Where the Buffalo Gunman and the Anti-Abortion Fringe Meet

YouIn the weeks since the massacre at Buffalo’s grocery store by a gunman, many articles and TV spots revealed the hateful conspiracy that he had in his hate-filled manifesto.

The conspiracy—the so-called great replacement theory—is the idea that Democratic lawmakers and other elites are working to force white people into a minority in the United States, usually by increasing immigration. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a Fox News pundit, has discussed the topic more than 400 time while railing against immigration. New York Times investigation, and elected Republicans, including Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida have bluntly echoed the language in comments and campaign materials criticizing Democrats’ immigration policy.

However, conspiracy theories also drive opposition to abortion.

According to Jennifer Holland (assistant professor of history, University of Oklahoma), the anti-abortion movement was born out of the white fear of declining birth rates in 19th century. The idea was that by allowing white women to receive abortions, lawmakers were leaving white populations vulnerable to demographic “replacement” by non-white or immigrant groups with higher birth rates. In the 1870s and ’80s, the fear was primarily focused on Jewish and Catholic immigrants, especially those from Italy or Ireland, who had higher birthrates than white Protestants at the time; now, white power organizations that embrace “replacement theory” focus on Black and Latino communities, which have higher birth rates than whites.

While the Buffalo gunman did not explicitly mention the word “abortion” in his manifesto, he references birth rates more than 40 times, according to a TIME analysis, and repeatedly expresses his belief that “white birth rates must change.”

Matt Schlapp of the Conservative Political Action Conference spoke out this week linking replacement theory, immigration, and anti-abortion. He told reporters in Hungary that the Conservative Political Action Conference would not tolerate the overturning Roe V. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision enshrining a right to abortion, would be a good “first step” in fixing the U.S.’s immigration “problem.” “If you’re worried about this quote-unquote replacement, why don’t we start there?” he said. “Start with allowing our own people to live.”

Anti-abortion activists today denounce racism and other ideologies. In January, after white supremacists marched alongside protesters at March for Life event, then showed up at the March for Life rally in Washington, DC, the anti-abortion movement’s biggest annual gathering, organizers decried any association with them. “We condemn any organization that seeks to exclude a person or group of people based on the color of their skin or any other characteristic,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, said in a statement to TIME after the January rally. Neither Mancini nor National Right to Life, another prominent national anti-abortion group, responded to TIME’s requests for comments for this article.

But if mainstream anti-abortion activists flatly reject rightwing extremists, the relationship is complicated by the fact that rightwing extremists see the anti-abortion movement as a useful political ally—and a potential pool of new recruits. Thomas Rousseau (leader of Patriot Front), reminded his supporters of approaching chances to preach and recruit in December. “Our two March For Life events are coming up,” he wrote to his followers, according to leaked chats published by media nonprofit Unicorn Riot. “The aim is to be more understated, friendly, in smaller groups, and get as many flyers out as possible.”

Rightwing extremists attach themselves “like a leech” to traditional Republican constituencies, Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist who has been critical of the party in the age of Trump, told TIME earlier this year. He claims that they normalize extremist views by doing this.

Learn More The Coming Battle Over the Anti-abortion Movement’s Future

Many mainstream anti-abortion activists are concerned that more vocalized racist and nationalist groups attend their events. “When you breed this nationalism together with a movement that’s largely religious, you start to see these types of things crop up,” says Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the founder of the anti-abortion group New Wave Feminists, which calls itself a “pro-life feminist” organization. “But never to the degree this year. I was horrified that an actual white supremacy group was there” at the March for Life rally in D.C.

In 2018, Herndon-De La Rosa’s organization pushed out its vice president, Kristen Hatten, after she began sharing white supremacist ideas, including reportedly sharing a Tweet that mocked the idea of Muslims becoming a British majority on social media, according to HuffPost. Hatten later told HuffPost: “I’ve said I identify with the alt-right to a large extent, and I do…That said, there are elements within the alt-right with whom I don’t see eye to eye. I am not a national socialist nor am I a ‘Nazi.’ I am not a eugenicist. In fact I remain pro-life.”

Belief in rightwing conspiracies is ascendent in an increasingly conservative Republican Party, says Kurt Braddock, assistant professor of communications at American University and a faculty fellow at the school’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab. “What we’ve seen from the Right in recent years is that what was originally on the fringe in 2015, from 2016, forward, the fringe has moved more and more into the mainstream,” he says.

Nearly one in three American adults now hold a belief that is in line with the “replacement theory.” According to an Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published May 9, a third of Americans believe “a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” Another 29% shared the concern that a rise in immigration is leading to native-born Americans losing influence in culture and politics.

A history of ‘replacement theory’ in the anti-abortion movement

Before the Civil War abortion was legal in America with minimal restrictions. But when the war ended, white Protestant Americans’ fears shifted. After slavery was outlawed, the women’s suffrage movement began, and immigration increased, the idea that a white Protestant America would soon be “diluted” or “replaced” by immigrant groups gained steam. Horatio Storer was one of the American Medical Association’s physicians. He lobbied lawmakers in 1858 to ban abortions. The reason for this change was that low white birth rates would encourage immigrants to take over white Protestants, especially Catholics from Ireland.

While “replacement theory” wasn’t given a name until 2012, these 19th century activists embraced the notion and language explicitly. “If a majority of all the youths and children under fifteen years of age in a place is made up from those of a foreign parentage, and is relatively increasing in number every year, how long will it be before such a power will be felt in the management, if not in the control, of the municipal government of those cities and towns?” said one of those physicians, according to researchers at Northwestern University and University of California, Berkeley.

Storer’s movement was successful. In 1900, all U.S. States had made abortion legal. It was a major shift that occurred in just four decades. (Ironically, Storer would in the later years of his life convert to Catholicism, according to James Madison University’s undergraduate research journal).

“It really is a radical break from American laws before then,” Holland, at the University of Oklahoma, says. The procedure was already legal before the involvement of this group. It was also inherited from English common law. “The question is, why would state legislatures be open to [abortion restrictions]?” Holland adds. “It very much has to do with race.”

Learn more How the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ Has Fueled Racist Violence

The logic behind anti-abortion racism, even on its own terms is complex. The number of abortions performed on people of color is higher than that for white Americans. Seyward Darby is the author Sisters in Hate: American Women at the Front Lines Of White NationalismAccording to her, logic does not serve the purpose. “You have to step away from theory, and you have to realize the kind of wider world worldview,” she tells TIME. “What they ultimately want is a series of policies, including making white women have more babies, by force if necessary, and then finding ways if not to reduce the number of children who are not white in the country, then to marginalize them to such an extent that they have no power.”

Far right anti-abortion extremists are opposed to both abortions for women of white race and immigration. Throughout history, similar racism has underpinned forced sterilization campaigns against women of color. “For white supremacists, they are not seeking to end abortion because of any kind of morality related to the fetus itself,” says Alex DiBranco, executive director of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, an organization of experts and scholars who study misogynist movements and ideology. “They’re very much seeing this as a strategic and tactical way to force white women to give birth.”

With “replacement theory” and other racist ideologies no longer relegated to 19th century lobbying efforts or the fringes of the internet, experts on political extremism say that Americans must now grapple with the implications of these beliefs on mainstream politics. “It’s difficult to get into the minds of the people that engage in this violence and say that they’re pro life,” says Braddock, at American University. “Generally speaking … a lot of these individuals, what they’ll say is that they had to engage in violence to precipitate something that would inherently make the world better around them.”

Vera Bergengruen reports

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