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The Anti-Abortion Movement Is More Conspiracy-Addled Than Ever

From rampant antisemitism to groomer panic, pro-life activists are knee-deep in the far-right fever swamp.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
A pro-life demonstrator in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square during the Women’s March to the White House on July 9.

The “pro-life” movement has gone full groomer. Scroll the Twitter feed of the movement’s darling, Live Action founder Lila Rose, and you’ll find as many recent posts about the sexualization of children as you will see missives that are singularly about abortion. Take a gander at the feed of Students for Life, and you’ll find people calling Planned Parenthood staff “groomers.” Turn the television channel to EWTN, a staunchly anti-abortion Catholic network and the largest religious broadcast in the world, and you’ll find hosts decrying Disney’s “transgender grooming” of kids.

The alarm couldn’t appear more disingenuous. In recent weeks, anti-abortion activists loudly condemned luxury designer Balenciaga’s revolting ad showing children carrying teddy bears in bondage wear—Abby Johnson even used the occasion to promote the “Culture of Life” fashion brand—but stayed mum on news of far wider-reaching scandals.* Among them: The Maryland attorney general has found that more than six hundred people were abused in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which is now suing to keep court documents sealed. Pope John Paul II seems to have shuffled around abusive priests before assuming St. Peter’s throne. And, claiming to be performing an exorcism, an already-sentenced priest at the “tradCath” Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio repeatedly raped a young woman, eventually impregnating her, blaming a demon, and forcing her to obtain an abortion. Both laity and high-ranking clerics helped cover it up, some even participating by holding the victim down.

Critics could point to the high-profile Rose’s silence on hypersexualization within Christian purity culture as further evidence of her apathy—especially as this culture is arguably the most pornographic one that many will ever experience. Girls are made to pledge their virginity to their fathers, wear a ring to symbolize the covenant, and even attend “purity balls” with dear old Dad. They’re coaxed to identify with child saints who allegedly died protecting their hymens from evil non-Christians, and they’re threatened that if they have premarital sex, no one will ever want to marry them, as they’ll be as worthless as a chewed stick of gum. They’re explicitly told their body is “not their own,” often leading to rape. Many develop anorexia nervosa, as they’re so desperate to desexualize their bodies.

Because Rose and her ilk—mostly white women—seem so very unserious about eradicating the grooming and sexual abuse of children and young women, it may be tempting to consign them to the “QAnon” corner of the right-wing fever swamp. But that would be a mistake, as these figures are actually legitimating the antisemitic conspiracies that animate the deranged devotees of Q. In their crusade against abortion, they are synonymizing Judaism and “baby murder.” As hate crimes against Jews climb, and as Jewish groups continue to challenge abortion restrictions on religious grounds, it’s crucial to understand this hideous project.

Antisemitism, it must be noted, has always been a part of the anti-abortion movement. For decades, there have been pervasive myths that Margaret Sanger was Jewish, biblical Jews sacrificed their children to the Canaanite deity Moloch, and the majority of abortion doctors are Jewish. “Pro-life” terrorists have disproportionately targeted Jewish doctors for murder and flooded abortion clinics with hate mail calling, for instance, for Jewish doctors to be lynched and for there to be “another Hitler.”

In 2008, the infamous Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman published a book, Judaism Discovered: From Its Own Texts, which called abortion a Jewish “family value.” That same year, E. Michael Jones published The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, in which he blamed Jews for Roe v. Wade. In 2019, the fundamentalist Christian station TruNews aired a two-part segment on the “Jewish contribution” to Roe, calling abortion “the real Jewish Holocaust” and echoing Jones’s claim that infant killing is “Jewish theology.”

Such comments have their roots in the “blood libel,” the centuries-old canard that Jews prey upon Christian youth and then use their blood in a ritual reenactment of their crucifixion of Christ. The fact that the Roman Empire executed Jesus never stopped European Christians from putting Jews in ghettos and trying to systematically slaughter in the name of the children. Likewise, the fact that Jews do not actually control the abortion industry has not stopped today’s bigots from calling for Jews to be “hunted down and … executed in the town square” for their “diabolical shit” against the unborn.

It’s precisely this legacy of racial terror that Rose invokes every time she refers to abortion as a “satanic ritual” and when she retweets a photograph of a bloody-handed model bogusly alleged to be the designer behind the Balenciaga campaign. Anti-abortion political correspondent Edie Heipel is doing much the same when she calls abortion “a sacrament,” yoking it, as Rose has repeatedly done, to pedophilia and transgender care.

“It is now fairly common to hear pro-lifers talk about abortion as a religious rite,” as well as for them to blur it with other tales of their enemies perverting children, David W. Lafferty, an independent Catholic scholar, told The New Republic. “They may attribute these crimes to liberals or globalists or Satanists or Freemasons, but the historical roots of this kind of rhetoric are in Christian antisemitism.”

Lafferty notes that many do not know they’ve adopted narratives with anti-Jewish tropes. The tragic fact is the Catholic Church has sanctioned the hate of Jews for so long that it’s become embedded in the language and structures of thought. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, or NCJW, added in a separate interview with The New Republic that antisemitism works best “in the background”—that is, when people don’t even realize they’re spreading it.

But surely Rose knows what she is doing, right? Her social media posts so often provoke blatantly antisemitic comments, and she does not appear to care. If she names Jews at all, it is only to subordinate their suffering under the Third Reich to abortion, as others have done before her. In her mind, it’s Planned Parenthood that is “the most genocidal corporation in human history.”

For Ruttenberg, such “appropriation of atrocity” has become a cliché in white Christian society. Just as Gentiles once transformed a persecuted Jew into a Christian persecuted by Jews, white Christians today endlessly seize upon the suffering of others to portray themselves as the true victims of history. This is part and parcel of supersessionist theology, which casts Judaism as a mere prelude to the bigger, better religion.

So, too, is the tendency of Christians to speak for Jews, which seems to be happening with even greater frequency in wake of Roe’s fall. In September, the popular Catholic priest and podcaster Father Mike Schmitz was quoted in The New York Times saying that the “Judeo-Christian position for millenniums has been that the rights of [the unborn] are the same as the rights of the mom.”

“Leave the Jews out of it,” tweeted one disgusted psychiatrist, citing work by Ruttenberg and others on the primacy of the pregnant person’s life and welfare in the Jewish tradition, even in orthodox circles. Several others added that Schmitz wasn’t even entirely correct about Christian tradition, noting how Church leaders once permitted herbs to “bring on late periods” and only recently pegged ensoulment to conception.

Embedded in Schmitz’s statement is the notion that Jews who support abortion are not real Jews. This logic is sure to proliferate, as Jewish groups organize to challenge state restrictions on abortion. In Indiana, a judge recently blocked an abortion ban that was challenged by Jewish, Muslims, and other groups on religious liberty grounds. In the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court, the NCJW just won an injunction against an Arizona fetal personhood law. According to Ruttenberg, the organization has filed an amicus brief in Kentucky, where abortion providers have sued the state, and is considering leading amicus briefs in other states with comparable suits.

It may be that Catholic anti-abortion activists perceive the need to tap into ancient hate because everything is now riding on these suits and their Church has offered, in Lafferty’s words, “precious little guidance on how to actually be pro-life in a pluralistic society.” While Pope Francis has signaled the need for a more conciliatory approach—one that takes seriously the differing beliefs of others on such matters as ensoulment or personhood—U.S. bishops have either tended to ignore or condemn those who disagree with them. Consequently, Catholic moral thought on abortion has been totally transmogrified by racism and other destructive forces, and anti-abortion activists have, on the whole, done next to nothing to build a culture of life from the ground up.

Lafferty adds that while activists have long positioned themselves as fighting against “a legal and medical regime,” their touted alternative is exactly that. “The amount of control and surveillance that they would place upon women is remarkable,” he says. “There is never a thought given to the idea of leaving law out of it for the time being and simply working to reduce abortion rates by campaigning for pro-women and pro-family social policy.” (Black Catholics, whom the anti-abortion movement has long sent running for the hills, have argued the same, adding that the state is never colorblind when surveilling its citizens.)

So long as abortion remains legal, there can be little doubt that Rose and friends will continue to fearmonger about children being groomed and trafficked in the most devilish ways. And as long as the anti-abortion movement persists with this rhetoric, Jewish lives will be among those that are increasingly endangered. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitic violence, has already predicted this year will resemble the last, in that it will feature the highest number of such reported incidents on record. Some say it’s only a matter of time before Ye discovers his affinities with the Church and converts. (The artist formerly known as Kanye West recently called abortion “genocide” and implored the Jewish people to “forgive Hitler.”)

Nevertheless, many are hopeful. “The tide is turning,” Ruttenberg says of the white supremacist Christian establishment. “Power is slipping away; they’re just trying to hold on.” She points toward the significant turnout of Black voters for the reelection of the Reverend Dr. Senator Raphael Warnock despite massive voter suppression, along with the “solidarity work” that she’s seeing in such programs as the NCJW-sponsored Jews for Abortion Access. “White Jews are coming back to the understanding that white supremacy is the enemy,” much as in the civil rights era, when, having not yet assimilated into whiteness, their press readily called lynch mobs “pogroms.”

With headlines on increasing rates of maternal mortality, particularly within the Black community, and other pregnancy-related atrocities, Americans are also beginning to understand that abortion access really is a “racial justice issue, a disability rights issue, an economic issue,” and so on, says Ruttenberg. “It might take 10, 50, 70 years, and there will be pain and suffering in the meantime, but we will get there.” As for the white women who’ve made money and fame on hate—it seems they’ll have to find a new grift.

* This article originally mischaracterized the Balenciaga ad.