Abortion rights opponents across the country want to charge women with murder A small but growing faction of the anti-abortion movement is calling for patients to be criminally punished. It's gaining traction in states such as Kansas.

Abortion rights opponents across the country want to charge women with murder

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ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, more than a dozen states have made it illegal to provide abortions in most cases. None so far punish women for abortions, but a faction of the anti-abortion movement wants to change that. Here's Rose Conlon of KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

CONLON: Early this year, anti-abortion protestors celebrated the fall of Roe v. Wade at March for Life rallies like this one at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

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TY MASTERSON: It'll be a cold day in you-know-what before we stop fighting to protect women and children, including unborn children.

CONLON: Republican State Senate President Ty Masterson and anti-abortion leaders pledged to pursue more abortion restrictions, despite a major loss last year. Voters rejected an effort to rewrite the state constitution that would have made way for a ban. But one man in the crowd thought it was all way too soft on abortion. In a sea of signs with slogans like pro-love, pro-life, Kevan Myers was passing out pamphlets that said abortion is murder and everybody knows it.

KEVAN MYERS: I am not a pro-lifer. I am an abolitionist.

CONLON: Myers is a pastor from Kansas City, Kan. He's crusaded against abortion for most of his life. He and his now wife protested at a local clinic on their first date. In recent years, he's helped pioneer an extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement that calls for a total abortion ban without exceptions and notably charging women who have abortions with murder. They call themselves abortion abolitionists, borrowing the term from those who fought to abolish slavery. Pro-life, to them, is a pejorative, and they criticize the movement for settling for laws that merely restrict or regulate abortion.

MYERS: If someone could kill me if I was inconvenient, would I want legislators to gather and say, we're against killing Kevan, and so we're going to make a law that says if you're going to kill Kevan, you have to think about it for 24 hours? Or you can kill Kevan if you do it with a clean knife.

CONLON: Abolitionist views remain unpopular in the U.S. and within most of the broader anti-abortion movement, but they're gaining traction. And now that Roe is overturned, some see new opportunity for their ideas to take hold. Frustration with the mainstream anti-abortion playbook isn't necessarily new. In 1991, Kansas became ground zero in the national abortion fight when tens of thousands of protesters congregated in Wichita for six weeks of civil disobedience called the Summer of Mercy, led by the group Operation Rescue. They surrounded clinics, including one run by Dr. George Tiller, who was known for performing abortions late in pregnancy.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dr. Tiller is attempting to enter the clinic. Gate is blocked. The protesters have been informed that they should move and disperse and are not doing so.

CONLON: Tiller was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist nearly two decades later. Troy Newman, president of a modern-day Operation Rescue group, sees the abolitionists' recent rise as a result of similar long-standing frustrations with the mainstream anti-abortion movement.

TROY NEWMAN: They're certainly not aggressive enough. They oftentimes look at abortion as just another political issue, like school choice or a tax break. They don't spend any time in front of that abortion clinic, and they're embarrassed by people like me.

CONLON: What's new is the focus on punishing women, says University of West Georgia history professor Daniel Williams.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Even those extreme organizations tended to see the task of abolishing abortion as really focused on shutting down the abortion clinics. And so we've seen a pretty rapid shift, since 2016 or so, on this particular question.

CONLON: In part, he says, that's because abortion pills have become pretty easy to get. Abolitionists want women prosecuted for sidestepping state abortion bans by ordering the pills online. In a recent YouTube video, Oklahoma-based abolitionist leader T. Russell Hunter filmed himself buying some.

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T RUSSELL HUNTER: So we're going to try to order some abortion pills online in Oklahoma to see how easy this is. This is not a prop.

CONLON: While the traditional anti-abortion movement sees women as, quote, "second victims of a predatory abortion industry," abolitionists see women who get abortions as murderers who should be held criminally responsible. In March, a few hundred people from across the country gathered in Wichita for the unveiling of a new national organization called Abolitionists Rising with Hunter at the helm. The goal is to unify the movement, build momentum for a federal abortion ban. If that seems radical, Hunter says the abolition of slavery once did, too.

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HUNTER: We're going to stop at almost every four-way walk, and we're going to need people on each corner.

CONLON: They fanned out across Wichita with graphic signs reading, Bleeding Kansas. They wore body cameras to capture arguments with passersby, posting it all on social media. Protesting outside one clinic, Molly Johnson of Oklahoma City said she thinks abortion is a crime worthy of death.

MOLLY JOHNSON: God values human life so highly that when one human chooses to murder another innocent human, they forfeit their own life. So I do support the death penalty for people who have had due process and been convicted of murder.

CONLON: For mainstream anti-abortion groups that long promised overturning Roe would not lead to abortion patients being jailed, the abolitionists represent a messaging nightmare. Americans hold complicated views on abortion. A majority think it should be legal in many cases, but would also like to see restrictions. Doling out death penalty sentences to abortion patients is extremely unpopular. But Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, says the abolitionists don't really care about polls.

MARY ZIEGLER: They're not even trying to appeal to voters. They're just saying, like, this is what we ought to do, and we ought to try to find legislators who agree with us.

CONLON: Efforts to lobby lawmakers and run primary challengers against Republicans seen as too soft on abortion have led to the introduction of abolitionist legislation in several states, including Kansas. Last year, a Louisiana bill that opened the door to punishing women who had abortions advanced out of committee to the House floor before it was killed. And, Ziegler says, some lawmakers could warm to the idea of criminal penalties if other attempts to make it harder to get around state abortion bans don't pan out, like challenges to the abortion pill mifepristone.

ZIEGLER: The most powerful organizations don't want to punish women. But I think in part what you're seeing is abolitionists waiting in the wings, saying not only that they think that that's the right thing to do, but that they think it's sort of necessary because there's skepticism about whether these other strategies will work.

CONLON: Few analysts see abolitionists achieving their goals anytime soon, but they could influence public opinion and make strict abortion bans look moderate in comparison.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita.

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