Brothers in Arms, Part 3: White Supremacy and the War on Abortion

This article is our third installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series explored the first years after Roe v. Wade, when a fight to preserve school segregation brought together Christian conservatives, who then took on the issue of abortion. This installment examines the connections that developed later between racist groups and the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s, which fed a growing extremism that escalated in the following decade.

KKK members picket Carter campaign office in Alabama, September 1, 1980. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, courtesy of Georgia State University

The U.S. entered the 1980s with a new political force at work, one that had proven its strength by playing a role in the landslide defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan. The religious right had been slow to coalesce in the 1970s, but when it finally did, it became a power that shaped national politics.

What had taken time was trying out — and then abandoning — issues like school prayer and pornography, hoping to find the political lightning bolt that would unite and energize the religious right. When they finally did find their compelling issue, the religious right had a problem: It wasn’t one they could use publicly.

During the Reagan years, there was ample crossover between white supremacist and anti-abortion groups.

Beginning in the 1960s, the South was dotted with private Christian schools that provided white Southerners, many of whom were wary of racial integration, with an alternative to the public schools that were undergoing desegregation. But by the 1970s, those private schools were under attack, coming under the scrutiny of both the IRS and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for their admissions and hiring policies.

The issue brought together key figures in the religious right, like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and Paul Weyrich, and they made it their mission to defeat Carter’s reelection bid, hoping the next president would put the IRS and EEOC on a shorter leash. But to build their movement publicly and nationally, they needed an issue that would stir a broader base of sympathy, branding them as believers instead of bigots. They picked abortion — namely, demanding a constitutional amendment to outlaw it — and they enjoyed a resounding success. Carter refused their demands and lost. Reagan, the candidate they endorsed — and whose party supported their demand in its official platform — won by one of the largest margins in history. Continue reading

This Month in History: Scheidler v. NOW

Photo: Lisa Bennett via NOW

Photo: Lisa Bennett via NOW

This month marks the anniversaries of two of the three Supreme Court decisions in the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy.”

You remember those cases, right? Of course you do. Well, unless you’re in what is probably the majority of people who tend to remember only the more famous names of sexual and reproductive justice-related Supreme Court cases. Roe v. Wade? Of course. Lawrence v. Texas? Sure. Griswold v. Connecticut? Probably. But, get to any cases with fewer public discourse references and less name recognition, and the response is far more likely to be, “What?”

The Scheidler v. NOW cases generated national dialogue over abortion clinics’ need for legal recourse in the face of increasingly violent protesters.

For most people, the Scheidler v. NOW saga almost certainly falls into “What?” territory. However, in a climate where many abortion providers risk being targets of violence and harassment and where some state governments are systemically working to functionally eliminate abortion access, perhaps the Scheidler cases merit being more well known in public conversation.

Background of the cases: Throughout the 1980s, anti-abortion activists became increasingly violent in their tactics. The Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), a group founded by Joseph Scheidler and alternately known as the Pro-Life Action League, participated in a number of clinic attacks, some including vandalism and assault. In 1989, the National Organization for Women filed suit, arguing that PLAN’s actions amounted to extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Why RICO matters: In this particular case, private parties seeking monetary relief under RICO may receive triple the amount of damages they incurred. While this is certainly nice in itself, it may also be a more effective deterrent — compared to state prosecution alone — for parties engaging in crimes such as extortion. Continue reading