An all-male panel of anti-abortion religious leaders from around the country met Friday night to discuss the strategies that should be used to end abortion in every state at any stage of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape and incest, and with criminal punishment for the pregnant person in line with existing criminal penalties for murder, which includes the death penalty.
The panel was part of a week-long series of events hosted by Operation Save America, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim religious group that wants all Americans to follow “God’s law” and their interpretation of the Christian gospel. Many of the events were held in Douglasville, Georgia, at Pray’s Mill Baptist Church, which broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention for supposed acceptance of liberal social justice views regarding race and gender. Tuesday through Friday, the group started its mornings by protesting outside of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, an abortion clinic near Atlanta.
Friday’s speakers included Wisconsin-based Operation Save America Director Jason Storms and former OSA director Rusty Thomas, along with Arizona-based End Abortion Now communications director Zachary Conover, Georgia Right to Life President Ricardo Davis, and Gabriel Rench, a member of the extremist Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.
Speakers focused on equal protection bills in state legislatures
The theme of OSA’s national event was unity, and highlighted divisions within anti-abortion circles over what they described as the proper approach and response to legislation that seeks to limit or entirely restrict abortion procedures. The moderator of the panel, Derin Stidd, opened by asking, “Why do you all hate women?” to which the men laughed.
Rench then joked about not giving the microphone to Conover and said, “We don’t give him a voice like women,” then added, “Bad joke.”
The comments were in jest, but in line with remarks from OSA speakers throughout the week, including another comment from Rench, who said the church was wrong to allow women to be preachers.
On Thursday, anti-Islam speaker Raymond Ibrahim said, “If you look at a country, and the best they can come up with for a president is a woman, there’s something wrong about that. That doesn’t mean women aren’t smart or capable, I believe that, but if the very best — the crème de la crème — is a woman, that tells me something about the men when it comes to positions of authority and leadership.”
The panel focused on legislation they call “equal protection” bills, such as Georgia’s House Bill 496, also called the Georgia Prenatal Equal Protection Act, which was introduced in February but did not advance in the state’s House of Representatives. An “equal protection” bill, by their definition, is one that adds criminal penalties to a pregnant person for the intentional termination of a pregnancy at any stage, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The law would make an exception if the abortion was performed to prevent the pregnant person’s “imminent death or great bodily injury.” Operation Save America Director Jason Storms leads an anti-abortion rally Saturday, July 22, 2023 in downtown Atlanta. (John McCosh/Georgia Recorder)
Storms said OSA has advocated for similar bills in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and Oklahoma. So far, no states have passed an “equal protection” bill, but several, including Georgia, did pass what anti-abortion advocates call “heartbeat bills” that ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant. Those who advocate for “equal protection” bills call themselves “abolitionists,” co-opting language from the movement to abolish slavery, while the “pro-life” community has advocated for more politically expedient bills like six-week bans. Storms and other panelists called the six-week bans weak, even though they expressed understanding of political environments that make “equal protection” bills unlikely to become reality.
Rench said that is the case in Idaho, where many members of the state legislature are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The church has taken an official position that rape and incest exceptions are acceptable, and bills that have not included those exceptions, such as one introduced by OSA-endorsed Sen. Scott Herndon of Sandpoint, have gone nowhere in the Idaho Legislature. Christ Church and its followers have taken an approach they dubbed “smashmouth incrementalism,” which acknowledges that change can be achieved through gradual reformation and repentance in the country’s culture.
But Rench said he intends to keep working with Herndon and others to bring equal protection bills back in the next legislative session to keep pushing for it, even though he thinks there is still injustice with criminal penalties for the pregnant person.
“What happens when you pass an abolition bill, a woman goes to trial, and then she goes to life in prison? That’s just as wicked,” Rench said. “Life in prison is just as wicked as everything else, so you’re solving one side of the equation, acting like we did a good job, but we locked that woman up in prison for 99 years like a monkey, and we’re still not treating her like a person.”
Davis, president of Georgia Right to Life, said his organization will push for their bill again in the next session as well, and said he’s confident they’ll get it done the next time around.
Thomas, who was a longtime director of Operation Save America before Storms, said incremental steps like “heartbeat” bills were “a lie from the pit of hell” from the very beginning, but the organization didn’t used to be politically involved because there was too much compromise and too much that needed to be changed.
Thomas said it wasn’t until pastor Matthew Trewhella, who co-founded the Milwaukee-based group Missionaries to the Preborn and is Storms’ father-in-law, wrote “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates” that he felt like there could be progress. The book 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 the book. Anti-abortion protesters gather outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center, an abortion clinic near Atlanta, during demonstrations last week. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)
“That was the first time in my life I knew we had solid rock to stand on to fight this battle politically,” he said. “That was the game changer.”
Conover’s organization, End Abortion Now, creates model legislation that grants legal personhood to fertilized eggs, which would limit in-vitro fertilization procedures, and assigns penalties to people who have abortions in addition to doctors who provide them. Some of his legislative efforts have been defeated by organizations that are against criminal penalties for pregnant people.
“It’s a dirty little secret of the pro-life industry: Their heretical teaching that has informed the types of laws they’ve supported for five decades, the lie that women should be allowed to kill their own children with immunity and impunity because they themselves are victims of abortion,” Conover said. “It is a lie that says that they are never legally culpable, however willfully or intentionally they carry out the act of taking the life.”
Regardless of the legislative strategy, the panelists agreed changing the culture of America to take on a Christian biblical worldview, which will require all pastors to take the same position on abortion as their own.
“We must see that the church plays that role culturally, to create that social tension. That’s the standard, that’s the ideology,” Storms said. “But that’s when we have to say, ‘Well, how does that flesh out in the real world?’ It doesn’t always look so pretty when we actually see that applied. How is abortion going to end? I don’t know, maybe it’s going to be a civil war, maybe it’s going to be a whole variety of other means.”
States Newsroom reproductive rights reporter Sofia Resnick contributed to this report.
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