Abortion foes around the country are organizing to pass ordinances and resolutions recognizing municipalities as so-called “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.” Though these measures are legally unenforceable, they ceremonially ban abortion in the cities, towns, or counties where they are passed. Initially, these campaigns appeared isolated, but abortion opponents have been using Facebook to develop and amplify this tactic, demonstrating the material consequences of anti-abortion organizing in online spaces.
The idea for “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” is likely a co-option of a strategy by pro-immigration advocates who have been calling for local protections for undocumented immigrants. Though country music artist Charlie Daniels appears to have been the first to propose applying this tactic for anti-abortion purposes in 2017, it wasn’t until 2019 that it was deployed more widely. By the end of 2018, a year after Daniels’ suggestion, only one county -- Effingham, Illinois -- had passed a resolution declaring itself a “sanctuary for the unborn.” In 2019, at least 15 counties or cities have passed measures that include the “sanctuary city” language, with an additional 12 counties entertaining similar proposals.
The difference between 2017 and 2019? Anti-abortion activists organized online, primarily utilizing Facebook. The prevalence of anti-abortion misinformation on Facebook and the platform’s social networking capacities have made it an effective tool for local anti-abortion organizing -- with narratives spreading quickly across communities. These actions are purely symbolic, as none of the locales that have approved a “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” proposal actually have an abortion clinic. Even so, pro-choice advocates in these communities report that such proposals cause confusion for patients trying to determine if they can legally receive abortion care.
The rise of the “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” campaign is a model for how abortion opponents are able to utilize online platforms to disseminate misinformation and promote harmful policies. Here’s how it spread:
January 2018: Anti-abortion activists float the idea of organizing “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn”
The earliest discussion of “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” on a public Facebook page came in January 2018, long after Daniels introduced the idea. A popular anti-abortion Facebook page shared the status of a private user calling for the creation of a “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” in their community. The post received only 184 interactions, and there didn't appear to be any subsequent organizing.
Between January and May 2018, posts mentioning “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” cropped up periodically on Facebook, but earned consistently low engagement numbers. Posts suggesting the idea largely appeared to be responding to immigration reform efforts, rather than serving as discrete attempts to promote such measures. For example, Republican North Dakota State Rep. Kathy Skroch shared one such status on Facebook that argued, “If Gov Jerry Brown can defy federal immigration law, it should be okay for a pro-life Governor to stop all abortions in his/her state based on that same line of logic.” This post is typical of the isolated nature of the conversation around “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” at this time.
June 2018: Anti-abortion activists use Facebook to amplify a push for one of the first “Sanctuaries for the Unborn”
In May 2018, Jim Niemann, county board chairperson of Effingham County, Illinois, proposed making the county a “sanctuary for the unborn” -- supposedly inspired by the county’s passage of a similar proposal about firearms. Seizing on the opportunity, anti-abortion activists used Facebook to rally abortion foes, encouraging them to attend meetings where the resolution would be heard and show support. Using Facebook to pack hearing audiences with supporters is a common tactic for abortion opponents. For example, when Planned Parenthood of Livonia, Michigan, relocated to a new building, the Livonia City Council was forced to field complaints from a crowd of anti-abortion activists (several of which were not from Livonia), who were encouraged to attend the hearings by anti-abortion Facebook pages that were actively fighting the clinic’s move.
In Effingham County, the surge of anti-abortion organizing at county board meetings spurred local media coverage, providing anti-abortion advocates the opportunity to control and frame the narrative. On May 18, Illinois outlets such as the Effingham Daily News began publishing stories on the effort. Early reporting was checkered with anti-abortion talking points, like quotes comparing people who have abortions to murderers, or allegations that “abortion has become a means of birth control.”
Anti-abortion and right-wing media are incredibly effective at magnifying local stories. Of the 21 public Facebook posts about the Effingham ordinance posted before it passed, 16 referenced local news stories, and four linked to an article from LifeSiteNews.com. Of the 34 public Facebook posts about the ordinance posted after its passage, 13 included links to local media stories, while 22 linked to anti-abortion or right-wing outlets. The Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro’s official Facebook page praised Effingham’s success and received over 10,000 interactions -- over 34 times higher than the average interaction rate for a typical post about the Effingham campaign. Right-wing media stories about the measure solidified abortion opponents' narrative control over the debate by parroting local reporting, in particular emphasizing quotes decrying abortion as murder and omitting quotes from pro-choice voices.
January 2019: Activists capitalize on media flashpoints
After receiving coverage from The Daily Wire and other right-wing media, the anti-choice organizers promoting “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” were able to capitalize on further anti-abortion media attention.
In January 2019, the number of Facebook posts discussing the campaign skyrocketed after New York passed an abortion rights measure. Although the idea was discussed briefly in 2018, New York’s law gave abortion opponents a clear target -- and they began making Facebook posts urging those upset about the New York law to consider making their cities into “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.”
These posts proliferated on anti-abortion and right-wing Facebook pages and groups. Before January, there were 80 public Facebook posts about the campaign, garnering an average of 389 interactions. Since then, there have been 1,956 posts proposing or discussing the creation of “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn,” garnering an average of 690 interactions. Abortion opponents active on Facebook have continued to use pro-abortion legislation to promote “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.” In June, an anti-abortion Facebook page shared an article about Amherst, Massachusetts, passing a bill to protect abortion access and sarcastically thanked the town, claiming such measures provided “momentum for Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.”
June 2019: National media takes note and covers the campaigns
In June, after Waskom, Texas, passed a resolution declaring itself a “Sanctuary City for the Unborn,” national outlets outside of right-wing media began to report on the story -- though right-wing media still dominated coverage. For abortion foes who cultivated and controlled the narrative around the campaign on Facebook, gaining broader attention was a victory. Regardless of the campaign’s efficacy in banning abortion, the national visibility afforded to an idea that began as chatter on anti-abortion Facebook pages demonstrates the potential reach of these online communities.
The rise in such ordinances and resolutions illustrates how abortion opponents are leveraging Facebook as an organizing tool for harmful policies. By cultivating individual supporters on Facebook, abortion opponents were able to garner enough attention for right-wing media to amplify their tactics, before ultimately being legitimized by broader media coverage. With the help of this anti-abortion and right-wing media feedback loop, abortion opponents successfully leveraged Facebook as an organizing tool -- a strategy that has and will be repeated with potentially negative consequences for abortion access.