The white supremacist and anti-choice movements have always been closely linked. But more and more, they are becoming difficult to tell apart
This weekend’s March for Life rally, the large anti-choice demonstration held annually in Washington DC to mark the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, has the exuberant quality of a victory lap. This, the 49th anniversary of Roe, is likely to be its last. The US supreme court is poised to overturn Roe in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, which is set to be decided this spring. For women in Texas, Roe has already been nullified: the court went out of its way to allow what Justice Sonia Sotomayor called a “flagrantly unconstitutional” abortion ban to go into effect there, depriving abortion rights to the one in 10 American women of reproductive age who live in the nation’s second largest state.
These victories have made visible a growing cohort within the anti-choice movement: the militias and explicitly white supremacist groups of the organized far right. Like last year, this year’s March for Life featured an appearance by Patriot Front, a white nationalist group that wears a uniform of balaclavas and khakis. The group, which also marched at a Chicago March for Life demonstration earlier this month, silently handed out cards to members of the press who tried to ask them questions. “America belongs to its fathers, and it is owed to its sons,” the cards read. “The restoration of American sovereignty must follow the restoration of the American Family.”
Explicit white nationalism, and an emphasis on conscripting white women into reproduction, is not a fringe element of the anti-choice movement. Associations between white supremacist groups and anti-abortion forces are robust and longstanding. In addition to Patriot Front, groups like the white nationalist Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party have also lent support to the anti-abortion movement. These groups see stopping abortion as part of a broader project to ensure white hegemony in addition to women’s subordination. Tim Bishop, of the Aryan Nations, noted that “Lots of our people join [anti-choice organizations] … It’s part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.” That the growing white nationalist movement would be focused on attacking women’s rights is maybe to be expected: research has long established that recruitment to the alt-right happens largely among men with grievances against feminism, and that misogyny is usually the first form of rightwing radicalization.
But the affinity goes both ways: just as the alt right loves the anti-choice movement, the anti-choice movement loves the alt right. In 2019, Kristen Hatten, a vice-president at the anti-choice group New Wave Feminists, shared racist content online and publicly identified herself as an “ethnonationalist”. In addition to sharing personnel, the groups share tactics. In 1985, the KKK began circulating “Wanted” posters featuring the photos and personal information of abortion providers. The posters were picked up by the anti-choice terrorist group Operation Rescue in the early 90s. Now, sharing names, photos, and addresses of abortion providers and clinic staff is standard practice in the mainline anti-choice movement, and the stalking and doxing of providers has become routine. More recently, anti-abortion activists have escalated their violence, returning to the murderous extremism that characterized the movement in the 1990s: In Knoxville, a fire that burned down a planned parenthood clinic on New Year’s Eve was ruled an arson. Maybe the anti-choice crowd is taking tips from their friends in the alt right.
It’s not that the anti-abortion movement’s embrace of white nationalism is totally uncomplicated. When the Traditionalist Worker Party showed up at a Tennessee Right to Life march in 2018, the organizers shooed them off, and later issued a statement saying they condemned violence both from the right, and from left wing groups like “antifa”. Hatten was fired from her anti-choice job after a public outcry. The anti-choice movement has even started trying to appropriate the language of social justice. They posit “equality” between embryos and women, try to brand abortion bans as “feminist”, incessantly compare abortion to the Holocaust, and claim that abortion is “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation”, in the words of supreme court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anti-choice groups are eager to claim the moral authority of historical struggles against oppression, even as they work to further the oppression of women.
But the link between the anti-choice movement and white supremacy is much older and more fundamental than this recent, superficial social justice branding effort. Before an influx of southern and eastern European immigrants to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, abortion and contraception had only been partially and sporadically criminalized. This changed in the early 20th century, when an additional surge of migrants from Asia and Latin America calcified white American racial anxieties and led to white elites decrying the falling white birth rate as “race suicide”.
Abortion bans were quickly introduced nationwide. As the historian Leslie Raegan put it, “White male patriotism demanded that maternity be enforced among white Protestant women.” The emerging popular eugenics movement supported this campaign of forced birth for “fit” mothers, while at the same time implementing a widespread campaign of involuntary sterilization among the poor, particularly Black women and incarcerated women. Meanwhile, white women who sought out voluntary sterilization were discouraged or outright denied the procedure, a practice that is still mainstream in the medical field today.
In the current anti-choice and white supremacist alliance, the language of “race suicide” has been supplanted by a similar fear: the so-called “Great Replacement”, a racist conspiracy theory that posits that white Americans are being “replaced” by people of color. (Some antisemitic variations posit that this “replacement” is somehow being orchestrated by Jewish people.)
That the way to combat this, the right says, is to force childbearing among white people, to severely restrict immigration, and to punish, via criminalization and enforced poverty, women of color. These anxieties have always animated the anti-choice movement, and they have only become more fervent among the March for Life’s rank and file as conservatives become increasingly fixated on the demographic changes that will make America a minority-white country sometime in the coming decades. The white supremacist and anti-choice movements have always been closely linked. But more and more, they are becoming difficult to tell apart.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist