Meet the Coronavirus Conservatives Who Put Reproductive Justice and Public Health in Danger

Protester at anti-shutdown protest in Ohio, May 1, 2020. Photo: Becker1999, CC License 2.0

After a possible exposure to the novel coronavirus in March, Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar tweeted from self-isolation, “Been thinking about life and mortality today. I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”

The tweet sparked a viral meme when other Twitter users turned his words into farce, using them to caption videos and images that were wild mismatches for Rep. Gosar’s stoic reflection: a puppy tumbling around with a kitten, a giant robot marching to battle, and a crab scuttling around with a kitchen knife in its claw, to name a few examples.

The meme’s subtext seemed to be that Rep. Gosar’s macho musing was an awkward, even inappropriate, response to the public health crisis at hand. Lili Loofbourow, writing in Slate, offered her take on the emotional underpinnings of Gosar’s tweet: “It’s humiliating — emasculating, even — to be brought low by a bundle of protein and RNA.”


Public health responses to COVID-19 sparked backlash — with armed men at the forefront.


Before inspiring a meme, Rep. Gosar earned a reputation as an outspoken opponent of reproductive rights. Last year he gained notoriety for posting a poll to his House website that pitched ideas like banning the sale of “aborted baby parts” and pursuing criminal charges against abortion seekers. It was a journey through the most inflammatory accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories peddled by anti-abortion extremists.

Coronavirus and reproductive health care are two very different things. Nonetheless, either one can sideline the social attitudes that uphold gender inequality. If Loofbourow is correct about the emasculating powers of the novel coronavirus, then it seems fitting that the same politician who thinks the Grim Reaper should accommodate hypermasculine fantasies would also think of dumping widely accepted, established abortion care practices to pursue a real-life Handmaid’s Tale. Continue reading

Before Roe v. Wade: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark California Case

Demonstrator at New York City Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo: © Edith Marie Photography

“Should abortion be legalized?” That was the question posed on a forum in 1964 on Pacifica Radio. Nine years before the Supreme Court would give its own answer in Roe v. Wade, a trio of panelists debated the issue for listeners in Los Angeles.

Prompting the forum was a bill in the Legislature to liberalize California’s abortion laws. At the time, abortion was illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk. The proposed legislation, endorsed by the California Medical Association, allowed exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy was not life-threatening but posed other harm to a patient’s physical or mental health.


People v. Belous marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts.


Did the bill go too far — or not far enough? Each panelist had a different take. Attorney Zad Leavy discussed the legal quandaries of people facing unintended pregnancies. He was cautious about full legalization but critical of the existing ban. Dr. Robert Hood, an area surgeon, opposed the legalization of abortion and even questioned the validity of the medical reasons commonly cited for justifying abortions. In sharp contrast, Dr. Leon Belous, an attending physician at LA’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, did not mince words in his support for legal abortion on demand.

Belous felt outlawing abortion was an example of “man’s inhumanity to women.” As he put it, “An injured dog on the street is treated with more sympathy and concern” than the countless women dying annually, or who risked that fate, from self-induced or black-market abortions. “I have seen seven to 10 of these women every month for the last 32 years,” Belous continued. “I have been seeing them in my office, many of them in the operating room, and some of them in the morgue.” He told of one who had been raped and another in desperate poverty, unable to support a child.

Belous concluded by sharing his hope that California’s “antiquated, unrealistic, and barbaric” ban would be overturned. Five years later, Belous was at the center of a case that did just that. Continue reading

The Kennedy Retirement and the Radicalizing of the Supreme Court

Protesters swarmed Washington, DC, to voice their opposition to Brett Kavanaugh.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, alarms went up about overturning Roe v. Wade, which would make abortion once again illegal in many states. As shown in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which Kennedy provided the decisive fifth vote overturning Texas’ draconian laws limiting abortion access, one justice can preserve the right to abortion. But Kennedy also voted with the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, when the Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to impose extra requirements — mandatory counseling, waiting periods, etc. — on those seeking abortions. So, while he was willing to curtail access, he never was willing to overturn Roe v. Wade altogether.


In Brett Kavanaugh’s twisted worldview, paperwork is the true burden, while an unwanted pregnancy is not.


But Kennedy was the last independent conservative on the Supreme Court. Anyone Trump nominated was going to be on the far right because he was using the Federalist Society’s list compiled by Leonard Leo. Not quite a kingmaker, but definitely a justice-maker, Leo is also responsible for Justices Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch.

But some on the right have some doubts about Kavanaugh. In response, the National Review emphasizes Kavanaugh’s judicial defense of “religious freedom.” (Nothing shows the real danger Kavanaugh poses like pundits on the far right reassuring other conservatives.) They lauded Kavanaugh’s ruling in favor of the Trump administration in the case of Jane Doe, the teenage immigrant the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to stop from having an abortion, as “the latest in a long, unbroken line of consistent decisions on issues of religion and abortion.” Continue reading

Sons Speak About Mom’s Abortion

“Mom, did you ever have an abortion?” It’s a simple question. Karen Thurston’s sons, Kevin and Stephen, never asked. Why would they? What would possibly make them even think to ask?

Thurston Family

Karen Thurston and her sons Kevin (left) and Stephen. Photo taken the day Karen told them about her 1973 abortion, courtesy of Karen Thurston.

On the flip side, why did Karen never speak to her sons about her teenage experiences with abortion care? Because, for decades, Karen heeded the advice of her father, who had arranged for her 1973 procedure when she was just 13: “You must never, ever, as long as you live, tell anyone you had an abortion, not even your husband when you are grown.”

In 2013, though, she did tell her sons, and now tells her story forcefully, publicly, and with great compassion to chip away at the stigma associated with abortion care.

Consider now Kevin’s and Stephen’s reactions:

Kevin: I first learned of my mom’s abortion story when I was 23 years old. My mom asked me if it would be possible for the two of us to fly to Pittsburgh and meet my older brother there for dinner. My brother and I could both tell that this wasn’t just a whimsical get-together; there was something she wanted to talk about. That’s when she shared her story. We could tell it really pained her. Not only was the story difficult to tell on its own, but she was clearly afraid of our reaction. Even after raising us our whole lives, after being closer to us than anyone we’d ever known, she didn’t know if she could trust us to understand, and I think that speaks to how cruel stigmatization is. It is so isolating for women who’ve made that choice that they do not even see allies in their families or the children they do go on to raise. Continue reading

Maternal Mortality: A National Embarrassment

Americans spend more money on childbirth than any other country, but we’re not getting a good return on our investment.

Less than a century ago, approximately one mother died for every 100 live births — an occurrence so common that nearly everyone belonged to a family, or knew of one, that was devastated by such a loss. Fortunately, in most nations, those tragedies have declined over the years. In fact, in the decade between 2003 and 2013, only eight countries saw their maternal mortality rates rise.

Unfortunately, the United States was one of those eight countries, joining a club that also includes Afghanistan and South Sudan. Within the 31 industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an American woman is more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than a citizen of any other country besides Mexico. Among developed countries, the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates — and those rates are only getting worse.

Graph: CDC

U.S. maternal mortality has attracted the attention of organizations whose oversight you wouldn’t expect. Amnesty International, which most Americans associate with the fight against human rights abuses in far-flung authoritarian regimes, considers our high maternal mortality rates to be a violation of human rights. Additionally — and pathetically — one of the biggest sources of funding for maternal health in the United States comes not from taxpayers but from the pharmaceutical company Merck. The Economist quoted a Merck spokesperson as saying, “We expected to be doing all our work in developing countries.” Continue reading

Credibility Is the First Casualty: Behind the Pro-Gun Blame-Dodging That Targets Planned Parenthood

In the wake of February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the debate over gun control reached a fever pitch in the news and on the ground. As CNN reported, in the seven days after the shooting, there were more than a thousand mentions of “gun control” by ABC, CBS, and other major broadcasters. Survivors, student activists, and gun control advocates kept the story front and center by mobilizing across the nation, organizing school walkouts and March For Our Lives events to demand smarter gun control laws and safer classrooms and communities.


To men invested in an old order of male dominance, gun culture and reproductive justice are in direct conflict with each other.


Planned Parenthood was among the many voices calling for an end to gun violence. Just two days after the shooting, Planned Parenthood Action posted a call for reform on their blog, noting that 96 lives are lost to gun violence daily. The post made its position clear: “As a health care provider, Planned Parenthood is committed to the fundamental right of all people to live safe and healthy lives without the fear of violence.”

Numerous Planned Parenthood affiliates were doing the same. On the local front, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona was signal-boosting relevant articles on its Facebook page, including a profile of Emma González, who quickly became one of the most outspoken and recognized survivor activists in Parkland.

For pro-gun conservatives, on the other hand, the Parkland shooting was a call to go on the defensive and double down on their messaging. For a long while, a common tactic has been to deflect criticism by blaming access to abortion for “a culture of death,” as Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) put it, or by peddling the notion that Planned Parenthood takes more lives than gun violence. In March, Matt Walsh dredged up that argument on the conservative website The Daily Wire. He dripped with sarcasm, stating he was “impressed [Planned Parenthood] could find time” to join the debate on gun control, “considering they’re also wrapped up in their war against babies and life itself.” To Walsh, Planned Parenthood is not in the business of promoting safe and healthy lives, because he looks past the lives of women. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 4: The Gathering Storm of Patriots and Plainclothes Politicians

This article is our final installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined the connections that developed in the 1980s between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement, which bred a growing extremism and led to the first assassination of an abortion provider in 1993. This installment looks at the threats that developed in the aftermath.

1996 Planned Parenthood publication detailing militia movement links to anti-abortion terrorism

On March 11, 1993, Michael Frederick Griffin approached Dr. David Gunn outside his Pensacola clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies!” Griffin, who had been radicalized by former Klansman and anti-abortion crusader John Burt, committed the first assassination of an abortion provider in the U.S. The following year, 1994, saw a record four murders and eight attempted murders by anti-abortion extremists, and more than half of the estimated 1,500 abortion clinics in the U.S. were targets of anti-abortion crimes, such as arson or bombings, in the first seven months of 1994. Although the next two years would see decreases in some types of anti-abortion crimes, clinics have never been free of threats in any of the years since.


Since the 1990s, anti-government groups have stirred racial hatred and anti-abortion extremism on the right.


Just weeks after Dr. Gunn’s assassination, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ended a 51-day armed standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas, the home of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff began in response to reports that the cult was abusing children and stockpiling illegal weapons. The siege ended on April 19, 1993 — 25 years ago this month — when the cult’s leader, David Koresh, ordered his followers to ignite fires that soon engulfed the compound in flames. By the end of the standoff, 75 people had lost their lives.

The federal government’s actions in Waco had overwhelming public support — 70 percent according to a poll conducted shortly after the siege — but to many right-wing activists, who held a deep distrust of the federal government, Waco was a gross display of heavy-handed government intrusion; tyrannical, military-style policing; and violent intolerance of religious liberty. Waco thus became a rallying cry for a growing, militant movement in the political right. Continue reading