Abortion 'abolitionists' in Kansas and other states want to charge women with murder
By Rose Conlon / Kansas News Service
June 23, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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WICHITA, Kansas — As far as T. Russell Hunter is concerned, nowhere in the U.S. has actually banned abortion yet.
From the podium of a Wichita hotel conference room, the man at the helm of one of the most zealous anti-abortion groups in the country pointed to a map of the country. Every state colored red, he said, indicated where abortions still legally took place.
“We made them all red,” Hunter said, “because in all of these states, abortions are happening.”
In the year since Roe v. Wade was overturned, more than a dozen states have made it a crime to provide abortions in most cases. But none, so far, punish women for obtaining abortions — enabling many to skirt bans by ordering abortion pills online or traveling to clinics in other states.
Hunter, who lives in Oklahoma, is determined to change that. For more than a decade, he’s pioneered an absolutist wing of the anti-abortion movement that calls for a total abortion ban without exceptions — and, notably, charging women who have abortions with murder.
They call themselves abortion abolitionists, borrowing the term from the fight to abolish slavery. “Pro-life,” to them, is a pejorative, and they blast the mainstream anti-abortion movement for settling for laws they say don’t go nearly far enough.
Their views remain unpopular in the U.S. and within most of the anti-abortion movement. But their numbers are growing. And as the country’s abortion landscape crystallizes in the wake of Roe, some see new opportunity for their ideas to take hold.
A budding movement
A few hundred people from across the country gathered in March for the unveiling of a new, national organization called Abolitionists Rising. Hunter and other leaders want to unify the movement, propel supporters to political action and build momentum for a national abortion ban. If that seems radical, Hunter says, the abolition of slavery once did, too.
Kansas was chosen, in part, because so many now travel here to get abortions, fleeing bans in their own states.
“We want to turn Wichita upside down,” said Jared Burdick, who leads an abolitionist group out of St. George, Kansas. “This is a bloody city.”
They fanned out across the city carrying graphic signs reading “Bleeding Kansas,” a nod to the state’s bitter history in the fight over slavery. Wearing body cameras, they filmed contentious arguments on sidewalks and college campuses, sharing them with hundreds of thousands on social media.
Molly Johnson, who traveled to the conference from Oklahoma City, broke down in tears outside the Trust Women clinic. She supports the death penalty for women who get abortions — so long as they get due process — just as she supports the death penalty for those convicted of rape and other capital crimes in the Bible.
“God values human life so highly that when one human chooses to murder another innocent human,” she said, “they forfeit their own life.”
Johnson used to consider herself pro-life, but became disenchanted with the movement’s refusal to discuss women’s responsibility in abortion. Her abolitionist advocacy has cost her friendships. She thinks many people in the mainstream have assumptions about women who get abortions that don’t match the reality she sees when she protests at clinics.
“They’ve never actually gone out to an abortion mill and seen that the majority of women who come in here — they have very hard hearts,” she said. “They’re flipping us off and screaming obscenities, just wicked things.”
The question of whether and when a woman is culpable for having an abortion has long vexed the anti-abortion movement. But now, what used to be a primarily moral debate could soon come to influence criminal law.
Mainstream pro-life groups have long held that women are “second victims” of a predatory “abortion industry.” They contend that women don’t understand what they’re doing when they get abortions, are sometimes coerced into doing so by their partners or families, and often come to regret it. Instead, they focus on regulating and shutting down abortion providers.
The claim that women who get abortions don’t have agency in the decision has become more difficult to defend in recent years, especially since abortion pills took over as the leading abortion method in the U.S. It’s still somewhat easy — and legal — for women living in states with abortion bans to buy the pills online and manage their abortions themselves, something abolitionists often highlight.
Meanwhile, the abortion rights movement has increasingly framed the decision to have an abortion as not necessarily morally or emotionally fraught, but a matter of routine health care — a marked shift from the “safe, legal, rare” mantra coined by former President Bill Clinton. Organizations like We Testify and social media campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion have sprung up in recent years with the aim of destigmatizing abortion and those who have them.
Abolitionists — who have diametrically opposed policy goals from abortion rights supporters — generally agree with them on this: women who get abortions, both camps say, are usually making free and informed decisions.
“I don’t know of any instances where an abortionist came into someone’s house, found a pregnant person and killed their baby against their will,” Hunter said.
He thinks the mainstream’s victim argument is a ploy for political sympathy.
“The pro-choice movement says (getting an abortion) is a choice. We say it’s a choice. The pro-life movement is just trying to be appealing and look like they’re loving women,” he said. “And they’re absolute nuts.”
This is a crucial distinction for abolitionists. Most recognize that undoing the notion that women are victims is essential to criminalization efforts.
“Should victims be punished? No. It’s an injustice to punish victims,” David Buboltz, an abolitionist who unsuccessfully ran for North Carolina Senate last year, told conferencegoers. “We will never succeed with an abolition bill until we thoroughly destroy the second victim narrative.”
Abolitionist groups began cropping up over a decade ago. Hunter founded his first organization in 2011, eventually landing on the name Free The States — referencing demands that states ban abortion in defiance of Roe. In 2017, Arizona pastor Jeff Durbin began spreading abolitionist ideas more widely through his group End Abortion Now and a popular YouTube channel. Dozens of local abolitionist groups now exist across the country.
Efforts to lobby lawmakers and run primary challengers against Republicans seen as too soft on abortion have led to the introduction of abolitionist legislation in several states, including Kansas. Last year, an abolitionist bill advanced out of committee to the Louisiana House floor — a first for any state. Most of its supporters switched their votes after more than 70 pro-life organizations condemned it.
Kevan Myers, a Kansas City, Kansas, pastor and abolitionist leader, says the state’s pro-life lobby still has a strong hold on lawmakers, but some seem receptive.
“You either need a change in the legislators,” he said, “or a change of the legislators.”
Abolitionists anchor their legal strategy on the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people. They say its equal protection clause already guarantees personhood rights for the “pre-born,” an argument that courts have yet to embrace. Women who get abortions, they say, should be prosecuted under existing homicide laws.
It follows, abolitionists say, that there should be no exceptions for pregnancies conceived due to rape or incest, because that would amount to punishing an innocent child for the crimes of their father. When a woman’s life is endangered by a pregnancy, they believe that should trigger triage, giving the life of the fetus equal consideration. And while they concede it would be hard to enforce laws banning women from taking abortion pills, they say it would serve as an important deterrent.
For mainstream pro-life groups, which long promised that overturning Roe would not lead to abortion patients being jailed, abolitionists represent a messaging nightmare.
“They’re in the minority,” said Kelsey Pritchard, director of state public affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
The National Right to Life Committee, Students for Life and Kansans for Life declined to discuss abolitionists’ critiques, but emphasized their opposition to prosecuting abortion patients.
The split is also a matter of style. Most people active in the broader anti-abortion movement say that life begins at conception. They’re generally united behind the long-term goal of wanting to outlaw abortion at all stages of pregnancy, despite some disagreement over when to make exceptions.
But the mainstream groups — which, for decades, grew accustomed to working within Roe’s confines and focused primarily on overturning it — often concentrate on policies that restrict and reduce abortions while working toward the ultimate goal of ending it entirely. Even post-Roe, some have supported gestational age limits and heartbeat laws that abolitionists say don’t reflect their claims about when life begins.
“We would like for there to be protections throughout pregnancy, all nine months, in every state,” Pitchard said. “But we recognize the political realities that exist, and so we aim to save as many lives as we can, as fast as we can.”
Abolitionists say incrementalism stalls progress. And now that states are free to restrict abortion as they see fit, they see no excuse for holding back.
Often, they take this to an extreme that defies logic for those in the mainstream. In Kansas, for instance, Myers and others campaigned against last year’s ballot measure that would’ve undone the state Supreme Court’s recognition of abortion protections in the Kansas Constitution and allowed lawmakers to institute much harsher abortion restrictions, including a total abortion ban.
Anything short of eradicating abortion, Myers said, is unbiblical.
“If someone could kill me if I was inconvenient,” he said, “would I want legislators to gather and say, ‘We’re against killing Kevan, so we’re gonna make a law that says if you’re going to kill Kevan, you have to think about it for 24 hours?”
The anti-abortion movement has long dealt with internal division.
Some renegade abortion opponents, fed up with the mainstream pro-life playbook, began holding blockades and sit-ins at clinics in the 1970s. By the mid 1980s, their aggressive and sometimes violent tactics took off, spurring dozens of arson attacks and firebombings across the country. They ran the gamut from terrorist groups like the Army of God to those advocating nonviolent tactics like Operation Rescue, whose slogan was “if you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.”
That came to a head in 1991, when Operation Rescue brought tens of thousands of protestors to Wichita for six weeks of civil disobedience billed as the “Summer of Mercy.” They laid in roadways and chained themselves to clinic gates, including that of George Tiller, one of the country’s few doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. More than 2,600 people were arrested.
“Operation Rescue emerged from this frustration that the tactics of the National Right to Life Committee were not ending abortion,” said Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia. “They believed they could bring an end to abortion much more quickly by physically disrupting the sites where it was occurring.”
The movement eventually splintered into two main organizations. The group known today as Operation Rescue began in California as one of several independent groups using similar tactics, and relocated to Wichita in 2002 to focus on shutting down Tiller’s clinic. The original group, based in North Carolina, rebranded as Operation Save America. Tiller was killed in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist.
Troy Newman, president of the modern-day Operation Rescue, sees the rise of abolitionist groups as a result of the same internal divisions that existed decades ago. He doesn’t consider himself an abolitionist, but welcomes pressure on mainstream groups.
“The pro-life movement has become very watered down in its messaging over the years,” he said — criticizing what he sees as an overemphasis on efforts like aiding mothers through crisis pregnancy centers in a ploy to win over voters. “The movement, as an adjunct, [should] support women. But the primary objective is to end the act of murder.”
What sets abolitionists apart from the earlier, more radical wings of the anti-abortion movement is the focus on punishing women who have abortions.
Williams attributes the rapid rise of that idea, in part, to a generational shift in thinking about gender.
“The traditional pro-life movement’s claim that women who obtain abortions have limited agency reflects views of gender that would have been popular in the early 20th century but — even for many conservatives of a younger generation — are difficult to sustain,” Williams said.
Americans hold complicated views on abortion — a majority think it should be legal in many cases, but would also like to see restrictions. Doling out death-penalty sentences to abortion patients, like some abolitionists call for, is extremely unpopular.
But support for criminalization is gaining traction, particularly among white evangelical Christians. In 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention formally denounced incremental pro-life laws and called members to work toward “abolishing abortion immediately, without exception or compromise.” The issue remains contentious, but abolitionists are pressuring the country’s largest Protestant denomination to move to the right.
And ultimately, says University of California, Davis law professor Mary Ziegler, the broader anti-abortion movement is realizing that seizing legislative and judicial power might matter more than winning popular support.
“That impulse is present in a lot of the movement, but it’s really clear among abolitionists,” she said. “They’re not even trying to appeal to voters. They’re just saying, ‘This is what we ought to do, and we ought to try to find legislators who agree with us.’”
Few analysts see abolitionists getting much done any time soon. But they could help shift public opinion and make relatively extreme bans look moderate.
The mainstream anti-abortion movement might be forced to confront abolitionism if it achieves one of its long-term goals — the recognition of fetal personhood — which Ziegler says might might compel states to prosecute women who have abortions.
And some lawmakers could warm to the idea of punishing women if other attempts to make it harder to get around abortion bans don’t pan out — like challenges to the abortion pill mifepristone, or efforts to restrict interstate abortion travel for Idaho minors.
“The most powerful organizations don’t want to punish women,” Ziegler said. “But what you’re seeing is abolitionists waiting in the wings saying not only that they think it’s the right thing to do, but that they think it’s sort of necessary — because there’s skepticism about whether these other strategies will work.”