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Inside the Extreme Effort to Punish Women for Abortion

Hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, a man with a wiry, squared-off beard and a metal cross around his neck celebrated with his team at a Brazilian steakhouse. He pulled out his phone to livestream to his followers.

“We have delivered a huge blow to the enemy and to this industry,” the man, Jeff Durbin, said. But, he explained, “our work has just really begun.”

“Even the states that have trigger laws,” which ban abortion at conception without exceptions for rape or incest, did not go far enough, Mr. Durbin, a pastor in the greater Phoenix area, said. “They do not believe that the woman should ever be punished.”

Resistance to “the question of whether or not people who murder their children in the wombs are guilty,” he said, “is going to have to be something we have to overcome, because women are still going to be killing their children in the womb.”

Even as those in the anti-abortion movement celebrate their nation-changing Supreme Court victory, there are divisions over where to go next. The most extreme, like Mr. Durbin, want to pursue what they call “abortion abolition,” a move to criminalize abortion from conception as homicide, and hold women who have the procedure responsible — a position that in some states could make those women eligible for the death penalty. That position is at odds with the anti-abortion mainstream, which opposes criminalizing women and focuses on prosecuting providers.

Many people who oppose abortion believe that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. Abolitionists follow that thinking to what they believe is the logical, and uncompromising, conclusion: From the moment of conception, abolitionists want to give the fetus equal protection as a person under the 14th Amendment.

As abortion rights protesters continue to fight against the fallout of the Supreme Court decision, abortion abolitionists see the reversal of Roe as an opening to advance their goals. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Abolitionists have long represented a radical fringe, minimized by prominent mainstream national groups who have focused on advancing incremental abortion restrictions.

But the abolitionist reach has been growing over the past year, largely through online activism and targeted efforts in some state legislatures and churches. Mr. Durbin’s group, End Abortion Now, which started in 2017, filed an amicus brief in the recent Supreme Court case overturning Roe along with the Foundation to Abolish Abortion and 21 other like-minded groups from states like Idaho and Pennsylvania. His Apologia Studios YouTube channel has more than 300,000 subscribers, and he leads Apologia Church, a congregation of about 700 people.

They see the Roe reversal as a significant boost to their argument, and an opening to advance their goals and seize the broader movement’s future.

Abolitionist views have picked up support in the ultraconservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. “We have been listening to and following the wrong leaders,” Tom Ascol, a prominent ultraconservative Southern Baptist pastor, said a week after the Supreme Court decision. Mr. Ascol came in second in the recent election for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The future of the anti-abortion movement will be led by those who hold to a consistent and genuinely ‘pro-life’ ethic, which is to say that since life begins at conception and fertilization, the full personhood of an unborn life must entail equal protection under the law that is afforded to all other persons in the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

“All mothers who abort their children are culpable at some level, though not necessarily equally culpable for homicide,” he said.

From Opinion: The End of Roe v. Wade

Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end ​​the constitutional right to abortion.

  • Michelle Goldberg: “The end of Roe v. Wade was foreseen, but in wide swaths of the country, it has still created wrenching and potentially tragic uncertainties.”
  • Spencer Bokat-Lindell: “What exactly does it mean for the Supreme Court to experience a crisis of legitimacy, and is it really in one?”
  • Bonnie Kristian, journalist: “For many backers of former President Donald Trump, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was a long-awaited vindication.” It might also mark the end of his political career.
  • Erika Bachiochi, legal scholar: “It is precisely the unborn child’s state of existential dependence upon its mother, not its autonomy, that makes it especially entitled to care, nurture and legal protection.”

Some states have already banned abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. State legislatures can no longer use Roe as an excuse to avoid abolitionist proposals, Mr. Durbin said on his livestream. He urged churches to join his group and expand their protests from abortion clinics to places like Target and CVS where women might access medication abortion.

Mr. Durbin, driven by his set of Christian beliefs, and others in the abolitionist coalition recently pushed a bill in Louisiana that would have classified abortion as homicide and enabled prosecutors to bring criminal cases against women who end a pregnancy. The measure failed, but it got further than any of the other “equal protection” bills abolitionists have worked to introduce in about a dozen states over the past two years.

Mr. Durbin, driven by his set of Christian beliefs, recently supported a bill in Louisiana that would have classified abortion as homicide and enabled prosecutors to bring criminal cases against women who end a pregnancy. The measure failed. Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The bill generated significant opposition from other anti-abortion groups. In an open letter, about 70 anti-abortion groups urged all state legislators to reject such initiatives.

“As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts,” the letter stated. It was signed by groups including National Right to Life, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and Americans United for Life. Other groups, like Students for Life, say they want to “abolish abortion” and make it “unthinkable and unavailable” but oppose criminalization of women.

Privately, some leaders of mainstream groups worry about how quickly abolitionists have gained a foothold. In Texas, the Foundation to Abolish Abortion opposed the state’s six-week ban because it “discriminates against someone who doesn’t have a detectable heartbeat,” Bradley Pierce, the group’s president, said. A group called Free the States is pushing abolitionist campaigns from Oklahoma.

About one in three American adults believe that, if abortion is illegal, women who have the procedure should serve jail time or pay a fine or do community service, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted in March. Men, white evangelicals and Republicans are among the most likely to believe that a woman should be punished, the study found.

They reflect an undercurrent of the anti-abortion movement that Donald J. Trump elevated in 2016, when he said that women who receive abortions should receive “some form of punishment” if the procedure were banned in the United States, before bipartisan outrage pushed him to recant.

Already, some prosecutors have used homicide and child-abuse laws to charge women for things like inducing abortion or experiencing miscarriage; about 1,300 women have faced such charges or arrests since 2006, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Ultimately, abolitionists believe they are fighting a holy Christian mission, answerable to the God they worship.

In their amicus brief, they wrote, “The court is not only bound by the text of the Constitution, but it is also bound by the limits on human civil authority revealed by God.”

***

To stop a woman from entering an abortion clinic, you have about 15 seconds to make her change her mind, Mr. Durbin said, casually holding a yellow Yerba can in his Tempe, Ariz., office recently, and pointing to a stack of signs his team takes to clinics that say, “Babies are murdered here.”

Mr. Durbin is working to achieve abolitionist goals with a multipronged approach: evangelizing online and preaching at his church; training congregations on how to keep women from walking into an abortion clinic; and traveling to state legislatures to promote bills classifying abortion as homicide.

Mr. Durbin attracts followers through his Apologia Studios YouTube channel in addition to his church. Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

He works in a studio office space behind a door with a sign displaying the name of a meat shop and crossed knives. The sign is a decoy for security, he said, to throw off opponents. The inside is dark, industrial and metal, with movie posters for films like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Tubs of 4Patriot emergency food survival kits were stacked nearby, with water, protein powders and chia seeds.

Mr. Durbin, 44, has five children, as well as three grandchildren and five black belts. Before he was a pastor and online activist, he was a national karate champion who played Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour. He married his wife when he was 20 and she was 18 and pregnant with their first child, and he devoted his life to Jesus after he nearly overdosed on ecstasy, he said.

He often tells the story of how they adopted their youngest son after the boy’s birth mother sought an abortion when doctors wrongly expected him to be born with spina bifida.

He is motivated by a belief he is obeying God. “It’s a command of God to rescue those who are being led to the slaughter,” he said. “That’s not a request or a suggestion. It’s, rescue them.”

It is no accident that “abolition” is the word the movement chose for itself. Mr. Durbin and his fellow activists portray their mission as comparable to the push to abolish slavery in the United States before the Civil War. And abortion abolitionists — as well as many in the broader anti-abortion movement — equate supporters of abortion rights with defenders of slavery.

“There were people arguing against the abolitionists at the time,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Well, sure, it’s wrong. But, if you don’t want a slave, don’t get one.’ You know, so everything was sort of, ‘That’s their plantation, their choice.’”

He takes issue with news articles saying he wants to see women who have abortions executed. But he wants women who have the procedure to be prosecuted for homicide under their state laws.

“I do believe that the unjustified taking of human life, if provable, ultimately, justly, ought to be capital punishment,” he said. “However, I don’t trust our system today to deal that out.”

He said he also wanted people to know, “There can be forgiveness in Jesus Christ.”

***

At a time when church attendance is often shrinking, Apologia Church had so many families on a recent Sunday, about a month before the Supreme Court decision, that it ran out of bulletins. Fathers wheeled in children in wagons, and mothers held babies while leading other small children by the hand. A man at the door greeted them in a black shirt that read, “Jesus is Lord, pass the ammo.”

Mr. Durbin preached from the book of Proverbs, which he said offered wisdom on every part of life, including about “nations rejecting God’s wisdom and then being destroyed,” and “how a Christian mother looks when she builds a home, over and against the average unbelieving mother.” A woman’s role in the home “raises up little heroes, and little image bearers of God,” he said.

Followers of the Apologia Church protesting outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Tempe, Ariz. Talking about the women going to the clinic, one protester said: “We are their last hope.” Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Later that week, at 7 a.m., about six men from the church lined the only entrance to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Tempe, holding signs as the hot Arizona sun rose. “We care about these women,” Chad, a father of five who gave only his first name, said. “We are their last hope.”

He wore a body camera, “for accountability and protection,” he said, and cited a verse from Proverbs that “tells us to rescue those that are being led away to the slaughter.”

Another man, Daryl Groves, 55, who found the church online about five years ago, used an amplifier: “We would even adopt your child,” he said.

Past the line the men could not cross, a group of clinic volunteers in rainbow jackets gathered to escort clients inside.

***

At the post-Roe celebration at the Brazilian steakhouse, a woman sat at the center of the long table.

Like many people who go to the church, Christine Schwan first stumbled upon Mr. Durbin on YouTube and saw him give a Mother’s Day message about a woman who did not abort her baby. Days later, she joined one of the church’s protests at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It was something she felt she had to do.

“Because of what I had done,” Ms. Schwan, 63, said matter-of-factly in the church studio. “Because of having had an abortion.”

Asked how old she was when she had the procedure, she simply said, “younger,” and declined to give specifics. They were irrelevant to the real truth of the matter, she said.

“I am not a victim,” she said. “I was a sinner. I was a complete sinner.”

Ms. Schwan is now an assistant to Mr. Durbin and the other pastors, all men. When Mr. Durbin suggested she share her story, she agreed. She had grown up Catholic but said she was not truly saved until several years ago when she abandoned teaching yoga and “new age” ideas.

“What upsets me most is when the pro-life industry says that women are victims,” she said. “That means I don’t have to take responsibility for myself.”

She started to cry and took her head in her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

She opened her laptop and read aloud from the Old Testament. The passage was about King Belshazzar of ancient Babylon, who was feasting when mysterious fingers of a hand wrote on the wall of his imminent destruction.

“They thought they were impregnable,” she said. Her voice grew shaky.

“Do you know what I did? I killed a baby. It doesn’t get any worse than that,” she said. “Because that is what we were created for. God created us to bear children. To carry them. That is a gift, that is not a curse. That is a gift. And we are special.”

She believed what her pastors taught, even if it meant she would face severe consequences.

“I took a life, I should give my life,” she said. If authorities were to come for her, “I would right now, I would absolutely go to court and say, ‘Yeah, I am a sinner, I did it.’ And if that was my punishment, I would take it.”

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