This is the second half of an interview I did last September with Terrisa Bukovinac, founder and executive director of Pro-Life San Francisco.
Terrisa is an active member of Democrats for Life of America, and I’m keen to ask her more about the situation facing pro-life Democrats, considering that their party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – are extremely pro-choice. As ever, Terrisa is an optimist. ‘The situation in the Democratic Party is the worst it’s ever been on abortion, but that does present an opportunity for us. Kamala Harris is super pro-abortion. She’s been supported by NARAL and Planned Parenthood since her very early days. She’s been instrumental in passing pro-choice legislation in California’. Harris was also responsible for the illegal raid on the home of pro-life journalist David Daleiden. In 2015, Daleiden released undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of foetal remains. Immediately after the videos were released, Harris met with Planned Parenthood executives. A few days later, Daleiden’s home was raided (illegally, according to Terrisa) and his content seized. The criminal case brought against Daleiden for illegally recording the videos (Terrisa maintains that he was ‘fully within his rights’) is ongoing. In contrast to Kamala Harris, Joe Biden has changed his stance on the abortion issue over time, going from being ‘historically pretty pro-life’ to ‘personally pro-life and politically pro-choice’ to now supporting full, taxpayer-funded abortion, apparently without term limits. On 20 September, the day before our interview, Democrats for Life of America took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, calling on their party to moderate its position on abortion. Terrisa and her fellow pro-life Democrats believe that while their party’s position is so extreme, they will ‘continue to lose elections to Republicans and to cede large swathes of the south and red states to the Republican Party’, preventing them from advancing such issues as racial justice, police reform, climate change and LGBT rights. But Terrisa is optimistic about the future of Democrats for Life: ‘you look at Republicans for Choice, they’ve just dissolved […] That organisation has no future’. Democrats for Life, on the other hand, has had ‘unprecedented growth this year, and I think that that shows that not only do we have a future, we have a winning future’.
Were there better Democratic candidates available from a pro-life point of view?
‘Well, Tulsi Gabbard was one of the candidates in the primaries and she took a position against third-trimester abortion, and I believe taxpayer-funded abortion, and that is pretty progressive considering the other choices that we had, but she was automatically labelled as a conservative basically, Trojan horse of the Democratic Party. Hopefully she still has a very bright future in politics and will come even more to the pro-life side over time and leverage that as an opportunity’. However, in the 2019 and 2020 primaries, ‘we didn’t see any particular candidate that we could get behind. We’re hopeful for John Bel Edwards [Democratic governor of Louisiana] and he hopefully might make a run in 2024, but we think right now it’s a matter of building a bench from a more city council, local and state positions. Those are the positions that we’re going to need to develop into those house, senate and presidential roles’. Terrisa feels that pro-life Democrats spent far too long ‘playing nice’ with their party, but that ‘all those nice conversations, dug us this horrible hole of abortion extremism’. She illustrates this by pointing out that the US is ‘one of the only countries in the world that allows abortion up until birth for any reason’. She tells me that the University of California, San Francisco supplies ‘late-term, viable human foetuses’ to ‘several projects’ on a monthly basis. ‘In order to do the abortions for research they can’t use foeticides because it compromises the foetal tissue for research, so all of those abortions are done, either live dismemberments or born-alive labour inductions, and then I guess killed through dissection or whatever, we don’t know’. Getting accurate information about these practices is a challenge. ‘There’s so much we don’t know because this is allowed to happen, and it happens by the tens of thousands every year in our country’. (See here for more information.)
This is the level of extremism that the Democratic Party currently supports. Terrisa points out that ‘the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act was blocked by Democrats eighty times in 2019 alone’. I’m reminded of all the Irish TDs who voted against an amendment which would ensure pain relief for babies being aborted. ‘Playing nice with the abortion industry and those that are taking campaign contributions from them is not going to work. They have to be pressured, they have to be constantly reminded that there’s a constituency that disagrees with them. And if that’s not visible, if that’s not diverse, then it doesn’t matter, but if it is, and you constantly give them even just the impression that there is considerable resistance on the issue, it’s going to make a difference’. This is relevant to the Irish context also: ‘Ireland really is in a position now where you’re going to have more, more and more effort from the other side to expand abortion further and further beyond twelve weeks. […] You have to start causing the drama for them now. They cannot feel comfortable’.
Terrisa has expressed support in the past for Operation Rescue, a controversial pro-life group known for their protests at abortion clinics. I ask her what forms of nonviolent direct action could work now, without them turning into a PR disaster. I’m slightly taken aback by her answer. ‘You’re never going to avoid a PR disaster. You have to go straight into it. You have to lean into that PR disaster. You need a PR disaster. If you don’t have a PR disaster you have nothing’. Controversy is what gets media attention, not positive, uplifting pro-life stories. ‘The point is to drive that controversy, the point is to cause disruption and that means PR scandals’, she laughs. She says that we should use every nonviolent tool available to us. ‘My tool of choice is the megaphone. I think that it is very under-utilised in the movement. When people hear you speaking with a megaphone they automatically assume you know what the hell you’re talking about, because 99% of the people in this world will never do that […] They’re forced to pay attention. It disrupts the status quo’. She tells me that Pro-Life San Francisco have approached companies that handle the ‘medical waste’ (foetal remains) from abortion facilities ‘and we have protested them and encouraged them to break their relationships with Planned Parenthood, and that has worked’. Other attention-grabbing actions have included resisting attempts to arrest them for being ‘sidewalk advocates’ during the coronavirus pandemic. Terrisa is also a believer in taking legal action whenever possible. ‘The press pretty much doesn’t care if you’re holding a protest, but if you’re holding a protest and you’re suing someone at the same time, even if it ends up being frivolous, that is a great way to get visibility and to disrupt. […] There are lots of resources for developing nonviolent direct action tactics and there are literally thousands of ways that we can directly put ourselves in between the oppressor and the unborn’.
I’m curious to know what Terrisa thinks is the most effective way to persuade secular pro-choicers of the pro-life position. ‘The most effective way to reach a secular person’, she replies, ‘is to demonstrate as much sameness as possible. So if you look like you’re totally religious and you’re giving secular arguments, it kind of doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s not the facts or what you’re saying that’s going to compel people, it’s how much they believe you’re like them. And that’s what all the evidence suggests. I think we’ve spent way too much time trying to be polite and be the bigger, classier side. That’s not helpful. All it does is make us look so different from the other side. When they’re screaming for justice and we’re like, “Let’s have a polite conversation”, we’re in different worlds, and we’re the ones fighting for justice, we’re the ones who should be screaming. And I think that we pride ourselves too much on being so different from them that we’ve lost our ability to reach them. And I think that politeness is a major problem. Well yeah, if you’re having a private conversation with someone, sure, but we’re trying to ignite and win a worldwide movement for human rights. That is not going to be achieved through a few polite conversations’. She qualifies this: ‘ I don’t want to tell people who to be and I want people to express themselves however they feel comfortable, but the best way to break down that barrier of confirmation bias is to not look like a religious person and to not sound like one’.
Does she have a target audience when she’s trying to convince people of the pro-life position? ‘The audience is as many people as you can reach in the general community as possible – press, general people, people who’ve had abortions, people who are pro-life, people who are pro-choice. You want to anger people who are pro-choice, you want to put a fire under them. Literally, we have got to show that we’re serious about this. So that’s really the goal. The goal isn’t just a particular group of people necessarily, it’s like, “Look America, look San Francisco, this issue isn’t settled”. That’s the message. We’re fighting – join us.’ She continues: ‘The other goal of that is to attract other people to your cause. So it’s to bring visibility to the issue, force people to think about it, but also to bring people who already agree with you on the issue out to say, look, there’s a movement, it’s not just about you thinking this at home, you need to come do something with us’.
What are Pro-Life San Francisco focusing on at the moment? ‘We’re focusing on UCSF [University of California, San Francisco], we’re trying to end the live dismemberment and the foetal tissue research programmes happening there and using that as an example to the world, like this is a global issue, this is the worst aspects of abortion extremism – outside [of] the Uighurs – that we encounter in the world. And all of the pro-abortion rhetoric and policy and the manufacturing of RU 486, all of that emanates from the University of California, San Francisco. They are in this on a global level, and so if our community, San Francisco, which is obviously very left-leaning and traditionally very pro-choice, if we can get a significant movement going here, like if we can show enough pressure, or even just give the impression that we’re thousands of people, that might be enough to force them to have to comment on this, to have to try to explain why they do what they do, and all of that would help us inch closer to actually getting people to care about this issue. And I think once people look at it, once people realise we’re doing thousands of live dismemberments on viable babies in this country, then we’re going to be able to roll that back a little. And when you roll that back a little in a place like this, it’s really game over for the abortion industry as a whole’.
Finally, what are Terrisa’s hopes and plans for the future? ‘I want to end legal elective abortion in America in my lifetime. I definitely want to have an influence over global abortion politics and I want to change the way that humanity views unborn life. I want us to, in general, as a world community, respect life at its earliest stages, just like we do after they’re born, generally speaking’.
Follow Terrisa on Twitter @Terrisalin
Good pair of interviews Cian, I very much enjoyed them. I don’t suppose that you have Terrisa’s email and could send it over to me? (Obviously by email rather than through comments.) Was thinking that it might be good to get in touch and network. I also found the point that she raised about the necessity of common values interesting, given that whatever else might be said about e.g Planned Parenthood and abortion ethics, they’re fundamentally Clintonite right wing neoliberals given their opposition to universal healthcare, lack of a living wage given to staff, sexual assault coverups, systemic racism accusations (by staff and not just pro-lifers), taking donations from fossil fuel/arms companies etc, and wonder if this is a good line of attack that could be used to take them down, if they’ve challenged from the left.
Relatedly, sure there’s some expertise that could be shared with trying to cut ties between UCSF and the abortion industrial complex. Have spent a good chunk of the last three years trying to cut ties between what’s now my alma matter and fossil fuel companies (and arms as well recently, a founding member of that campaign group), so figure that we might be able to cook up some good ideas for direct actions, weak points etc. Terrisa, on the off chance you read this do get in touch with Cian and let’s try to set up some sort of a Zoom, if you think this might be worthwhile?
Thanks Dane, much appreciated. I’ll be in touch.