Anti-abortion groups like Operation Save America share a philosophy of forcing federal, state and local governments to follow “God’s law,” and have called for legislation that would grant personhood status to developing fetuses. (Getty Images)
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Thursday, July 20, 2023. A previous version of the story incorrectly characterized Georgia abortion law.
Members of a national anti-abortion religious organization called Operation Save America are in Atlanta this week to protest at a local abortion clinic and to discuss new strategies for achieving a national prohibition on abortion at any stage of pregnancy.
Operation Save America began as Operation Rescue in 1986 and became more well known in 1994 under the leadership of Philip “Flip” Benham, a fundamentalist Christian who split from Operation Rescue and changed the organization’s name to Operation Save America. Operation Rescue was infamous throughout the 1980s for leading the movement to obstruct access to abortion clinics, sometimes by chaining themselves to equipment or blocking doors with parked cars. Over the course of a decade, the movement attracted thousands of protesters in cities all over the U.S., often leading to mass arrests. It also attracted a small and violent wing of protesters who threatened doctors, destroyed clinic property and firebombed clinics.
Clinic blockades mostly died down after Congress in 1994 enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, making it a federal crime to use force, to threaten force, or to otherwise physically obstruct individuals from providing or obtaining reproductive health care.
But a pocket of small, militant groups like Operation Save America are still actively and aggressively protesting at abortion clinics, as well as lobbying federal, state and local lawmakers. The groups’ leaders share a philosophy of forcing federal, state and local governments to follow “God’s law,” and many share far-right political ideas about the COVID vaccine, the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and gun rights. The organization’s current national director, Jason Storms, participated in the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and has encouraged his followers and other church leaders to build militias and train for combat.
Storms did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
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On its website, Operation Save America says Atlanta was chosen for the week’s events because Georgia is a “key battleground state.” Abortion is banned after six weeks of pregnancy in Georgia, before many people know they are pregnant. Groups like Georgia Right to Life, which is not affiliated with the National Right to Life organization, have advocated for bans on abortion at any stage of pregnancy and a constitutional amendment stating personhood extends from fertilization to death. Georgia currently has a fetal personhood law and a tax exemption starting at six weeks of pregnancy, but the advocates want to go further.
The gathering also comes 35 years after Operation Save America’s three-month protest in Atlanta in 1988, that interrupted operations at clinics around the city, including Feminist Women’s Health Center. About 400 of 1,200 anti-abortion protesters were arrested in what was dubbed the “siege of Atlanta” by the protesters.
“This is an important geographical area to mobilize and equip the church to impact this nation and advance the Kingdom of our Lord,” the website says. “The state is (Republican)-leaning and has pro-life majorities in its state government, but sadly all they have accomplished in protecting the preborn is a weak ‘heartbeat bill’ that enables the clinics to by and large continue the slaughter of preborn children. … Our good friends at Georgia Right to Life are doing some great work there and we are building a powerful coalition of brethren in the state.”
Group leader has spoken to 11 state legislatures about biblical philosophies
Operation Save America, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has occasionally staged blockades over the past decade, including in 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. But more typically, the group has spent the last decade aggressively protesting abortion clinics and doctors’ homes. They often bring sound amplifiers and posters decorated with bloody fetuses and slogans about murder, along with anti-gay messages. Sometimes they do this outside of churches for not being anti-abortion enough.
At trainings and public protests, as well as in various forms of social media and podcast appearances, its leaders have used racist slurs and other bigoted language about people who are Muslim or LGBTQ, and violent rhetoric about people who have had or have provided abortions. Unlike more mainstream anti-abortion groups, the group calls for women who have abortions to be charged with murder subject to capital punishment, if that’s what state law allows.
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Group members also advocate for treating medical providers as murderers. In 1993, pastor Matthew Trewhella, who co-founded the Milwaukee-based group Missionaries to the Preborn and is Storms’ father-in-law, signed a so-called “Defensive Action Statement” written by radical anti-abortion minister Paul Hill, saying that another extremist protester, Michael Griffin, wasjustified for killing Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida. A year later, Hill murdered Dr. John Britton, who had replaced Gunn at the Pensacola abortion clinic, as well as Britton’s security escort. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Trewhella and others who had signed that 1993 statement justifying the homicide of an abortion provider, but ultimately did not charge him. Trewhella says he was not involved in Britton’s murder and did not sign a second Defensive Action Statement on behalf of Hill, who received the death penalty in 2003.
Trewhella is also the author of “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates,” a book that references history and biblical theology to argue that governments deemed “tyrannical” and ungodly can and should be defied. Trewhella has said he has spoken to at least 11 state legislatures across the country about his book, and has said he sent 2,000 copies of the book to legislators and the governor in 2017 at the request of former Kentucky legislator Dan Johnson, who died by suicide the same year.
Counterprotesters also expected at events
Violence against clinics increased in 2022, the year Roe fell, according to the National Abortion Federation. Providers reported a 231% rise in burglary, a 229% rise in stalking and 100% rise in arson, according to a recent report.
“The data is proof of what we have known to be true: Anti-abortion extremists have been emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the cascade of abortion bans that followed,” said Melissa Fowler, the Federation’s chief program officer, in a statement.
Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 42 bombings, 200 arsons, 531 assaults, 492 clinic invasions and 275 burglaries stemming from anti-abortion sentiments, according to the Federation’s data.
An abortion rights group called Abortion Access Front has been counterprotesting at OSA’s clinic activities outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Atlanta and will continue to do so the rest of the week, according to the group’s public relations manager, Debbie Pressman. Access Front will also counter OSA protesters outside of the capitol building on Saturday, and volunteers will help escort patients into clinics as needed, she said. The group counterprotests using humor and mockery, according to Pressman, and posts pictures and video of their activities on social media. They will also host a happy hour for clinic workers on Saturday.
“Just so that they can decompress and relax a little,” Pressman said.
Divisions within some anti-abortion groups
The group’s week-long events began Monday and will end at noon Saturday at the Georgia State Capitol following a rally with fellow anti-abortion organization leaders, including Georgia Right to Life President Ricardo Davis, Georgia Rep. Emory Dunahoo and other local pastors.
Storms spoke to attendees Monday evening with a message of unity that also exposed tensions between anti-abortion groups that used to work together prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June 2022 that returned the ability to regulate abortion to the states. Storms mentioned T. Russell Hunter, the leader of an anti-abortion group called Abolish Human Abortion, as someone he once considered a good friend who had worked with them in the past. In recent months, Storms said, Hunter has “attacked and maligned” his organization and sowed discord among its members.
Hunter has posted videos and appeared on several podcasts in recent weeks accusing groups like Operation Save America and Students for Life of America of being too soft on the subject by referring to themselves as “pro-life” instead of abolitionists and by not expressly advocating for pregnant people to be charged with murder, particularly now that more individuals are terminating pregnancies through medication abortion pills that can be received through the mail.
Hunter appeared to respond to Storms’ comments with a Facebook post that said he hadn’t seen the video and didn’t care about it, and he wouldn’t comment further.
Bo Linam, founder of Hope Beyond Abortion and a self-described “sidewalk counselor” who stands outside reproductive care clinics, also spoke about unity among like-minded believers to stand against the people of the world who are not “god-honoring.”
“There can be no unity between the people of God and the people of this world,” Linam said on Monday evening. “Light does not unify with dark, it overcomes the dark, so there can be no unity there because the light and dark are diametrically opposed to one another and cannot co-exist.”
Speakers at today’s s events include Benham and Rusty Thomas, both former directors of OSA who will talk about the “siege of Atlanta,” and Raymond Ibrahim, an anti-Islamic author. Dr. Jana Schmidt is also scheduled to speak about COVID in the context of “biblical health and wellness.” Friday’s events will include a panel discussion about “strategies in the fight to end abortion.”
A full list of Operation Save America’s events is listed on its website, and a livestream of some of the events can be found on the group’s Facebook page.
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