Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

The rise of ‘abortion abolitionists’ targeting women, doctors and Donald Trump

By 37ci3 May26,2024

CINCINNATI, Ohio — The group of anti-abortion crusaders showed up outside Hughes STEM High School just before 3 p.m. As students streamed out of the building, the men and women walked after them carrying large cards emblazoned with a picture of a fetus.

“Pre-born children are blessings to be received, not burdens to be destroyed,” read the other side of the literature.

One man took the lead in tracking down the predominantly Black students and handing out the cards. At one point, he spent three minutes talking to a small group of girls.

“I feel inspired,” a 15-year-old said afterward.

But the scene took a turn when the principal, Jennifer Williams, walked out and demanded they move off the main path to the school. “The pathway to the crosswalk is being blocked and that’s not okay,” Williams said.

The group moved down the sidewalk but was confronted by Williams again.

Operation Save America.
Jason Storms talks to Principal Jennifer Williams outside Hughes STEM High School.NBC News

“Planned Parenthood is feeding propaganda to these kids,” the head activist, Jason Storms, told her. “We are trying to counter that message.”

Storms, 45, is the leader of Operation Save America, a fundamentalist Christian group that operates on the extreme edge of the anti-abortion movement. They travel around the country — to churches, schools, statehouses and abortion clinics — calling for abortions to be banned and women to be locked up for terminating a pregnancy.

Storms and his fellow activists are part of a growing network of lawyers, lawmakers and pastors who have labeled themselves “abortion abolitionists.” They oppose all abortions without exceptions and promote legislation that would pave the way for women to be investigated and prosecuted for ending a pregnancy.

The move to criminalize the choice to have an abortion has historically been rejected by the mainstream “pro-life” movement, but Storms sees it as a necessary deterrent. 

“You are intentionally killing a human being,” he said in an interview. “That’s the definition of murder.”

Operation Save America is certainly not the first group to push an extreme position on abortion and use in-your-face tactics. It’s a rebranded version of Operation Rescue, an organization that gained notoriety in the 1980s for blocking women and doctors from entering abortion clinics and holding sit-in protests.

But Storms’ group differs from many of its predecessors in the way it leverages social media and methodically lobbies and cajoles state legislators.

abortion abolitionists
Jason Storms during an interview with NBC News.NBC News

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who has written several books about the history of abortion in the U.S., said Storms has been successful in galvanizing support for his cause in large part because of the force of his personality and the rise of far-right lawmakers in blood-red districts.

“He’s charismatic and he’s able to get more people behind this by using his platform and base,” Ziegler said.

“There are more legislators who are willing to hear these bills or take them seriously,” she added. “They are no longer saying this is fringy and ridiculous or we aren’t going to entertain this.”

GOP state lawmakers around the country have introduced at least 26 so-called “abortion abolition” bills from 2022 to 2024, according to If/When/How, a national legal advocacy nonprofit. The bills often repeal provisions that prevent women from being investigated and prosecuted over an abortion, or don’t include explicit language that exempts them from being charged.

 In 2022, one such bill passed a Louisiana state House subcommittee. The bill drew major backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and mainstream anti-abortion groups, prompting the Louisiana House to later remove the language that would allow women to be charged with murder for having abortions. 

Operation Save America.
Students at Hughes STEM High School read pamphlets distributed by Storm’s team.NBC News

Republicans have struggled to navigate the politics of abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, often walking back support for total bans or distancing themselves from the debate altogether out of fear of alienating constituents. The court’s decision also sparked a winning streak for abortion rights advocates, with ballot measures in states across the political spectrum, including California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and Vermont, and resounding support for the cause in national polls.

Storms’ group occupies a unique position in U.S. politics. Vilified by Democrats, it also represents a thorn in the side of former President Donald Trump, who has said the issue should be taken up at the state level.

“They are a loud minority, but Donald Trump especially listens to the loudest voice in the room,” said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist and NBC News political analyst. “And that is an issue for Donald Trump running in 2024 — that they will have a voice.”

Storms was a vocal Trump supporter. He attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally and took a selfie video outside the U.S. Capitol as the mob laid siege. But he’s not planning to vote for Trump this November unless the former president takes a “strong stand in defense of preborn children.”

“My hope is that we’re able to pull Donald Trump in our direction,” Storms said. “And maybe I still will pull the lever for him if he comes our direction, but he’s not going to come our direction, clearly, unless we twist his arm a little bit.”

Reverence for guns

Storms’ journey to becoming the tip of the spear in the fight against abortion began when he was 18.

He was struggling with drug addiction and dating a woman who got pregnant. He said his drug use and her abortion led him to become an evangelical Christian, bringing him into a movement that has been deeply energized by the issue since the 1980s.

Operation Save America.
Storms distributes pamphlets outside Hughes STEM High School.NBC News

Storms went on to become a contractor, a preacher and a husband. He and his wife have 11 children ranging in age from 20 to 5 months.

He’s active at his local church in Milwaukee, where he mentors young men and volunteers at a farm with other members of his family.

Storms held various roles at Operation Save America before he took charge of the group in June 2021. The group is not just opposed to abortions. It preaches against homosexuality, vaccines, IVF and Islam.

It also represents the extreme anti-abortion movement’s reverence for high-powered weaponry and its suspicion toward the federal government.

“Guns collecting dust on the shelves are not helping us,” Storms said at a 2023 event, in which he implored the crowd to buy AR-15 rifles.

“We believe in peace through superior firepower. Amen,” he added in the speech, titled “Freedom, bravery and firearms: Lexington and lessons for today.”

On his social media pages, Storms posts photos of himself brandishing firearms. In one such post, a prom photo with his daughters, Storms is seen posing with a large assault-style rifle. “Taking the kids and their friends to the prom,” he wrote, adding the hashtags “TacticalDad” and “TacticalTeens.” (The post was later taken down.)

Abortion rights advocates and local abortion clinic defenders holds signs
Abortion rights advocates and local abortion clinic defenders holds signs advocating their rights in Jackson, Miss., in 2019, in a challenge to members of Operation Save America.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

The group also holds “manhood restored bootcamps,” which include hand-to-hand combat training, how to put together a home defense plan, and recommendations for the best firearms to defend your home.

But the abortion issue is what animates Storms and his supporters. And for him, it is a true family affair.

A chilling effect

On a sunny day in late April, a white van pulled up outside an abortion clinic in Dayton, Ohio, and roughly a dozen Operation Save America supporters hopped off. Among the group, as usual, was Storms’ wife and several of his children.

“We’re a family-friendly organization,” Storms said. “My kids asked me if they can do this with me.”

The group soon took up positions outside the Women’s Med Center, holding signs that read “Abortion is murder” and “Choose life.” While the women largely hung back and the younger children scrawled chalk designs on the sidewalk, the men shouted at the staffers and patients entering the clinic.

“You’re killing your baby,” one hollered into a megaphone as a woman walked up to the door.

abortion abolitionists anti-abortion
Anti-abortion activists rally outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Cincinnati.NBC News

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, multiple abortion clinics around the U.S. were bombed or set on fire. Storms insists that his group doesn’t condone any violence. But its mere presence has a chilling effect on patients and staff, said Dr. Catherine Romanos, who performs abortions at the Women’s Med Center.

“I think for a lot of patients it makes an already difficult day a lot more difficult,” Romanos said, speaking after Storms’ group left. “Multiple people said it was a really hard thing to come in today.”

Lizz Winstead founded her reproductive rights group, Abortion Access Front, to act as a shield for women against the Operation Save America members who were showing up outside clinics to shame them. They mobilized for the first time at a clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2015 when Storms’ group was in town.

“The clinic was going to be overrun and they were not getting any support from the community,” Winstead said. “And so a bunch of us went down there to help escort patients.”

Operation Save America.
Operation Save America members hold signs at the state capitol building in Columbus.NBC News

Since then, she said they have had numerous tense run-ins with Operation Save America leaders — in Wisconsin, South Carolina and elsewhere.

“They are a very influential part of what the current conservative landscape is in America,” Winstead said. “And we don’t even know they exist.”

During Operation Save America’s four-day trip to Ohio, the group protested outside two abortion clinics and held multiple events at a local church. The activists spent about 40 minutes outside the STEM school in Cincinnati, engaging with mostly seventh and eighth graders. (Williams, the principal, did not respond to requests for comment.)

And Storms met with a handful of lawmakers at the state capitol building in Columbus.

Ohio has been a focus for Operation Save America since last year, when a measure passed enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution.

Operation Save America.
Storms brought his group to the state capitol building to meet with Republican lawmakers.NBC News

The overwhelming defeat prompted the group to hold its spring event in the Buckeye State in the hope of convincing state lawmakers to take up and push strict anti-abortion bills.

“We’ve had 14 states presently that have banned abortion,” he said. “But in all of those states, the mothers are explicitly exempted from any punishment or any legal accountability.”

When asked if he believed that women should face the death penalty in places that have capital murder statutes, Storms didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said.

The way Storms sees it, he said, the threat of prosecution is a necessary deterrent to end all abortions, especially given the uptick in women using pills to terminate their pregnancies in states where it was banned. 

“It’s not that we want moms to go to jail,” he said. “But we have to stand firm in our beliefs.”

During his visit to the state capitol, Storms met with at least three Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Jean Schmidt.

“Keep up the good fight,” she said to Storms after their meeting. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Storms said he also met with Rep. Jennifer Gross and Rep. Gary Click.

Operation Save America.
Storms discusses abortion with students at Hughes STEM High School.NBC News

Afterward, Click said that he is “absolutely not in favor” of punishing women for an abortion. 

“They need to be loved, and helped with grief and emotional support” after the procedure, Click said, adding that his “heart is always [with] helping people get out of rough situations. It’s not about condemning them.”

Gross did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Zero regrets’

In recent years, a handful of people connected to Operation Save America have been convicted of violating the FACE Act, which outlaws obstructing patients’ access to clinics.

One of them, Calvin Zastrow, 63, was among 11 people accused of using “force and physical obstruction” to “injure, intimidate, and interfere” with employees and a patient of an abortion clinic in Nashville, Tennessee, in March 2021.

He and five others were found guilty in January. They now face up to 10 1/2 years in prison.

Calvin Zastrow.
Calvin Zastrow now faces up to 10 1/2 years in prison. NBC News

Federal prosecutors in Michigan also charged Zastrow in February 2023 for allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to prevent women from accessing an abortion clinic in August 2020.

“I’m looking at 22 years in federal prison,” Zastrow said with a smile after a church service in Cincinnati, where Operation Save America leaders and other parishioners prayed for him.

He was wearing a black T-shirt with “Trust Jesus” written on the front and “Abortion is murder” on the back.

“I wish I could have done more pro-life ministry,” Zastrow said, “and I have zero regrets.”

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By 37ci3

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