Last month, the New York Times’ podcast The Daily produced an episode about the anti-abortion ideology of Jeff Durbin and his Apologia Church in Mesa, Arizona. Durbin, a bearded, hipster-dressing pastor, believes that abortions should be punishable by the death penalty. He’s part of a growing network of self-identified “abortion abolitionists.”
Yes, you read that right—the people who want to execute rape survivors view themselves as modern day abolitionists.
Abortion abolitionists’ logic goes something like this: Abortions might be legal in some states, but so was slavery back in the day. Life begins at conception, and therefore all abortions are murder. People who undergo abortions, and the doctors who provide them, are murderers who deserve severe consequences, including imprisonment and execution. No exceptions for rape or incest.
Abortion abolitionists use militant anti-abortion tactics – like harassing Planned Parenthood clinics and stalking doctors – but abolitionists do not consider themselves to be “pro-life.” Like the far-right who call more moderate members of the GOP “Republicans in Name Only” or RINOs, abolitionists think the pro-lifers are sellouts who don’t go far enough. Believing that abortions are a modern day “Holocaust,” abolitionists say that regulating abortion is just compromising with the devil. Banning abortions after six weeks? Nope, that’s not good enough.
Abortion abolitionism emerged as a distinct ideology in the early 2010s, but it has quickly become a powerful force in anti-abortion circles. Led by groups like Operation Save America, Abolish Human Abortion and End Abortion Now, abolitionist factions are growing within the Southern Baptist Convention. An out-of-date page maintained by Free the States reports that abolition bills have been introduced in eight states.
It’s been a frightening year for anti-abortion laws, but the most hardcore “abolition” legislation continues to fail. Even anti-abortion groups like National Right to Life and Susan B. Anthony List have warned against criminalizing abortion. CNN recently published a detailed discussion of Louisiana’s failed abolitionist bill.
In 2020, Prism analyzed the abolitionist ideology, documenting its key leaders and noting that “this ideology is largely informed by longtime anti-abortion leaders with ties to militia movements.” These leaders include Pastor Matt Trewhella of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In the 1990s, Trewhella signed the infamous “Defense Action Statement,” which sought to justify the killing of abortion doctors. Trewhella is also Facebook friends with John Brockhoeft, the man who set fire to a Planned Parenthood clinic in the 1985. Brockhoeft was present at the Capitol insurrection on January 6, and together the men continue to celebrate far-right militia politics on their Facebook pages.
Prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Trewhella promoted an anti-government solution to ending abortions, instructing municipal and state-level officials to defy federal laws. In September 2020, his group Defy Tyrants declared Kyle Rittenhouse a “hero.”
Trewhella isn’t the only abortion abolitionist who has a thing for Christian Nationalist violence. In 2017, Jeff Durbin told Barcroft TV that there is no difference between a mother who kills her teenage son and someone who receives an abortion. “Anybody that severs the heads and arms and legs off of a baby girl should receive the death penalty,” he said. Jeff Durbin also claims that abortions are a leftist form of “child sacrifice,” which might be why QAnon facilitator Ron Watkins is a big fan of his sermons. (Thanks to AZ Right Wing Watch for flagging the connection with Watkins.)
On the West coast, abortion abolitionists include former Washington State Representative Matt Shea, who also made headlines for promoting a document called “The Biblical Basis for War” in 2018 in which he made battle plans to “kill all males” in communities that “do not yield” to his anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ views. A few months later, Shea introduced Washington State’s anti-abortion House Bill 2154. The bill would have allowed people who undergo abortions to be charged with manslaughter in the first degree. Fortunately, the bill died alongside Shea’s political career. In December 2019, an investigative report sponsored by Washington’s House of Representatives found that Shea’s close collaborations with Patriot militia groups amounted to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.”
In Oregon, abortion abolitionists include the hate-filled Rogue Valley Saltshaker street preachers, a group known for protesting abortion clinics and Pride events throughout the state. While commonly referred to as the Saltshakers, these zealots maintain a number of overlapping groups, including Abolish Abortion Oregon, the Abolitionist Society of Southern Oregon, and CORE Ministries.
In 2020, Saltshakers Jon Peterman and Casie May frequently delved in COVID denialism, reposting screeds from Matt Trewhella on Facebook. In 2021, reproductive justice group the Rogue Valley Pepper Shakers—who also provided LCRW with research for this article—documented Peterman discussing mask mandates while laughing and joking with Biome Erickson, a locally known Nazi. The Pepper Shakers have also documented Saltshakers repeatedly using the n-word. For all their talk about “abolition” and the “abortion Holocaust,” apparently these people harbor deep anti-black racism and pal around with neo-Nazis.
In 2021, Abolish Abortion Oregon sued the City of Grants Pass, claiming that the city violated their First Amendment rights by issuing noise violations when they were pestering people with their megaphones. They filed a similar lawsuit against Josephine County, and after the Grants Pass school district told Saltshaker and public school employee Ryan Clark he can’t be a bigot while at work, Clark sued the school district.
All three of these lawsuits seemed to be ending with a whimper, but it’s unclear if the plaintiffs ever intended to win. They’re represented in court by Pacific Justice Institute, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group. PJI is known for launching frivolous lawsuits targeting small, rural communities. These suits are seemingly designed to overwhelm public officials, applying pressure in the name of Christian Nationalism.
In terms of tactics, groups like the Saltshakers are the antithesis of Jeff Durbin. Durbin represents the media savvy, hipster contingent of abortion abolitionists. He’s got tattoos, and in the 1990s he performed in a live stage version of Mortal Kombat. His podcasts are sponsored by a beard care company called Forged Beard Co–and Armored Republic, makers of AR500 body armor. His “Apologia Studios” channel has 341,000 followers on YouTube.
The Saltshakers have 437 followers on Facebook, and while they show up at nearly every public event in Southern Oregon, they’re hard-pressed to mobilize more than a dozen supporters at a time. Lacking in charisma, the Saltshakers are just some of the sullen, persistent foot soldiers of the movement–but in this growing far-right network, the abortion abolitionists remain united in their cause.
LCRW staff wrote this article under the supervision of Editor in Chief Abner Häuge.
LCRW will ALWAYS publish ALL of our content free-of-charge for the public good. Our work is supported by readers like you!!
I'm a broke journalist and run this outlet mostly out-of-pocket. I would love nothing more than to be able to dedicate 100% of my time to doing this coverage.
Support for LCRW has allowed me to travel to report, make ends meet every month, and even buy gear and software licenses for my work. I can't thank the folks who donate enough.