Today
Tue 25 January 2022

Sian Norris and Heidi Siegmund Cuda examine how far-right aims on abortion expressed by the ‘mob’ at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 have become the policy of the Republican elite

The fight has been nearly 50 years in the making.

For over a century, women in the US were denied legal access to abortion. They were forced to travel abroad, seek back-alley doctors or attempt to induce their own miscarriages – often at the cost of their own lives.

This changed in 1973, when an all-male Supreme Court ruled that reproductive healthcare was a matter between a woman and her doctor. The case of Roe versus Wade opened the doors to safe and legal abortion across the United States.

Almost immediately, the backlash began.

Organisations such as Operation Rescue, Right to Life and 40 Days for Life waged war on women’s reproductive health, while Republican presidents won votes by declaring their anti-abortion credentials. Challenges to Roe chipped away at women’s access to abortion as protestors outside clinics intimidated patients and doctors, even committing murder in the name of being ‘pro-life’.

Anti-abortion activists were present at the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

From white male supremacists who view abortion as assisting ‘white genocide’ to law-makers with a history of harassing women accessing reproductive healthcare, they sought to prevent the election of a pro-choice Democrat in order to keep in power the man they called “the most pro-life President of our country”.

The anti-choice movement has its roots in racist ideology, with reproductive control as a way to maintain the white birth rate. In truth, safe abortions protect all women’s health. As was seen in the recent tragedy in Poland, where a pregnant woman lay dying of septic shock because doctors refused to treat her until her foetus’ heart stopped beating, little thought is given to the beating hearts of women. 

“Authoritarianism is about control of bodies and policing sexuality,” author of Strongmen and scholar of Italian fascism Ruth Ben-Ghiat told Byline Times. “That’s why strongmen and their followers have taken away reproductive rights and have also persecuted LGBTQ+ people for a century.”

But, while Donald Trump’s supporters lost the electoral fight, the past five years have paved the way to end safe, legal abortion in the US. When it comes to the religious-right and far-right in America, the abortion battle at the US Capitol is almost won.


The Anti-Abortion Actors

As the rioters started their violent march towards the Capitol on 6 January, one of the live-streams beaming its progress to the world was filmed by John Brockhoeft.

The anti-abortion activist was convicted of firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic in Cincinnati, in 1985, and of conspiring to bomb another abortion clinic in Pensacola three years later. 

He wasn’t alone. The violence on 6 January – including the fatal shooting of Ashli Babbitt – was all caught on camera by Tayler Hansen. The young anti-abortion activist made his name by painting a “Babies Lives Matter” mural. The mural acted as a repudiation to the Black Lives Matter mural in Washington D.C. and a statement of his anti-abortion beliefs. 

The anti-abortion presence at the attempted insurrection represented what philosopher Hanna Arendt called the “alliance between the elite and the mob” – in that it included criminals and grassroots activists, such as Brockhoeft and Hansen, as well as law-makers.

Derrick Evans, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, took part in the assault, shouting: “We’re in! We’re in! Let’s go! Keep it moving, baby!” as the rioters approached the Capitol. Evans had a history of anti-abortion activism. According to the Washington Post, he harassed staff at West Virginia’s only abortion clinic and broadcasted a patient’s arrival via Facebook Live. 

Meanwhile, Republicans who voted against certifying the election results and who upheld the “big lie” that the 2020 US Presidential Election had been stolen, are also known for their anti-abortion beliefs – including Congresswoman Lauren Boebart, who has a history of posting graphic images and videos of abortion and said that pregnant rape victims need guns, not abortions. 


Anti-Abortion, the Supreme Court and Donald Trump

According to Tony Perkins, head of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, Donald Trump’s intervention in the 2016 Las Vegas presidential debate on so-called “partial birth abortion” secured him the “pro-life” vote.

Late term abortions which take place in medical emergencies had become a cause célèbre for the anti-abortion right and the question posed during the debate on Roe versus Wade provided Trump a chance to declare his anti-choice credentials to both evangelical and Catholic, and far-right, voters.

For anti-abortion politicians such as then Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Willaim Barr, this provided a “biblical moment”, according to writer Anne Appelbaum. They viewed Trump as a vehicle to fulfil a raft of anti-rights policies such as banning abortion, rolling-back LGBTIQ rights and protecting white supremacy in America. 

A ban on abortion was the goal both of Trump’s leadership and many of his supporters at the Capitol. But to achieve it, they needed a conservative majority in the Supreme Court to rule against Roe versus Wade.

Building that conservative majority began before Trump’s inauguration, when Senator Mitch McConnell blocked then President Barack Obama’s attempts to nominate Merrick Garland to the court, allowing Trump to bring in right-wing judge Neil Gorsuch.

In 2018, Trump appointed anti-abortion judge Brett Kavanaugh. When pro-abortion judge Ruth Bader-Ginsberg died in 2020, the Republicans rushed through the appointment of Amy Coney-Barrett, giving the anti-abortion movement a Supreme Court majority. 

These appointments were heavily influenced by anti-abortion, radical-right organisations such as the Federalist Society, funded by the shadowy donor-advised fund the Donors Trust. As a donor advised fund, Donors Trust is not legally required to disclose the identity of its donors, and most of its donors remain anonymous, however it is known that the oil and gas billionaires the Koch Brothers are among its supporters.

The Donors Trust funded organisations complicit in the events of 6 January 2021 and those who repeated the “big lie” that the Democrats had stolen the election from Trump.

Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s former long-time vice president and current co-chairman of its board, has been influential in pushing for anti-abortion nominations at the Supreme Court. Quoted in the New Yorker, Conservative legal activist Edward Whelan said that “no one has been more dedicated to the enterprise of building a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe versus Wade than the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo”.

Leo also helps direct the 85 Fund, a charitable organisation sponsoring a host of conservative non-profits. According to OpenSecrets, the majority of the 85 Fund’s 2020 money came from the Donors Trust. The 85 Fund supported numerous groups that backed Coney-Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, including: Turning Point USA ($2.7 million), Concerned Women for America ($100,000), Faith and Freedom Coalition ($100,000), and Heritage Action for America ($50,000). 

Leo’s colleague at the Federalist Society, John Eastman, was the author of the ‘Eastman memo’, which outlined a plan to prevent the certification of the 2020 election. He also addressed the mob at the Capitol. Turning Point USA bussed protestors to Washington D.C. to take part in the attempted insurrection, inviting its members to “fight for their President”.


How the Far-Right Won

Throughout his presidency, an estimated 85% of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees were or have been affiliated with the Federalist Society. This goes beyond the Supreme Court and into the court houses across the nation. Trump and his allies stacked the judiciary with white, male conservatives determined to undermine abortion rights. 

At the same time, a network of conservative legal non-profits, such as Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Thomas More Society, the Becket Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice, work to deliver strategically chosen anti-choice cases that are heard by these conservative judges. Those cases then make their way up the courts system to have a final say at the Supreme Court with its now anti-abortion majority. 

This has led to the current legal challenge against Roe versus Wade, after state law-makers in Mississippi introduced the nation’s first-ever 15-week abortion ban. It is based on model legislation drafted by the ADF and, if the Supreme Court chooses to uphold it, will overturn the legal basis for nationwide abortion in the US. 

The US is preparing to overturn women’s human right to bodily autonomy and its success is almost inevitable. Should Roe be overturned, at least 21 states are ready to ban abortion.

This tells us something significant and frightening about the US Capitol riot, the anti-abortion far-right in the US, its allies and backers in the Republican Party, and the various radical-right think-tanks and foundations: they may have lost the election, they may not have succeeded in overthrowing US democracy – but when it comes to forcing their anti-rights agenda and the capture of the American right-wing elite, the far-right has won. 

“6 January 2021 was a visual representation of what’s been happening to our democracy for decades – a tyranny of the minority acting to subvert the will of the people,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told Byline Times.

“This insurgency continues by other means, through efforts to undermine our vote. The freedom to vote is a core pillar of our democracy and protecting it is inextricably linked to abortion rights. It’s no coincidence that the same politicians pushing voting restrictions are the architects of some of the most egregious abortion bans in the country.

“These policies do exactly what they’re designed to do: disenfranchise black and brown people, women, people with low incomes, and the LGBTQ+ community. We cannot allow this to continue. Congress must use every legislative means necessary to protect the right to vote and our right to bodily autonomy. Our democracy depends on it.”

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