Hundreds of anti-abortion protesters lined blocks along a four-lane thoroughfare called Indian School Road in Phoenix, Arizona, enduring the suck of whooshing cars and blistering late June desert heat to advocate for their cause – effectively, theocracy in America.
Rising temperatures promised a sweaty, nauseous apex of 104F for the protest in front of Camelback Family Planning and abortion clinic. Their ranks were defined by gruesome and bloody signs, some taller than the protesters who held them, a microphone and an amplifier.
“This is a slaughterhouse!” a man’s voice growled. Some protesters leaned into car windows going into the clinic parking lot. “This is unnatural for a mother to do this to a child!” one cried.
This is the national conference for Operation Save America (OSA), one in a network of extreme anti-abortion groups gaining increasing sway with rightwing lawmakers. In some sense, they’re not news – their homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, misogynist leadership has harassed abortion providers for decades.
But, like the world around them, they’ve evolved.
New millennial leadership built a social media infrastructure on YouTube, Facebook and Gab. Their protests have moved from streets to city council chambers and state capitols. A book published by one of their leaders has become an underground hit. And the government response to Covid-19 has provided a new form of “tyranny” against which to lobby.
“All murderers forfeit their right to live,” said a protester. He gives his name only as “preacher man”, but he is easy to identify. He is Ante Pavkovic, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based protester whose antics have led to arrests.
A woman’s right to choose is “Marxist cliché sloganeering”, Pavkovic said. In 2018, Pavkovic was convicted of resisting arrest while breaking Charlotte’s noise ordinance outside an abortion clinic. Although the noise ordinance charge was dropped, an appellate court affirmed an order that barred him from protesting within 1,500 feet of a clinic.
“This group is very close to each other,” said Shawn Cox, a 19-year-old protester with glasses and a DSLR camera with a colorful strap. Her family goes to an OSA event “at least once a year”.
The supreme court legalized abortion in 1973 in the landmark case Roe v Wade, and the majority of Americans still support the ruling in remarkably stable public opinion polls. But in the decades since, as evangelical Christians and Catholics gained increasing power in the Republican party, lawmakers have worked to obstruct that right.
Those efforts have accelerated in the last decade, as anti-abortion fundraising fueled an entire cottage industry of lawyers, lobbyists and single-issue alternative news sources devoted to advancing secular arguments to obstruct abortion access.
Once at the fringes, but moving into legislative efforts are protesters like these, are abortion “abolitionists” who advocate for women and doctors to be prosecuted under murder statutes. Their name is an appropriation of a term used by anti-slavery organizers before the American civil war.
Their views are extreme. Anyone who has an abortion “should be prosecuted for murder”, Cox said. And she adds about the case that is the foundation abortion rights in America: “Roe v Wade is not law.”
Their guiding texts, such as the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates, by the affiliated group Defy Tyrants’ leader Matt Trewhella, argues “Christians” should defy laws with which zealots disagree. Trewhella was among a notorious group of anti-abortion advocates who, in the 1990s, signed a letter declaring the murder of abortion providers “justifiable homicide”. The letter was also joined by a man convicted of firebombing a Cincinnati, Ohio, abortion clinic and planning an attack on another in Florida, John Brockhoeft.
Here in Arizona, OSA has just crowned a new leader, Jason Storms. “What the abolitionists have done is bring clarity to the [anti-abortion] movement,” said Storms. Storms and OSA’s followers want their Christian ideology to be the basis of American law. Otherwise, Storms argued, “we are heading for cultural suicide”.
A tall man with a pinched gait, thick black glasses and an Operation Save America shirt walked up to Storms: “God bless you as you transition to leadership.” He shook Storms’ hand, turned to the wind and wetly uttered, “Where’s the mill?” referring to the clinic. His red shirt read “Abortion is murder”.
Across the gauntlet of cars from the anti-abortion protests, Storms mocked a counter-protester. “Tough guy,” said Storms, as he mimicked her stance and derided her silence.
This woman, however, is part of a counter-protest organized by Abortion Access Front (AAF), a female-led comedy group who have become the unlikely antagonists of these extremists.
On another day and in another part of town, clinic escorts, legal observers, nurses and volunteers gather under the high ceilings of the Duce, a warehouse turned bar where a rainbow of color seems to ricochet around the room. Abortion Access Front has gathered this crowd for a moment of joy, hosting a happy hour.
“It shakes you to your core,” said Lizz Winstead, the founder of AAF, about Operation Save America’s protests, and perhaps its ideology writ large. “It’s hard to explain to people until you see it.”
OSA’s leaders and adherents oppose not only abortion, but homosexuality and same-sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, Islam, Covid-19 vaccines and masks. At times, they appear to be opposed to the modern world, railing against public school, women in positions of power, sex before marriage and birth control.
Opposing them is the AAF, which started as a traveling stand-up comedy show in 2015 led by Winstead, a former writer at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Initially, it was called the Lady Parts Justice League. But it quickly became a mutual aid, counter-protest and intelligence gathering organization. It describes itself as a “media hub” that uses “humor to bust stigma”.
Anti-abortion protesters had made it impossible for clinics to get even basic maintenance done on their buildings. Protesters would call and harass contractors who showed up to work. AAF organized local supporters to plant bushes, paint or provide basic supplies like heating pads to clinics.
Following events organized by OSA, AAF believed someone needed to show people that the majority of Americans support the right to abortion. They started protests meant to disrupt and frustrate street preachers. In Arizona, one AAF organizer repeatedly interrupted a street preacher, following him with a camera and ridiculing his shorts.
“Witch!” he snorted at the AAF organizer, prompting the entire AAF group to break into a chant: “Witch! Witch! You’re a witch!”
Most notably, they have also developed detailed knowledge of the anti-abortion protesters themselves, tracking their whereabouts with a camera once devoted to making television.
The AAF managing director, Kat Green, said she began “recreationally” tracking extremists, sharing intel with local escorts and clinic security teams. AAF identified and collected evidence of at least 15 anti-abortion leaders among those at the Capitol insurrection, including Storms and the Arizona-based pastor Jeff Durbin, who runs the “abolitionist” social media presence.
In a three-minute video posted to Facebook, Storms shows himself astride scaffolding surrounding the Capitol, woooo!-ing and calling the insurrection “Revolution 2.0”. Another person in the crowd calls out “hang ’em high!” in reference to members of Congress.
Nevertheless, at the protest, Storms said: “January 6th was a non-issue,” and added: “There was no insurrection.” He called the insurrection “1 million unarmed people”.
AAF also began to understand the connections between groups like Operation Save America and other militant religious groups. Operation Save America leaders appeared on the podcast of the former Washington state representative Matt Shea, and Shea appeared at protests in support of “abolitionists”.
Shea opted not to run for re-election after it was revealed he had “participated in an act of domestic of terrorism” and distributed a document that outlined abortion and same-sex marriage as justification for a “Biblical basis for war”.
“The reason they’re different – and it’s important – is they are not interested in incremental change. They’re not interested in using regulations. They’re not even that interested in Roe,” said Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas, an international non-profit that works to expand abortion access. “What they’re militant about is defying the courts, defying the constitution, and defying the rule of law.”
They are pro-gun, and though they did not appear to be carrying weapons at the Arizona protest, they advertise their armaments and argue Christians should be trained in “trench warfare”. They want to save “our constitutional republic” by making American law “Mirror the Law and Justice of God”. They support Donald Trump.
“What’s hard for Americans to understand is the actions by these extremists seem very hyperlocal,” said Kumar. “These are connected movements and the rightwing extremism is actually transnational.”
At the same time, they have seen increasing success introducing legislation to prosecute abortion as murder, as they did in Oklahoma, Texas and most recently Arizona.
These state efforts to narrow legal access to abortion threaten to make American an outlier. The past 50 years have been defined by “an unmistakable trend toward the liberalization of abortion laws”, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. Twenty-eight countries have liberalized abortion access since 2000, and only one has legally restricted abortion – Nicaragua.
“Yes, they are definitely anti-abortion, they are misogynist, they are anti-immigrant as well. But fundamentally, they are about democracy,” said Kumar. “They are anti-democratic zealots,” she added, and in that sense, “this is not about abortion at all”.
At a later OSA-sponsored worship service, a man named Ken greeted outsiders at the edge of the Desert Hills Bible church and ambled slowly to the entrance as he described the joy he felt that reporters would “hear the word of God”. Certainly, he emphasized, he would not want anyone to be cast into hell.
Inside, a crowd likely vulnerable to Covid-19 filled the hall’s stuffy still air with song and inestimable respiratory droplets. Trewhella, one of the leaders of the affiliated group Defy Tyrants, has repeatedly urged congregants to “never” get vaccinated, claiming the life-saving drugs are government “tyranny”.
Durbin, who also leads the local Apologia Church, said he chose not to attend the evening because he and his daughter contracted “the rona” at the Southern Baptist Convention about a week prior.
The outgoing leader of OSA and a long-time menace to abortion clinics, Rusty Thomas, stepped to the dais to rally the flock. He called abortion a “pagan nightmare” that “assaulted the nation”. He illustrated his points with a story of how he hit his children.
“All that anger, all that frustration, and I pummeled my own children,” he said. Then he begged for their forgiveness. “And I said, let me get on my knees in front of my kids and said, ‘Would you please forgive your father?’ And I tell you that won them over more than any of my teachings.”
OSA was a family, leaders said, a “rock” in its members’ lives, the way a church “should work”. And they believe their efforts, no matter how extreme, are altering the fabric of American society.
On this point, experts agree.
“Most Americans do not actually support these radical extreme points of view and yet we have elected officials who do,” said Kumar. “Our politics have become extreme, and these groups are responsible.”