On May 1st, a group of about 50 people gathered in Fargo, North Dakota. Their intent? To try and "shut down" the only clinic in the state that provides pregnancy terminations, in the hopes to make it an "abortion-free" state.
Leading the charge was Operation Save America, under the leadership of Rev. Flip Benham. Best known for his belief in "justifiable homicide" and his "Wanted" posters styled to make doctors who provide safe abortion care and those who employ them look like Old West villains (and with the "Dead or Alive" implied), Benham has been arrrested multiple times for stalking.
But although they are leading the States of Refuge movement, they are by no means the only group involved. And for some of those groups, their calls to action are just as intimidating.
The public face in the media when it came to the Fargo event was a Wisconsin group called "Missionaries to the Preborn." Formed in Milwauke in the 1990's, the group's leader, Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Church, is an outspoken advocate against abortion, and for guns. Trewhella already has his own personal FBI file due to his incendiary rhetoric, his signature on a statement that said killing doctors who perform abortions is "justifiable homicide," and his alleged "programming" of an anti-abortion extremist to incite him to violence against practitioners.
Giving media interviews was Trewhella disciple (and son-in-law) Jason Storms, a so-called "street and campus evangelist and open air preacher" who sits on the Church board and operates the evangelism "training." Storms has been detained in prior protests, including one in 2009 in which his followers were charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. Preaching at clinics that perform abortions is a part of the "training sessions" for the church's outreach wing, as are cross-country trips
The groups didn't change the mind of any woman seeking care at the clinic, nor did they manage to stop Red River from helping women the following day. They did manage to anger Fargo residents and traumatize a school bus full of elementary school kids who were returning from a choir practice, but other than that, got few results. The anti-choice protesters shouted Bible verses, called patients "murderers," invoked the Holocaust and even called an escort of color a racial epithet, but unsurprisingly did not get any converts to their cause on the streets that day.
But they could have caused much more emotional harm to the women who visited Red River if not for the reproductive rights supporters who came to the clinic to act as escorts and protect those with appointments. While the "Missionaries" and their followers displayed their blown-up, graphic pictures and threatened patients with brimstone and damnation, escorts quietly provided support and a buffer.
"Pro-choice and pro-life people were in the same sidewalk. Yet, it was like two different worlds," said an escort named B. "You see, pro-choice people are not life haters. We love life. Pro-choice people love babies too. I just want to make sure mothers are given the choice to enjoy motherhood not pressured to take on motherhood and see motherhood as a burden."
As B watched the "Missionaries" preach, she, too, was reminded of the Bible. "I saw books about mother Mary in the hands of some people there. One thing is that even Mother Mary needed protection to give birth to Jesus," B noted. "How would a society in that age and time would have accepted a woman who claims to be virgin be a mother? It was the angel Gabriel to help her. Well, not all women have angels looking over them. They have issues like health, finances, emotions, to deal with. Since the world is more complicated now. Not everyone is lucky to have a Joseph around, too."
The States of Refuge left the city later that night, moving on to Bismark, North Dakota, where they brought their graphic signs once more to busy intersections in the center of town.
Next, the group will be in Wyoming, where they will "target" the state's sole publicly known abortion provider, Dr. Brent Blue. "Spiritually, [stopping Blue] would punch a hole in the sky, and begin to liberate America from blood guilt one state at a time," said Operation Save America spokesman Rusty Thomas.
As for the women of North Dakota, they'll now have some time to rest: States of Refuge isn't coming back again until November.