These male politicians are pushing for women who receive abortions to be punished with prison time
By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, CNN
(CNN) -- A businessman turned state representative from rural Oil City, Louisiana, and a Baptist pastor banded together earlier this year on a radical mission.
They were adamant that a woman who receives an abortion should receive the same criminal consequences as one who drowns her baby.
Under a bill they promoted, pregnant people could face murder charges even if they were raped or doctors determined the procedure was needed to save their own life. Doctors who attempted to help patients conceive through in-vitro fertilization, a fertility treatment used by millions of Americans, could also be locked up for destroying embryos, and certain contraception such as Plan B would be banned.
"The taking of a life is murder, and it is illegal," state Rep. Danny McCormick told a committee of state lawmakers who considered the bill in May, right after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked.
"No compromises, no more waiting," Brian Gunter, the pastor who suggested McCormick be the one to introduce the legislation, told the committee.
Only four people spoke against the bill during the committee meeting— all women. They pleaded with the lawmakers to grasp the gravity of the proposed restrictions, which went farther than any state abortion law currently on the books, and warned of unintended consequences.
"We need to take a deep breath," said Melissa Flournoy, a former state representative who runs the progressive advocacy group 10,000 Women Louisiana. She said the bill would only punish women and that there wasn't enough responsibility being placed on men.
But in the end, only one man and one woman, an Independent and a Democrat, voted against it in committee. Seven men on the committee, all Republicans, voted in favor of the bill, moving it one step closer to becoming law.
Men at the helm
A faction of self-proclaimed "abolitionists" are seeking to make abortion laws more restrictive and the consequences of having the procedure more punitive than ever before.
Emboldened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, they say they will not be satisfied until fetuses are given the same protections as all US citizens — meaning that if abortion is illegal, then criminal statutes should be applied accordingly. While major national anti-abortion groups say they do not support criminalizing women, the idea is gaining traction with certain conservative lawmakers. And the activists and politicians leading the charge are nearly always men, CNN found.
This year, three male lawmakers from Indiana attempted to wipe out existing abortion regulations and change the state's criminal statutes to apply at the time of fertilization. In Texas, five male lawmakers authored a bill last year that would have made getting an abortion punishable by the death penalty if it had gone into law. A state representative in Arizona introduced legislation that included homicide charges — saying in a Facebook video that anyone who undergoes an abortion deserves to "spend some time" in the Arizona "penal system." And a male Kansas lawmaker proposed a bill that would amend the state's constitution to allow abortion laws to pass without an exception for the life of the mother.
While most in the anti-abortion movement believe that human life begins at conception, "abolitionists" are particularly uncompromising in how they act on their beliefs — comparing abortion to the Holocaust and using inflammatory terms such as "slaughter" and "murder" to describe a medical procedure that most Americans believe should be legal in all or most cases.
Bradley Pierce, the attorney who helped draft the Louisiana bill, said his organization has been involved with many of the "abolition" bills that have been introduced in more than a dozen states. All of this proposed legislation would make it possible for women seeking abortions to face criminal charges.
An overwhelming majority of Americans said in a Pew Research Center poll they don't believe men should have a greater say on abortion policy, but that is what is happening. Experts told CNN that the male dominance fits within the anti-abortion movement's current framing as being focused on "fetal personhood" and "fetal rights" as opposed to maternal rights.
Eric Swank, an Arizona State University professor who has studied gender differences in anti-abortion activists, said his research found that while men aren't necessarily more likely to consider themselves to be "pro-life" than women, they "are more willing to take the adamant stance of no abortion under any conditions."
The most restrictive bills, which don't include explicit "life of the mother" exceptions and would charge those who receive abortions with homicide, have failed to make it to the full vote needed for passage. But others that prohibit abortions even in cases of rape and incest have taken hold in around a dozen states, including Missouri, Alabama and Tennessee, according to Guttmacher Institute.
Those laws, CNN found, were also overwhelmingly passed into law by male legislators. While female Republicans almost always voted in favor of the legislation, gender imbalances within state legislatures, as well as the fact that female lawmakers were more likely to be Democrats, fueled the voting gap. And male Democratic lawmakers were far more likely than female Democrats to cross the aisle to vote in favor of the abortion bans, according to CNN's analysis.
The Texas Heartbeat Act, for example, outlawed nearly all abortions in the state when it criminalized the procedure as soon as a heartbeat could be detected — as early as six weeks of pregnancy. While men made up nearly three quarters of the 177 lawmakers who voted, nearly 90% of those who voted in favor of the bill were men.
Encouraging 'sacrificial behavior'
Scott Herndon, a bearded Idaho man and father of eight, once believed abortion was an issue that should be discussed "between a woman and her physician."
He remembers watching the classic 80s movie, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and being relatively ambivalent about the fact that one of the characters received an abortion. He didn't become a Christian until 1996, the same year he drove his pregnant girlfriend along the streets of San Francisco on his motorcycle. The pregnancy was unexpected, but that life development, along with a newfound religious practice, led Herndon to spend a lot of thinking about "the miraculous nature of life." Over the years he began to feel compelled to get involved with the anti-abortion movement.
His daughter is now 25, and he and his wife went on to have seven more children. A longtime member of the Idaho Republicans, he told CNN he decided to run for state Senate this year with a mission of fighting government encroachment. Herndon, who touts his competitive shooting experience in high school and college, is a staunch supporter of the right to bear arms and strongly opposes vaccine mandates. He describes himself as a "true family-values conservative," noting that his sons help him with his home-building business while his five daughters live on the family farm, milking cows, and raising chickens and pigs.
One of his longterm goals if elected, he said, is to abolish abortion in the state.
"Success depends on changing hearts and minds," he said. "I liken the effort to Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement for desegregation and equal treatment of African Americans."
This comparison is one that abortion rights activists take serious issue with. "Let's be clear: appropriating the word 'abolition' is particularly contemptuous," a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Federation of America said in a statement to CNN. "That word is a symbol of freedom and this group wants to put people behind bars for exercising their right to bodily autonomy."
Herndon, however, says women should embrace their instinctual "sacrificial behavior."
"If a mother is in a life raft with a child and there's only enough food and water to save one, I'm guessing most mothers would not throw their child overboard and drown them," he said in an interview with CNN when asked about medical circumstances where a doctor may deem an abortion necessary to save a woman's life, such as a cancer diagnosis that requires aggressive treatment.
As part of their efforts to abolish abortion, which is generally defined as the termination of a pregnancy, Herndon and others in the anti-abortion movement are attempting to redefine the term to the "intentional killing" of a fetus.
That way, they claim, the lives of mothers could still be saved as long as doctors make an equal attempt to save the fetus.
Gunter, meanwhile, said he disagrees with the medical establishment and does not believe abortion is ever medically necessary.
Medical and legal experts told CNN this is a dangerous and inaccurate claim, saying there are plenty of situations that could result in women dying or being put through unnecessary bodily harm if explicit exceptions for the health and life of the mother are not included in the laws regulating abortion.
Louise King, a gynecologic surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School, said the claims are "disingenuous at best and intentional dissemination of misinformation at worst" and questioned why they "can't simply trust medical professionals to do their job."
"Most of these 'arguments' are attempts to impose a minority religious view on the majority of our citizens," she said. "This is not a matter of belief or opinion. This is a highly inappropriate way to use our legislative system."
An immediate abortion may be needed if a pregnant person's water breaks before 20 weeks, King said, or when patients have pre-existing conditions that could lead to heart or liver failure or they need aggressive treatment for a disease like cancer that would severely harm — if not destroy — the fetus. An "equal attempt to save the fetus" would require putting the life of the pregnant person at risk," she said, adding that it is also not the well established standard of care.
Doctors also note that abortion bans take away a patient's ability to make decisions about their own health and pregnancy, sometimes forcing them to endure pregnancies and deliveries of fetuses that will not survive.
Stories like this are already making headlines as laws become increasingly restrictive. In some cases, doctors are already afraid to perform abortions in cases where a mother's health is at risk, even with so called "life of the mother" exceptions in place. In Texas, one woman learned that her baby had heart, lung, brain, kidney and genetic defects and would either be stillborn or die within minutes of birth. At the same time, doctors warned her that carrying the baby to term threatened her own life, but she says she was still refused an abortion by doctors who said it could run afoul of the state's strict six-week abortion ban. She ultimately drove 10 hours to a New Mexico abortion clinic to undergo the procedure. "I'm still so angry and hurt about it that I can hardly see straight," she wrote on Facebook the next day.
Another Texas woman spoke out about being forced to carry her dead fetus for weeks after suffering a miscarriage. In Louisiana, a woman carrying a fetus without a skull was reportedly not allowed to get an abortion, while another was reportedly denied an abortion and instead forced into hours of labor when her water broke at 16 weeks, long before the fetus was viable.
Herndon agreed that the health of the pregnant woman should be considered, but he worries that the medical community automatically prioritizes the mother's life and does not treat the fetus as a person until birth, saying this needs to change. And he said that while locking up women is not his objective, it only makes sense for homicide charges to apply to a woman who chooses to undergo an abortion if fetuses are given equal protections under the law.
As chair of his county's Republican Party, he attended the Idaho Republican convention in July and proposed an official change to the party platform in support of an amendment to the state constitution that would "strengthen" the rights of fetuses.
After it easily passed the vote, a fellow Republican delegate took the floor with a proposal that was not met with the same support. She wanted to make sure an exception was included in the party platform for abortions needed for a woman's physical and mental health, Herndon recounted.
A heated debate ensued, with Herndon describing the proposal as not carefully crafted and unnecessary. The proposal was ultimately rejected by a margin of nearly 3 to 1, according to news reports. The Idaho Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment.
Back in 2019, a bill that would criminalize abortion even in cases of rape and incest was placed in front of Alabama's legislature — a move so extreme that a number of high-profile Republicans initially said it went too far.
When the bill reached the state Senate, 25 male legislators voted on party lines to enact it, and the state's female governor signed it into law.
A federal judge blocked it from taking effect, but it had an immediate domino effect as other states followed suit. Most of the laws, including near-total abortion bans known as "trigger" laws and six-week "heartbeat" bills, weren't able to take effect at the time either, but they are being implemented across the country now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned.
This wave of unprecedented restrictions shows the power of the anti-abortion movement and how the Republican Party has shifted to appeal to a small but fervent group of voters, experts said.
"The idea that a fully human life with full moral worth begins at conception is not an extreme view in the pro-life movement," said Ziad Munson, a sociology professor at Lehigh University who has researched the movements on both sides of the abortion debate. "The real issue is the degree of power the movement has over the Republican Party in the political arena, where such viewpoints have -- at least until recently -- been outside the mainstream."
And in recent years, a particular brand of Republican candidate has become more prominent — one that touts the "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen, doesn't trust science and consider themselves to be Christian Nationalists, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.
"Even a more moderate candidate may feel that they have to toe the line in what the anti-abortion movement is saying, and what (the movement) wants is changing," said Ziegler, who has studied the anti-abortion movement's influence on US politics. "So who you are catering to if you're the Republican Party is changing."
As a result, she said, what would have previously been considered a disqualifying stance on abortion for most voters is one of the issues now being used by a growing number of Republican candidates for state and federal office in the hopes of securing their party's nomination.
During the primary season earlier this year, two of the leading Republican candidates for governor of Pennsylvania said in a debate that they support banning abortion under any circumstances, including if the mother's life is at risk. "I don't give way to exceptions," said Doug Mastriano, who will be on the ticket in November to succeed incumbent Democratic governor Tom Wolf, who has vetoed a number of abortion bans passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Men running for a number of statewide offices in Georgia have also vocalized their support of total abortion bans. "There's no exception in my mind," former football star Herschel Walker, a Republican who is running for the US Senate, told reporters.
Mastriano and Walker have not expressed support for prosecuting women who have abortions. They did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
While an overwhelming majority of Americans support legalized abortion when a woman's life or health is at risk, Ziegler said the disappearing "life of the mother" exception stems from a deep distrust of both women, science and the medical establishment. The new focus on punishing women for undergoing abortions — as seen in several bills recently proposed — is also only likely to intensify, she said. As abortion providers close up shop in states with bans, it is going to become increasingly difficult to charge doctors if women travel to other states for the procedure.
"That's going to make it more appealing to punish women," Ziegler said.
'Abolitionist, not pro-life'
For pastor Gunter in Lousiana, the "pro-life establishment" is not taking a hard enough stand against abortion.
He told CNN he doesn't think someone can be truly "pro-life" while also believing that abortion is acceptable in certain circumstances. He said he will support nothing short of an all-out abortion ban with homicide charges and that unlike some of his peers, he refuses to sacrifice his principles for political reasons.
Gunter, who "grew up in church in diapers" and is now in his 30s, said in a recent speech that he once believed that opposing abortion simply meant voting for "pro-life" candidates. But when a seminary professor invited him and other men to spread the gospel outside an abortion clinic in 2008, he said everything changed.
That day, he said he watched 15 women go inside the clinic and "murder their children." One of them, Gunter said, couldn't have been older than 13 and he believed she was being forced to undergo the procedure by her mother.
"She's a child, and her mother pulled her into that clinic," said Gunter. "That day changed my life. I went home, and I was newly married... (my wife) was pregnant with our first child. I'd been seeing ultrasound pictures of my son and I thought to myself 'My God, someone killed a child just like my son, same age as my son, looks like my son. How can they do that?"
After that, he says he began confronting women as they entered abortion clinics every week. And in an attempt to create more sweeping change, he decided to get involved politically. He said he approached Rep. McCormick, who did not respond to CNN's requests for comment, earlier this year about the Louisiana bill that ended up making waves across the country. It even sparked outrage from the largest anti-abortion group in the state — one that Gunter said he had worked for but recently parted ways with because he felt it wasn't doing enough to outlaw abortion.
Gunter's impassioned plea at the committee hearing in May was met with applause, and the vote in favor of moving the bill to the full House ultimately came down to a group of state lawmakers that included a former law enforcement officer, a criminal defense and personal injury attorney and an entrepreneur who makes a living designing "man caves" and selling game room furniture.
Lawmakers then gathered on the House floor to debate the bill while dozens of supporters gathered outside the chambers in what resembled a church service, reciting Bible passages and swaying together while singing hymns such as "Amazing Grace." Jeff Durbin, an Arizona-based pastor and head of a Christian production company Apologia Studios, which has more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube, emceed and live-streamed the event. Durbin, who once played Michelangelo and Donatello in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and became fervently religious after overdosing on ecstasy, is now "unapologetically seeking to criminalize and eliminate all forms of abortion without exception." He did not respond to requests for comment.
He and five other men addressed the crowd at the state capitol, citing proverbs and describing women who get abortions as murderers.
"We have... a righteous bill that punishes those who choose to murder their children," T. Russell Hunter, the founder of anti-abortion group Free the States, yelled into the microphone, saying that any truly "pro-life" law should hold pregnant women accountable for their decisions — not just the medical providers. "Abortionists do not wake up and go out into the culture looking for children to kill; mothers bring their babies to them to be murdered. They are guilty...they have murdered their children under the color of law and the Lord God hates it."
Hunter's group describes itself as "abolitionist, not pro-life" — echoing Gunter's argument that many in the movement are compromising on their values. "While many who call themselves pro-life agree with us that abortion is murder," Free the States writes on its website, "abortion has not been opposed by the pro-life political establishment in a manner consistent with its being murder." Hunter told CNN this movement is not "about wanting to punish women or something silly like that," and that anyone involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy should face criminal charges — including fathers.
"Pray for the legislators here," Durbin, who also runs End Abortion Now, said at the capitol rally.
But this time, the prayers went unfulfilled.
Inside the House chamber, one of seven men to initially vote in favor of the proposed legislation, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Republican who describes himself as "pro-life," apologized for his vote. He said he believed the bill was unconstitutional, "makes criminals out of women." Other Republican lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates in the state also came out hard against the bill, saying it went too far — including a state representative who said her grandson wouldn't exist if it weren't for in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The bill never went to a full vote.
It was the first time such an extreme anti-abortion measure made it out of any state committee, however, and the vocal opposition has not deterred Gunter. He plans to work with McCormick, the Louisiana lawmaker, to introduce a similar bill next year.
Momentum, he told CNN, is only building in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent decision.
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