Republicans try to soften stance on abortion as ‘abolitionists’ go farther

By Sarah McCammon
Anti-abortion activists who describe themselves as “abolitionists” protest outside a fertility clinic in North Carolina in April 2024. NPR

As some Republicans try to moderate their messaging on abortion over concerns about voter backlash this November, some activists are trying to go much further.

Outside a fertility clinic in Charlotte, N.C., last month, dozens of protestors lined both sides of the street, as some shouted toward the closed front door.

“How many children are in the freezer here? How many?” one man yelled, interspersing his speech with Bible verses.

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“The fruit of the womb is the reward!” he shouted, referencing a verse fromthe book of Psalms.

The protest was organized by a group of activists who describe themselves as abortion abolitionists, who recently spent a long weekend in Charlotte meeting and strategizing.

“We want to ban IVF,” explained Matthew Wiersema, 32, of Gainesville, Ga., another protestor standing nearby. “We want to criminalize IVF.”

Using the language of the antislavery movement, abortion abolitionists like Wiersema say they oppose all abortions – no exceptions – and want to criminalize the procedure. Many are also speaking out against IVF, at a time when most Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, are stressing their support for the procedure.

“I strongly support the availability of IVF for couples who are trying to have a precious little beautiful baby,” Trump said during a speech in February. Trump noted that most Americans, including most who oppose abortions rights, support access to IVF.


This story is part of We, The Voters, a special 2024 Election series that dives into the issues that are top of mind for many voters. Read all the stories here.


His comments came after Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through the process should be legally considered children.

Republicans there rushed to pass a law designed to protect providers from legal consequences.

T. Russell Hunter leads Abolitionists Rising, a group of activists that hosted last month’s gathering Charlotte.

“Pro-lifers are scared to death of that [issue] because IVF has not been thought about,” Hunter said in an interview with NPR.

Hunter, who is based in Oklahoma, accuses mainstream anti-abortion rights groups of being too willing to accept incremental restrictions, and inconsistent in their message.

“You can’t say, ‘Life begins at conception…but we’re going to allow abortion in the first five weeks,’” he says. “If life begins at conception you believe that human life must be protected, you’re stuck logically. [You should support banning] all abortions.”

Hunter opposes IVF, which often produces extra embryos that are then frozen or destroyed.

He also believes that embryos should have legal rights. Speaking to fellow activists, Hunter said that means charging patients who seek abortions – and anyone who helps them – with murder.

“We know the mother is the abortionist or the father is the abortionist,” Hunter told a couple hundred supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom in Charlotte. “Whoever it is, the abortionist needs to be punished and we’re not going to lie about it in order to be friends with the world, because that is precisely what the pro-life movement has done and is doing.”

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California Davis, said that’s a departure from the longstanding public position of most anti-abortion groups, who’ve argued that women seek abortions under duress, and that penalties for violating abortion laws should target providers – not patients themselves.

“Increasingly on the pro-choice side, you have voices of people saying either abortion is really important healthcare and there’s nothing wrong with it – women understand what it is and choose it – or people in the abortion storytelling world saying, ‘I felt no regret about abortion; I felt relieved, I felt happy,’” Ziegler said. “Statements that I think abolitionists also have really weaponized.”

Kristine Harhoef lives in Texas and has been involved in anti-abortion activism for well over a decade. She leads a group called “Not A Victim,” dedicated to the idea that most women actively choose abortions – and should be punished for doing so.

“We’re dealing with different types of women,” she said in an interview during a break in the abolitionist conference.

Harhoef says in her work trying to persuade women not to have abortions, she has met some who were reluctant patients.

“But so many other women who are loud and proud,” she said, noting that a group of abortion rights activists in 2021 had demonstrated outside the U.S. Supreme Court by taking abortion pills, as a protest against abortion restrictions. “You know, they were not ashamed at all.”

The Washington Post quoted an organizer of the demonstration who said none of the women who took the pills were pregnant at the time.

Harhoef says she’s frustrated that after the fall of Roe v Wade – even in Texas where abortion is banned – women are still taking abortion pills.

She’s been talking with lawmakers in Texas and neighboring states like Louisiana and Oklahoma trying to promote legislation that would treat abortion as identical to homicide.

“The penalty could be anything from nothing at all if she was truly innocent – truly forced into that abortion – to a fine or community service, to, yes, some a jail time and possibly even the death penalty,” Harhoef said, “if the court, the judge, the jury all deemed that to be an appropriate penalty for that particular situation.”

Harhoef’s position is by far the minority, even among abortion rights opponents. A clear and growing majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

According to the National Addiction and Social Attitudes Survey, less than a quarter of those who say abortion is murder say women who get one should be punished for it.

“I don’t think that has been or will be our focus,” Hawkins said in an interview with NPR.

Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life of America, a major anti-abortion group that opposes prosecuting patients. She describes abortion abolitionists as “social media trolls” who do more harm than good, and don’t represent the mainstream of her movement.

“The prolife movement opposes throwing mothers in jail,” Hawkins said. “That’s not the strategy that’s going to end abortion.”

On the subject of IVF, Hawkins’ group and others have raised ethical concerns. She has described the fertility industry as “under-regulated.”

Rachel Bitecofer, a Democratic political strategist, says the line between the mainstream anti-abortion rights movement and the abortion abolitionists is quite thin.

“If you radicalize people…to gain power – and that’s what Republicans did, they’ve been targeting those folks for 25, 30 years now with ever-increasing hyperbolic rhetoric about abortion and defining any kind of abortion as an act of murder,” Bitecofer said.

“So if you accept that abortion is murder, then it makes sense that you have pretty rigid requirements to stop it at all costs,” she added.

In a statement, Nimra Chowdhry of the Center for Reproductive Rights called the use of language from the antislavery movement to advance abortion restrictions “transparently in bad faith.”

“To be clear, the anti-abortion movement has always intended to criminalize pregnant people, but they know it’s wildly unpopular with the public, so they have done it through indirect ways,” Chowdhry said. “State officials have long weaponized and misapplied other laws, like feticide, to prosecute pregnant people, especially people of color. The emerging legislative effort to explicitly criminalize pregnant people is simply saying the quiet part out loud.”

So far, abortion abolitionists have been mostly unsuccessful in pushing through laws that explicitly define abortion as homicide.

But they’ve made some strides in state legislatures – including advancing a bill that made it to Louisiana’s House floor in 2022.

In an interview with Time Magazine published last month, former President Trump said he’d be open to letting women who have abortions be prosecuted – he said he’d leave that question up to the states.

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