News Religion

Anti-Choice Zealots Convene In Fargo, Hoping To Close State’s Only Clinic

Robin Marty

Their signs scared school children and made the news, but who are the people behind this week's assault on North Dakota's only clinic, and how did Red River Women's Clinic keep clients safe?

On May 1st, a group of about 50 people gathered in Fargo, North Dakota. Their intent? To try and “shut down” the only clinic in the state that provides pregnancy terminations, in the hopes to make it an “abortion-free” state.

Leading the charge was Operation Save America, under the leadership of Rev. Flip Benham. Best known for his belief in “justifiable homicide” and his “Wanted” posters styled to make doctors who provide safe abortion care and those who employ them look like Old West villains (and with the “Dead or Alive” implied), Benham has been arrrested multiple times for stalking.

But although they are leading the States of Refuge movement, they are by no means the only group involved. And for some of those groups, their calls to action are just as intimidating.

The public face in the media when it came to the Fargo event was a Wisconsin group called “Missionaries to the Preborn.” Formed in Milwauke in the 1990’s, the group’s leader, Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Church, is an outspoken advocate against abortion, and for guns. Trewhella already has his own personal FBI file due to his incendiary rhetoric, his signature on a statement that said killing doctors who perform abortions is “justifiable homicide,” and his alleged “programming” of an anti-abortion extremist to incite him to violence against practitioners.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Giving media interviews was Trewhella disciple (and son-in-law) Jason Storms, a so-called “street and campus evangelist and open air preacher” who sits on the Church board and operates the evangelism “training.” Storms has been detained in prior protests, including one in 2009 in which his followers were charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. Preaching at clinics that perform abortions is a part of the “training sessions” for the church’s outreach wing, as are cross-country trips

The groups didn’t change the mind of any woman seeking care at the clinic, nor did they manage to stop Red River from helping women the following day. They did manage to anger Fargo residents and traumatize a school bus full of elementary school kids who were returning from a choir practice, but other than that, got few results. The anti-choice protesters shouted Bible verses, called patients “murderers,” invoked the Holocaust and even called an escort of color a racial epithet, but unsurprisingly did not get any converts to their cause on the streets that day.

But they could have caused much more emotional harm to the women who visited Red River if not for the reproductive rights supporters who came to the clinic to act as escorts and protect those with appointments. While the “Missionaries” and their followers displayed their blown-up, graphic pictures and threatened patients with brimstone and damnation, escorts quietly provided support and a buffer. 

“Pro-choice and pro-life people were in the same sidewalk. Yet, it was like two different worlds,” said an escort named B. “You see, pro-choice people are not life haters. We love life. Pro-choice people love babies too. I just want to make sure mothers are given the choice to enjoy motherhood not pressured to take on motherhood and see motherhood as a burden.”

As B watched the “Missionaries” preach, she, too, was reminded of the Bible. “I saw books about mother Mary in the hands of some people there. One thing is that even Mother Mary needed protection to give birth to Jesus,” B noted. “How would a society in that age and time would have accepted a woman who claims to be virgin be a mother? It was the angel Gabriel to help her. Well, not all women have angels looking over them. They have issues like health, finances, emotions, to deal with. Since the world is more complicated now. Not everyone is lucky to have a Joseph around, too.”

The States of Refuge left the city later that night, moving on to Bismark, North Dakota, where they brought their graphic signs once more to busy intersections in the center of town.

Next, the group will be in Wyoming, where they will “target” the state’s sole publicly known abortion provider, Dr. Brent Blue. “Spiritually, [stopping Blue] would punch a hole in the sky, and begin to liberate America from blood guilt one state at a time,” said Operation Save America spokesman Rusty Thomas.

As for the women of North Dakota, they’ll now have some time to rest: States of Refuge isn’t coming back again until November.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”