By Barbara Alvarez
Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Anti-abortion activists gathered via computers and smartphones across the country for the 48th annual March for Life protest on Friday, Jan. 29. Every year since 1973, protesters have met in Washington, D.C., and in front of various state capitols to urge the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and to ask legislators to enact severe abortion restrictions and to defund health centers such as Planned Parenthood. However, the pandemic forced this year’s march to be a largely virtual gathering. (Key organizers and die-hard supporters still met in D.C. to march together.) And yet, there was another reason that the march was moved online: Fears of more domestic terrorist attacks loom after the Jan. 6 insurrection. For anti-abortion activists, this was particularly salient, since many of their own partook in the insurrection.
Indeed, there are many parallels between the the insurrection and the anti-abortion attacks. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has detailed the ways that the Capitol rioters, waving signs and flags with phrases like “God Wins,” mirrored the vitriolic actions and phrases that have been slung at women and health care workers for decades. Many of the Jan. 6 rioters claimed to be “pro-life,” even though their actions led to five deaths at the insurrection. In fact, Donald Trump, who lied about a stolen election and urged protesters to come to Washington for the “Save America March”, is a darling of the March for Life movement. Last year, Trump was the first sitting president to attend and speak at a March for Life rally, where he claimed to be a “voice for the voiceless.” (Meanwhile, he had just been briefed on Covid-19’s potential to spread globally. Yet his silence and negligence have led to the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans and counting.)
Countless anti-abortion speakers and mobilizers were present on Jan. 6. And while Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion PAC Susan B. Anthony List, insists that the Capitol attacks were “not reflective of pro-life Americans,” a cursory overview of March for Life participants, anti-abortion rioters and insurrectionists shows that this statement is simply not true.
Perhaps the most notable figure at the Jan. 6 insurrection was Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned anti-abortion activist. Johnson has gained notoriety for not only her lies about abortion care but also her support for police profiling of her biracial son. On Jan. 3, Johnson tweeted that she was “speaking at the #wildprotest!” On the morning of Jan. 6, she tweeted “Here in DC and the intensity is awesome!!! Let’s do this patriots!” Calling Trump the “most pro-life president of our country,” Johnson took selfies and proudly walked among the rioters. In a social media post, Johnson said that she was on the Capitol steps when “Antifa activists” knocked her over. (The FBI has said that there is no evidence that Antifa was involved with the deadly insurrection.) In another post, she said that she “was only mildly in the fray earlier. Got a little pepper spray in my lungs (It’s not corona, it’s just pepper spray. Lol).” Clearly, Dannenfelser’s assertion that there is no connection between March for Life and insurrectionists isn’t true given that Johnson was present at the Capitol.
Abby Johnson was a keynote speaker at the 2020 March for Life event, where she stated that “Jesus came so that we can live in peace but you cannot have peace if you are not living in truth.” Johnson then proceeded to lie about abortion care and the reproductive rights movement. Johnson told the crowd: “You are called to reach out. You are called to be on that sidewalk . . . You can turn this around.” The same allowance to harass women and clinic workers on sidewalks has emboldened people to take the next step: harass legislators and storm the Capitol.
Johnson, who describes herself as a Catholic Christian, was partly indoctrinated into the anti-abortion movement by Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, known for his incendiary speech against abortion care providers, as well as anyone who is pro-choice. In a tweet on Jan. 21, Pavone wrote: “YOU CAN NOT BE CATHOLIC AND PROCHOICE!!!!” Pavone is also an ardent supporter of Trump and believes that Democrats stole the election. He recorded a Jan. 5 video, “Why We Can’t Move on from the Presidential Election,” in which he regurgitated lies about election fraud. Other videos of Pavone include him wearing the signature “Make America Great Again” red hat, where he stated that “every supporter of the Democrats . . . of Biden . . . has got to be begging forgiveness for us.” Three days later, in an episode of his podcast “End Abortion,” Pavone asked his listeners to pray for Trump, whom he referred to as “the greatest political leader we’ve ever had.” Even the Legionaries of Christ University, a Roman Catholic Institute based in Rome, has distanced itself from Pavone and reversed its decision to honor him at an upcoming ceremony. Pavone was very active in this year’s March for Life event. And he proudly defied virtual options and instead livestreamed himself from D.C. with his “March for Life” mask pulled down underneath his chin.
Other prominent insurrectionist figures showed support for the anti-abortion event, further belying Dannenfelser’s claim that there was no connection between the movements. In fact, the March for Life organization thanked Sen. Ted Cruz for “defending the most vulnerable among us.” Cruz fueled election lies and spoke directly to the rioters on Jan. 6 using inflammatory rhetoric. His actions have been denounced by multiple members of Congress.
And it wasn’t just prominent figures. Many lesser-known anti-abortion folks proudly presented themselves on Jan. 6. John Brockhoeft, an anti-abortion extremist who was convicted of firebombing an abortion clinic in the 1980s, broadcast himself on that day stating that “our people are going to take those barriers down and push their way in [to the Capitol].” Brockhoeft has posed for pictures alongside domestic terrorist groups like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois. Taylor Hansen, an anti-abortion activist who painted “Baby Lives Matter” mural in cities across the country, wedged his way into the Capitol and filmed much of the insurrection. He was next to rioter Ashli Babbit when she was shot by police for attempting to jump through broken glass to get to legislators.
Indeed, the parallels between those who participated in March for Life events and on Jan. 6 run deep. Christian Nationalism serves as the connection. Professors Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry have stated that Christian Nationalism includes “assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”
So, despite false claims that there was no connection between the Capitol insurrectionists and March for Life participants, and regardless of whether events are online or in-person, one aspect remains clear: Christian Nationalism has taken center stage. And the motives of Christian Nationalists are simple yet startling: They seek to impose their worldview on a secular nation. As secularists, we must remain vigilant about the ways that we can support the democratic principles of our Constitution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Alvarez is from Madison, Wis., and attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on a Ph.D. in library and information sciences with a minor in gender and women’s studies. Alvarez was a major winner in last year’s FFRF essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle. She is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing. Photo via Shutterstock by Jeff McCoy