The Rev. Frank Pavone, the national director of the anti-abortion organization Priests for Life, has joined the advisory board of “Catholics for Trump” coalition, which is focused on outreach to Catholic voters during the 2020 election.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump appointed Pavone -- along with Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who led Trump’s anti-abortion coalition in 2016 -- as co-chair of his 2020 coalition “Pro-Life Voices for Trump.” Trump’s decision wasn’t surprising considering Pavone was previously a member of his Catholic Advisory Group and Pro-Life Coalition during the 2016 campaign. Trump relies heavily on right-wing and anti-abortion media figures to get out his message, including spreading false information about his potential opponents, “advising” him on policy positions, officially promoting his campaign, and being readily available hires for his team. Pavone’s presence in anti-abortion media largely consists of uncritically praising Trump, pushing churches to support the president, and promoting dangerous rhetoric against abortion providers.
Pavone's Catholics for Trump coalition intends to “go on the offensive against former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a Catholic” and will attempt to paint Biden as an “extremist” on abortion to turn away Catholic voters. So far during the 2020 campaign, right-wing media, Trump, and other Republicans have lied about the alleged positions of Democratic candidates on abortion to argue they are too “extreme” to be elected.
During the Catholics for Trump coalition launch, Pavone praised Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic -- even though Trump and his administration failed to adequately prepare for the spread. Pavone has also promoted other misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, falsely claiming that abortion clinics should be closed because they “are not known for their attention to hygiene" -- suggesting patients will pick up and spread coronavirus while visiting clinics for abortion care. In reality, abortion clinics are following standard medical procedure to limit the spread of the virus in clinics. Pavone and other abortion opponents’ calls to close clinics are merely an opportunistic exploitation of a dangerous crisis to take away people’s access to an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure.
Background on Frank Pavone and Priests for Life
Pavone’s Priests for Life is not only an anti-abortion group, but also a media organization. Priests for Life’s 2017 tax filing says that the organization “maintains an aggressive media outreach in print, broadcast, and online content.” Priests for Life has TV and radio shows on Eternal World Television Network, and it publishes opinion pieces in various right-wing and anti-abortion outlets. Pavone also livestreams EndAbortion.TV, “the online channel of Priests for Life,” on his Facebook and YouTube pages.
Recently, Pavone’s EndAbortion.TV outlet has focused on sharpening his 2020 messaging strategy for Republicans and Trump. Pavone has also used his platform to overtly praise the president (just as Trump requires from his favorite network, Fox News) and urged his viewers to help the president get reelected, despite Priests for Life’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status prohibiting the organization from taking a political stance on a candidate:
FRANK PAVONE (HOST): Brothers and sisters, we now are on a fast track to the elections of 2020. The president will be reelected, and we are going to be working together to make that happen unapologetically, without any hesitation, and everything that we have done in past elections, together with all of you, is going to be multiplied twofold, threefold, tenfold, a hundredfold. You haven’t seen anything yet.
In addition, Pavone argues that churches need to become political and tout what he sees as Trump’s “accomplishments.” In doing so, Pavone advocates for other churches to ignore the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or advocating for candidates or risk losing their tax-exempt status. (In 2017, Trump directed the Treasury Department to relax enforcement of the law on religious organizations.) In one example, Pavone stated:
FRANK PAVONE (HOST): My message here about the churches is very simple. What the churches need to do in terms of the accomplishments of our president is to let their people know. We’re not talking about making the church into a political party or campaign; we’re talking about making the church into a vehicle for equipping the people of God to go change society.
How are we going to do that if we don’t even know what’s going on, and it’s very easy to miss what’s going on because we have a biased media. It’s more than biased; it’s hatred for this president and for his administration. So, churches let me ask you this before I read the summary of [Trump’s] accomplishments. Here’s the choice: Do you want your people to be captive to hatred and lies? Or do you want them to know the truth? I’m not saying you have to endorse a candidate. … Do you want them to understand the moral implications of their choices in the voting booth in 2020 and the implications that their choices are going to have for the nation, and for their families, and for their children and grandchildren -- and in fact, do you want your parishioners to know the implications of their voting choices for the church?
Priests for Life maintains a substantial budget. According to its IRS tax forms, the group’s total revenue for 2017 was over $13 million, and it paid out over $2 million in compensation. Its net assets were close to $2 million. In 2014, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan “cut ties” with Pavone and Priests for Life over the organization “rejecting oversight” for alleged financial mismanagement. In 2008, when Pavone and Priests for Life were based in Amarillo, Texas, the bishop overseeing that diocese, Patrick Zurek, “demanded a full accounting of Pavone's budget, one of the largest among anti-abortion groups in the U.S.,” and “sent a letter to every other U.S. bishop declaring that he had so many concerns about the group's $10 million budget that Pavone shouldn't be trusted with donors' money.” As the National Catholic Reporter wrote in 2012:
Documents that emerged in the wake of Zurek's criticisms showed that PFL was running a $1.4 million deficit despite collecting at least $10 million a year, and it was burning through its reserves. Key Internal Revenue Service statements had not been filed, the group had been fined in Pennsylvania for soliciting donations without authorization, and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been shifted among various PFL entities.
Pavone has a history of sensationalism, including doing anti-abortion stunts and making extreme and false comments about abortion providers and reproductive rights advocates.
Actions before 2016 election
Before the 2016 election, Pavone posted a video to Facebook purportedly showing an aborted fetus laid on an altar. (Pavone claimed the fetus was given to him for burial following a “funeral,” but “no family were present” during the video “because they rejected the child and had him killed.”) Pavone used the video to push people to vote in the 2016 election against candidates supporting abortion rights. As The Washington Post explained:
In Pavone’s Facebook appeal, he wrote, “we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform says yes, let the child-killing continue (and you pay for it); Donald Trump and the Republican platform says no, the child should be protected.”
And there’s a holocaust going on and people are covering it up and, forgive me for being a little bit crazy because I want to cry out from the rooftops, shout out from the mountains, “Stop killing these children and stop electing people who are going to kill these children.”
Equating support for abortion rights to supporting terrorism
Pavone has also used incendiary and dangerous language to attack abortion rights supporters. In 2004, Pavone equated political candidates who support reproductive rights with supporters of terrorism:
If a candidate who supported terrorism asked for your vote, would you say, “I disagree with you on terrorism, but where do you stand on other issues?”
I doubt it.
In fact, if a terrorism sympathizer presented him/herself for your vote, you would immediately know that such a position disqualifies the candidate for public office -- no matter how good he or she may be on other issues. The horror of terrorism dwarfs whatever good might be found in the candidate's plan for housing, education, or health care. Regarding those plans, you wouldn't even ask.
So why do so many people say, “This candidate favors legal abortion. I disagree. But I'm voting for this person because she has good ideas about health care (or some other issue).”
In 2016, Pavone argued that inviting then-President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards to speak at Georgetown University was akin to inviting “representatives of ISIS” to speak in order to “understand terrorism.” In a now-deleted post from 2010 commemorating the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Pavone equated doctors performing legal medical procedures with the terrorists who killed thousands of people:
The evil of September 11 was that some human beings had a blatant contempt for the right of other human beings to live.
As we fight terrorism, the evil we fight is a reflection of the evil we do. The same contempt for human life is found in every abortion clinic.
Justifying violence against providers and clinics
Pavone’s use of incendiary anti-abortion language has extended to justifying violence against abortion providers and clinics.
After abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, Pavone suggested that legislative efforts to solidify reproductive choice would be met with further “acts of violence from people who feel helpless,” but claimed that he was not “justifying what happened to Tiller”:
“I wouldn't put it past abortion advocates in Congress to use this tragedy to put more protections in place for the so-called right to choose,” said Frank Pavone. “That would just feed into the problem. There's a lot of disappointment and frustration out there as a result of 2008 elections. People feel desperate. I'm not justifying what happened to Tiller at all when I say that it's not surprising that a pattern begins to develop — the administration is hostile to the anti-abortion movement, there are acts of violence from people who feel helpless.”
In a statement he released about Tiller's murder, Pavone speculated that Tiller could have been killed by “an angry post-abortive man or woman, or a misguided activist, or an enemy within the abortion industry, or a political enemy frustrated with the way Tiller has escaped prosecution” (Tiller had not committed any illegal acts in providing abortions). In a video posted on YouTube, Pavone also said that “the biggest danger” to the anti-abortion movement after Tiller’s murder was “the fear, the self-doubt, the little voice inside of us” that might “make some people feel guilty for being too aggressive in the effort to stop the killing of children.” In 2011, Pavone denounced criticism of violent anti-abortion rhetoric as an attack on “freedom of speech” and “another form of violence against the human spirit.”
In 2015, in response to the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Pavone said that “it’s a silly thing to be blaming responsibility on one another for these kinds of things,” but that if supporters of abortion access were “going to start going down that road” of blaming abortion opponents, then “they’re the ones that have to take responsibility for poisoning the moral climate in our nation by saying that sometimes you can kill a baby to solve a problem.”
Promoting abortion stigma
As Right Wing Watch explained in 2016, Pavone has also been unclear on whether he believes a person who has an abortion should be criminally prosecuted. Pavone had claimed that “we don’t aim to imprison” the person who has an abortion, but rather “to liberate them from the shame and guilt and wounds abortion brings.” However, Right Wing Watch wrote that Pavone explained what the “difference” was between prosecuting people who have abortions versus people who commit murders:
Pavone responded that the difference was “psychological” and that a woman who had an abortion would probably face a lesser charge because of the amount of “pressure” and “confusion” that she was under to seek the procedure, much like “mitigating circumstances” can mitigate murder charges in the case of a “born person.”
Pavone added that it would also make sense to spare women from punishment so that they would report abortion providers to the authorities, who could then “go after that abortionist and stop him and save other lives.”
Pavone then seemed to open the door for the possibility of punishing women who are insufficiently remorseful about having an abortion. “What you have to do,” he said, “is look at each circumstance very carefully, and just like we do with the murder of born people, what were the — how guilty, how responsible, how free was this person, how much did they know and intend what was going on?”
Pavone said, “Abortion poisons everything" because after an abortion, a woman thinks, “Others can't possibly esteem me, child-killer that I am." Those women, he said, suffer a “failure to bond" with future children, often thinking, “I killed one child; I'm afraid that something bad will happen to the next one." He and the other speakers in the session said abortion increases a woman's risk of miscarriage, cancer, substance abuse, suicide, and domestic violence, among other problems.
“The fact that [abortion] dismembers a child, the fact that it goes against everything the human body and human psyche are meant to do when a woman is pregnant is the cause, is the root of all of these other physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual problems," Pavone said.