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The Shadowy Web Connecting Anti-Abortion Groups in California

Anti-abortion groups in California are often connected by powerful, well-funded people.

a red banner that reads "onelife LA"
A banner from a OneLife LA anti-abortion march.

In the wake of a Politico report stating that the Supreme Court was preparing to strike down Roe v. Wade, Knock LA examined the infrastructure of anti-abortion groups operating in Los Angeles and California. Knock LA examined organizations like the USC Caruso Catholic Center, Live Action, Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, Created Equal, and Care Net. All of them share an interwoven connective tissue of speakers, money, and resources. Many further their agenda by sharing graphic pictures of fetal tissue (often of questionable veracity), and many have a history of advocating against LGBTQ rights.

According to its website, the USC Caruso Catholic Center “has linked Catholic students at USC who wish to fellowship with others who live the Catholic faith.” The center received $6 million as a grant from billionaire mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, who presumably still serves as the chair of its board. (The USC Caruso Catholic Center appears to have taken down its “Leadership” page, which can typically be found at this link).

Much of the Caruso Catholic Center funding goes toward programs like the Homeless Ministry, Detention Ministry, and Catholic Mass at the adjoining Our Savior Parish. But the center also advertises its participation in an annual anti-abortion march called OneLife LA. Past highlighted speakers and musicians for OneLife LA include multiple high-ranking employees of the Caruso Catholic Center. The center’s official page has even celebrated their presence at the annual rally.

Video shows hundreds of mostly maskless people gathered in downtown LA for a January 2022 OneLife LA event. One promotional video tells the crowd that our witness to the sanctity of the human being in all stages of life from conception to natural death is needed even more in society today.” Marcela Luevanos, one of the masters of ceremony, tells the crowd that “we may be witnessing the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer.” The event concluded with a “Requiem Mass for the Unborn,” for nearly two hours at the nearby Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Though Caruso has claimed that his current pro-choice position “has always been clear,” in the past he’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion politicians, has made anti-abortion statements, and has hosted fundraising dinners for anti-abortion politicians like Mitt Romney. Planned Parenthood  released an open letter in May asking Caruso “to gain clarity about your position on reproductive rights, and with the expectation that you will right these wrongs.” 

Caruso’s Family Foundation also donated $1,000 to the Knights of Columbus in 2018 — the most recent tax filings publicly available from the IRS. The Knights of Columbus (KoC) is a fraternal men-only Catholic organization and insurance provider that describes itself as “men who lead, serve, protect and defend.” While many of the KoC funds and works go toward initiatives like Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics, the group is heavily involved in anti-abortion efforts. 

The KoC list many pregnancy centers that do not provide abortion services (often called crisis pregnancy centers or CPCs) on a searchable map. Knight councils are allowed to “adopt” a pregnancy center and are encouraged to provide material and labor. The KoC also heavily supports March for Life, an annual series of anti-abortion marches throughout the country. Local councils are encouraged to participate in or sponsor marches.

The parish pastor at the USC Caruso Catholic Center, Father Richard Sunwoo, was listed as a featured speaker last year alongside anti-LGBTQ activist Sean Feucht at an event called “Unite for Life.” Feucht posted pictures of himself at the event.

Unite for Life was sponsored by a nonprofit called Live Action, which produces disinformation videos about Planned Parenthood. Lila Rose makes six figures as president of the foundation, and the organization made nearly $5 million in 2019

Live Action could potentially be feeding dangerous medical advice to people on their website. Live Action links to a website which lists only healthcare centers that do not provide abortions as “healthcare resources.” The website’s search feature turned up at least one suggestion which did not exist. Live Action’s resources also link to an “abortion pill reversal” site, which encourages pregnant people who have begun a pill treatment to counteract that with an over-the-counter “natural supplement” of hormones. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards.”

As part of its training and educational resources, Live Action utilizes images from AbortionNo, the website for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR). AbortionNo’s homepage features an extreme closeup of fetal tissue being removed, after a brief text warning. 

CBR touts on its website that it “publishes educational resources and conducts seminars to establish the humanity of the preborn and the inhumanity of abortion.” These “educational services” include comparing abortions to the Holocaust as well as Cambodian Killing Fields and American lynchings of Black people.

Though CBR says on its website that it “does what it can to minimize such exposure,” pictures from CBR have been seen at high schools and college campuses throughout the country. CBR’s Southwest chapter even touts a new picture “for high school outreach,” which features a bruised child next to fetal tissue and asks “are you the ultimate bully?”

A lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department protected the rights of CBR to demonstrate outside of schools with graphic images of alleged abortions. The lawsuit states that “middle school and high school students are a common target audience,” and includes a deposition from CBR’s executive director where he acknowledges that students “‘faint,’ ‘become physically ill,’ ‘weep,’ ‘avert their gaze,’ and ‘leave the room’ in response to these pictures.” 

CBR touts several of what it calls “educational projects,” which include the Genocide Awareness Project and Reproductive “Choice” Campaign. The Genocide Awareness Project is an initiative by CBR to show graphic images of embryos and abortions alongside some of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities and focuses its efforts on college and universities. CBR’s Reproductive “Choice” Campaign is an initiative to use graphic high-resolution photos of abortions and fetal tissue on the sides of trucks and planes throughout America’s skies and roadways. Its Matthew 28:20 Project involves handing out graphic brochures at churches that they deem “are failing to discharge their biblical mandate to be a witness against evil.”

Created Equal also encourages its followers to share graphic photos of fetal tissue in the name of anti-abortion. A 501(c)3 which spends more than $100,000 of its $1.7 million in revenue on the salary of its founder, Mark Harrington, the nonprofit’s finances were criticized by Charity Navigator. Harrington was the executive director of the Midwest office of CBR from 2009 to 2011 until he founded Created Equal

Joe Scheidler, who was named as a defendant in a Supreme Court case alleging extortion against an abortion provider, endorsed both Harrington and Created Equal, saying that Harrington is “a man after my own heart.” Lila Rose of Live Action endorsed Created Equal as well.

Created Equal utilizes 10×12-foot mobile displays of graphic imagery, frequently near college campuses. It displays a street toolkit which advises its users to “imagine a situation in which a woman is raped a day after she has sex with her husband. She later discovers that she is pregnant and doesn’t know who the child’s father is.” Created Equal then argues that “if killing a born child conceived in rape is wrong because of her humanity, it is also wrong to kill a preborn child conceived in rape because of her humanity.”

Created Equal’s street toolkit advises demonstrators to direct people facing an unplanned pregnancy to controversial crisis pregnancy centers, which are run by Care Net. NARAL Pro-Choice America described Care Net and other CPCs in a Daily Beast article as “carefully designed to give the impression that the CPC is a health-care clinic that provides comprehensive, medically-accurate counseling about all reproductive health-care options.”

Care Net lists nine locations of CPCs in LA County — none of them provide abortions, and several actively promote abstinence-only education.

Care Net also lists multiple locations for Obria Medical Clinics. Obria markets itself as “Whole Care for the Whole You,” and claims to provide abortion information. Despite not offering abortion services, it states that they “help walk you through any questions you may have regarding having an abortion, as well as abortion procedures and risks associated with abortion.” 

Obria also provides information on its website on the controversial “abortion pill reversal,” which is “not supported by science,” according to Planned Parenthood as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

In 2015, California enacted the Reproductive FACT Act. The law forced unlicensed centers that provide pregnancy-related services to disclose that they are not licensed medical providers, and it forced licensed clinics to inform California patients of programs that make family planning and abortion services more affordable. Ruling that notices posted in CPCs “unduly [burden] protected speech,” the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2018. 

According to the National Women’s Law Center, the law meant “that all licensed crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in California will have to post signage that helps a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy know all of her options for getting the information she needs.” Many of the CPCs listed under Care Net could potentially have had to disclose more information regarding the limits of their reproductive care, as well as other options, before the Supreme Court decision.

A 1986 federal lawsuit by the National Organization for Women against Joe Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action League alleged that, over 10 months, two people stole approximately 4,000 aborted fetuses from a laboratory: they entered the lab, opened sealed storage drums containing a variety of medical waste, and removed fetal specimens. The lawsuit also alleged that members of Pro-Life Action Network stored the fetal remains at their homes. 

The suit also further alleged that by attempting to remove the fetal specimens as well as block the laboratory’s business they were guilty of extortion as well as antitrust violations via the RICO act. Related lawsuits and countersuits eventually led to Supreme Court decisions in 2003 and 2006 ruling that the group’s anti-abortion activities couldn’t fall under antitrust or extortion. Scheidler passed away in 2021 from complications of pnuemonia and continued his controversial style of anti-abortion protesting throughout his life.

A New York Times blog entry examined the history of pictures of fetal tissue taken by members of the Pro-Life Action League and found that one of the most famous images used by anti-abortion protesters had a questionable origin. Often known as “Malachi,” the photo shows various fetal body parts strewn on a white surface. 

The tissue was found in a jar stored with three other specimens and put together, then stored at the home of an anti-abortion activist. The New York Times raised the following questions: “How did you know for sure that Malachi was not a miscarriage? How did you know the damage to the fetus did not come from simple decomposition, or the month that it was outside the freezer?” 

Like Created Equal, the Pro-Life Action League, and Live Action, CBR sells photos of what they allege to be abortions to anti-abortion demonstrators. While CBR states “impugning the accuracy of our pictures is the same sort of tactic used by neo-Nazis in response to condemnation of the Holocaust,” pictures by professional photographer Glenna Gordon show a stark contrast and have little to no blood, no dangling limbs, and are often just a collection of cells. Pictures from anti-abortion groups are often bloody collections of fetal tissue; pictures of unformed legs and arms sometimes displayed in grim piles. 

Much of Live Action’s funding goes toward “investigations” by Lila Rose. They feature her lying to Planned Parenthood volunteers about her age and seeking to insinuate that clinics lie about statutory rape.  There have also been allegations against Rose of misinterpretation and selective editing. Rose was mentored on her first “investigation” by James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, which has been accused multiple times of misinterpreting, selectively editing, or outright lying in their videos.

CBR refuses to disclose where they receive their photos, and a link to a signed statement from one of their photographers is currently dead. Additionally, those curious about how embryos and fetuses are given “ages” by CBR in photos will find a dead link. CBR even goes so far as to threaten critics by saying that “when the time is right, we will make an example of those who attack the integrity of pro-lifers they know they can’t beat in honest debate.”

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, many of these groups are expected to focus their lobbying efforts toward funding CPCs and anti-abortion laws at state levels. “Our ministry model has been a post-Roe ministry model from the beginning,” the chief executive of Care Net told the New York Times in an interview. “We’re going to see an awakening that is already underway but is only going to grow,” Rose told Tucker Carlson of their plans going forward. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade today ahead of its summer recess.