An anti-choice group is using TikTok to promote abortion clinic harassment
TikTok’s community guidelines expressly prohibit “content that encourages coordinated harassment”
The Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising has expanded its anti-choice advocacy by using TikTok to recruit followers to participate in abortion clinic “rescues,” which have historically been used to harass and intimidate abortion seekers and clinic workers. The group has uploaded several videos on TikTok encouraging “rescues” even though the platform’s community guidelines explicitly instructs users not to post “content that encourages coordinated harassment.”
PAAU is a relatively new anti-choice group, whose branding caters to young “liberals” and posits that abortion is a form of oppression akin to racism or sexism. As part of its advocacy attacking abortion access, PAAU launched an initiative called #bringbackrescue, which aims to revive a decades-old anti-abortion tactic in which activists “physically block access to abortion clinics, expose women to violence and harassment as they seek access to abortion providers, and attempt to breach the confidentiality of women seeking abortions.” These so-called “rescues,” popularized by the infamous Operation Rescue, try to dissuade patients from proceeding with their appointments for abortions, and members of rescue advocacy groups have gone as far as spreading personal information about abortion providers, including the photo, phone number, and schedule of a doctor who was later murdered.
Recently PAAU has increasingly turned to online platforms like TikTok to encourage its supporters to participate in “rescues.” During the 2023 March for Life in January, PAAU used the ticketing website Eventbrite to promote a training aimed at individuals “interested in getting involved” in the so-called “rescue” movement, even though Eventbrite claims to prohibit events inciting harassment.
Similarly, PAAU has published multiple videos of TikTok that glamorize “rescues” to viewers and give them instructions on how to hold demonstrations of their own. However, TikTok’s community guidelines urge users not to post, upload, or share “content that encourages coordinated harassment.” TikTok also claims to “remove expressions of abuse, including threats or degrading statements intended to mock, humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or hurt an individual.”
Despite these guidelines, TikTok has still allowed PAAU to continue with its campaign to harass abortion seekers and scare them into reversing their own health care decisions, only worsening the platform’s rampant abortion misinformation. Here’s the “rescue” propaganda created by PAAU and spread on TikTok’s platform despite its potential violation of the site’s own community guidelines.
PAAU instructing viewers on “rescues”
- An April 2023 TikTok shows PAAU Director of Communications Kristin Turner inside an abortion clinic and standing aside an exam room door, pleading to a patient not to proceed with an abortion. Turner is shown holding a rose with the number of an anti-abortion hotline and the thumbnail of the video reads, “what happens in a pink rose rescue.” The video’s caption undermines the harm inherent in entering abortion clinics by dismissing the “imaginary lines” of clinic entrances and boasts that Turner was able to dissuade five individuals from going through with their abortion appointments.
- In a January 2023 video, PAAU digital content creator Elise Ketch promotes four different types of abortion rescues, describing guiding principles and the intention behind each type of rescue (e.g. direct action, civil disobedience, occupation, and noncooperation). The video further lays out potential risks of rescue activities, including receiving misdemeanor charges for trespassing and resisting arrest or felony charges for violating the federal FACE Act, which “prohibits threats of force, obstruction and property damage intended to interfere with reproductive health care services.”
- A December 2022 video is promoted with a thumbnail reading “How to Opportunity Rescue” and shows PAAU members entering different abortion clinics with roses and placing flyers printed with anti-abortion hotline numbers that state “it’s not too late” around the clinic spaces. The video shows individuals inside of clinics speaking to abortion seekers and the caption of the post outlines “steps for an opportunity rescue.”
- An August 2022 video uploaded by PAAU includes a group member promoting Red Rose Rescue (an interstate anti-abortion group), which they compared to sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. The speaker then states fellow anti-abortion activists can “go to their local abortion facilities, pass out resources, offer love and encouragement to the women who may be confused or considering to abort their child.”
PAAU promoting “rescue”
- A February video shows anti-abortion activist Joan Andrews Bell, who has been repeatedly charged for blocking access to abortion clinics during these so-called rescues, speaking during PAAU’s January rescue meeting group, speaking glowingly about rescue as “the most direct action that treats a baby as a real baby.” The post’s caption states, “Rescue offers a final tangible act of love to a child as they are being taken away to be exterminated.”
- Another February video includes Ketch glamorizing rescue with the post’s thumbnail reading, “abortion rescues don’t end when you’re arrested.” The video’s audio is Handy stating, “We always say the Red Rose Rescue or rescue in general or civil disobedience actually doesn’t end once you’re in cuffs. It continues all the way into being inside, being on the other side, being in process, being in holding, or being eventually incarcerated if that’s what happens.”
- A January TikTok features Ketch with on-screen text reading, “When your abortion rescue may not have saved lives or cooperated with laws but you stayed with & loved the babies facing execution for as long & as far as possible.”
- During a January collaboration with the anti-abortion group Secular Pro-Life, Bukovinac appears boasting about actively participating in abortion rescues that involve “going inside the clinics and trying to talk them [patients] out of getting abortion.”
- In January, PAAU also promoted an upcoming documentary titled “Dragon Slayers: How The Rescue Movement Brought Down Roe V Wade,” which is currently being crowdfunded by notorious anti-abortion activist and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. The film appears to be dedicated to whitewashing the violence of the rescue movement and Operation Rescue, whom the film framed as “the largest peaceful civil disobedience movement in American history.”
- In a December 2022 TikTok, Ketch was featured in a video answering the question, “Why do we need rescue in the pro-life movement?” Ketch uses social movement terminology and attempts to connect the anti-abortion movement to the Civil Rights Movement. Ketch calls those participating in abortion clinics “rescues” the “agitators” of the movement, who “use direct action and disruption to shake up the status quo, spread awareness, and amass power.”
- A December 2022 TikTok includes a caption stating, “Rescue forces us to see the humanity of the preborn through sacrifice. Because if they aren’t human, why would we risk jail and potentially worse?" During the video, she says, “When an abortion rescuer is sentenced to jail, it’s an opportunity for us, for non-rescuers, to hold the entire legal system accountable each day for the murder it protects until it is as safe and legal to protect children as it is now safe and legal to kill them.”
- A November 2022 video uploaded by PAAU highlights rescue as the “past, present, and future” of the anti-abortion movement, and includes footage of members inside of abortion clinics interspersed with clips of police arresting or dragging protestors as rock music plays in the background. The caption states, “if aborti0n is murd3r we need to f*ckimg act like it!!”
PAAU’s digital content creator is also promoting rescue on her personal TikTok account
Several of PAAU’s posts promoting rescue have come directly from Ketch, who typically uploads videos on her personal TikTok account before they appear on the official PAAU page. Though some of Ketch’s posts are not reposted on the main PAAU account, her videos still include the PAAU logo as well as the group’s #bringbackrescue hashtag.
- In November 2022, Ketch posted a video with a thumbnail with the text “Rescue is radical love.” The video’s accompanying audio declares, “It’s not how many babies were saved that day. It’s how many babies were loved. I know if I was on my way to death, I would want someone there to be with me until the last possible second as well.”
- Another November 2022 post shows Ketch decrying “media bias against abortion rescue.” In the video, she accuses the media of spending too much coverage on anti-abortion violence and claims, “Often, clinic workers, volunteers, and pro-abortion advocates would fake footage for the media.” She then doubles down in support of rescue, urging the viewers to use the internet to spread positive information about rescue: The internet “is going to give us the ability to contrast what the media is framing us as.” She urges, “You can support rescue by posting on your social media about it in a positive light, showing the world what’s really going on. And you can come to rescues, not participate in them, but document them accurately. Show the world that we are nonviolent and we are here to protect powerless people.”
Though PAAU claims that its advocacy is peaceful, several members of the organization have broken the law in their “rescue” efforts – PAAU figures Lauren Handy and Herb Geraghty were charged in 2022 with violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act during an attempted blockade in 2020. Handy also infamously possessed five fetuses she claimed to be sourced from a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic as part of a PAAU publicity stunt to provide funerals for over 100 aborted fetuses. After a “rescue” at an Alexandria, Virginia, clinic, at least four PAAU members, including Handy and Executive Director Terrisa Bukovinac, were arrested and sentenced for trespassing.
Correction (4/28/23): This piece has been updated to correct a misspelling of PAAU member Herb Geraghty’s name.