The bombshell leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s potential majority opinion in Dodd v. Jackson Women’s Health concludes by purporting to be returning the “authority” to regulate or prohibit abortion “to the people and their elected officials.”
In Louisiana, that could mean State Rep. Danny McCormick—a Republican who once took a chainsaw to a mask and has been accused of trafficking in antisemitism.
McCormick began a journey from fringe state legislator to national figure last week, when his once-quixotic quest to potentially charge women who get abortions with murder suddenly took on new urgency with the looming gutting of reproductive rights in America. But whether his bill—which has cleared committee and would classify abortion as homicide—passes into law or not, figures like McCormick are increasingly poised to help set reproductive policy in America.
It’s not just advocates for reproductive rights who are concerned about a fringe figure like him residing in a position of power.
“We are troubled by his continued willingness to spread harmful and false conspiracy theories and promote inaccuracies about issues ranging from public-health efforts to election outcomes, some of which touch upon antisemitic tropes,” Aaron Ahlquist, Southern policy director for the Anti-Defamation League, told The Daily Beast.
A spokesperson for McCormick did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
McCormick is an oilman who owns a company in Oil City, a hamlet in the ArkLaTex hinterlands of only 1,000 people. He decided to run for office after successfully preventing, as he put it, what might be “the biggest loss of freedom of our lifetime.” Four years ago, McCormick has said, he caught wind of what he imagined to be a conspiracy by Reps. Louie Gohmert, Mike Johnson, and John Ratliffe, and Sen. Bill Cassidy to implement the federal government’s plans for a stealth land-grab along the Texas-Louisiana border.
Specifically, he thought his fellow Republicans would do this by designating Caddo Lake as a National Heritage Area.
“I’m not sure how that myth got started because that virtually is impossible. A National Heritage Area is a tourism program,” Debra Credeur, executive director of Louisiana’s Cane River National Heritage Area, explained at the time. “It owns no land, and the legislation prohibits it from acquiring land.”
But McCormick concocted an elaborate and bizarre story, promoted it online, and attracted a following and the attention of the press and the congressmen seeking the designation. His National Heritage Area conspiracy theory was methodically picked apart, but that didn’t stop his turn toward extremism.
Since assuming office, the Republican legislator, who got a warm reception last year when he spoke to the house organ of the extremist John Birch Society, has recorded and shared, in total, at least 120 videos on social media. Some are more elaborately produced than others, but there are a few recurring themes.
He spent much of his first two years in the legislature—he was elected in late 2019—recording a home documentary about mask mandates and vaccinations. Some of his most frequently repeated talking points have been variations of pithy remarks like “Your body is your private property,” and “It’s your body, and it’s your choice.”
The dissonance from a man intent on criminalizing abortion speaks for itself.
McCormick’s most-watched video, which, as of this writing has been viewed more than 214,000 times, is from July 2020, at the apogee of the first wave of the pandemic and shortly after the nearby city of Shreveport enacted a mask mandate. The video opens with McCormick using a blowtorch to burn a disposable surgical mask. In another clip, he slices a mask apart with a motorized chainsaw, while insisting that he doesn’t think masks are bad, but only mask mandates, which he argues, in increasingly alarmist language, are a pretext for shredding the Constitution and imposing a totalitarian police state.
“If the government has the power to force you to wear a mask, they can force you to stick a needle in your arm against your will. They can put a microchip in you. They can even make you take the mark,” he warns, echoing false claims by anti-vaccine extremists, including an apparent reference to a far-right obsession with the “Mark of the Beast.”
“People who don’t wear a mask will soon be painted as the enemy, just as they did to Jews in Nazi Germany,” he added.
The comparison of COVID measures to Nazism is not unique to McCormick, who refused to back down from his remarks, suggesting he was referring to “the demonization of Jews” and not “the murder of Jews.” Two months later, he drew a second round of condemnation after he shared an antisemitic meme on his Facebook page, which features a notorious mural depicting a group of bankers caricatured as Jewish stereotypes. McCormick later deleted the post following criticism, as the Advocate reported.
Ahlquist, with the Anti-Defamation League, said the group has expressed its concerns to McCormick about antisemitic statements and posts.
Incidentally, McCormick’s district includes a rural byway sometimes known as Mount Gilead Road, a name fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may recognize. In that dystopian future, the United States has been replaced by the totalitarian republic of Gilead, a patriarchal police state led by racist Christian dominionists where women are subjugated and the law is structured around a regime of forced pregnancies and indentured servitude.
That is obviously not what is going on with McCormick in Louisiana, but the reality in the state at large may be closer than you think.
“Abortion replaced segregation as the organizing force of the far right,” State Rep. Mandie Landry, a Democrat from New Orleans and one of the few remaining pro-choice women in the Louisiana legislature, told The Daily Beast.
Although McCormick’s name is the only one that appears on the bill, HB 813 was actually spearheaded at least in part by Brian Gunter, a 35-year-old country preacher and the former outreach director for Louisiana Right to Life. In December, the two men appeared together in a video from Gunter’s former church. “We’re teaching citizens across Louisiana how we can work together with our state legislature to once and for all end abortion in our state,” the preacher explained.
Gunter is a Southern Baptist fundamentalist from Pollock, a tiny community in the middle of the state best known for its history as an alleged “sundown town.” That’s the name for a municipality that didn’t allow Black people there after sundown. (The area is also known for a nearby federal prison.) In 2015, Gunter’s wife Patricia resigned from her position as the Grant Parish Justice of the Peace following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, which legalized gay marriage in the United States. (Some advocates fear a looming reversal of Roe could endanger decisions like that one, too.)
Earlier this year, at Gunter’s direction, Pollock became Louisiana’s first “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” after its town council passed its own trigger law, a 14-page ordinance that would, among other things, criminalize the possession of abortion medication and make it unlawful to “aid or abet an abortion performed on a resident of Pollock… regardless of where the abortion is or will be performed.”
Gunter’s statewide proposal, however—which is also McCormick’s proposal—would more directly target patients, and it’s arguably the cruelest and most extreme anti-abortion bill to ever advance out of a state legislative committee. “We don’t create new laws here,” Gunter insisted in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We include the ‘pre-born person’ under the current laws that protect life.”
Gunter acknowledged, however, that he is not a lawyer, nor does he have any formal education in the law, and said that, contrary to other published reporting, he did not write HB 813. Instead, he said, he worked behind the scenes to ensure McCormick’s bill wouldn’t suffer the same fate as a similar “abortion abolition” proposal in Texas. When it advanced from committee last week, he wasn’t surprised, but others, including many in the religious right, were alarmed.
On Tuesday, the state’s most influential religious right organization, the Louisiana Family Forum, announced its opposition to the bill, calling it “vague” and “poorly-written.” Even Louisiana Right to Life, Gunter’s former employer and perhaps the state’s best-known anti-abortion organization, felt compelled to publicly repudiate the bill. They’ve been joined, of course, by advocates of abortion rights.
“Women who suffer miscarriages could be investigated for murder, as a miscarriage can sometimes be impossible to distinguish from medically-induced abortions,” explained Ellie Schilling, a New Orleans-based lawyer and a national expert in healthcare law.
Underrepresentation in the legislature is just part of the problem that abortion-rights advocates face in the Deep South. Take the case of Mimi Methvin, a longtime federal magistrate and state court judge who ran against incumbent Republican Rep. Clay Higgins for the state’s third congressional district in 2018. Early in her campaign, when she mentioned that she was “pro-choice” to a widely respected, longtime Democratic operative, she said, he cut right to the chase. “No, you can’t say those words and be a viable candidate in Louisiana,” she recalled being told.
After all, Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democrat to hold statewide office, already signed what abortion-rights opponents call a “heartbeat law,” banning abortion as early as six weeks, without any exceptions for rape or incest. The governor’s office declined comment on McCormick’s pending legislation, but last year, he signed all three anti-abortion bills that landed on his desk. In 2006, Louisiana’s “trigger law,” which would immediately outlaw abortion in the event of the reversal of Roe, was passed by a Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by a different Democratic governor, the late Kathleen Blanco.
“The conventional wisdom is that voters here will never support a pro-choice Democrat,” Methvin told The Daily Beast. “People wanted me to either avoid the topic completely or to find a way to talk around it.”
There are some signs that the religious right, even here in the ruby-red Deep South, may be overplaying their hand. According to a recent survey conducted by LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs, Louisiana residents are closely divided on the issue of abortion rights: 46 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. Most notably, since LSU last conducted polling on the issue six years ago, Republican attitudes have remained relatively the same, while support for abortion rights among Democrats has increased dramatically. In 2016, just 51 percent of state Democrats supported abortion being legal in all or most cases. Today, 74 percent are in support.
State political insiders canvassed by The Daily Beast suggested McCormick’s bill has little chance of being signed into law, at least in this legislative session. He’s made few friends but earned quite a collection of foes down in Baton Rouge during the past two years, they said, and there’s little immediate incentive for Republicans in the State Senate to be accommodating.
Still, HB 813 is scheduled for consideration in front of the full house on Thursday, and abortion-rights advocates say it should offer a prime example of why Alito’s lofty rhetoric is disingenuous pablum. In a state where the majority of the population are women, a group of mostly-male elected officials have a chance to offer the entire country a sneak peek of abortion politics in Samuel Alito’s America.
“Proposed laws such as McCormick’s that classify women seeking abortions as murderers creates a climate of fear that will lead to more deaths of women who are denied medical treatment,” Sophie Bjork-James, an associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University and expert on the political ascendence of the religious right and white supremacists movements, told The Daily Beast.
When pressed on whether any women were involved in the push for the bill, Gunter, the Baptist preacher and McCormick ally, avoided a direct answer, suggesting the question demeaned the intelligence of white men.
“I don’t engage in identity politics,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the color of my skin or my genitalia have anything to do with my ability to reason or think.”