On Friday, June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the US overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the right to an abortion at the federal level and clearing the way for individual states to place even tighter restrictions on abortion access or outlaw it entirely. Two days later, we joined a group of pro-abortion Chicagoans in disrupting Mass at the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Parish Church in Old Town, a largely white and wealthy Catholic church in a gentrified area of the Near North Side. The action was in response to the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which issued a statement celebrating the overturning of Roe v. Wade and demanding further attacks on reproductive rights.
In a statement, Archbishop of Chicago Cardial Blase Cupich calls the Supreme Court’s decision “welcome”: and urges further anti-abortion action, writing that the “ruling regrettably will have little impact on abortion in Illinois . . . we will continue to advocate strongly for legal protections for unborn children.” He also calls the original Roe ruling, which had established constitutional rights to privacy and the right for pregnant people to access abortion care, “tragic.”
During the Mass, one protestor stood up and began reading aloud from the Archdiocese’s own statement, upon which several furious parishioners and one CPD officer converged to forcefully eject us from the church. (Ironically, this happened minutes after a sermon on Galatians 5:14 and “loving thy neighbor.”) While worshippers inappropriately grabbed us and roughly pushed us down the aisle, we distributed leaflets and chanted, “Not the church, not the state, only we decide our fate!” and “Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if we die!”
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: GLOBAL AND LOCAL ANTI-ABORTION ORGANIZER
It’s not news that the Catholic Church is a political entity with a long-standing commitment to colonial and patriarchal power structures. This commitment has manifested in its complicity in colonization in the “Americas,” genocides of Indigenous peoples, and continued missionary work around the world today. It is also apparent in teachings perpetuated by the Catholic Church, including that non-cis and non-straight sex is “objectively disordered,” and in its institutional failure to protect children from sexual abuse perpetrated by its own officers. The Catholic Church as an institution has a history and continued practice of centralizing and abusing power and resources, often using them to enact violence on oppressed groups.
The Church’s support for anti-abortion forces in the US and worldwide is also a long-standing phenomenon. While the Catholic Church’s role is sometimes overshadowed by the zealous work of evangelical churches fighting to limit abortion access, the statement protestors were responding to is but one representation of the Chicago Archdiocese’s years of multi-layered organizing against abortion access. Archbishop Cupich’s predecessor, Francis George, used his position to lead protests outside of abortion clinics, a practice which goes back at least to 1999. George is also credited with effectively inventing the Chicago March for Life, the largest anti-abortion action in the Midwest. (The March’s website states, “In 2013, the late Cardinal George united several pro-life organizations in Chicago and Illinois to build up the March for Life Chicago.”) March for Life nationally is one of the largest mobilizations and organizing centers for the forced birther movement and claims to mobilize tens of thousands every year in Washington, DC. Its focus is organizing students from around the country to build new young cadre for the anti-abortion right wing. It is an attempt at an image makeover to give a more youthful veneer to their movement, and both the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Chicago play a central role in this.
That first March for Life of just over 100 people has grown into an annual mobilization of thousands of anti-abortionists from across the Midwest, and a flashpoint of right-wing activity in Chicago, which the Archdiocese continues to speak at and co-organize. In 2022, the white supremacist, anti-Semitic, fascist organization Patriot Front attended the action with a banner reading “strong families make strong nations,” marking at least the third year they’ve showed up to March for Life Chicago. This reflects the broader alignment of the anti-abortion movement with white supremacist movements as well as racist state systems. March for Life Chicago’s infrastructure could be used to mobilize out-of-state anti-abortionists even more often, as Illinois (soon one of the only places in the Midwest where abortion providers will be able operate) becomes a particular target for the right wing.
The Archdiocese of Chicago’s anti-abortion organizing is institutionalized in its active “Respect Life” Ministry. Through this office, the Archdiocese of Chicago consistently lobbies against pro-abortion legislation in Illinois, organizes an annual 40-day campaign of prayers (often accompanied by “counseling,” or harassing, patients) to “end abortion” in front of clinics, and organizes annual youth “pilgrimages” to the national March for Life in Washington DC. They also support a network of local anti-abortion committees and coordinators that work at individual parishes across the Chicago area to “evangelize fellow parishioners” against abortion. These committees distribute information on Chicago anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers (such as Aid for Women), show up at abortion clinics to “pray for their conversion,” mobilize their parish to attend the March for Life, carry out actions on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and more.
This extensive anti-abortion organizing infrastructure belies the views of most Catholics in the United States, 56% of whom say abortion should be legal in most or all cases and 68% of whom said the Supreme Court shouldn’t overturn Roe v. Wade, according to Pew Research. It’s in this gap—between the Archdiocese of Chicago’s politics (enacted materially through its billion-dollar budget and organizing at grassroots and legislative levels) and the politics of its members—where opportunities for disruption and confrontation lie.
After video of the June 26 protest was posted online, it had a semi-viral reception, accumulating over 21,000 likes on TikTok, about 2,000 likes on Instagram, and 425 likes with over 12,000 views on Twitter (as of this writing).
Users pointed out the parallels between this action and the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral action organized by ACT UP in New York City in 1989. That action involved a rally by over 4,500 people outside the church and a “die-in” by dozens inside the church, with protestors lying down in the aisles to protest “Cardinal John O’Connor and the Catholic Archdiocese which meddle in public affairs, preventing access to lifesaving AIDS prevention information by students and abortion access” (ACT UP Archive). The protest brought worldwide attention to ACT UP’s use of direct action and disruption to challenge state and public inaction during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, as well as their advocacy for expanded reproductive healthcare.
With the video, social media accounts posted several calls to action:
“🥰 Disrupt a Catholic Mass near you (or any right-wing church): archchicago.org/parish-map
🥰 Disrupt or redecorate your local ‘crisis pregnancy center’ crisispregnancycentermap.com
🥰 Support abortion funds abortionfunds.org/funds
🥰 Join a local clinic escort/defense group that works with abortion clinics to protect patients from right-wing harassment
Small intentional actions towards social revolution & reproductive justice!”
The posts also included the addresses of several places in the Chicago area labeled ‘fake clinics” and “crisis pregnancy centers,” suggesting people take action to expose them. This sparked a generative back-and-forth in the comments.
CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTERS VS. LIMITED HEALTHCARE OPTIONS
Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) have been staples in the anti-abortion movement for decades. There are thousands of them across the United States (often just down the street from actual abortion care providers). CPCs market themselves as places where people with unintended pregnancies can get “all” the options, information, and services needed. In reality, they work closely with right-wing political groups, and once someone is inside, they barrage them with gruesome, wildly inaccurate anti-abortion propaganda, and use manipulative tactics to prevent people from pursuing abortion care. They often have limited or zero real medical services, no contraceptives, and preach chastity.
Pro-abortion groups generally agree that CPCs are hugely damaging, and need to be exposed, protested, or targeted in some way. But some social media comments pushed back on the classification of Lawndale Christian Health Center (LCHC) as a CPC. Despite being listed on a large directory of “fake clinics,” closer inspection reveals it doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a crisis pregnancy center. LCHC is a general health center with services from dental care to HIV treatment, not simply a propaganda center run by employees without medical training. While it’s true that LCHC doesn’t perform abortions, their online presence isn’t deliberately designed to deceive you into thinking they do. Also, LCHC does offer contraceptives and family planning, which CPCs do not.
Questions of targets, positionality, and tactics are some of the many considerations that groups need to think through before taking action. Direct action resources developed by abortion justice movements can provide valuable guidance. For example, this toolkit from #ExposeFakeClinics gives advice on how to take effective action while minimizing unintended negative impacts on people seeking abortions and other healthcare services. Raising awareness about the harm of CPCs and anti-abortion healthcare providers is crucial, but should not lead to harassing or intimidating individuals seeking care.
THE POWER OF DECENTRALIZED ABOLITIONIST, ANTI-COLONIAL, PRO-ABORTION ACTION
The recent string of SCOTUS decisions removing abortion protections, challenging tribal sovereignty, threatening religious freedom (for non-Christians), gutting the EPA’s power to limit carbon emissions, and clearing the way for continued attacks on trans and queer peoples’ rights are scary. They reflect an ongoing process of right-wing backlash to the (limited) space for autonomy that oppressed groups have been fighting to carve out for ourselves, in a nation that has always been a white supremacist, settler colonial state, built and maintained through anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence in the name of extractive capitalist “progress.” These recent rulings from the high court of an inherently illegitimate state are a reminder of what we already knew—the system is designed for violence and it’s working as intended. The forces arrayed against us are imposing.
While mainstream approaches to activism and organizing tend to silo these various struggles against different oppressions and treat them as separate, organizers and communities working at the intersections of multiple oppressions have long pointed out that they are inherently interconnected and co-constitutive. That is, the fight over abortion rights is not simply “pro-choice vs.pro-life,” and it’s not just about the right of an individual to terminate a pregnancy. Reproductive justice—a concept popularized by a group of Black women in Chicago in 1994 who called themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice—is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong.net, Black Women Radicals reading list).
As a critical framework responding to dominant discourses in the US, reproductive justice points out that an individualistic framework of advocacy, in line with the language and structure of the legal system of the US, risks missing the bigger picture of the ways that Black and Indigenous people and communities have been denied control and autonomy over reproductive health for centuries, through campaigns of both forced birth and forced sterilization, by the US and other colonial governments. A reproductive justice analysis, which points not just to the right to terminate a pregnancy but also to the importance of communities being free from colonial and extractive violence and having what they need to thrive and have children, is essential for the organizing we do around abortion access today.
At the current political moment, we need to be building on the legacy of groups like ACT-UP and countless others who carried out escalated, highly visible/public confrontational action that was proportionate to the threat of mass death they were facing. What is crucially needed are disruptions that bring the terrain of struggle to the institutions leading the fights against us. This is an energizing alternative to the highly choreographed protests that mainstream groups tend to put on. In a neoliberal political atmosphere where the language of protest, rebellion, and even revolution has been so thoroughly co-opted by corporations and corporate-funded politicians, actions that interrupt and challenge existing power dynamics and institutions are more important than ever.
While attending a large protest march or rally can be energizing and potentially empower some people to take further action on an issue they are newly mobilizing around, it can also be disempowering, particularly when hundreds or thousands of people assemble and then disassemble at a word from state forces (cops or politicians) or self-appointed “leaders,” often nonprofit or NGO employees, who assert control over a mass action. Many actions put on by national, liberal lobbying organizations focus narrowly on the legal right to abortion as a single issue, instead of situating that as part of a broader vision for reproductive justice. This begets a sea of harmful protest signs and messaging, which often feature counter-productive fear-mongering imagery suggesting abortion is inherently dangerous, Islamophobic comparisons, exclusionary language centering cis white women’s access to abortion, strange and anti-Black comparisons to chattel slavery, and much more. This alienates people from our movements and reinforces logics of racial capitalism and cis-hetero-patriarchy that we should be dismantling.
But by taking our own action and centering a reproductive justice analysis, we can attack those logics directly. Decentralized actions that challenge those in power at many points—and make those comfortable with the status quo confront the violent impact that their comfort has on other people—poke holes in the local and global anti-abortion movement and in the legimacy of colonial, patriarchal institutions. Disruptive actions can bring gaps between words and actions to the forefront and push people to pick a side. As noted above, 56 percent of US Catholics say they believe abortion should be legal. Those 56 percent must be pressured to act on that belief by holding the institution they belong to accountable for its anti-abortion organizing, just as much as anti-abortion Catholics and church leaders should be made continually aware of the deathly consequences of their actions. Making abortion accessible while legal protections are rolled back will require bold, disruptive action, including massive expansion of care networks of providers, doulas, clinic defenders, funders, and more, all of which will be targeted by the right wing and/or criminalized by the state. To keep each other safe in a dangerous and violent social reality, we have to reject imposed scripts that say the state is coming to save us, or that these legal setbacks are just bumps in the road of some linear historical “progress.” People are excited by the idea of taking their own action in their communities, and there is no time to waste. When we take small, intentional, direct actions with comrades old and new, we build towards sustainable, radical, and disruptive change.