Abortion-Related Demonstrations in the United States
Shifting Trends and the Potential for Violence
23 June 2022
Abortion-related demonstrations have surged across the United States ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision on the future of Roe v. Wade, with more events already reported this year than in all of 2021. These demonstrations have become increasingly contentious, with a significant rise in counter-demonstrations, armed protests, and engagement by far-right groups like the Proud Boys — trends that are all linked to heightened risks of violence. This report analyzes the latest ACLED data on these shifts and assesses the potential for protest violence in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling.
- Abortion-related demonstrations are on the rise. Abortion-related demonstrations have made up 14% of all demonstrations reported nationwide so far this year, up from 1% in 2020 and 4% in 2021. The number of events increased by 129% in 2021 compared to 2020, and by 51% already in 2022 relative to 2021.
- ‘Pro-choice’ demonstrations are outnumbering ‘pro-life’ demonstrations. While ‘pro-life’ demonstrations outnumbered ‘pro-choice’ demonstrations in 2020, ‘pro-choice’ events began to outnumber ‘pro-life’ events by a ratio of more than two-to-one in 2021. This has increased to more than three-to-one so far in 2022.
- Counter-demonstrations at abortion-related events are increasing. Abortion-related counter-demonstrations rose by 131% in 2021 relative to 2020. So far in 2022, there have already been 69% more abortion-related counter-demonstrations than there were last year. Over 70% of abortion-related demonstrations that have turned violent or destructive have involved counter-demonstrations.
- Firearms are becoming more common at abortion-related demonstrations. Three times as many armed abortion-related demonstrations were reported in 2021 compared to 2020. Armed abortion-related demonstrations have turned violent or destructive 40% of the time, while unarmed abortion-related events have turned violent 0.2% of the time.
- Far-right groups are taking a larger role in anti-abortion activism. Abortion-related events involving far-right militias and militant social movements like the Proud Boys increased by 150% in 2021 relative to 2020, and 2022 has already seen a 90% rise compared to 2021. While only 1% of demonstrations involving these groups were related to abortion in 2020, this rose to 3% in 2021 and is at more than 14% so far this year.
A draft majority opinion, leaked on 2 May 2022, indicates that the United States Supreme Court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark ruling protecting the right to an abortion without excessive government restriction (Politico, 2 May 2022). If the decision is made official, it will release a wave of current and planned state legislation to restrict abortion access. Upon news of the leaked opinion, ‘pro-choice’ demonstrations — those in support of abortion access — broke out across the country (New York Times, 3 May 2022). At the same time, ‘pro-life’ demonstrators — those opposed to abortion access — mobilized in support of the draft opinion, celebrating the impending end of Roe v. Wade.
Even before the draft opinion was made public, ACLED data show that abortion access was becoming an increasingly important driver of demonstration activity in the United States, and demonstrations escalated further in the aftermath of the leak. So far this year (as of 17 June 2022), abortion-related demonstrations make up 14% of all demonstrations reported nationwide, up from 1% of demonstrations in 2020 and 4% of demonstrations in 2021. This trend has been driven by increased pro-choice activism that began last fall in response to challenges to Roe v. Wade as well as new anti-abortion legislation, such as the Texas Heartbeat Act, which effectively outlaws abortion in the state. The result has been a shift in traditional patterns around abortion-related demonstrations, which were previously dominated by pro-life activism, to heightened pro-choice activism (see graph below, and the shift from pro-life activism in orange to pro-choice activism in blue). More specifically, while pro-life demonstrations outnumbered pro-choice demonstrations in 2020, pro-choice demonstrations began to outnumber pro-life demonstrations by a ratio of more than two-to-one in 2021. This has increased to a ratio of more than three-to-one so far in 2022.
The rise in pro-choice activism has triggered a forceful response from opponents, resulting in new shifts to the demonstration environment. Firstly, abortion-related demonstrations are becoming more contentious, meaning that counter-demonstrators are increasingly present at abortion-related demonstrations. This trend is linked to higher risks of violence: counter-demonstrations, regardless of issue driver, tend to turn violent or destructive over four times as often as demonstrations that are not opposed by other demonstrators (9% of counter-demonstrations turn violent or destructive versus 2% of unopposed demonstrations). Secondly, firearms have become more common at abortion-related demonstrations. This trend is also linked to higher risks of violence: demonstrations where armed groups or individuals are present are eight times more likely to turn violent or destructive relative to demonstrations where no firearms are present (nearly 18% of armed demonstrations turn violent or destructive versus 2% of unarmed demonstrations).1The ACLED dataset is a ‘living dataset,’ meaning that new events are published every week, and past events are updated as new information comes to light. As such, trends will regularly evolve over time. And finally, far-right militias and militant social movements (MSMs) have begun engaging in abortion-related demonstrations more often. As above, this is another trend that is linked to higher risks of violence: when this subset of actors is present at a demonstration, the event is five times more likely to turn violent or destructive compared to a demonstration where they are not involved (nearly 12% of demonstrations involving far-right groups turn violent or destructive versus over 2% of other demonstrations).2The ACLED dataset is a ‘living dataset,’ meaning that new events are published every week, and past events are updated as new information comes to light. As such, trends will regularly evolve over time.
Polls suggest that popular support for abortion rights is at a new high in the United States (NBC News Survey, May 2022). Politicians on both sides plan to channel renewed attention on the debate in the upcoming midterm elections, with Democrats using the issue to mobilize support to challenge restrictive legislation, and Republicans using the potential defeat of Roe v. Wade to “energize” supporters (Washington Post, 3 May 2022; see also New York Times, 5 May 2022; NBC News, 5 May 2022). As of 17 June, the number of abortion-related demonstrations reported in 2022 has already surpassed the number reported during the entirety of last year nationally, including in nearly all important battleground states.3According to a New York Times analysis, “Democrats plan to concentrate their energies in two main areas. They are defending their majorities in Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and Minnesota, where they control statehouses. And they hope to flip legislatures in Michigan, New Hampshire and Minnesota, where Republicans have slim Senate majorities. Democrats also see a somewhat slimmer chance to erode what they call Republicans’ ‘structural advantage’ in Arizona, Pennsylvania and the Georgia House” (New York Times, 5 May 2022). ACLED data indicate the number of abortion-related demonstrations in 2022 (as of 17 June 2022) has already surpassed the number of abortion-related demonstrations in 2021 in nearly all of these states: Colorado (8 in 2021, 12 already in 2022), Maine (7 in 2021, 8 already in 2022), Nevada (2 in 2021, 5 already in 2022), New Mexico (2 in 2021, 8 already in 2022), Minnesota (4 in 2021, 14 already in 2022), Michigan (17 in 2021, 30 already in 2022), Arizona (5 in 2021, 9 already in 2022), Pennsylvania (26 in 2021, 31 already in 2022), and Georgia (11 in 2021, 19 already in 2022). Even in New Hampshire, while demonstrations in 2022 have not yet outpaced demonstrations reported in 2021, they are on track to by the end of year (9 in 2021, 6 already in 2022). As the political salience of the abortion debate will likely only become more pronounced as the midterms approach, it will be critical to monitor evolving trends in abortion-related demonstration activity as polarization around the topic likely escalates apace. It is probable that the impending Supreme Court decision will only exacerbate these mounting tensions.
Increased Abortion-Related Demonstrations
Abortion-related demonstrations have been on the rise, increasing by 129% in 2021 compared to 2020 (from 253 demonstration events to 580), and by 51% already in 2022 relative to 2021 (with at least 875 events reported as of 17 June 2022). These demonstrations have spiked around key dates like the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January and the annual ‘March for Life’ against abortion access (see graph below). The surge of demonstrations in October 2021, however, significantly surpassed all other abortion-related demonstration spikes recorded by ACLED, driven by a major increase in pro-choice activism during the fifth annual ‘Women’s March’ after the Supreme Court declined to block the Texas Heartbeat Act (NBC, 2 October 2021). Since then, further spikes have been recorded in the aftermath of the Supreme Court leak.
As abortion-related activism has continued to grow, it is likely that the official decision regarding Roe v. Wade will be met with another surge in demonstrations, and the Department of Homeland Security is warning of heightened potential for violence (Axios, 18 May 2022). Analysis of ACLED data on multiple key shifts in recent demonstration activity provides an indication of future trajectories for abortion-related mobilization, including an increased risk of violence, and a look at trends to watch in the wake of the ruling. These shifts are explored below.
Increased Risk of Violence
While there were no reports of violent or destructive demonstrations related to the abortion debate in 2020,4While there were not reports of abortion-related protests turning violent or destructive in 2020, there were reports of other violent activity targeting abortion providers. For example, on 3 January 2020, a man approached a Planned Parenthood clinic in Newark, Delaware, and spray-painted Deus Vult (‘God Wills It’ in Latin) onto the building before throwing a Molotov cocktail at the building, damaging a window and the porch. The man had posts on his social media that professed anti-abortion messages. He was later arrested by the FBI and charged with maliciously damaging a building with fire and intentionally damaging a facility that provides reproductive health services (New York Times, 7 January 2020). at least seven violent or destructive demonstrations have been reported in 2021 and 2022.5Six of these demonstrations involve reports of demonstrations engaging in violence; the seventh demonstration involves reports of destructive behavior including vandalism (e.g. breaking windows, spray painting), but no physical violence. This trend has been driven by escalating opposition to the rise in pro-choice demonstrations. Although violent or destructive abortion-related demonstrations remain rare, multiple shifts point to a growing risk of violence, including: (1) an increase in the prevalence of abortion-related demonstrations being opposed by counter-demonstrators; (2) an increase in the presence of armed demonstrators; and (3) an increase in engagement by members of far-right militias and militant social movements.
Abortion-Related Demonstrations More Likely to be Opposed by Counter-Demonstrators
Abortion-related counter-demonstrations increased by 131% in 2021 relative to 2020 (from 32 counter-demonstrations in 2020 to 74 in 2021). So far in 2022 (as of 17 June 2022), there have already been 69% more abortion-related counter-demonstrations than there were in 2021 (125 counter-demonstrations) (see graph below).
While the vast majority (98%) of all abortion-related counter-demonstrations have remained peaceful, counter-demonstrations are correlated with a higher risk of protest violence. Overall, counter-demonstrations turn violent or destructive more than four times as often as other demonstrations in the United States. In fact, 71% of the abortion-related demonstrations recorded by ACLED that have turned violent or destructive (five of seven events) have involved counter-demonstrations. For example, on 3 May 2022, over one thousand people gathered for a demonstration at the capitol building in Phoenix, Arizona, in support of access to abortion and to demonstrate against the leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Roughly 20 counter-demonstrators were present, some of them armed. Among the counter-demonstrators were Proud Boys and members of the American Populist Union.6The American Populist Union is “a white nationalist group closely aligned with Nick Fuentes’ America First and its ‘Groyper army’” (Daily Kos, 5 May 2022). One of the armed, anti-abortion counter-demonstrators punched two pro-choice demonstrators, causing one of them to bleed from the head, before eventually being arrested by police (Daily Kos, 5 May 2022; AZ Mirror, 4 May 2022).
Like abortion-related demonstrations more largely, abortion-related counter-demonstrations have spiked during key anniversaries (see graph above). Counter-demonstrations spiked again after the Supreme Court declined to block the Texas Heartbeat Act (NBC, 2 October 2021), as well as the leaked Supreme Court decision regarding Roe v. Wade. It is likely that the official decision regarding Roe v. Wade will be met with another surge in counter-demonstrations.
Firearms More Likely to be Present at Abortion-Related Demonstrations
Armed demonstrations are much less common than unarmed demonstrations. Nevertheless, they are a particularly high-risk subset: armed demonstrations tend to turn violent or destructive over eight times as often as unarmed demonstrations. Three times as many armed abortion-related demonstrations were reported in 2021 compared to 2020 (six events in 2021 relative to two in 2020). In fact, armed abortion-related demonstrations have turned violent or destructive 40% of the time, while unarmed abortion-related events have turned violent 0.2% of the time, marking a stark difference between the two.
As of 17 June 2022, a total of 10 armed abortion-related demonstrations have been reported since 2020. In 90% of these events, pro-life demonstrators were armed. Many of these demonstrators were affiliated with far-right groups and movements, such as the Proud Boys, White Lives Matter (WLM), Three Percenters, and Open Carry Texas, among others (Twitter @az_rww, 14 May 2022; It’s Going Down, 20 May 2022).7Additional reports come from a Youtube channel reporting right-wing militia activity, purposefully not linked to here. This source is shared by ACLED’s partner, MilitiaWatch. For example, on 10 August 2021, anti-abortion demonstrators rallied in Salem, Oregon, as part of a ‘prayer’ against abortion. Among the demonstrators were Proud Boys and unidentified militia members, many armed with firearms as well as bear mace and paintball guns. Antifascists and other counter-demonstrators rallied in support of the Planned Parenthood nearby and were attacked by the anti-abortion activists before a broader clash broke out (Twitter @AissaAzar, 10 August 2021; The Center Square, 11 August 2021).
Far-Right Militias and Militant Social Movements More Likely to Engage in Abortion-Related Demonstrations
Engagement by far-right militias and MSMs in abortion-related demonstrations has been on the rise: 2021 saw 150% more events than in 2020 (10 events in 2021, up from 4 events in 2020), and 2022 has already seen 90% more events than 2021 (with 19 events reported as of 17 June 2022).
While mobilization around abortion access has not been a primary motivator of demonstration activity for far-right militias and MSMs in recent years, their focus is shifting (see graph below). Only 1% of demonstrations involving far-right groups were related to abortion access in 2020, but this increased to 3% in 2021 and more than 14% so far in 2022. Engagement particularly spiked in the aftermath of the Supreme Court leak which was celebrated by many on the far right (Vice News, 3 May 2022).
Increased mobilization around the abortion debate, however, initially began in the summer of 2021, when a number of new motivators, including abortion access, started to play a larger role in far-right activity (see graph above). During this time, many far-right groups worked to adapt their organizing strategies to appeal to a wider audience in the aftermath of the 6 January 2021 attack on the United States Capitol and the heightened legal pressure that followed. In some cases, groups began to shift focus toward seeking out new supporters to co-opt by increasing local-level organizing around issues with wide purchase among the broader right-wing activist community. This in turn has led to increasing engagement in demonstrations opposed to abortion as well as Critical Race Theory and LGBT+ rights. Such engagement has allowed far-right militias and MSMs to network with new groups and individuals, specifically those not traditionally part of the militia milieu, such as those on the religious right. It has also provided an opportunity for networking and cross-pollination among different far-right groups themselves.
At least three far-right groups, the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and Groypers, engaged in abortion-related demonstrations in 2021. As of 17 June 2022, this has increased to at least 10 groups8In addition to Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and Groypers, other groups now involved in abortion-related demonstrations include: AZ Patriots, ‘Good Citizens’ Militia, Haywood Militia, QAnon, Rise Above Movement, Three Percenters, and WLM. As some reports note the presence of unidentified militia members, this is likely an underestimate. — over three times as many before the midpoint of the year. For example, on 14 May 2022, over 1,000 people gathered for a protest at the state capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, in support of access to abortion, with demonstrators including Democratic political figures and representatives from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona9The organization bills itself as the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood (AZ Central, 14 May 2022). and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Several dozen counter-demonstrators gathered to oppose the event, including unaffiliated Christian groups and Students for Life along with Proud Boys, Three Percenters, AZ Patriots, Bikers for Trump, Riders USA, the Good Citizens militia, supporters of the WLM movement, and at least one Groyper. Some Proud Boys and WLM supporters were armed with ‘long guns’ and body armor (Twitter @az_rww, 14 May 2022; It’s Going Down, 20 May 2022). Such a broad coalition of counter-demonstrators — both armed and unarmed — exemplifies the networking opportunities represented by anti-abortion activism for far-right groups, as well as the heightened risk of escalation10A separate group of anarchist counter-demonstrators was also gathered to demonstrate against both the larger pro-choice group and the pro-life counter-demonstrators. (for more on the evolution of far-right activity in the United States, see this recent ACLED report).
Overall, the involvement of far-right militias and MSMs is correlated with a greater likelihood of violence: when these groups are engaged in demonstrations, the risk of violence or destructive activity is five times higher than when they are not engaged. This figure increases to 12 times for right-wing demonstrations. For abortion-related demonstrations, specifically, events in which far-right militias and MSMs have engaged have turned violent or destructive 15% of the time, relative to other abortion-related demonstrations that have turned violent or destructive 0.12% of the time. In fact, of the seven abortion-related demonstrations that have turned violent or destructive since last year, 71% of them (five of the seven) have involved far-right actors.
The Proud Boys have played a particularly significant role in abortion-related demonstrations that have turned violent or destructive. Of the 71% of violent or destructive abortion-related demonstrations involving far-right actors, the Proud Boys have been present at all of them.
Beginning in summer 2021, the Proud Boys began to increasingly engage in pro-life demonstrations,11The Proud Boys were already one of the most active far-right groups in the country in 2020 even before they escalated their protest activity in 2021 by 16% (116 demonstration events in 2020 up to 134 in 2021), in line with a proliferation of local chapters across the country (SPLC, 2022). This increase in activity has been made increasingly worrying given an increased reliance on even more violent tactics at demonstrations, despite already being a group known to strive to escalate tensions. They have already been engaged in 47 demonstration events in 2022 as of 17 June 2022. in line with a strategic shift in their activity in the aftermath of the Capitol riot (Vice News, 5 January 2022) to build new alliances with other right-wing groups and movements (NPR, 29 September 2021). Prior to summer 2021, the Proud Boys were only infrequently involved in protests related to abortion and had only on rare occasion appeared at demonstrations alongside Christian groups. Just 2% of demonstrations involving the Proud Boys were related to abortion access in 2020, but this increased to 4% in 2021. As of 17 June 2022, it is now up to nearly 26% this year (for more on the evolution of activity by the Proud Boys, see this recent ACLED report).
For example, on 13 July 2021, armed Proud Boys maced counter-demonstrators, including antifascists, at a ‘Church for Planned Parenthood’ demonstration in Salem, Oregon, before a larger scuffle broke out (Salem Reporter, 14 July 2021; Twitter @RuthlessWe, 14 July 2021; Twitter @USVSbullies, 14 July 2021; Statesman Journal, 15 July 2021; The Spokesman Review, 15 July 2021; Newsweek, 16 July 2021). The following month, three separate abortion-related demonstrations involving Proud Boys also turned violent. On 7 August 2021, in Portland, Oregon, more than 50 people, including members of the Proud Boys, gathered for a Christian demonstration against “the gay agenda” and access to abortion. Dozens of counter-demonstrators, including antifascists and people dressed in black bloc, were also present (Portland Tribune, 7 August 2021). Ultimately a fight broke out with demonstrators firing paintball guns and counter-demonstrators using pepper spray (Twitter @MrOlmos, 7 August 2021a; Insider, 8 August 2021). A counter-demonstrator (a wheelchair-using navy veteran) and a bystander reported being shot in the face with paintballs (Portland Tribune, 7 August 2021; Twitter @MrOlmos, 7 August 2021b). A few days later, as described earlier above, on 10 August 2021, armed Proud Boys, who were rallying alongside members of an unidentified militia outside a Planned Parenthood in Salem, Oregon, maced, fired pellet guns, and deployed smoke canisters against antifascist counter-demonstrators before a clash broke out (Twitter @AissaAzar, 10 August 2021; Center Square, 11 August 2021). Finally, on 28 August 2021, Proud Boys at a “Straight Pride” rally outside a Planned Parenthood in Modesto, California, appear to have initiated physical violence with antifascist counter-demonstrators following verbal altercations (News2Share, 28 August 2021).
Abortion access is an increasingly important driver of demonstration activity in the United States, with activists continuing to react to an array of new laws and cases. So far in 2022, at least 42 states have introduced legislation restricting access to abortion in expectation of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (Guttmacher Institute, 26 May 2022). With these challenges to abortion access, pro-choice demonstrations are likely to drive ongoing abortion-related demonstration activity. In particular, significant legal action, including the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, will continue to serve as triggers for surges in demonstration events.
Amid heightened levels of abortion-related demonstration activity, multiple trends point to a growing risk of violence. With the shift to increased pro-choice activism, there has also been a rise in abortion-related counter-demonstrations — and these abortion-related counter-demonstrations are nearly 16 times more likely to turn violent or destructive. The number of abortion-related demonstrations involving armed groups or individuals has also been on the rise — another subset of abortion-related demonstrations that are more likely to turn violent. At the same time, far-right groups are increasingly likely to engage in abortion-related demonstrations, and more of these actors are getting involved. Abortion-related demonstrations involving far-right militias and MSMs are much more likely to turn violent than events where they are not engaged.
Overall, violent abortion-related demonstrations have increased since the Texas Heartbeat Act was signed into law in May 2021, and spiked again in the aftermath of the leaked Supreme Court decision in May 2022. The impending Supreme Court decision could set off not only a surge in abortion-related demonstrations, but also a surge in violent or destructive events. The increased political salience of the abortion debate beginning in summer 2021 has also coincided with a period in which far-right groups like the Proud Boys have begun to strategically shift activity towards a wider array of right-wing causes in order to make inroads with larger movements and activist networks on the right. The result is a worrying confluence of triggers and high-risk trends between the end of the current Supreme Court term and the lead-up to the midterm elections, which can together create a potential flashpoint for violence.