The Capitol Insurrection Was Fed By the Anti-Abortion Movement
Reproductive justice advocate Jordyn Close watched with the rest of the nation on Jan. 6 as Donald Trump supporters invaded the Capitol. Some were outfitted in tactical gear and had zip ties at the ready. Others brought nooses and pitchforks and Confederate flags. The insurrectionists broke windows, ransacked lawmakers’ offices, and spread feces on the Capitol walls. By the end of it all, five people died.
The escalation from rhetoric to violence at the Capitol has shocked many Americans. Close, who works with Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), is an abortion storyteller with We Testify, and who serves on the board of the abortion fund Women Have Options Ohio, is less surprised. Very early into the news coverage of the insurrection, Close saw a number of familiar faces. Overwhelmingly, these were white men who — when not trying to overthrow the government — spend a great deal of their time harassing people outside of abortion clinics.
“The venn diagram of white supremacists and antis is a circle,” Close said. Similar sentiments were expressed to Prism by reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates in Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia, none of whom were particularly shocked to see leaders in the anti-abortion movement storm the Capitol in support of Trump. Abortion advocates have long warned that it was only a matter of time before the rhetoric became violent.
In his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden said the United States must “confront and defeat” political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism.” Abortion advocates want to know if this commitment applies to the threats, harassment, and violent rhetoric they face from anti-choice movements. The threat of violence has been unrestrained for decades, minimized or outright dismissed by law enforcement officials and lawmakers — even as abortion clinics continue to be a primary target for domestic terrorism.
Abortion stigma is the primary reason why few in the media or American public listen to abortion advocates when they warn of the violence that right-wing movements are capable of. But now that the nation has seen this violence firsthand, advocates are waiting to see if it will change anything.
“I don’t know at what point people will simply listen to abortion advocates because we’ve been the victim of this violence for decades,” Close said. “Will they listen to us now?”
“Far-Right White Supremacist Ideals”
Since the attempted coup, there has been a slate of reporting from Mother Jones, Vice, Jezebel, Rewire News Group, and The Washington Post about prominent members of the anti-abortion movement spotted at the coup. But this isn’t about the singular appearance of specific antis at the storming of the Capitol. Many reproductive justice advocates have argued that the anti-abortion movement is a white supremacist movement, but what’s certain is that in recent years the anti-abortion movement’s many iterations have made inroads with extreme right-wing groups — including militia movements and white supremacist groups.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the abortion storytelling group We Testify, said in a statement that anti-abortion activists “are nothing but white supremacists who organize around criminalizing abortion.” In fact, she explained, the anti-abortion movement “came about while trying to maintain segregation in schools and continued organizing around our nation’s long history of subjugating the reproductive freedoms of Black and Brown people.”
Given the context and the failings of law enforcement officials to take the threats of anti-choice activists seriously, it’s largely on abortion access advocates to keep themselves safe. In part, this requires performing opposition research, or the practice of identifying anti-choice protestors outside of clinics and monitoring their online activities to assess the danger they may pose. To help fill these information gaps, groups like Abortion Access Front have “amassed a database of anti-abortion extremists from across the country,” according to the group’s founder, Lizz Winstead.
Abortion Access Front was able to quickly identity at least a dozen anti-abortion activists who were at the Capitol. The group shared a document with Prism featuring social media from the antis who were at the scene, some of whom have ties to militia movements and the extreme and aggressive anti-abortion group Operation Save America, known for harassing abortion providers and demanding that people seeking abortion care receive the death penalty.
“The leadership of these anti-choice organizations tell the public they don’t believe in violence, but they can’t have it both ways,” Winstead said. “They support violence and they use inflammatory rhetoric like ‘murdering babies,’ ‘slaughtering children,’ and calling abortion a ‘Holocaust.’ Unless the public begins to connect these dots and see that it’s the same people across movements engaging in the same terrorism, the people who provide abortions are going to be forced to continue fending off this violence by themselves.”
In one video taken by Jason Storms, the assistant director of Operation Save America and the founder of Faithful Soldier Training Camp, he is standing on scaffolding outside the Capitol as the coup is unfolding and he calls it a “revolution.” Abortion Access Front also found plenty of footage online from Operation Save America regional leader Dave Daubenmire, who co-founded the Christian militia Minutemen United and runs a survivalist training camp in Ohio. Tayler Hansen, self-proclaimed “pro-life” activist and the founder of Baby Lives Matter, filmed the shooting of fellow insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, doing nothing to help her as she lay bleeding to death.
Perhaps most alarming was the presence of two men in particular: John Brockhoeft and Derrick Evans.
Brockhoeft firebombed a Cincinnati, Ohio Planned Parenthood clinic in 1985 and was convicted of planning to bomb the Pensacola Ladies Center in 1988. More recently, he has been active at Reopen Ohio rallies in response to COVID-19-related shutdowns. At the Capitol on Jan. 6, Brockhoeft filmed a video of himself declaring his “love” for Donald Trump as Trump’s voice is heard over loudspeakers in the background.
Evans, before he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in November, had a long history of harassing patients outside of West Virginia’s Women’s Health Center, the only abortion clinic in the state. “Evans was a fixture at the clinic for much of 2019, with a reputation for harassment so severe that the clinic erected a 10-foot fence to deter him. A volunteer escort obtained a restraining order against him, accusing him of stalking her,” The Washington Post reported. Known for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat while livestreaming his harassment of patients to thousands of followers, Evans was one of the many insurrectionists who pushed their way into the Capitol and filmed the crime. Days later he was arrested and forced to resign from office.
No one on staff at the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia was surprised that Evans participated in the attempted coup, said Katie Quinonez, the executive director of the clinic. They’ve had to deal with Evans “up close and personal,” Quinonez told Prism. He regularly filmed patients’ license plates, and he seemed to do research on clinic staff and clinic escorts, referring to them by their first names and shouting out details about them. The implication seemed to be, “I know who you are and I know where to find you,” said Quinonez.
Evans’ harassment inspired others to come to the clinic, including armed members of one of the largest radical anti-government groups in the nation: The Oath Keepers, whose tens of thousands of members are former law enforcement officials and military veterans. Quinonez told Prism that members of the group once appeared at her clinic “with guns on their hips,” alleging that they were there to provide protection to anti-abortion harassers.
The Oath Keepers have their own relationship to the attempted coup. On Jan. 19, prosecutors filed conspiracy charges against members of the Oath Keepers in the Capitol attack, alleging that three members of the group planned and coordinated ahead of the January 6 assault.
“I certainly hope the general public is waking up to the fact that the anti-abortion movement is about far-right white supremacist ideals — they don’t care about pregnant people, they don’t care about babies or families. They care about controlling people seeking health care, LGBTQ folks, and people of color,” Quinonez said. “When someone is aggresively anti-abortion, it’s not just a matter of having a different opinion than you. It’s deeply rooted in white supremacist values.”
Building Bridges With White Supremacists
Close told Prism that in Ohio, it is the same people protesting abortion clinics who are now committed to protesting the federal government and making threats against the Biden-Harris administration. During the pandemic, the reproductive justice advocate said she has gone to Reopen the state rallies in Ohio to counter white supremacists, only to see anti-abortion leaders like Sarah Cleveland shaking hands with elected officials and known terrorists like Brockhoeft.
Cleveland, who was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, is part of an emerging segment of the anti-abortion movement that Prism has reported on in partnership with the social justice think tank Political Research Associates. Known as “abortion abolitionists,” anti-abortion activists like Cleveland assert that the pro-life movement is too secular, abortion constitutes homicide, and that abortion providers and people seeking abortion care should be subject to the death penalty. This ideology is largely informed by longtime leaders in the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement.
Close said that in Ohio, anti-abortion figures like Cleveland are trying to “build bridges” with white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, inviting them to protest outside of clinics.
In fact, when the coup was unfolding at the Capitol, Michelle Davis, a patient support advocate for Women Have Options Ohio, was actually at the Columbus, Ohio Statehouse to counter a Proud Boys rally.
Davis told Prism that antis used to pretend they had “the moral high ground,” but in recent years they have made little to no effort to hide their ties to white supremacist movements.
“We’ve had violent Trump rallies in our city and anti-choicers are always a big part of it. They can operate with impunity, and that makes me nervous because I know these anti-choice groups are historically violent,” Davis said, noting that antis have left anti-choice propaganda on her doorstep and mailed packages to her home.
On the morning of Jan. 6, Calla Hales talked to her father on the phone while watching the news as mobs of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol. Hales is the director of A Preferred Women’s Health Clinic (APWHC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the busiest abortion clinics in the state. APWHC is the site of large, weekly anti-abortion protests, orchestrated by the anti-abortion group LoveLife who are assisted by Philip “Flip” Benham, the director of Operation Save America who is largely responsible for bringing “anti-abortion extremism” to North Carolina. In 2011, the fundamentalist Christian minister was found guilty of stalking an abortion provider. In 2018, Benham was arrested outside of Hales’ clinic for communicating threats. In 2020, Benham was again arrested outside of Hales’ clinic for refusing to disperse during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
“On the phone, my dad made a joke about how I’d probably see [Benham] at the Capitol and it wasn’t long after that I actually saw faces I recognized,” Hales told Prism in a phone interview. “It’s scary and it shakes you, but it’s also frustrating. Many abortion providers, clinic workers, advocates, and activists have said that anti-choice protestors are capable of terrorism and their movements are a breeding ground for racism and violence.”
Kelsea McLain, who coordinates the North Carolina clinic escort group Triangle Abortion Access Coalition, said she expected to see antis at the Capitol — especially women. While white men represent the vast majority of the more extreme wings of the anti-abortion movement, white women are also very active, yet are reported on far less. In fact, one of the most prominent anti-abortion figures to first be identified at the Capitol was Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood director who has carved out a career as an anti-abortion zealot.
At the North Carolina clinic where McLain volunteers her time, several women are the leaders of what McLain called “the most offensive behaviors.”
“There’s one woman in particular named Sharon Dooley that has become incredibly pervasive and an abusive presence at the clinic,” McLain said. “She uses being a white, conservative woman almost as armor. She escapes accountability and no one listens to us when we say that she is truly abusive and violent.”
Dooley, who is an avid believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, falsely accused a volunteer of assault and has doxxed clinic escorts — including McLain. Dooley is so committed to harassing patients outside of the North Carolina clinic that after going to Washington, D.C. to support Trump on Jan. 6, she returned to harassing patients outside of the abortion clinic Jan. 7.
As antis more openly embrace extreme right-wing movements and conspiracy theories that inspire violence, it’s increasingly hard for reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates to know what threats to take seriously. McLain said that several months ago she was sitting in her home looking out her back window when she noticed a person appear and take pictures of her car. Without thinking, she ran out to confront them. The person hopped in a car loaded with other people and sped off.
Close told Prism that she wants the public to understand that anti-abortion activists are becoming “more radicalized” and normalizing the idea that violence against providers and clinic staff is justifiable. The threat of violence is reaching a boiling point, she said, and it still seems like only abortion advocates are taking it seriously.
“It’s really easy for people in society not to give a shit about a person who needs an abortion being harassed,” Close said. “The stigma around abortion leads a lot of the public to believe that we deserve this harassment, and we don’t.”
Law Enforcement Looks the Other Way
While reproductive justice advocates have long embraced abolitionist frameworks and many have supported the movement to defund the police, it’s important to note the role that law enforcement officials play in the anti-choice movement and their inaction when it comes to the threats that abortion advocates receive.
McLain said there’s a direct correlation between the way that insurrectionists were treated at the Capitol and the way members of the anti-abortion movement are treated outside of clinics where they harass patients.
“[Anti-choice activists] act like they are immune to repercussions and to law enforcement because they’ve largely been allowed to be,” McLain said, noting that the threats experienced by reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates are almost never taken seriously. “They truly do whatever they want; they break whatever rules they want. They’re as abusive as they want to be, and they know that nothing will ever happen to them because of it. Law enforcement treats them with the kiddest of kid gloves, so of course they went to D.C. and stormed the Capitol and thought nothing would ever happen to them.”
During the attempted coup, the nation watched as police officers appeared to usher the white mob into what was supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the country. Officers were seen gingerly walking elderly domestic terrorists down the Capitol steps and taking selfies with insurrectionists, who came from far and wide to overthrow the government and overturn the results of the election. It has since been reported that some of the officers at the Capitol were politically aligned and in solidarity with the white supremacist and right-wing movements that attempted the coup.
Needless to say, Close received no such treatment back in May and June of 2020 when she was assaulted by police officers four times while participating in Black Lives Matter protests in Columbus, Ohio, after the police killing of George Floyd. During the worst incident in May, the reproductive justice advocate said police smacked her phone out of her hand, knocked her glasses off her face, and kicked her. One officer grabbed her ponytail, yanked her head back, and shot pepper spray into her eyes “at point blank range.” In June when Close was arrested, she was pepper sprayed before being put in the back of a police cruiser where she remained for six hours.
On the other hand, members of the anti-abortion movement who stormed the Capitol were so confident that nothing would happen to them, they livestreamed their crimes. Others who attended Trump’s Jan. 6 rally — now considered one of the nation’s darkest days — have spent the last several weeks proudly using the day’s events as fodder and content for their social media accounts.
McLain said it’s clear that anti-choice activists are emboldened, and it makes her fearful for her safety and the safety of others who work to provide abortion access in states like North Carolina where there is a large and active anti-choice movement.
“They were let into the Capitol by the police, and they’re let into the sanctity of our clinic space every day by the police. Sometimes we see the cops high-five antis or shake their hands or pray with them,” McLain said. “The truth is that every day, the police are protecting anti-abortion harassment in ways that violate people’s constitutional right to access abortion in every state around the country. It’s not just a problem here in North Carolina or in southern states. There is an epidemic of law enforcement enabling what I think will inevitably be the next domestic terrorist incident at a clinic.”
Tina Vásquez is a senior reporter leading Prism's coverage of both gender justice and workers' rights. She is a movement journalist with more than 10 years of experience focusing on immigration, reproductive justice, and culture. She came to Prism from the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, where she was assistant research director of the gender, reproductive justice, and sexuality team.