic for the young adult students at public colleges in the state to handle, he’s perfectly fine making a buck off it. Galloway writes that Hill’s Democratic opponent, Stephanie Webb, has discovered that the company Hill serves as CFO of, Gila Distributing, sells numerous sex gadgets and gay pride paraphernalia through the company. These products include “stress relievers” in the shape of male sex organs and Gay Pride flag lapel pins:
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When West Virginia’s legislature voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation in March, West Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed the ban, deliberately defying the national party’s support of abortion rights.
That move deliberately defied the national party’s support of abortion rights.
“We’re not on the same step with the national party platform,” Rep. David G. Perry (D-Oak Hill), the bill’s primary sponsor, told Rewire. “It doesn’t reflect the majority of West Virginians.”
To be sure, West Virginia Democrats—the dominant party in state government and among registered voters—lean conservative on a range of issues, including energy, environmental, and social issues. Writing at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Micah Cohen noted that in recent years (really since 2000), “[j]ust like Georgia … West Virginia has gone from solid blue to solid red on presidential electoral maps. But unlike Georgia, West Virginia still elects Democrats in statewide races.” Cohen also mentioned West Virginian politicians’ pride in their independence from the national Democratic Party.
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Still, the West Virginia Democrats’ wide support of a 20-week abortion ban sent ripples of delight throughout the anti-choice establishment.
West Virginia’s governor last month vetoed the ban, but not before the state Democrats’ decision to vote in favor of it led the Susan B. Anthony List—a leading anti-choice organization—to claim the Democrats’ move was evidence that a 20-week abortion ban is “modest legislation.”
An analysis by Rewire—using our newly released Rewire Data tool—shows that West Virginia’s Democrats were not alone. A handful of Democratic lawmakers in at least five states have recently broken with the national party and voted against reproductive rights. The anti-choice votes—which include support for some of the most extreme anti-choice bills in the nation—are noteworthy because of the traditionally strong relationships between women’s groups and the Democratic Party.
Erika West, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a nonpartisan reproductive rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C., told Rewire that voters in conservative, mostly anti-choice districts have not been engaged enough by advocates on reproductive rights issues, and thus Democrats in these districts vote anti-choice without much political risk.
“I think unfortunately there are a lot of districts and states in this country where we haven’t proactively—and by we, I mean anybody who’s interested in advancing reproductive freedom for women and families, whether that’s the Democratic Party, which says that they do, or organizations like us—done really deep voter engagement on the issue in a long time and what is at stake,” West said.
The national Democratic Party platform from 2012 contains strong statements in favor of reproductive rights. It says that the party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay” and “oppose[s] any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
The West Virginia Democrats’ support for the 20-week ban defied not only the national party’s stance on abortion rights, but their own.
The Mountain State’s Democratic Party platform says:
The Democratic Party of West Virginia is concerned about the attacks on women’s reproductive health and health services in the US and West Virginia. Although we have made significant gains in women’s health in West Virginia, much remains to be done to improve quality of care and access to comprehensive health services, including family planning.
Asked where West Virginian voters who support abortion rights are supposed to turn, Perry—who said he plans to re-introduce the 20-week abortion ban next term—simply emphasized that they are in the minority in his state.
“I’d say it’s about 10 percent,” he said, estimating the percentage of voters whom he believes support abortion rights in West Virginia, for which he provided no evidence.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio—executive director of WV Free, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocates for reproductive rights in West Virginia—said Perry’s 10 percent estimate is laughable.
“Unfortunately, there’s a perception that West Virginians are anti-choice,” Pomponio told Rewire. “That’s actually not the case at all when you talk to West Virginians about the individual circumstances a woman is facing when she needs abortion care.”
Indeed, in a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Planned Parenthood Health Systems (a Planned Parenthood affiliate, with offices and health centers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) released in early March, 51 to 62 percent of voters surveyed acrossthree West VirginiaSenate districts said abortion should be legal at 20 weeks’ gestation in the event that severe fetal abnormalities are predicted. And 47 to 62 percent of voters in these districts said abortion should generally be legal in all or most cases. (The public poll and accompanying memo were provided to Rewire by Planned Parenthood Health Systems.)
In her 12 years of lobbying on reproductive justice issues in West Virginia, Pomponio said she has seen the Democratic leadership consistently embracing abortion rights in its party platform but trying to skirt away from the issue in the legislature.
“It’s really the only issue that will bring out the worst in people under the capitol dome,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Susan B. Anthony List seized on West Virginia’s Democratic support to try to push for bipartisan backing of the federal 20-week abortion ban—which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but has stalled in the Senate—by targeting U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Earlier this month, the group announced a $20,000 radio ad buy to encourage Manchin “to become the first Democratic senator to cosponsor the federal Pain Capable Unborn Child Act.”
“Momentum is growing for this popular measure to move forward in Washington as well, where Senate Democrats should take a cue from their West Virginia counterparts,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a press release published after West Virginia’s legislature passed the ban last month. “We encourage Senator Joe Manchin to embrace his self-avowed pro-life position and become the first Democratic cosponsor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”
But West Virginia is not the only state where Democrats are flouting their party’s official policy.
In Texas in 2013, the openly anti-choice Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) authored one and co-authored three anti-abortion measures (he sponsored multiple versions of the same bills in different special sessions).
Lucio authored SB 17, which, had it passed, would have required a woman to complete a three-hour adoption course at least 24 hours before she could have an abortion, excepting a pregnant woman with a life-threatening medical condition or a minor whose pregnancy was the result of sexual assault or incest.
And Lucio co-authored:
SB 1, an omnibus abortion bill that included a 20-week abortion ban, admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements, and restrictions on medication abortions. SB 1 was the senate companion bill of HB 2, which was passed and signed into law during the second special legislative session called by Gov. Rick Perry in July 2013. Challenged portions of the law were recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
SB 24, which would have required abortion clinics to comply with the minimum standards for an ambulatory surgical center. The bill failed, but its provisions are included in the omnibus abortion bill that was signed into law last summer.
SB 521, which would have prevented abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood from giving sex education or family planning instruction at public schools.
In Florida last year, openly anti-choice Rep. Daphne D. Campbell (D-Miami Shores) co-sponsored HB 845, or the “Florida Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act,” which, had it passed, would have banned abortions sought because of a child’s anticipated sex or race. The law would have required abortion providers to sign an affidavit attesting that they are not performing the abortion because of the fetus’ sex or race.
Campbell and Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) co-sponsored HB 1129, the “Florida Infants Born Alive Bill,” which stipulates that infants born alive after an attempted abortion are “entitled to the same rights, powers, and privileges as any other child born alive in the course of natural birth.” The bill requires that health-care practitioners who have knowledge of violations to this law report the violations to the state health department.
In Michigan last year, Reps. Terry L. Brown (D-Pigeon) and Charles M. Brunner (D-Bay City)—who claims to have been “Right to Life from the start”—co-sponsored HB 4187, which would have amended Michigan’s informed consent statute to require a physician to perform an ultrasound at least two hours prior to an abortion and offer the patient an opportunity to see the sonogram and hear the fetal heartbeat.
Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Reading) co-sponsored HB 818, signed into law last summer, which prohibits insurance providers from offering abortion coverage in the state’s health exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act, with the exception of reported rape and incest and life-endangerment of the mother.
But NARAL’s Erika West said the vast majority of Democrats around the country are still advocates for reproductive rights, despite the anti-choice votes of a small number of lawmakers.
Coming into this election season, she said she is heartened to see candidates embracing their pro-choice views in campaigns, a strategy she said was proven effective by Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial win in Virginia last November.
“What we’re seeing is a lot more Democratic candidates leaning in,” West said, referring to the issue of abortion rights and reproductive freedom. “We wish we had some Republican folks as well doing the same, but more Democratic candidates are leaning into the issue and using it effectively as an attack point against anti-choice opponents.”
Anti-abortion “abolitionists” believe the only way to end abortion is to convert the entire country to their version of Christianity, thereby making the very concept of abortion “unthinkable” to the masses.
Jered Michael Ragon has strapped his GoPro camera to his body, just so, allowing its lens to peer over the four-foot tall cardboard poster he holds, showing a photograph of what looks to be a bloody, dismembered human fetus surrounded by medical instruments. He’s got his camera trained on the passenger side of a grey pick-up truck driven by a dark-haired woman who’s giving him what most Texas kids would swiftly recognize as an ass-chewing.
The woman doesn’t have a problem with what Ragon stands for—or rather, what he stands against: legal abortion. She also opposes abortion. But she doesn’t like his methods, which include 25-year-old Ragon taking up his regular post on a public sidewalk outside a multi-story Fort Worth high school, where he’s spending this particular March week bringing the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to teenagers via oversized, graphic posters ostensibly meant to represent common, legal abortion procedures and their aftermath.
“I agree with what he’s saying,” the driver tells me as she pulls away. “But I don’t like how he’s doing it.”
Ragon, a white man, is a self-described “abolitionist.” He decries legal abortion as the modern-day equivalent of American chattel slavery.
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He is also a convicted felon who, seven years ago, tried to set fire to a small-town church and who, according to sworn witness statements taken at the time, also aimed to burn down “evil” day-care centers for offering alternatives to “actual parenting.”
“We show pictures of [abortion] to demonstrate the evil of it,” Ragon told me. “And to ignite a response that just generally comes out of our humanity. It’s troubling, it’s disturbing, and it should be.”
The Language of Abolitionism
It is no accident that Ragon both calls himself an “abolitionist” and that his group uses these so-called disturbing images. He sees himself as carrying on the tradition of 19th century anti-slavery activists, who he says similarly tried to shock their fellow Americans into action.
But to reproductive justice advocates who do anti-racist work, the deliberate conflation of abortion and slavery is a familiar—and facile—attempt to drive a “racial wedge” both in black communities and in pro-choice communities. Feminist activist and theorist Loretta Ross, the former national coordinator of SisterSong, a women of color-led reproductive justice collective, has been fighting this kind of rhetoric for decades.
“I’m not surprised that they’re adopting the language of the anti-slavery movement,” Ross told me. “It’s what they try to do, to co-opt the language of civil rights, anti-slavery, to assume that they can take the moral high ground while they’re trying to subsume the rights of women—particularly Black women.”
If abortion is slavery, what of the American slaves who had no control over their own reproductive choices, who were raped and forced to birth their own children into slavery? What of their decisions to end their pregnancies, prompted, as Ross writes when she paraphrases Angela Davis, by “the miserable social conditions that dissuaded them from bringing new lives into the world”? What of the Black American families torn apart at slave markets, of parents permanently separated from their children?
“One of the fundamental contradictions of [the anti-abortion ‘abolitionist’] position is that they’re going to deny the human rights of Black women as a way to call themselves protecting the rights of fetuses,” said Ross. “You can’t save Black children by discriminating against Black women.”
But the anti-abortion “abolitionists” I spoke to seem hell-bent—or perhaps in their view, heaven-bent—on taking what Ragon calls an “uncompromising” stance on abortion: it should be illegal, without exception, and people who get abortions should be tried as first-degree murderers. These “abolitionists” believe the only way to achieve this, on a national scale, is not to advocate for comprehensive sex education or affordable contraception, or to even discuss the fact that Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes, but to convert the entire country to their version of Christianity, thereby making the very concept of abortion “unthinkable” to the masses.
And they’re starting with America’s teenagers.
High Schools as Anti-Abortion “Front Lines”
People who oppose abortion—whether or not they self-identify as “abolitionists”—have been using graphic fetus images for decades. Many of the most common images were produced more than 20 years ago, using medical remains from later abortion procedures that anti-abortion groups say they stole from clinics. Yet those remains—if their origins are to be believed—represent only a small percentage of all abortions performed in the United States. Over 90 percent of abortions in the United States take place before 12 weeks’ gestation.
Whatever their provenance, or representative veracity, the images are certainly arresting. Deliberately so. Which is why Ragon and those who join him in the anti-abortion “abolitionist” movement generally prefer to display them not in front of abortion clinics—though they do do that, occasionally—but to teenagers going to and from school.
Teens haven’t yet decided how they feel about abortion, said Ragon, which makes them better targets than people already on their way to the abortion clinic.
“Strategically, a lot of times high schoolers maybe haven’t made up their mind,” he told me, when we met at a suburban Fort Worth coffee shop in March. “They’re in a place that is teaching them a lot of things that are anti-biblical.”
Why wait, then, until after the unintended pregnancy that brings a 16-year-old through clinic doors?
“When somebody is at an abortion clinic, their intent at that time is to actually go and kill their child, or as we put it, ‘have an abortion,’” said Ragon, intonating air quotes. “Their intent is not, ‘I’m going to come here and see my options.’ They’ve weighed their options and they’re pretty well made up in their mind about doing it.”
For “abolitionists,” that makes high schools the new “front lines” of an anti-abortion movement that situates itself well to the right of mainstream “pro-life” organizations. These new “abolitionists” have co-opted the language of 19th century anti-slavery groups, positioning themselves as “immediatists” who see any regulation of abortion as capitulating to the moral failings of a sin-soaked society that condones some, if not all, abortions.
“They’ve always been on the public right of way,” a Fort Worth Independent School District spokesperson told me. “They are certainly entitled to express their opinions.”
But there is expressing an opinion, and then there is confronting a school bus full of teenagers at 8:00 in the morning with a four-foot dismembered fetus. That kind of deliberate agitation has recently found opposition among anti-choice leaders, one of whom told Slate in January that it’s time his movement changed tactics. The time for bloody fetuses has passed; enter the era of cuddly newborns, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Joe Carter told Slate:
“We don’t need to do this by showing bloody fetuses to get a gag reflex,” he says. “We need to do this by invoking our neighbors’ natural love for children. We do this by showing babies as natural parts of our lives.”
In a January New York Times piece, a reporter similarly softened the face of the anti-choice movement, choosing a “plump” grandmother as his central character in a piece on abortion clinic buffer zones, areas beyond which anti-abortion protesters cannot venture in their efforts to dissuade—and in some cases, harass and attack—people who seek abortions, to the extent that many abortion clinics use volunteer escorts to shield their patients from protesters who sometimes spit, yell, and throw ketchup.
“I was a bad dude,” admits Ragon, who said that as a teenager, he “loved destruction” and was “violent” and “evil.” But, he adds: “There’s no justification for any wrong that I’ve ever done.”
A Burleson police report details what happened back in 2007, when Ragon was an 18-year-old Fight Club enthusiast leading Bible studies for his buddies at a local community center: He and three friends, seeing what they believed to be the impending moral demise of society, decided they wanted to “wake up” their apathetic Christian brethren by setting fire to a newly constructed church. The church has a racially diverse membership, and the guys told police they chose it because it was “secluded.”
According to witness statements, what transpired that July 4th was alternately frightening and comical. Sometime around 8 p.m., Ragon and his buddies built a Molotov cocktail, pouring gasoline and chlorine into a bottle and using a t-shirt as a wick. Ragon, along with Michael Plaisted, Dayton Calaway, and an unidentified fourth person, pulled up behind the new Victory Family Church building in Plaisted’s truck and tried to set the homemade bomb on fire, but all it did was smoke.
Bad timing, though: as the guys were futzing with the apparatus trying to light it, one of Victory’s deacons pulled up to the construction site with his wife and her sister and brother-in-law, hoping to show off the new building. Driving around the back of the church, the adults startled the teenagers mid-arson. Calaway and Plaisted took off running down a nearby road, while Ragon and the unidentified accomplice fled in the pickup to destroy their stash of bomb-building evidence.
Calaway and Plaisted didn’t get far: church deacon Marty Beeson trailed the pair on foot, watching as the two guys “were tripping and falling” in deep mud along the road, losing their shoes. Beeson managed to detain the pair until police arrived.
Meanwhile, as Calaway and Plaisted made their muddy escape attempt, Ragon arrived at the secluded area where they’d prepped the bomb, making a pile of chlorine tablets and glass and dousing everything in gasoline—including, he would soon discover, on his own sandals.
As Ragon lit their stash, he also lit his feet and shoes on fire. According to witnesses who saw Ragon running from the scene, but who initially mistook the goings-on for Independence Day fireworks, the fire shot flames as high as 20 feet.
Smelling of “burning flesh,” Ragon jumped in his own truck, parked at the bomb-making site, and made it to a friend named Jason Stevens’ house. The pair then headed for the local CVS to get bandages and burn ointment.
According the statement Stevens gave to police, Ragon sent him into the drugstore with his debit card and one instruction: “Spare no expense” on burn cream and bandages. Ragon also told Stevens to buy Axe body spray to cover up the stench of his burning feet.
Police later found a Fight Club DVD in Ragon’s truck, and interviewed the young men about their all-male group’s three-tiered belief system. All members were required to attend Bible study, but they could also choose to “cleanse themselves” through physically fighting each other, which Plaisted told police was a “way to get back to basic human instincts and therefore to cleanse themselves of the noise of society, like self-gratification and self-improvement.” At the third level, members could choose to participate in “destructive acts.”
Jason Stevens told police that Ragon often joked that “it would be better” if day care centers all “burned to the ground,” and that he also spoke to him about living “in a world without power plants.” According to Stevens, Ragon’s philosophy for the group was that “everything is vain in life except for God,” and he told police that Ragon had suggested a seemingly random assortment of other potential targets, including porta-potties, recycling bins, and warehouses.
Seven years after their arson attempt, Plaisted and Ragon reunited for Project Frontlines, protesting together in front of Paschal High School, a top-rated Fort Worth school near Texas Christian University (TCU).
Paschal senior Iris Hayes told me she was initially “disgusted,” when she saw the posters that Ragon and Plaisted carried in front of her school, but also came to dislike their “indoctrination” message and fear their history of violence.
“At first I was talking to them like they were a normal person, and then I found out they’re terrorists,” she recalled. A detailing the men’s church-bombing attempt made its way through Paschal’s virtual halls via Facebook, and Hayes, a media-savvy 17-year-old who aspires to someday be the editor of French Vogue, organized a counter-protest with friends from nearby TCU.
Arriving to school early in the morning carrying posters showing kittens, puppies, baby rabbits, and foxes, Hayes tried to shield her classmates from Ragon’s shocking imagery.
“Everyone loves baby animals,” said Hayes. “I just smiled and waved.”
While some of her peers thought it would be better not to draw any additional attention to the “abolitionist” group, Hayes saw an opportunity to open up a public conversation.
“I thought it was better to bring attention to it, because the media would definitely take the side of a student protest,” she said. And the media did take notice: the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an article on Hayes’ counter-protest, and followed it up with an editorial later that week that called Hayes “sharp,” and the demonstrations a “civics-lesson-come-to-life.”
In the aftermath of the Paschal protest, and at the Abolitionist Society of Fort Worth’s subsequent appearances at other local high schools, residents and parents have expressed concerns about men with an established history of violence setting up these intentionally provocative and confrontational demonstrations, and started online petitions in an attempt to block the “abolitionists” from holding placards and handing out materials near schools.
Ragon denies that he is now, or ever was, a “terrorist,” calling the word a “slanderous accusation.”
“The terrorist thing would imply that I am at this time engaging in some sort of fear-mongering or violent action,” he told me. Instead, he said he tries to explain to anyone who would call him a terrorist “why I’m there and what I did in the past, and what God’s done in spite of my poor actions.”
In front of Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, as students head inside, a group of activists led by Jered Michael Ragon stand just steps away trying to preach their anti-choice message. (Andrea Grimes)
A Gray Reality
I first met with Ragon on a windy March morning at an independent coffee shop—really, little more than a tiny house with an espresso machine and a panini press—in downtown Burleson, not knowing precisely what to expect. I’d watched some of his group’s YouTube videos—they frequently post clips of their attempts to convert skeptical teenagers, some ofwhom they refer to as “idolators”—and read up on Ragon’s criminal history. I was half-expecting to come face-to-face with a nihilistic, anti-abortion; instead, I sat across a chilly patio table from an unfailingly polite—he repeatedly called me ma’am, though I’m just five years his senior—and thoughtfully spoken man with a Bible and GoPro camera in tow. The camera goes along with Ragon on all his Abolitionist Society of Fort Worth business, perpetually turned out to the world, recording his interactions with the public and, in this case, a reporter.
When I asked Ragon to tell me about his “abolitionist” philosophy, he held up his Bible: “It’s basically just this.”
“We believe that abortion is sin,” he told me, “and that if you were to try to, for instance, regulate sin, regulate evil, that you’re actually compromising with it.” This is the basis of his “abolitionist” view—that incremental regulation of abortion tacitly condones some abortion, which pits him against mainstream groups like Texas Right to Life, which recently fought, successfully, .
“A 20-week fetal pain bill is actually teaching people that it’s OK to kill children under 20 weeks,” said Ragon. “The incrementalism actually even teaches people that that’s morality. Because some people, unfortunately, derive their morality from the legislation that goes on around them. It’s supposed to be the other way around.”
Instead of legislative change, Ragon wants to “change the culture.”
“You could make abortion illegal tomorrow, and what’s gonna happen? You know, like I do, it’s just going to keep happening,” he said. “We actually want to stop abortion. We want to make it unthinkable.”
As Ragon spoke, I could hear echoes of the teenager I myself used to be, infatuated by the easy, black-and-white promises of an uncomplicated, us-versus-them evangelical Christian mentality predicated on the idea of personal persecution and blind to the nuances of a much more gray reality.
Ragon and I grew up in neighboring Fort Worth suburbs, he in Burleson and me in nearby Mansfield. Fort Worth prides itself on being “where the West begins,” and unlike its politically blue Metroplex neighbor, Dallas, Fort Worth and its environs remain red with tinges of purple. The sprawling suburbs are filled with planned communities, casual dining restaurants, and sizeable Protestant and evangelical churches.
When I drove up from Austin to interview Ragon and shadow him at a high school protest, I stayed at my parents’ house and slept in my childhood bed. My mom has taken down the rows of torn-out Rolling Stone covers that once wallpapered my room, opting instead to paint it a soothing lilac-blue, but the closet shelves still hold bibles, yearbooks, and journals I haven’t yet boxed up.
Those journals contain some of the most overwrought, earnest teen angst poetry yet unearthed by (wo)man, a fair bit of it concerning abortion—or at least abortion as imagined by a teenage Republican punk-rock virgin who fancied herself the voice of a generation lost to the selfish whims of murderous baby-killers. I saw abortion as the “genocide” of my generation, never once considering the weight of the word or its deeply racist implications.
I channeled my passion into howling, Jewel-esque homemade recordings made on a failing karaoke machine and distributed to my friends at school and at local Christian heavy metal shows.
Today, I raise money to directly fund abortion care for low-income Texans who cannot otherwise afford safe, legal procedures, and my politics run distinctly to the free abortion—and free health care generally—on demand end of the spectrum.
My transformation from aspiring Christian radio slut-shamer to bona-fide abortion funder wasn’t particularly remarkable—it more or less amounted to my moving across the country for college and benefitting from the culture shock that came with living in New York City, far away from the comfort—and repression—of small-town Texas. Removed from the careful supervision of my parents and the judgmental gossip of my church youth group, I had sex with my college boyfriend. I liked it. I didn’t want to be pregnant, and I realized that I had no right to tell any other person when, whether, or how to carry a pregnancy. Today, at 30 years old, I have never had an abortion, and I have never been pregnant—if the vasectomy gods are good to my husband and I, I never will be.
But I do know what it’s like to be afraid of pregnancy, to spend days on end in a haze of fear and worry. I am thankful for the privilege of being able to imagine accessing a safe, legal abortion as a white, documented Texan living in a major metropolitan area, and am thankful that I—and these days, myself and my husband—have had the financial means to access reliable contraception.
I also watch with joy as my friends document their pregnancies through Instagram and hilariously honest Facebook updates, as they share the uncertainty and elation of the adoption process, and as they raise their sweet, rambunctious, curious kids. Less often, I will hear their abortion stories; these usually come in private, but can be no less fraught—or joyful—than the experience of pregnancy or parenting.
I want these things—the ability to choose not to be pregnant, the ability to raise healthy children—for all Texans, for all Americans, for all people. To that end, I consider myself part of a larger reproductive justice movement that focuses not only on “choice,” but on challenging the systemic factors that prevent people from being able to make agent, affirmative decisions toward having healthy families, whatever shape those families may take.
“Misogynoir Dressed Up in Baby Booties”
The reproductive justice framework, which acknowledges the fundamental need for widespread systemic change in order to empower people to combat inextricably interconnected forms of institutionalized oppression, couldn’t be more different from the anti-abortion “abolitionist” ideology. In order for their “abortion is slavery” claims to maintain their logic, “abolitionists” must situate American slavery as a personal moral failing of the slave owner, rather than an incarnation of the worst kind of systemic oppression, perpetrated on a variety of levels, and for a variety of reasons, by individuals, corporate bodies, and governments. Anti-abortion “abolitionists” fundamentally reject systemic solutions that would address many of the reasons people seek out abortion in the first place, instead arguing that it is an individual “godlessness” that lies at the heart of every abortion decision.
“Their education is what will keep them from doing stuff like that,” says the man, rolling down his window and gesturing to the poster propped up in front of the “abolitionist.” Before the man in the truck can finish his thought, the “abolitionist” speaks over him:
“No it’s not, it’s godlessness!” he cries, continuing: “It’s not any kind of education or socio-economic class, it’s godlessness that’s the reason why people kill their children.”
The majority of people who have abortions are already parents; , three-quarters of abortion patients reported that “having a child would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependents.” A similar percentage of patients told researchers that they could not afford to have a baby at the time of their abortion, and nearly half said that they “did not want to be a single mother” or were having “relationship problems.”
And because Black women have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than do non-Hispanic white women, they also have higher rates of abortion. Black women are also more likely to be low-income and to be uninsured—which is no cosmic accident, nor any reflection of some kind of bizarre, widespread “godlessness” among Black women, but rather a reflection of the reality of being a person of color in a country where institutionalized racism still prevails, 150 years after the end of the Civil War. Black women make 64 cents to every dollar a white, non-Hispanic male makes. (For more context: Hispanic women also have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than white women, and make 54 cents to every dollar a white, non-Hispanic male makes.)
To equate abortion with slavery in a country where Black women must fight against the double oppressions of both racism and misogyny—oppressions encompassed in the term misogynoir, coined by activist scholar Moya Bailey of Emory University and the Crunk Feminist Collective—ignores the continuing consequences of anti-Black racism in America, and the enduring ideological dominance of white supremacy, which promises people of color that if they play the game of respectability politics correctly and publicly perform the right kind of “whiteness,” they will be rewarded with some measure of acknowledgment of their basic humanity.
If Black women play the game wrongly, or not at all, they risk being—as in, theymost certainly will be—derided as “ghetto,” welfare queens, and Jezebels. As Tamara Winfrey Harris wrote in 2012 for Bitch, “Respectability politics allow both the white and black communities to lay claim to black women’s bodies.”
While there are Black women in the anti-abortion “abolitionist” movement—Irin Carmon at MSNBC spoke to Sisleigh Harmon, a Black woman who home-schools her children with her white “abolitionist” husband Tony—the movement’s “servant leaders” are white American men who pattern themselves after white American anti-slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
But for a movement that so proudly drapes itself in appropriative, self-congratulatory anti-slavery terminology, outright discussions of race in anti-abortion “abolitionism”—at least, any discussions that go beyond a white savior complex that manifests in the form of simplified sloganeering—seem to be rare, perhaps because the most obvious question is the most illustrative of the movement’s inherent racism and its attendant dehumanization and erasure of Black women, and Black women’s agency: If abortion is slavery, and fetuses are slaves, are pregnant people—are pregnant Black women—slave owners?
The comparisons are often tailored for the Black community and lobbed at Black women by the same forces who erect billboards in Black communities that scream “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb,” blissfully ignorant of the bitter irony of feigning concern for Black children even as they appropriate images of Black girls to spread their anti-choice propagandistic messages, and wage war against social programs—public assistance, food benefits, health care, sex education, fair pay—that would permit Black women to not only choose motherhood, but to raise healthy children.
Gandycalls the “abolitionist” logic “twisted and bizarre.”
“I would understand if they were like, ‘We want to reduce abortion, but we want to make it easier for Black women to raise children and have children,'” Gandy told me.
But “abolitionist” concerns appear to begin and end at a person’s womb. Jered Ragon never brought up concerns about Black maternal mortality or poverty rates, though he did tell me his group would happily help a pregnant person pay rent. He even seemed unsure about the mission of , saying they “help indigent mothers and stuff.” Ragon told me he was unable to contact any of the women he says his group has aided, though he said the Abolitionist Society of Fort Worth has “lot of families that want to adopt.”
But any putative “abolitionist” concern for the “unborn” that doesn’t also include a dedication to systematically empowering people who may become pregnant, and also to dismantling racism and racist institutions, is nothing more than misogynoir dressed up in baby booties.
Loretta Ross, whose African-American Women and Abortion presents a nuanced history of Black women’s reproductive experiences in the United States since the Civil War, told me that she sees the anti-abortion “abolitionist” movement as “self-congratulatory,” rather than ideologically persuasive. She laughed with pleasure when I told her of the Paschal High School student counter-protest involving giant posters of cute baby animals.
“[‘Abolitionists’] are radicalizing young people that they hadn’t planned on doing so,” she said, when they prompt pro-choice responses to their macabre protests. “That’s when you can become convinced that they’re not caring about young people or being particularly persuasive. They’re really concerned about getting their names in the newspaper and becoming self-congratulatory.”
At the same time, anti-abortion “abolitionists” espouse a policy of nonviolence, while employing tactics that are not only visually aggressive and potentially highly triggering, but which specifically target people’s children, often in front of their very eyes, as they drop their kids off for school in the morning, or pick them up in the afternoons.
Following that narrative, “abolitionists” play fast and loose with history, lumping together a variety of unique, and uniquely horrific, human crimes. Ragon told me that his group’s use of bloody fetus pictures comes not only from their “abolitionist” roots, but ties in with opposition to the Holocaust—another favorite comparison frequently made by anti-choice groups.
“Just like with the Holocaust,” Ragon told me, “we’ve accumulated so many pictures of what was actually going on, the piles of bodies. We do that with any genocide, with any human rights violation.”
The casual manner with which Ragon equates the very different, and very real, atrocities of genocide, the Holocaust, and American slavery diminishes the experiences and traumas that are particular to the people, and peoples, who experienced those things. To compare abortion to any of these—and to all of these, as Ragon does—is to cast aside all context, is to render those who committed and benefitted from these acts into some blurry nether-ness, a random and non-specific evil that has no earthly origin.
And without an earthly origin—without examining the specific social, historical, and economic realities that converge to permit and perpetuate these atrocities—they have no earthly solution.
As a result, the anti-abortion “abolitionist” has absolved himself of any personal responsibility to address systemic oppression and inequality, instead pivoting to what appears to be—despite repeated, unprovoked protestations—a remarkably self-aggrandizing, single-minded ministerial stance centered on the aggressive delivery of a highly specific interpretation of the Bible that rejects the concept of evolution, calls non-procreative, non-marital sex immoral, and casts “Hebrew slavery,” as outlined in the Bible, as a “loving act” meant to protect debtors, according to one “abolitionist” I spoke to at a Fort Worth high school protest.
The anti-abortion “abolitionist” pales at the thought of affordable contraception and would deny the students they preach to—the students they preach at—access to comprehensive sex education.
And the anti-abortion “abolitionist” would see people who obtain abortions tried in court as murderers, sending them into the increasingly for-profit U.S. prison system—a particularly gruesome irony considering that .
In her powerful lecture on the prison industrial complex and slavery, Angela Davis notes that “race matters when it comes to determining who gets to go to prison, and who doesn’t,” and that Black women have the fastest growing rate of imprisonment in the United States. Davis draws a clear line between slavery—under which Black Americans could be put to death for many, many more offenses than could free white persons—and the continuing existence of capital punishment, noting that “when slavery was abolished, capital punishment was not.”
“The continuation of the existence of capital punishment is itself a racist phenomenon,” argues Davis, “regardless of the race of those individuals upon whom the death penalty is visited.”
Ragon, who continues his tour of Fort Worth high schools when he’s not working nights as a waiter, told me that “if abortion becomes illegal, it would definitely necessitate that it be treated as murder.” Women, he told me, should be tried as if they had hired a contract killer to murder their child. “It would bear the same legal penalty as murder.”
It bears observing that in Texas, where Ragon lives, murder-for-hire is a capital offense.