By Darius Tahir | KHN
This summer, pedestrians, drivers, and passengers in Washington, D.C., saw a new type of graffiti among the usual urban scrawls: anti-abortion advocacy designed to troll this ultra-blue city. On sidewalks, on bridge overpasses, and near metro stations some people had stenciled or spray-painted missives like “Be Gay: Ban Abortion” and, in stylized lettering, “Abortion Is Murder.”
The messaging was likely a shock in Washington. The graffiti reflects part of a surprising segment of the ideological spectrum: anti-abortion using the language of the radical left.
One group on the vanguard of an increasingly confrontational anti-abortion movement is Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, which operates mostly in the nation’s capital. They ’ve embraced all types of media and a good dose of misinformation to communicate a smashmouth message. One member of the group, Caroline Smith, boasted that they want to make people “uncomfortable.” Their activities have also gotten several members convicted of trespassing and obstructing abortion clinics.
Demonstrations like these, which involve rowdy, obstructive protests live-streamed over the internet, have gotten more scrutiny, especially since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, the Department of Justice has used the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to protect access to abortion clinics. As of June, it had pursued FACE Act cases against 48 defendants nationwide, with allegations ranging from shooting pellet guns into facilities to simply locking the gates with super glue.
Graffiti also is part of PAAU’s strategy, with the group’s social media providing instruction on “decorating public space,” celebrating defacement as “culture jamming.” (The group’s founder, Terrisa Bukovinac, told KFF Health News in an interview that she did not “know anything about the specifics” about whether PAAU had done any anti-abortion graffitiing in Washington this summer.) The group’s no-holds-barred strategies include livestreamed protests with combative counterprotesters and passersby.
In recent years, the group and its allies have been featured in live-streamed videos, some of which show protesters shouting combustible, misleading claims that have been rejected by medical experts and others. These live-streams include bystanders, patients, clinicians, and abortion rights activists, who, once they are on the livestream, risk becoming the subject of online attack, whether they are associated with the abortion clinic or not.
“It’s a vector for doxxing and honestly would be foolish to think it’s anything other than an aggression tactic,” said Daly Barnett of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, speaking generally of livestreams and other social media about protests at abortion clinics. Doxxing describes a form of online attack in which someone’s personal information is made public without permission.
PAAU’s Bukovinac left a San Francisco anti-abortion organization in 2021 to help create this unorthodox group. She and some of her colleagues wanted to find “a space for themselves” on the ideological spectrum. The group’s website boasts of “progressive feminist values of equality” and members’ willingness to put their bodies “in between the oppressor and the oppressed.” But the use of graphic anti-abortion rhetoric drew a cold reception from what Bukovinac called the “leftist” part of the pro-life movement.
A Curious Fit
Despite its otherwise progressive verbiage on inclusion and gay rights, the group mixes quite naturally into the right. Bukovinac, for instance, is a faculty member at the Leadership Institute, a conservative training group endorsed by the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). She also attended a Heritage Foundation gala at which Tucker Carlson spoke.
She blames liberals for this strange company. “It should be embarrassing that I have to rely on Christofascists to end a genocide,” she said.
Politically, it’s a dissonant fit, too. Despite having made clear to documentarians that she didn’t vote in the 2020 election, she recently declared a Democratic presidential run. In her view, that’s because anti-abortion Democrats are underrepresented. Citing data of unspecified provenance, she claimed in an interview that a quarter of Democrats identify as pro-life, and that a majority say they want more restrictions on abortion. She said she intends to show graphic anti-abortion television ads as part of her campaign.
Her campaign is an escalation of the group’s all-media tactics, which include livestreaming videos across the internet, accessible far and wide.
One livestream documented a 2020 blockade of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic. It became a right-wing cause célèbre after several activists, including Lauren Handy, PAAU’s director of activism, entered the clinic, injuring a person while blockading the rooms, and livestreamed the whole thing — later earning an arrest, indictment, and conviction under the FACE Act. Right now, five of the 10, including Handy, are appealing; defense counsel Martin Cannon says it’s “likely” a total of nine will appeal after sentencing. When police arrested Handy in March 2022, they said they found the remains of five fetuses in her house, which she said came from the clinic via a medical waste driver. The transport company disputed her account.
The group has enlisted multiple anti-abortion members of Congress, who have pressed their case — about the fairness of the prosecutions — to the Department of Justice and Washington city officials. More broadly, some congressional Republicans are gearing up to repeal the FACE Act. Former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) even complained during the first primary debate that prosecutors were pursuing anti-abortion activists.
Whatever their appeals to the right wing, the group and their allies are careful to appeal to the left too. Before their October 2020 blockade in Washington, organizers planned to present an aggressive — yet also multicultural, progressive — image, according to prosecutors’ filings in federal district court, on the FACE Act charges. “The idea of deliberately breaking the law is sexy,” advised Jonathan Darnel, an evangelical Christian activist, about their language advertising the event. Later another activist counseled making the language seem “more woke,” according to text messages obtained by the government and provided in a trial brief.
A Digital Megaphone
In real time, the nearly three-hour livestreamed videos had a more Christian, conservative bent, with protesters blockading and subsequently getting arrested and featuring speakers extolling religious themes and praising “anti-abortion, anti-Sodomite” activists. An internet broadcast like this “presents the potential for martyrdom,” said Mackenzie Quick, an assistant professor at Flagler College who has studied the rhetoric of anti-abortion movements. She thinks such streams might emerge as a common tactic for activists.
In the live-streamed videos, the protesters made typical anti-abortion claims in on-camera appearances, like that a fetus can feel pain at 12 weeks’ gestation, which the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists rejects.
The live-streams also employ a take-no-prisoners approach to identifying — or misidentifying — people who, whether intentionally or not, become part of the video. “This may be the abortionist,” Darnel said in the halls of the abortion clinic, of one potential target of the protest who walked in view of the camera. Then an offscreen speaker is heard telling him the person was an FBI agent.
At another point, Darnel speculated on the live-streamed video whether someone — it was unclear whom he was referring to — was a well-known, Washington, D.C.-based abortion rights activist. Then he changed his mind: “Oh wait, we don’t know — we don’t know who she is,” he said.
Darnel summarily dismissed any potential concerns with his behavior. In a message to KFF Health News, he asked, given his opposition to abortion, why would he “be concerned with the privacy of the murderers or the corrupted police who sought to protect those murderers?” Days later, asked about a different subject, he added that these concerns are raised only against anti-abortion protesters.
It’s not illegal in Washington, D.C., to film people in public without their consent, but the progressive anti-abortion types are “very media-oriented and they’re very noisy and aggressive,” said Megan S., who helps run a volunteer group that escorts patients to appointments. She and other clinic escort volunteers are very aware of the risks of being identifiable. (Megan S. withheld her last name to protect herself from such risks.)
Exposing or potentially misrepresenting identities became a thorny point during the trial on the October 2020 obstruction, at which both Darnel and Handy were defendants.
The proceedings were marked by multiple clashes pitting expression and publicity against protecting courtroom deliberations.
Some pro-life activists, who Bukovinac maintained were unaffiliated with the progressives, protested outside the courthouse when jury selection began.
Once the trial began, the conflicts continued, with the judge raising concerns that activists’ audible comments constituted witness tampering, Bukovinac said. The trial record showed the judge ultimately granted requests from prosecutors to shield witnesses’ identities and restrict the dissemination of discovery material to only the defense team members.
The defense also attempted to introduce photos and videos of fetuses and a video of the clinic’s doctor purportedly describing what he does to fetuses post-abortion, which counsel claimed would justify Handy’s belief that fetuses were born alive before being killed. But the judge ruled that the photos were “particularly incendiary.” She wrote that the defendants planned to mischaracterize the video, which she said was “propaganda.”
The case is set to get tested in the appeals court, where some anti-abortion advocates see an opportunity to undo the FACE Act, which was designed to regulate these made-for-social-media protests that have become a signature of PAAU.
That’s the hope of Cannon, senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, an anti-abortion public interest law firm representing one of the defendants. The law is questionably constitutional, despite its nearly 30-year history, he said. “We’re not tilting at windmills.”
If the courts won’t end the law, the activists’ next best hope may be their congressional allies. The Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising has rebranded one of its social media accounts previously devoted to providing trial updates “#RepealFACE.”
Darius Tahir is a KHN correspondent.
KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.