Analysis Religion

An Anti-Choice Group’s Extreme Tactics Backfire in Jackson, Mississippi

Laurie Bertram Roberts

Abolish Human Abortion has made it its business to disrupt—and many would say terrorize—Fondren, the Jackson neighborhood that has been home to the state's last abortion clinic for nearly 20 years.

In February 2013, several other people and I were escorting patients to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO), the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. Amid the protesters from Operation Rescue (OR) and Operation Save America (OSA) who were in their usual places holding big gory bloody fetus signs, shouting “Don’t kill your baby,” and reading scripture loudly, I saw a few people wearing “I’m an abolitionist” t-shirts. These picketers seemed a bit more aggressive: When they saw Black patients, they would yell, “Do you know abortion is Black genocide?”

I was gobsmacked. As a Black woman who can trace her family back to a plantation in Alabama, who that very day was standing on the ground that my Black ancestors died cultivating and helping to settle after it was stolen from our Native American sisters and brothers, the slogan on these newcomers’ t-shirts and their messages to patients were deeply, deeply offensive to me.

That was the first time I remember seeing members of Abolish Human Abortion (AHA), the group who has now made it its business to disrupt—and many would say terrorize—Fondren, the Jackson neighborhood that has been home to JWHO for nearly 20 years. Last month, it took its strategy to an even more intense level by launching what its members call the “Project Nineveh March.” But rather than convincing people who aren’t sure where they stand to come to the anti-choice side, their extreme tactics have pushed some locals toward supporting reproductive health clinics.

What Is AHA?

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Before 2013, no JWHO volunteers or other local activists can recall seeing the AHA in Jackson. The small, mostly white and male, Oklahoma-based group is fairly new to the anti-choice scene. Still, reproductive justice activists and clinic defense workers already recognize them to be militant and extreme.

AHA members don’t consider themselves to be “pro-life”; instead, they call themselves abolitionists. According to the organization’s website, When you call yourself ‘pro-life,’ you are letting people know what you think about abortion. When you call yourself an abolitionist, you are telling them what you aim to do about it.”

AHA Fondren dropcard front

The only way to ensure “abolition,” according to the AHA, is to change the sinful culture they feel openly condones “child sacrifice in the form of abortion.” There is no middle ground; they are all or nothing. In addition to abortion, they believe in-vitro fertilization is murder. Hormonal birth control and emergency contraception are too. If anyone reads the AHA’s website or interacts with its supporters, it becomes clear their goal is to convert people to their version of Christianity, which will eventually change the culture at large to a place where it is unthinkable for anyone to attempt to access these services. In its members’ view, there is no way to be Christian and pro-choice, because abortion is evil and against God.

For the AHA, belief in religion is central to being part of its movement, and its supporters disdain “pro-lifers” who do not use religion as the central justification for their beliefs or work toward immediate abortion abolition as their only goal. Even so, AHA members attend OSA and OR events, and vice versa; while these anti-choice groups are deeply rooted in fundamentalist Christianity, they often focus on attacking abortion access through regulation rather than on eradication altogether. According to the AHA website, one can be a secular “pro-lifer,” but not a secular abolitionist, since, “To be an abolitionist you must believe in a higher law. One does not need to believe in a higher law or deity to embrace an adverse opinion regarding abortion.”

If the title abolitionist calls to mind images of the United States’ history of slavery, that is by design. AHA is known for its use of imagery and language borrowed from anti-slavery organizations and civil rights groups. Its members are not opposed to using slavery metaphors and imagery of enslaved Africans in their literature, videos, and protest language. One YouTube video posted by the AHA, for example, shows a white male member pointing to a white Jackson police officer and telling his Black colleague, “A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have owned you as a slave.” The AHA member went on to describe the way the Black officer would have been dehumanized if he had been enslaved by his white co-worker, claiming that the white officer would have enjoyed doing so.

AHA members see nothing racist, wrong, or problematic with these kinds of statements, which co-opt civil rights struggles for their own use. They have said as much in many of their online videos as well as their written posts; they have also stated such things when directly confronted by Black citizens of Jackson. Somehow, the fact that they exploit images of Black pain or that they are a group of mostly white men targeting and harassing Black women at clinics is lost on them. They think being in-your-face and offensive is needed to bring change and “shine a light,” as they say, on the “sin and evil” of abortion, IVF, and hormonal birth control.

Most of all, though, they seem concerned that the residents of Jackson are not distressed enough that these things exist in the area. The AHA named Jackson “The City of Blood” this year in its literature and several videos, even though Mississippi has one of the lowest abortion rates in the nation and little access to birth control. It also has one of the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Still, any reproductive rights at all are apparently too much for the AHA.

Why the Fever for Fondren?

Except for its supporters’ appearances at clinic protests and one attack targeting me and my children on Twitter, the AHA was pretty much invisible in the Jackson area during 2013 and early 2014. In late 2014, though, there were rumblings online and throughout the activist community that AHA was starting a specific chapter in the Jackson area. This would mean rather than just parachuting in and causing chaos, they would be building a base of people to keep up a persistent presence like they have done elsewhere.

Now, to understand why AHA—and every anti-choice group in the country—wants to be in Jackson, you need only reflect on the last three years of legislative and legal activity around abortion rights. JWHO, or the “Pink House,” is the only clinic in Mississippi, and its ability to stay open hinges on the latest court ruling from the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The clinic has been to court several times, but every time, anti-choicers hope this will be the time they can dance on the grave of the Pink House and say they helped make Mississippi “abortion-free.” As the case bounces through the courts, more anti-choice activity has been arising—including the establishment of the Jackson AHA chapter.

What's AHA

The residents and businesses of Fondren have long ago become somewhat accustomed to the people who occupy the sidewalks outside the clinic. And if there is one thing I’ve learned in my time as an escort, the president of Mississippi National Organization for Women, and the co-founder of an abortion fund, it’s that even in Mississippi, the buckle of the Bible Belt, clinic protesters get very little love from the community. Business owners who are “pro-life” and do not actually support the clinic, per se, will all come together in agreement that the harassment outside the clinic isn’t “sidewalk counseling” or good for anyone. It creates a hostile and abusive environment around the clinic that, by design, spills over onto other businesses. Fondren is also full of vocal supporters of the Pink House.

When this new chapter of AHA arrived at JWHO toward the end of 2014, the well-trained Pink House Defenders who volunteer to do clinic defense and escorting were ready for their arrival. They had made a few signs specific to AHA. One had a host of things AHA could stand for, like “angry hateful adults,” “annoying hecklers awaiting,” “anti abortion hoax advocates,” and “Americans Hating Americans.” Another sign took the AHA logo and turned it into a logo that says PHD, for Pink House Defenders. AHA members expressed their discontent with these signs verbally at JWHO, then later railed against them on social media.

But unlike OR, OSA, and other local anti-choice efforts, the Jackson AHA—with some out-of-town help—has decided to go several steps further than yelling at patients in front of the Pink House. On Easter Weekend 2015, the national AHA began a series of campaigns it called Project Nineveh, in which its members “go out into the cities, highways, and byways calling all to repent of their apathy and participation in child sacrifice.” In Jackson, that means going to local schools, protesting churches near the clinic on Palm and Easter Sunday, and interrupting the Zippity Doo Dah parade held by the Sweet Potato Queens annually to raise money for Mississippi’s only children’s hospital.

AHA has also made handouts specifically targeting the Fondren neighborhood, in which it used a local landmark’s logo and called the clinic—as well as surrounding businesses and churches—“bad neighbors” to embryos. All of Fondren is “evil” and “full of blood,” according to one AHA video, because the community stays silent rather than “rises up” against the “child murder” occurring in its midst—not that the AHA ever defines what “rising up” would entail. These are different from the one-size-fits-all-cities fliers the AHA normally uses. Its supporters are leaving these slickly produced pamphlets, which are full of bloody fetus imagery, all over the Jackson metro area, placing them on shelves (often next to Plan B) and even alongside items at local businesses.

Stephen Wilson and his partner found this out firsthand when they visited Bass Pro Shop in Pearl, Mississippi. Wilson told me, “When I found the literature, I was appalled that those images were within reach of children.” Wilson continued, “I photographed the literature, and placed it in the trash where it belonged. I’m strongly pro-choice and it struck one of my liberal chords.

Wilson isn’t the only resident who is disgusted and fed up. Since the incidents beginning on Easter weekend, the ongoing campaigning has many residents commenting on public forums regarding their dislike for AHA tactics, which have also included leaving their drop cards at pharmacies on shelves next to Plan B and aggressively talking to and taping local children without parental permission. On the AHA Facebook page, locals have expressed both their support for the clinic and their disgust at the tactics of the group.

Fondren resident Scott Crawford commented, for example, “I’m proud to live just down the street from Jackson’s Woman’s Health Organization, and I stand with women and their right to choose. Those circulating hateful literature are the bad neighbors.” Some neighborhood residents have been talking about ways to combat the group’s aggressive strategies. No one has come up with a clearly defined way to let AHA know it is unwanted yet, but many people in the area have simply committed to collecting and throwing away AHA literature whenever they see it.

Michelle Colon of the Pink House Defenders thinks that AHA likely made the Fondren-specific fliers after exchanges with her and other members of the PHD, in which Colon said JWHO was “the heart of Fondren.” JWHO has been unapologetic about providing abortion services and being a part of the neighborhood, a message AHA clearly wants to turn into a negative.

However, the AHA members are betraying their ignorance of the community they’re invading. “They don’t even know Jackson,” Colon pointed out. “They thought the Zippity Do Dah parade was a Pride parade,” she said. The Sweet Potato Queens, who have hosted the parade in Jackson for over a decade, are mostly made up of cisgender, middle-class, straight white women. AHA described the parade on a YouTube video as being full of “pole dancers and drag queens.”

From the ground, it seems as if AHA is making few friends and many enemies with its blatant racism and extremism. A coalition of activists, residents, and business and community leaders is beginning to call for action to combat the group’s manipulation of the law in order to push its message. But overall, the best weapon against the AHA is showing its members they aren’t welcome and no one wants to listen to them. People aren’t receptive to being harassed on the street as they conduct their day-to-day affairs—and when they make the connection that this is what women experience as they enter clinics, they tend toward empathy for patients rather than support for the AHA.

AHA’s presence is helping to create the kind of dialogue among people who usually wouldn’t work together necessary to fight the harassment of anti-choice extremists. For me, that doesn’t make dealing with them in our city worth it. But it is a good thing for the abortion rights, pro-choice, and reproductive justice movements.

In the South, it is rare that people who are on the fence or even timidly support abortion rights would come out and vocally oppose anti-choice groups. Mostly people turn their eyes away, or see them as a benevolent educational, religious, and caring force. But AHA’s tactics are revealing the ugly, extreme face of the movement, and their true views regarding birth control and IVF too. Jackson’s lone pink clinic has been enduring this abuse for years. Now that the harassment is consistently spilling out into the community, people are finding that they have to make a choice. They can buy into the terroristic narrative that the harassment is the clinic’s own fault, or recognize that this kind of behavior is not OK and must be stood up to.

It appears that many people in Jackson—and Fondren specifically—are realizing that bullies must not be tolerated, even if you don’t fully like or support the target of the bullying. And this should be a wake-up call for AHA supporters as they attempt to spread their hateful messages across the country: If they can’t find a receptive audience in the buckle of the Bible Belt, they are unlikely to find one anywhere.

Analysis Abortion

From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims

Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield

In a series of workshops over a three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts renewed their debunked efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected the anti-choice movement’s unscientific claims about how abortion restrictions make patients safer, the National Right to Life Convention hosted a slate of anti-choice “experts,” who promoted even more dubious claims that fly in the face of accepted medical science.

In a series of workshops over the three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts, including several whose false claims have been exposed by Rewire, renewed their efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Some of those who spoke at the convention were stalwarts featured in the Rewire series “False Witnesses,” which exposed the anti-choice movement’s attempts to mislead lawmakers, courts, and the public about abortion care.

One frequent claim, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, has been refuted by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But that hasn’t stopped “experts” like Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a breast cancer surgeon and anti-choice activist, from giving court testimonies and traveling around the world spreading that brand of misinformation.

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During a Thursday session titled “The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link: The Biological Basis, The Studies, and the Fraud,” Lanfranchi, one of Rewire’s “False Witnesses,” pushed her debunked talking points.

Throughout the presentation, which was attended by Rewire, Lanfranchi argued that there is “widespread fraudulent behavior among scientists and medical organizations to obfuscate the link” between abortion and breast cancer.

In a statement, the irony of which may have been lost on many in the room, Lanfranchi told attendees that sometimes “scientists in the pursuit of truth can be frauds.” Lanfranchi went on to point to numerous studies and texts she claimed supported her theories and lamented that over time, textbooks that had previously suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer in the ’90s were later updated to exclude the claim.

Lanfranchi later pivoted to note her inclusion in Rewire’s “False Witnesses” project, which she deemed an “attack.” 

“We were one of 14 people that were on this site … as liars,” said Lanfranchi as she showed a slide of the webpage. “Now when people Google my name, instead of my practice coming up,” Rewire’s story appears.

Priscilla Coleman, another “False Witness” best known for erroneously claiming that abortion causes mental health problems and drug abuse, similarly bemoaned her inclusion in Rewire’s project during her brief participation in a Thursday session, “The Conspiracy of Silence: Roadblocks to Getting Abortion Facts to the Public.”

After claiming that there is ample evidence that abortion is associated with suicide and eating disorders, Coleman suggested that many media outlets were blocking the truth by not reporting on her findings. When it came to Rewire, Coleman wrote the outlet off as a part of the “extreme left,” telling the room that “if you look deeply into their analysis of each of our backgrounds, a lot of it is lies … it’s bogus information.”

An extensive review conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2008, however, found “no evidence sufficient to support” claims such as Coleman’s that “an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion.”

Rounding out the medical misinformation pushed in that session was Eve Sanchez Silver, the director and founder of the International Coalition of Color for Life. According to the biography listed on her organization’s website, Silver bills herself as a “bioethicist” who focuses on “the Abortion-Breast cancer link.”

Silver, who previously worked at the Susan G. Komen Foundation but left, she said, after finding out the organization gave money to Planned Parenthood, spent much of her presentation arguing that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She also detailed what she referred to as the “Pink Money Cycle,” a process in which, as she explained, money is given to Komen, which in turn donates to Planned Parenthood. As Silver told it, Planned Parenthood then gives people abortions, leading to more cases of breast cancer. 

The seemingly conspiracy-driven theory has popped up in several of Silver’s presentations over the years.

Though Komen does in fact provide some funding to Planned Parenthood through grants, a July 2015 press release from the the breast cancer organization explains that it does “not and never [has] funded abortion or reproductive services at Planned Parenthood or any grantee.” Instead, the money Planned Parenthood receives from Komen “pays for breast health outreach and breast screenings for low-income, uninsured or under-insured individuals.”

On Saturday, another subject of Rewire’s “False Witnesses” series, endocrinologist Joel Brind, doubled down on his claims about the link between abortion and breast cancer in a workshop titled “New American Export to Asia: The Cover-Up of the Abortion-Breast Cancer Link.” 

Brind described the Indian subcontinent as the ideal place to study the purported link between abortion and breast cancer. According to Brind, “The typical woman [there] has gotten married as a teenager, started having kids right away, breastfeeds all of them, has lots of them, never smokes, never drinks, what else is she going to get breast cancer from? Nothing.”

When it came to research from Asia that didn’t necessarily support his conclusions about abortion and breast cancerBrind chalked it up to an international cover-up effort, “spearheaded, obviously, by our own National Cancer Institute.”

Although five states require counseling for abortion patients that includes the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Brind told Rewire that the link has become “the kind of thing that legislators don’t want to touch” because they would be going “against what all of these medical authorities say.” 

Brind also dedicated a portion of his presentation to promoting the purported cancer-preventing benefits of glycine, which he sells in supplement form through his company, Natural Food Science LLC. 

“If I sprain my ankle it doesn’t swell up, the injury will just heal,” Brind claimed, citing the supposed effects of glycine on inflammation. 

In a Thursday session on “the rise of the DIY abortion”, panelist Randall O’Bannon questioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) March update to regulations on mifepristone, a drug also known as RU-486 that is used in medical abortions. Noting that the drug is “cheap,” O’Bannon appeared to fret that the new regulations might make abortion more accessible, going on to claim that there could be “a push to make [the drug] available over the counter.”

O’Bannon claimed there are “documented safety issues” associated with the drug, but the FDA says mifepristone is “safe and effective.” A 2011 post-market study by the agency of those who have used the drug since its approval found that more than 1.5 million women had used it to end a pregnancy in the U.S. Of those women, just roughly 2,200 experienced an “adverse event.” According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra.

Speculating that misoprostol, another drug used in medication abortions, was less effective than medical experts say, O’Bannon later suggested that more embryos would “survive” abortions, leading to an “increased numbers of births with children with club feet, webbed toes, and fingers [and] full and partial facial paralysis.”

According to the World Health Organization, “Available data regarding a potential risk of fetal abnormality after an unsuccessful medical abortion are limited and inconclusive.”

News Politics

Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year’

Amy Littlefield

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” David O’Steen announced at the annual National Right to Life Convention Friday.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court dealt the anti-choice movement its most devastating blow in decades, one of the nation’s leading anti-choice groups gathered at an airport hotel in Virginia for its annual convention.

The 46th annual National Right to Life Convention arrived at what organizers acknowledged was an unusual political moment. Beyond the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion restrictions in Texas, the anti-choice movement faces the likely nomination later this month of a Republican presidential candidate who once described himself as “very pro-choice.”

The mood felt lackluster as the three-day conference opened Thursday, amid signs many had opted not to trek to the hotel by Dulles airport, about an hour from Washington, D.C. With workshops ranging from “Pro-Life Concerns About Girl Scouts,” to “The Pro-Life Movement and Congress: 2016,” the conference seeks to educate anti-choice activists from across the United States.

While convention director Jacki Ragan said attendance numbers were about on par with past years, with between 1,000 and 1,100 registrants, the sessions were packed with empty chairs, and the highest number of audience members Rewire counted in any of the general sessions was 150. In the workshops, attendance ranged from as many as 50 people (at one especially popular panel featuring former abortion clinic workers) to as few as four.

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The attendance wasn’t the only sign of flagging enthusiasm.

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” National Right to Life Executive Director David O’Steen announced at Friday morning’s general session. “It’s been a topsy-turvy year. It’s been, for many people, a discouraging year. Many, many, many pro-life dollars, or dollars from people that would normally donate, were spent amongst 17 candidates in the Republican primary.”

O’Steen said the organization needed “$4 million that we do not have right now.”

When asked by Rewire to clarify details of the $4 million shortfall, O’Steen said, “You’re thinking this through more deeply than I have so far. Basically, the Right to Life movement, we will take the resources we have and we will use them as effectively as we can.”  

O’Steen said the organization wasn’t alone in its fundraising woes. “I think across many places, a lot of money was spent in these primaries,” he said. (An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found presidential candidates and affiliated groups spent $1 billion on the presidential race through March alone, nearly two-thirds of it on the Republican primary. Anti-choice favorite Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) spent more than than $70 million, higher than any other Republican.)

The National Right to Life Board of Directors voted to back Cruz in the Republican presidential primaries back in April. It has not yet formally backed Donald Trump.

“I really don’t know if there will be a decision, what it will be,” National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias told Rewire. “Everything has [been] kind of crazy and up in the air this year, so we’re going to wait and kind of see everything that happens. It’s been a very unusual year all the way around.”

Some in the anti-choice movement have openly opposed Trump, including conservative pundit Guy Benson, who declared at Thursday’s opening session, “I’m not sure if we have someone who is actually pro-life in the presidential race.”

But many at the convention seemed ready to rally behind Trump, albeit half-heartedly. “Let’s put it this way: Some people don’t know whether they should even vote,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “Of course you should … the situation we have now is just a heightened version of what we face in any electoral choice, namely, you’re choosing between two people who, you know, you can have problems with both of them.”

Another issue on the minds of many attendees that received little mention throughout the conference was the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down provisions in Texas requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and mandating clinics meet the standards of hospital-style surgery centers. The case did not challenge Texas’ 20-week abortion ban.

“We aren’t going to have any changes in our strategy,” Tobias told Rewire, outlining plans to continue to focus on provisions including 20-week bans and attempts to outlaw the common second-trimester abortion procedure of dilation and evacuation, which anti-choice advocates call “dismemberment” abortion.

But some conference attendees expressed skepticism about the lack of any new legal strategy.

“I haven’t heard any discussion at all yet about, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, how that weighs in strategically, not just with this legislation, but all pro-life legislation in the future,” Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri, said during a panel discussion on so-called dismemberment abortion. “There has not been that discussion this weekend and that’s probably one of my disappointments right now.”

The Supreme Court decision has highlighted differing strategies within the anti-choice community. Americans United for Life has pushed copycat provisions like the two that were struck down in Texas to require admitting privileges and surgery center standards under the guise of promoting women’s health. National Right to Life, on the other hand, says it’s focused on boilerplate legislation that “makes the baby visible,” in an attempt to appeal to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast a key vote to uphold a “partial-birth abortion” ban in 2007.

When asked by Rewire about the effect of the Texas Supreme Court case, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, appeared to criticize the AUL strategy in Texas. (Bopp is, among other things, the legal brain behind Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending on elections.)

“This case was somewhat extreme, in the sense that there were 40 abortion clinics—now this is just corresponding in time, not causation, this is a correlation—there were 40 abortion clinics and after the law, there were six,” Bopp said. “That’s kind of extreme.”

Speaking to an audience of about ten people during a workshop on campaign finance, Bopp said groups seeking to restrict abortion would need to work harder to solidify their evidence. “People will realize … as you pass things that you’re going to have to prove this in court so you better get your evidence together and get ready to present it, rather than just assuming that you don’t have to do that which was the assumption in Texas,” he said. “They changed that standard. It changed. So you’ve gotta prove it. Well, we’ll get ready to prove it.”