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The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Links to White Supremacists

Racism and xenophobia have been woven into the anti-abortion movement for decades, despite the careful curation of its public image.

Alex DiBranco

February 3, 2020

Anti-abortion protesters picket outside Florida State Prison where Paul Hill was executed for the murder of Dr. John Britton.(Matt Stroshane / Getty Images)

The anti-abortion movement in the United States has long been complicit with white supremacy. In recent decades, the movement mainstream has been careful to protect its public image by distancing itself from overt white nationalists in its ranks. Last year, anti-abortion leader Kristen Hatten was ousted from her position as vice president of the anti-choice group New Wave Feminists after identifying as an “ethnonationalist” and sharing white supremacist alt-right content. In 2018, when neo-Nazis from the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) sought to join the local March for Life rally organized by Tennessee Right to Life, the anti-abortion organization rejected TWP’s involvement. (The organization’s statement, however, engaged in the same false equivalency between left and right that Trump used in the wake of fatal white supremacist violence at Charlottesville. “Our organization’s march has a single agenda to support the rights of mothers and the unborn, and we don’t agree with the violent agenda of white supremacists or Antifa,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.)

But despite the movement’s careful curation of its public image, racism and xenophobia have been woven into it throughout its history. With large families, due to Roman Catholic Church prohibitions on contraception and abortion, Catholic immigration in the mid-1800s through 1900s sparked white Anglo-Saxon Protestant fears of being overtaken demographically that fueled opposition to abortion as a means of increasing birthrates among white Protestant women. At the time, Roman Catholic immigrants from countries like Ireland and Italy who would be considered white today were among the targets of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. As sociologists Nicola Beisel and Tamara Kay wrote with regards to the criminalization of abortion in the late 19th century, “While laws regulating abortion would ultimately affect all women, physicians argued that middle-class, Anglo-Saxon married women were those obtaining abortions, and that their use of abortion to curtail childbearing threatened the Anglo-Saxon race.”

Hostile anti-Catholic sentiment cut both ways when it came to abortion, however. Until the 1970s, “pro-life” activism was firmly associated with Catholics and the pope in the minds of American Protestants. This deterred many Protestants from opposing abortion as a Christian moral issue—not only in the political sphere, but even as a matter of denominational teaching—because of its association with “papists” (a derogatory term for Catholics). Even the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 decriminalizing abortion did not immediately bring conservative Protestants around. As late as 1976, the conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed resolutions affirming abortion rights. “The assumption was that it must not be right if Catholics backed it, so we haven’t,” commented John Wilder, who founded Christians for Life as a Southern Baptist ministry in 1977 as the resistance to the pro-life movement began to dissipate.

This shift occurred in light of the lessening of anti-Catholic prejudice, strategic recruitment of evangelicals by New Right Catholic leaders, and evangelical discomfort with how many abortions took place as women accessed their new reproductive rights.

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The cultural position of Catholics had shifted dramatically by the 1970s. As substantial immigration from Latin America and Asia posed a new threat to white numerical superiority, Catholics from European countries became culturally accepted as part of the white race, a readjusting of boundaries that maintains demographic control. The election of Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 demonstrated how far Catholic acceptance had come—at least among liberals. Although conservative evangelical opposition to his candidacy remained rife with anti-Catholic fears, the rhetoric was less racialized and more focused on concerns about influence from the Vatican.

To counter this lingering prejudice, conservative Catholic leaders seized on the opportunity offered by the specter of atheist Communism in the mid-20th century to establish themselves as part of a Christian coalition with Protestants, unified against a common godless enemy. As Randall Balmer has written, evangelical concerns about being forced to desegregate Christian schools spurred political investment that Catholic New Right leaders capitalized on and channeled into anti-abortion and anti-LGBT opposition.

For white nationalists, meanwhile, as Carol Mason wrote in Killing for Life, Jewish people replaced Catholics as targets for groups like the KKK. “Now that abortion is tantamount to race suicide…naming Catholics—whose opposition to abortion has been so keen—as enemies would be counterproductive,” Mason wrote. Militant anti-abortion and explicit white nationalist groups came together prominently in the 1990s when a wing of the anti-abortion movement, frustrated with a lack of legislative progress, took on a more violent character fed by relationships with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

White supremacists were already participants in the anti-abortion cause, as Loretta Ross wrote in the 1990s. In 1985, the KKK began creating wanted posters listing personal information for abortion providers (doxing before the Internet age). Randall Terry, founder of the anti-choice group Operation Rescue, and John Burt, regional director of the anti-abortion group Rescue America in the 1990s, adopted this tactic in the 1990s. Terry’s first wanted poster targeted Dr. David Gunn, who was murdered in 1993 in Pensacola, Florida. Gunn’s successor, Dr. John Britton, targeted by a Rescue America wanted poser, was killed in 1994.

The Florida-based KKK organized a rally in support of Dr. Britton’s killer, Paul Hill, and Tom Metzger, founder of the racist group White Aryan Resistance (WAR), condoned the killing if it “protected Aryan women and children.” Burt himself was a Florida Klansman prior to becoming Christian and an associate of both killers. “Fundamentalist Christians and those people [the Klan] are pretty close, scary close, fighting for God and country,” Burt told The New York Times in 1994. “Some day we may all be in the trenches together in the fight against the slaughter of unborn children.” Members of the Portland-based skinhead group American Front regularly joined Operation Rescue to protest abortion clinics. Tim Bishop, a representative of the white nationalist Aryan Nations, said, “Lots of our people join [the anti-abortion movement]…. It’s part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.”

Groups like the Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan trafficked in rhetoric that mirrored that of the anti-abortion movement—with an anti-Semitic twist: “More than ten million white babies have been murdered through Jewish-engineered legalized abortion since 1973 here in America and more than a million per year are being slaughtered this way.” Metzger has claimed that “abortion makes money for Jews” and called Planned Parenthood “a corrupt Jewish organization.” In 1996, a series of bombings in Spokane, targeting a newspaper office, a bank, and a Planned Parenthood office, were perpetrated by members of the Phineas Priesthood, who followed the white separatist anti-Semitic religion Christian Identity. In the late 1990s, Eric Rudolph, a clinic bomber, and James Charles Kopp, who murdered a Jewish abortion provider returning home from synagogue, were affiliated with the anti-abortion terrorist organization Army of God and staunch Holocaust deniers.

While in recent years, the mainstream anti-choice movement has been careful to distance itself from overtly racist and white nationalist groups and figures, embedded anti-Semitism appears in the trivialization of the Holocaust and in coded appeals to neo-Nazis. Abolish Human Abortion (AHA), a more recently founded group led by young white men (in a movement that typically likes to put female leaders at the forefront for better mainstream appeal) that views that pro-life movement as too moderate, created an icon linking the acronym AHA in such a way as to resemble “newer incarnations of swastikas that are proliferating among white supremacist groups,” according to Mason.

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AHA claims that “the abortion holocaust exceeds all previous atrocities practiced by the Western World,” a statement that signals to anti-Semites an implicit disbelief in the Nazi Holocaust and a trivializing of real historical persecutions. The anti-abortion movement has long framed abortion as a holocaust—a holocaust that it depicts as numerically more significant than the killing of 6 million Jewish people. Historian Jennifer Holland told Jewish Currents that because Jewish people in the United States are more pro-choice than other religious groups, anti-abortion activists “often imply and even outwardly state that Jews are participating in a current genocide and were thus ideologically complicit in the Jewish Holocaust.” This frame sometimes goes hand in hand with outright anti-Semitic denial that the Nazi Holocaust even happened.

The framing of abortion-as-holocaust is starkly visible in a law passed by Alabama in May banning abortion in nearly all circumstances and threatening abortion providers with up to 99 years in prison. The law states, “More than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.” The framing of abortion as holocaust demeans the significance of the Nazi Holocaust, in turn feeding anti-Semitism already interwoven in the movement.

Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley, discussing the possibility of implementing similar legislation in his state, revealed that nativist fears of replacement went into support for the idea. “When you get a birth rate less than 2 percent, that society is disappearing,” Baxley said of Western Europe. “And it’s being replaced by folks that come behind them and immigrate, don’t wish to assimilate into that society and they do believe in having children.”

Anti-choice figures continue to tout demographic concerns—which at their core are a form of white nationalism—in order to oppose abortion. In the political sphere, Representative Steve King is the most prominent political figure to emerge as a symbol of both white supremacism and abortion opposition. “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization,” King stated. King has taken far-right positions on both immigration and abortion, including defending rape and incest as necessary for historical population growth.

These overt expressions of demographic nativism by politicians making decisions about reproductive rights on the state and national level is cause for alarm. With the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right—an umbrella for white supremacist, male supremacist, and anti-Semitic mobilizations—the “kinder, gentler” image the Christian right and the “pro-life” movement have strategically invested in may be slipping, but also may be less necessary.

Coexisting in abortion opposition is an ideology that honestly seeks to end abortion for people of all races and ethnicities, alongside a white supremacist ideology that only desires to prevent white women from obtaining abortions, but uses universal opposition to abortion as a pragmatic screen for its goals. As Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement in Paramilitary America, told The Nation in an interview in September, for white supremacists, “opposing abortion, opposing gay rights, opposing feminism, in white power discourse, all of this is tied to reproduction and the birth of white children.”

Commenting on the strategic pragmatism of white supremacist movements, Jean Hardisty and Pam Chamberlain wrote in 2000 that “public advocacy of abortion for women of color might alienate potential far right supporters who oppose all abortion.” White supremacist leaders, like David Duke, have instead focused on other ways to deter birthrates among people of color, such as encouraging long-term contraception or condemning social welfare programs.

The relationship between Christian right anti-abortion, white supremacist, and secular male supremacist ideology is complex. While they often put aside their differences in order to collaborate on shared goals, the agendas are different and inclusive of conflict.

White supremacist responses demonstrated “complicated feelings” following the passage of the Alabama law, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks hate and bigotry, reported. Some, like the founder of Gab, a popular alternative social media forum frequented by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, heralded the Alabama law. Other white supremacists were unsatisfied that the ban would apply to white women and women of color alike. Longtime white nationalist Tom Metzger eschewed the pragmatic approach in posting on Gab that he had instructed “comrades in the Alabama state legislature to introduce a bill that releases all nonwhite women within the borders of Alabama to have free abortions on demand.” (It’s not clear whether this claim is true or which representatives he meant.)

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Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, writes that while abortion is “sick and evil,” white supremacists should be focused on the immigrant “invasion.” Lest readers be disappointed, Anglin reassured them, “A great reckoning is coming—and it is coming swiftly! The glorious vengeance we take upon these whores will shake the cosmos!” Anglin recently referred to himself as the “self-appointed spiritual successor to Elliot Rodger,” the incel (“involuntarily celibate”) mass killer who intended retribution on all women for his being sexually rejected. Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi credited with coining the term “alt-right,” tweeted that the ban should punish women who seek abortion, but instead “demonizes doctors.”

Spencer’s approach, aligning with his other misogynist comments on women, flies in the face of the Christian right frame of “protecting women” used to advance its agenda in the mainstream. But it’s the same approach Donald Trump took while on the presidential campaign trail in 2016, when he stated that women should receive “some form of punishment” if abortion were banned in the United States. After anti-abortion groups made clear that this comment ran afoul of their strategy for banning abortion—though not necessarily their actual preferences—Trump backtracked and instead focused on punishing doctors and stating that the “woman is a victim.”

On the other hand, MSNBC reported that AHA activists, who refer to themselves as “abolitionists,” stand for “banning all abortion without exceptions, equating hormonal birth control (even the daily pill kind) with abortion, and advocating that women who have abortions be tried as murderers.” Under the current Supreme Court, with its Trump-instated anti-choice majority, and the president’s own anti-woman rhetoric, misogyny, and nativism may be becoming more acceptable strategies.

Trump, after all, shows a perfect willingness to cater to the Christian right, but no genuine personal interest in opposing abortion. His brand of secular misogyny, mingling objectification and vilification of women, demonstrates the same ideology as that put forth by secular male supremacist mobilizations such as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) and The Red Pill, which have little regard for women’s rights and well-being. Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, demonstrated the administration’s willingness to give an ear to male supremacist groups at the expense of women when she invited men’s rights groups, which spread the myth that women make widespread false accusations of rape despite all data to the contrary, to weigh in on campus sexual assault policy. The result has been the regurgitation of MRA talking points and a proposed rule gutting Obama-era protection for survivors of campus sexual violence.

The anonymous nature of many online forums, like The Red Pill, poses a challenge for determining how much influence members of these communities have. We might be inclined to dismiss Metzger’s claim to have “comrades in the Alabama state legislature” as mere bluster. But before Bonnie Bacarisse’s investigative reporting in The Daily Beast  in 2017 uncovered New Hampshire Republican state Representative Robert Fisher  as the founder of The Red Pill, which promotes conspiracist theories about feminist control of society and advocates manipulating women into sexual intercourse, these online misogynist forums were often assumed to be divorced from real-world politics. An online pseudonym that The Daily Beast has linked to Fisher’s personal e-mail address advocated voting for Trump in 2016 because he’d been accused of sexual violence. A spokesperson for a state anti-violence group said that Fisher was part of a “very vocal minority in the NH House right now that is very antiwoman and antivictim,” and that there had been surprises in recent legislative votes.

These secular misogynist mobilizations address abortion in a variety of ways, though always through the lens of establishing male power and rights, even when endorsing legal abortion. Male supremacist communities seek control over women’s bodies, whether it is through denying abortion care or coercing it, or through defending or even perpetrating sexual assault.

While arguments about men’s and fathers’ rights have been used by politicians in suggesting abortion restrictions, such as requiring that a woman receive consent from the man she conceived with in order to obtain an abortion, this is not a key concern for the movements themselves. The misogynist Red Pill forum instead suggested women should have to obtain permission to give birth and that men be able to opt out of child support. The top posts on the Reddit forum r/mensrights related to abortion complain that women hold all the rights when it comes to reproduction, arguing that it is unjust that men have no say in the matter. Not because abortion kills the man’s child, as the Christian right would argue, but because men are responsible for 18 years of child support if the pregnancy comes to term. MRAs and MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way) refer to this financial obligation as “slavery” and advocate for “paper abortions,” where a man can sever financial responsibilities and parental claims to a child.

Paul Elam’s A Voice for Men, a leading organization in the men’s rights movement over the past decade, established in 2010 an editorial policy that would not take an official position on abortion. Elam did criticize women’s “authority over abortion” and painted child support as a means of controlling men, writing, “We have an entire father’s rights movement necessitated by the fact that millions of men have had their lives eviscerated, their freedom forfeit, their assets garnisheed, even where paternity fraud has been proven and acknowledged by the courts.”

On Return of Kings (ROK), a website listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group for pickup artists (PUAs) and founded by Daryush Valizadeh, who goes by “Roosh V.,” the coverage of abortion has shifted from a position accepting of abortion—though not out of support for women’s human rights—to an increasingly anti-choice position. In 2013, abortion was discussed as beneficial because it reduces the minority population, demonstrating the racism already inherent in this ideology, and “sav[es] a lot of alpha players from having to write a check to a single mom.” Other posts promoted access to contraception as a means to prevent abortion, criticizing Christian right opposition to birth control as ineffective to stopping abortion.

Two years later, Valizadeh himself wrote a post on ROK titled “Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled by Men,” recommending that women receive permission from a guardian to access abortion or birth control. He continues, “While my proposals are undoubtedly extreme on the surface and hard to imagine implementing, the alternative of a rapidly progressing cultural decline that we are currently experiencing will end up entailing an even more extreme outcome.” (In case you’re wondering, Valizadeh has identified other offensive posts as satire, but made no such excuse for this one.) In another 2015 article, “The End Goal of Western Progressivism Is Depopulation,” he condemns abortion rights, birth control, and female empowerment as causes of declining population that risk Western culture. Valizadeh has admitted to perpetrating acts that meet the legal definition of sexual assault and has endorsed the decriminalization of rape. Though he later claimed that endorsement was a “thought experiment,” similar excuses have been used by other misogynist leaders such as Paul Elam to provide cover for their most egregious statements.

Further ROK posts on abortion described it as murder and criticized abortion and birth control for destroying “traditional families.” Matt Forney, a writer whose personal blog appealed to both MRAs and PUAs, referred to women who obtain abortions as “monsters,” and wrote, “If a girl is in favor of abortion, there is evil dwelling in her soul.” Forney is a noted white nationalist who also wrote for, and Valizadeh attempted to join him in cozying up with the white supremacist alt-right, sharing the concern for the decline of Western culture. (He turned against this movement after meeting hostility for being a non-white man bragging about sexual intercourse with white women.) The strongest opposition to abortion within the sphere of misogynist groups thus appears to stem from an overlap with the white supremacist movement and concern for the decline of Western culture.

In 2019, Valizadeh announced that he had found God and would no longer promote casual sex. His prior arguments about male control of women and his opposition to abortion and contraception on the basis of concern about population decline, however, fit seamlessly into his new perspective, demonstrating how easy it can be to shift from secular to religious misogyny.

As elements of the male supremacist sphere take on more anti-abortion and white supremacist positions, the confluence of this overt misogyny and racism with the anti-abortion movement may strengthen the support for harsher anti-abortion legislation that eschews the anti-abortion pragmatism of the past and becomes more overt about its criminalization of pregnant people. In 2019, Georgia passed a six-week abortion ban, currently blocked in court, that applies criminal penalties for murder (which includes life imprisonment or the death penalty) for terminating a pregnancy, with no exception for pregnant people self-terminating. Bills like this fulfill Trump’s and Abolish Human Abortion’s claims that the criminalization of abortion should include punishments for women; even though Trump backpedaled because of concerns from mainstream anti-choice groups, his support for this position is already out there, along with his dog whistles to white and male supremacists.

Anti-abortion violence has also been climbing in recent years, as has white supremacist and misogynist violence. Given the history of fatal anti-abortion violence in the 1990s perpetrated by individuals with the connections with white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, the confluence of these ideologies must be cause for concern beyond the political realm as well.

Alex DiBrancoAlex DiBranco is the cofounder and executive director of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism. A sociology PhD candidate at Yale University, writing her dissertation on the US New Right movement infrastructure from 1971 to 1997, she is currently is affiliated with the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. She was formerly Political Research Associates' communications director and a member of the Public Eye editorial board.

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