The men of Operation Save America close out the group’s weeklong anti-abortion protest in front of the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 22, 2023. (John McCosh/Georgia Recorder)
Wendell Shrock doesn’t believe in condoms. “We should leave the uterus to God,” the street preacher from Tennessee tells States Newsroom, in front of an abortion clinic outside of Atlanta, mid-morning in late July. Sweat drips from his cowboy hat into his salt-and-pepper beard that stretches halfway down his red-plaid shirt. The retired police officer is running security for the conservative Christian group Operation Save America’s annual national event. Their followers interpret the Bible literally. Some believe constant procreation is God’s will.
Shrock surveilles the crowd while his wife, Dawn, cares for six of their 11 children on the opposite end of a sidewalk crowded with warring abortion messages. One of their daughters walks over, and Shrock explains she will wed soon. He’s been praying God will give her 20 children. (For privacy reasons, he doesn’t share her age.) One of his sons got married about six years ago at 18 and has had a child every year since. Shrock says with pride that Dawn, who wears a hair covering and a long dress, has never held a public job.
“God created a woman, not only to have a baby and a baby to grow inside of her, but to nurture a baby,” says Shrock, who is not a spokesperson or leader for the group. “I could never have the closeness to my children that my wife has. That’s because God created her that way. He created her different from me. And I know that goes against some of today’s norms. ‘We’re all the same’— that’s not what my Bible says.”
Overwhelmingly, men are driving the quest to restrict and remove women’s reproductive rights in as many states as possible. Women leaders are and have always been involved in this decades-long fight. But in the post-Roe era, when more mainstream anti-abortion groups are trying to navigate increased bipartisan support for reproductive rights, a more extremist male-dominated faction has risen up. Groups like Operation Save America want to put women on trial for abortion. They want to eliminate all abortion exceptions and certain forms of birth control and fertility treatments. And they are finding support for these messages across the U.S. — in conservative churches and among conservative Christian lawmakers.
But even beyond the militant corner of the anti-abortion movement lies a male-dominated network of academics, attorneys, judges, lawmakers and lobbyists working on legal arguments that position fertilized eggs as constitutionally protected persons. And now that federal abortion rights no longer exist, these men are able to say the quiet part out loud: that somewhere between conception and the first few weeks of pregnancy, the rights of the zygote, embryo, or fetus trump those of the pregnant person.
Some male-run groups pushing for stringent anti-abortion restrictions and penalties
- Defy Tyrants – Run by Matthew Trewhella, who has endorsed murdering abortion providers and promotes the idea of government defiance in the pursuit of ending abortion and LGBTQ rights, sometimes to violent ends.
- End Abortion Now – Headed by Arizona-based Jeff Durbin and dedicated to passing personhood bills around the country that create homicide charges for women and health care providers.
- Foundation to Abolish Abortion – Run by Texas-based Bradley Pierce; crafts so-called “abolitionist” anti-abortion bills that include criminal penalties for the pregnant person.
- Free the States – Run by T. Russell Hunter, a self-described “abortion abolitionist” who opposes “pro-life” groups that do not seek criminal penalties for the pregnant person.
- National Men’s March to Abolish Abortion and Rally for Personhood – Jim Havens and “Protest Priest” Fr. Stephen Imbarrato organize all-male marches through various cities, calling on men to fight against the “daily mass murder of preborn children.”
- Operation Save America – Outgrowth of the 1980s-era militant anti-abortion movement, whose mostly white male pastors lobby extremist lawmakers to introduce punitive anti-abortion laws; they train their home-schooled children to advance this movement.
- Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn – Founded by Texas pastor Mark Lee Dickson, who along with former Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell have been using city ordinances to ban abortion and are now lobbying state officials to pass ordinances that ban abortion-related travel on local roads.
South Carolina Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge recently argued as much in his opinion upholding the state’s so-called “heartbeat” ban, which was approved by the majority on what recently became the only all-male state supreme court in the nation.
“To be sure, the 2023 Act infringes on a woman’s right of privacy and bodily autonomy,” Kittredge wrote. “The legislature has made a policy determination that, at a certain point in the pregnancy, a woman’s interest in autonomy and privacy does not outweigh the interest of the unborn child to live.”
For South Carolina right now, that point is approximately four weeks of pregnancy.
Protecting and punishing women
Shrock recently texted States Newsroom about the gender roles he’s laid out for his daughters.
“As my daughters were growing up, I would from time to time ask them what they wanted to be when they grow up. Regardless of their answers, I would take them to this scripture and tell them that this is what God has said they should do when they grow up,” Shrock wrote, then quoted from the second chapter in the New Testament’s book of Titus, his version varying slightly from other translations:
Asked to explain the verse on the phone, Shrock warned, “You won’t like it.”
“God in the Bible, in Genesis, God created a man to provide, protect,” he said. “And he gave the man a mission. And he created the woman; he said he needs a helper. God gave me a mission, and it’s my wife’s job to come alongside me and help me with that mission. And I know that goes against the world’s grain. They’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, what if she wants a career and what if she wants recognition? What if she wants to climb the corporate ladder?’ Well, God created my wife to have babies, to — literally what it says in Titus.”
Operation Save America’s pervading message is about empowering men and boys to adopt an old, punitive Christian worldview, one more widely embraced when women had few rights and power. But they also take their roles as provider and protector seriously.
For its national director Jason Storms and his father-in-law, longtime anti-abortion radical Matthew Trewhella, that partly means buying lots of guns and building militias. Trewhella has shared his 2013 manifesto calling for government defiance with many interested state lawmakers.
“We live in a culture of so many weak and pathetic Christian men who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag if their life depended on it,” Storms said in August 2022, from the pulpit at Mercy Seat Christian Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where he is the minister of evangelism and Trewhella is the lead pastor. “It’s not being a protector to your family that God has called you to be. Get yourself in shape. Cultivate some physical strength. Buy guns. If you need to, buy a lot of guns. It’s no limit on gun purchases; you have my blessing. … And if you buy a gun and you buy ammunition, train with it, and get around a group of men that you can train with. Get around a group of courageous men who will fight, bleed, and die with you, for you, and for your families and for your liberties.”
A 2021 YouTube video that was posted on Operation Save America’s website featured suggestive and violent imagery involving scenes of a man with an assault rifle, then cutting to a Planned Parenthood facility, while reciting the biblical verse that begins, “To everything there is a season” and includes the line, “a time to kill.” That video “was removed by the uploader” Tuesday afternoon after the initial national publication of this States Newsroom report.
Storms, in an interview Tuesday afternoon, said his organization doesn’t advocate for violence against abortion providers and believes in advancing its causes through peaceful persuasion. He said the film was produced by a friend for a Christian film festival and is not an endorsement by OSA to commit any violence against Planned Parenthood or abortion providers. When asked why the video was on OSA’s website, Storms said that he’d been meaning to take it down because of its “mixed messaging.” It was removed a short time later.
Storms said, under his leadership for the past few years, he has focused on recruiting strong male leaders to his movement and is trying “to teach our boys to be hardworking, responsible, sacrificial, caring, thoughtful.”
This year Operation Save America hosted its first Manhood Restored Bootcamp for boys and young men in Frankfort, Indiana, which involved hand-to-hand combat training and an event referred to in the schedule as “shooting range.” “Aborting your own child is a betrayal of every godly masculine virtue,” reads an OSA Facebook post leading up to the bootcamp. “Making alllowance [sic] for others to abort their own children emasculates society, decimating its soul and conscience. Abortion will end in America when Men become Men again.”
Storms said this bootcamp is also about teaching men to be responsible and good to women, including when it comes to sex and reproduction. He said he’s against “toxic masculinity” and noted that women participate in his organization.
“We do have a lot of very active women, and women that have jobs outside the home, like, all my kids.”
In addition to claiming to protect women, OSA approves of penalizing them for their reproductive decisions. They call what they support “abolitionism,” and use language from anti-slavery and civil rights movements.
“Thirteen states have banned abortion,” Storms said during the last protest of OSA’s summer event in front of the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta, on July 22 (at the time it was actually 14 states that banned abortion at all stages; now it’s 15). “In all those states they’ve given immunity to mothers, and mothers are still killing their children with immunity. That is a problem. We must pursue equal protection, equal justice, equal weights and measures.”
In a follow-up interview post-publication, Storms said the purpose of including criminal penalties for women is as a deterrent.
“I don’t want any woman to go to jail,” Storms said. “The bigger debate is more about the humanity of the preborn child than it is about the punishment for the moms. The whole reason why pro-life organizations exempt the mothers from punishment is because they think that that’s going to help them politically, with public opinion, to make it more palatable. But that’s actually not true. Now 15 states have banned abortion, right? Every single one of those exempt the mothers from punishment, so moms can still legally do self-managed abortion in every one of those states.”
Storms acknowledged there is a difference of opinion among members and leaders about how harsh penalties should be.
“We readily acknowledge the place for various mitigating circumstances which would cause a massively reduced sentence if a woman did procure an abortion under an equal protection law. We certainly do not want to pursue the harshest of penalties. … Our heart is not to see women executed or anything like that,” Storms said in an interview.
OSA sees Georgia as a key battleground state, which, like South Carolina, still allows abortion for the first few weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo’s cardiac activity can be detected on an ultrasound. This law, whose constitutionality the state Supreme Court will determine this fall, does something legally strategic. It defines personhood with a contradictory and potentially future-history-making clause: ‘“Unborn child’ means a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb.”
But this near-total ban doesn’t go far enough for OSA and its partners, who’ve been lobbying for a much more extreme bill that was introduced earlier this year but has not advanced out of the state House.
Under the “Georgia Prenatal Equal Protection Act,” doctors could be convicted under homicide charges unless they could prove the abortion was necessary to prevent “imminent death or great bodily injury.” Pregnant people suspected of having abortions could also be convicted under homicide charges, unless they could prove they were coerced into having the abortion. The bill says nothing about pregnant teenagers and children accused of this crime. Georgia is among 27 states where capital punishment is a possible sentence for homicide.
“In keeping with our oaths of office, the God-given right to life shall be secured and the impartial and equal protection of the laws shall be provided to all unborn persons from the moment of fertilization and at every stage of development, and abortion shall be abolished in this state, so help us God,” reads the bill.
OSA and its partners have advocated for similar bills in more than a dozen states, including Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma. And they’re not fighting alone. There are small but influential male-run groups like this all over the country.
The largest uterus in Washington, D.C., is made of reflective stainless steel. It’s embedded within a nearly 4,000 pound, 10-foot-tall bronze statue of a serenely pregnant Virgin Mary that now sits on the lawn in front of the Catholic University of America’s Theological College. Curled up inside what looks like a giant bowl is a bronze unborn Jesus.
Canadian sculptor Timothy Paul Schmalz says he believes it’s the first representation of Jesus as a fetus. Schmalz, whose work has been commissioned by the Vatican, opposes abortion. He toured the globe with this“Advent” statue before bringing it to its permanent home in May, in D.C., where it is now known as the National Life Monument. Schmalz’s goal is to get one in every U.S. state Capitol building. There’s a bill to erect “Advent” in Texas. One could end up in Arizona, whose secretary of state is actively seeking design submissions for an anti-abortion monument.
It’s an appropriate representation in a statue of what many state legislatures are trying to do in statute: separate a woman from her womb.
This past spring, Washington Archbishop Wilton Cardinal Gregory blessed D.C.’s new giant uterus while surrounded by other male Catholic leaders. After the ceremony Schmalz told Catholic News Agency that he sculpted Mary’s uterus like a halo, one made of “mystical material.”
But in real life, the uterus is shaped more like a pear than a halo, located between a woman’s bladder and her rectum. Pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, which will nourish the egg until it develops into an embryo, then a fetus, and then a full-term baby. As the uterus expands, the woman’s other organs start to work exponentially harder to sustain this new life. Nearly every part of the human body changes during pregnancy and impacts the pregnant person’s comfort and mobility. Pregnancy for some causes temporary or permanent health conditions of varying severity. In the U.S., many people die during or soon after pregnancy or birth, especially pregnant people who are Black and Indigenous.
In 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court prioritized the rights of the pregnant person over the fetus until it reached a later stage of development. Even then, the court allowed states to give discretion to medical providers to weigh the physical and mental health risks women face against those of the fetus. A half-century later, in 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito described each stage of the unborn’s development, but wrote not a word about the bodily developments of the person gestating that life.
The Court did not expressly address personhood in this ruling, but it’s expected to in a future case. That’s why anti-abortion legal architects are now toiling away at the legal definitions that they hope will crack the federal personhood code.
Some states are testing the constitutionality of so-called “heartbeat” bills that ban abortion around six weeks’ gestation, about two to four weeks after a missed period. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an actual heart is not detectable by ultrasound until roughly 17 to 20 weeks’ gestation. What exists now is electrical pulses. At this gestational point, pregnant people often begin to feel extremely tired or dizzy or short of breath as their hearts begin pumping what will eventually be a 40 to 45% percent increase in blood volume.
South Carolina recently became the second state, after Georgia, with a six-week ban, and Florida could be next, which would make abortion virtually inaccessible in the South. The South Carolina Supreme Court made national headlines after its lone female justice retired, and the country’s only all-male high court promptly reversed her majority-approved opinion that a nearly identical six-week ban was unconstitutional.
Helping Republican lawmakers advance increasingly restrictive anti-abortion laws are longtime legal strategists like Robert P. George and Harold Cassidy, who live-streamed their recent strategy chat at Our Lady of Perpetual Help-St. Agnes Parish in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. George says he became an anti-abortion activist as a young teenager in West Virginia, shortly before the Supreme Court made abortion a federal right. The Princeton University law professor has spent his entire academic career trying to overturn Roe and block LGBTQ rights. He has advised several Republican presidents and founded many influential political groups.
For decades, the professor and co-author of the 2008 book “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life,” has been refining his legal personhood argument, which he submitted in a co-authored “friend of the court” brief in Dobbs, that the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment already guarantees the right to life for unborn human beings. During his conversation with Cassidy, George said that abortion should not be allowed at any stage, because embryos’ unique DNA make them fully separate humans from the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg.
“Harold is the same guy who was the embryonic Harold, the fetal Harold, the infant Harold, the adolescent Harold,” George said, gesturing to Cassidy. “All of our lives begin from the earliest embryonic stage. And at all stages, and in all conditions, human life is valuable. So the first thing we’re up against is that people have been mis-instructed by the law itself.”
Universities across the country have begun to reproduce the conservative legal training ground George created at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He and his peers have been influencing young anti-abortion legal scholars with their brand of intellectual rather than overtly religious-based anti-abortion reasoning,
Cassidy’s legal career has centered around the so-called woman-protective argument, which the mainstream anti-abortion movement pivoted to during the Roe years in order to pass onerous legislative restrictions. Cassidy has represented women who claim to be victims of abortion, including Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano, the anonymous plaintiffs in Roe v. Wade and its companion case, who would eventually oppose abortion. Cassidy asserts all women suffer mental traumas after having abortions. In a major legal victory, he drafted a provision in South Dakota’s law (which was upheld by an appellate court in 2008) stating that abortion terminates “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” Abortion is currently banned in South Dakota, but Cassidy is trying to advance this language in future federal abortion challenges. He twists up the rights argument, saying allowing abortion violates a woman’s right to parent.
“We have to protect the real rights of pregnant mothers: their right to give birth to their child, their right to keep and maintain the relationship with their children, their right to enjoin the equal protection of the laws that say it’s a homicide to kill their child, and their right to an interest in their child’s welfare and life,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy and George and many of their legal peers have long claimed to oppose abortion laws that would penalize women. But their arguments have helped spawn bills that do create criminal penalties for the pregnant person. And mainly men are advancing them.
Personhood laws will diminish the rights of pregnant people, says Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s kind of like a zero sum type of game in the sense that the more rights you give to fetuses, the fewer rights you give to the people that actually gestate them,” Bridges told States Newsroom in a phone interview. “We have to acknowledge the conflict as opposed to obscuring it, which I think George and Cassidy participate in that. They need to say with a straight face, like looking people dead in the eye, that the fetus’ well-being is much more important to them than the well being of the person who gestates it. Otherwise they’re just lying and trying to win by obscuring this truth.”
Pregnant people are already facing the legal and medical consequences of abortion bans and onerous restrictions, including bans on information-sharing and attempts from anti-abortion activists and lawmakers to prevent minors and women from traveling out of state for legal abortions in Alabama, Idaho, and Texas.
Determining personhood from conception has terrifying implications for pregnant people, legal experts say. But it would affect more than abortion. If applied broadly, it could affect population counts and tax benefits. Many lawmakers advocating for personhood are unable to fully articulate the full implications or even how to enforce these laws. But even aggressively anti-abortion state governments like Texas’s have indicated personhood laws might only be used to prevent abortion rather than in ways that could benefit the pregnant person or fetus. The Texas attorney general’s office recently rejected a personhood argument in a lawsuit brought by a former prison guard who partially blames the state for her stillbirth.
That Texas’s government was suddenly uninterested in calling fetal life a person when it was unrelated to an abortion law wouldn’t surprise writer Gabrielle Blair, who believes most anti-abortion politicians are disingenuous. The Mormon mom of six behind the popular DesignMom blog has injected a new framework in the reproductive rights debate: Men are disproportionately responsible for unwanted pregnancies, and they should not leave pregnancy prevention exclusively to women, or criminalize women’s pregnancy decisions.
“We’ve put the burden of pregnancy prevention on the person who is fertile for 24 hours a month, instead of the person who is fertile 24 hours a day, every day of their life,” Blair wrote in the 2022 book adaptation of her viral 2018 X (formerly Twitter) thread, titled “Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion.”
Blair’s manifesto, like Matthew Trewhella’s, is also finding an audience among lawmakers, many of them women. She told States Newsroom that she’s heard from lawmakers receiving the book in Ohio, South Carolina, and Utah. South Carolina Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy read it into the legislative record. Blair said she’s also had encouraging conversations with men about making reproductive rights their issue too — working with rather than against women.
“For almost fifty years, a lot of men were focused on what it would take to overturn Roe v. Wade, claiming they wanted to reduce abortions,” Blair wrote in her book. “At any point, men could have eliminated elective abortions … without ever touching an abortion law, without legislating about women’s bodies, without even mentioning women. All men had to do was ejaculate responsibly. They chose not to. Today, they continue to choose not to.”
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