Rose Fradusco Alito gave birth on April Fool’s Day, 1950. Hundreds of women would die that year from botched illegal abortions in the United States, where the procedure had been widely banned for decades. But here in the Alito household in suburban New Jersey, all was grand. Rose thrilled at new motherhood. She was a schoolteacher, then a principal. Her husband Sam was a teacher too, then a director in state government. Their son, named after his father, would go on to do important things someday; Rose could feel it. When she died in 2013, Samuel Alito Jr. was all grown up, with a big fancy job on the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s unlikely that Rose ever considered abortion for herself (a few years before she passed away, she told reporters she opposed it). But what if her circumstances had been different—if her own life had been endangered by the pregnancy or if the fetus had a fatal anomaly or if Rose simply hadn’t been ready for a child? What if she’d had a choice and access to safe, legal abortion care? Nearly 75 years later, in a reproductive rights landscape that feels like it’s sliding back in time, one group decided to channel this policy fantasy into a new health care enterprise named in her honor.
Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic. Does it sound like pure clickbait? Sure. But beneath the outlandish branding lies a sincere mission: The New Mexico–based telehealth practice, a legitimate medical entity run by an accredited clinical team, offers abortion care to patients within state lines. The staff prescribes abortion pills (at $91 per set, a competitive price) up until the eleventh week of pregnancy and offers 24/7 phone access to licensed medical personnel to anyone in need. It’s just that they’re also Satanists, members of a religious organization called The Satanic Temple.
Need a minute? No problem. This marrying of lightning-rod concepts is...a lot. Intentionally so, as The Satanic Temple (TST) attempts to take pervasive moral panic and flip it on its head, utilizing Satanists’ reputation for defiance to expand access to urgent health care.
Never mind that Satanists don’t actually worship the devil. There are no ritual sacrifices or quests for supernatural powers at TST. In reality, Satanism is a nontheistic faith in which TST’s roughly 1.5 million global members view Satan more like a mascot, one depicted not as a dark, omniscient deity but as a literary character—a venerable symbol of rebellion, rational inquiry, personal sovereignty, and resistance against tyranny. Followers champion science, religious diversity, and the separation of church and state, says Chalice Blythe, an ordained minister of Satan and the group’s spokesperson for reproductive rights.
Satan symbolizes activism too. Since its founding in 2013, TST has campaigned against harmful pseudo science in mental health care settings, threatened school districts with legal action over harsh disciplinary practices like corporal punishment and solitary confinement, and launched and continues to lead a national crusade against so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which many organizations condemn as fake clinics that exist to deceive and dissuade patients from obtaining real abortion care.
TST is also known for its guerrilla street theater. At one 2016 demonstration, temple members wearing adult diapers and baby masks disrupted a Christian-led anti-abortion protest with a BDSM stunt that involved flogging one another with whips, which one TST member said was a commentary on the Christian right’s “fetishization of the fetal image.” This type of public mischief is a core TST tenet, says Blythe. “The seriousness of our intent and beliefs is reflected in our work. Having a sense of humor about it is not a bad thing.”
Even with all this, Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic marks an audacious step, from abortion activism to abortion care. By TST’s accounting, no other faith-based group in the U.S. has ever launched an abortion clinic. And that’s the game-changing twist here: Unlike other abortion-pill-by-mail providers like Hey Jane or Abuzz, TST is a religion. Meaning its patients, who don’t have to be Satanists themselves, are participating in a religious ritual. That’s a key legal distinction TST hopes to leverage in its historic push to expand its clinic model beyond New Mexico—into states where abortion is otherwise banned.
It’s drawing inspiration from recent judicial rulings, like the ones in favor of Christian business owners denying services to LGBTQ+ people purely on religious grounds. Using a similar rationale, TST will attempt to claim the same religious protection, only in this case to provide services.
Seven months after the first clinic’s opening and 15 months after Alito Jr. wrote the conservative majority opinion in Dobbs, the ruling that gutted America’s hard-won federal abortion protections, Cosmopolitan caught up with TST organizers and clinic staff. There have been challenges, including pushback from leaders in the abortion-rights movement itself. And patient turnout has been low—as of late summer, about 50 people had come through the clinic’s virtual doors. But that’s okay, because this isn’t the end game. It’s only step one.
“I think it’s genius,” says Jessica* over hands-free while driving her kids around Albuquerque, running errands. The 37-year-old mother of three isn’t a Satanist, but as of this week, she’s a fan. She’s also pregnant but not for long. A set of abortion pills is waiting for her back home, thanks to speedy shipping via Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic team.
Jessica and her husband don’t want any more children, especially given her history of super-high-risk pregnancies. Still, “It’s hard. It’s a hard decision,” she says. She’s decided to terminate this pregnancy within the next day or so, starting with an oral mifepristone pill in the morning followed by four misoprostol pills administered vaginally six hours later.
She stumbled upon the clinic while googling options for abortion medication in New Mexico. At first, while clicking through the website, Jessica found TST’s vibe “kind of off-putting.” (She was raised Catholic but is no longer religious.) Nevertheless, the price was right. And anyway, she prides herself on being open-minded. “I did some more research before I reached out,” she says. “Like, What is this? How do they operate? Are you able to see a practitioner?”
You are, and Jessica was pleasantly surprised by the TST intake consult she did at home over Zoom. “The experience was just very supportive,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest thing—they really reinforce that this is your decision and your choice and that you are supported.”
She listened with curiosity as the nurse described the optional ceremonial aspects of the Satanic abortion ritual: First, you find a quiet space. Bring a mirror if you can. Just before taking the medication, gaze at your reflection and focus on your personhood. Home in on your intent, your responsibility to you. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. When you’re ready, read the following tenet aloud: One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone. Take the medication and immediately afterward, recite, Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs. Later, once your body expels the aborted tissue, return to your reflection. Focus again on your personhood, your power in making this decision. Complete the ritual by reciting a personal affirmation: By my body, my blood; by my will, it is done.
The ritual allows for personalization. Patients can include as many loved ones as they’d like or light candles or even dress up—whatever makes them feel empowered. “We have ministers, myself included, who are available to walk people through the process,” Blythe adds.
Jessica decided to incorporate some ceremonial aspects into her solo abortion experience. Why not? she thought. The overall messaging just clicked with her.
The Satanic chose New Mexico for a few reasons. It has about 3,300 members in the state, a robust base of potential need. New Mexico is also considered an abortion-rights stronghold, lacking oppressive laws dictating gestational limits, age restrictions, waiting periods, and mandatory “counseling.” Here, unlike in neighboring states Texas and Oklahoma, it’s still legal for doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe abortion pills remotely and have them mailed to patients for safe use at home. Anyone traveling to New Mexico from out of state can use a P.O. box or a friend or family member’s address—even a hotel’s.
In practice, opening a virtual clinic in New Mexico is not particularly radical. When it began planning in earnest last summer, TST just had to navigate the usual administrative hurdles, like checking process boxes and figuring out how to block online trolls from clogging up the patient intake system. It was only after it ironed out its start-up kinks—and publicized its name—that the real rebellion began.
The predictable wave of fury from conservative media was instant. One Fox News columnist denounced the clinic as a “sinister charade” and “an assault on religious freedom.” Hundreds of commenters chimed in to agree. “This is meant to enrage us,” one wrote. For Tara Shaver, a Christian anti-choice organizer and spokesperson for a group called Abortion Free New Mexico, TST’s clinic underscored her conviction that abortion is demonic child sacrifice. “Do our leaders realize that they have this unholy alliance with Satanists?” she says. “I think it just serves to show the origins of abortion and the type of people that champion it.”
Critics on the reproductive justice side, meanwhile, condemned TST’s presence as counterproductive. “The anti-abortion groups took it as proof that abortion is evil. It just played completely into their narrative—and strengthened it,” says Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Her organization represents an established network of New Mexico faith groups working to protect and expand reproductive choice—it’s part of a growing national movement that has seen leaders and congregants from Jewish, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Quaker, Muslim, Buddhist, and many other faiths fighting abortion restrictions on the grounds of religious freedom.
Sanford doesn’t object to TST’s self-proclaimed religious status or fundamental reproductive rights mission. “We have no issue with that,” she says. “We have an issue with them using religion to be intentionally provocative—and coming in here assuming they know what we need.” She says the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has no plan or desire to work with TST.
Blythe defends TST’s provocation as a strategic tactic. “At this point, we don’t have the luxury of trying to make abortion seem more palatable, because we tried that and now look where we are,” she says. “So we’re just going to come out with both arms swinging, completely defiant.”
Still, some criticism has stung. On Twitter, Indigenous Women Rising, a New Mexico–based reproductive justice group, blasted TST for setting up shop without building more trust and meaningful relationships among local organizers. “It’s another form of colonization and white saviorism in New Mexico,” one now-deleted post read. “As an abortion fund, a repro justice org, we don’t want you here.” (Jennifer Lim, communications and media director for Indigenous Women Rising, adds that TST has kind of fallen off her radar in the months since. “I haven’t heard anyone talk about this clinic,” she says. “The perception for me is that they came in with a bang—that a lot of this is attention-seeking and has less to do with the people served.”)
TST executive director Erin Helian, who oversees the clinic’s operations and is of Cuban descent, admits it could have been more thorough in its grassroots outreach to reproductive justice groups and abortion funds, particularly BIPOC-led ones. “As a Hispanic woman, how did I not consider that angle?” she says. “It’s a lesson for us. I really want to make sure we don’t put ourselves in a position like that again.”
If all goes according to plan, there will be an again, a next time. TST is making moves to bring what it calls its religious care model to Indiana and Idaho, states where activists, providers, and lawmakers have so far been less successful in shoring up basic abortion protections. “We jumped on that pretty much the month of opening,” Helian remembers. Have they made mistakes along the way? Without question, she says, but they’re powering forward, amid high stakes and real risks.
Last June, two weeks before Alito Jr. and his fellow conservative justices killed Roe v. Wade, someone tried to burn down TST’s national headquarters, in Salem, Massachusetts. A doorbell cam captured the incident: Wearing a T-shirt printed with “GOD,” a man strides up to the front porch, pours out a flammable liquid, and casually flicks a lighter to set the structure ablaze. He then flees the scene, leaving behind a backpack that reportedly contained a Bible and a copy of the U.S. Constitution. (Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames. No one was hurt.) Police arrested a suspect, who was later indicted on a felony arson count among other charges. He pleaded not guilty, and the case is now stalled in court while he undergoes monitoring for mental competency. However it shakes out, you could say the incident offers a parable of the larger systemic forces TST may confront as it maneuvers to infiltrate even more hostile territory.
TST’s lawsuits aimed at expanding into Idaho and Indiana are now underway, placing the group’s religious beliefs and practices in the crosshairs of judicial interpretation. The federal government has no mechanism in place for granting “official” religious status or protections to any group. When disputes arise, the courts decide. There’s no guarantee TST will prevail in Idaho and Indiana. But there’s a real possibility.
The group’s attorney, W. James Mac Naughton (specialty: “unique solutions for unique problems”), pulls a lot of creative constitutional levers in his legal filings. There’s the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which he says could be interpreted to classify the uterus as private property that comes with a natural set of ownership rights, including the right to not be snatched away by an uninvited fetus without consent or compensation. Then there’s the Prohibition of Involuntary Servitude Clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, which Mac Naughton uses to describe the occupancy of the uterus by an unwanted “prenatal person,” forcing the uterus’s owner to render services like heat generation and nutrient procurement. His suits also invoke the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to target Idaho’s and Indiana’s narrow allowances for abortion in cases of rape or incest, characterized by TST as a discriminatory exception that burdens people who become involuntarily pregnant by accident rather than force.
A 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act comes into play, too, as a pointed reminder that government entities are barred from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion—including, Mac Naughton and TST argue, the Satanic abortion ritual. For good measure, their Idaho complaint throws in a state code known as Free Exercise of Religion Protected, which safeguards “the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief.”
“There have been two types of challenges to the abortion bans: those filed by abortion providers and those filed by religious believers. The TST innovation is to combine the two, which strengthens their standing,” explains Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in religious liberty litigation. “They’ve filed some of the most intelligent briefs around the country. They’ve been very good at figuring out where to go.”
It’s a layered plan, crafted with backup arguments to the backup arguments, Mac Naughton says. “The logic flows, step-by-step. It all holds together.” If TST were to win an exception to state bans, it could become the biggest, and only, abortion medication provider in either Idaho or Indiana.
Time will tell if it’s a winning strategy. In the meantime, the existing Samuel Alito’s Mom’s Satanic Abortion Clinic is focused on patient care and on raising funds, which come entirely from charitable donations and merch sales. It’s had to make cutbacks recently—from five nurses to three (with at least two working only part-time), and it has outsourced some on-call shifts to a more affordable third-party provider. TST’s legal costs are currently hovering around $15,000 per month, and that’s on top of the $12,000 monthly minimum it takes to run the clinic. Says Helian, echoing many abortion care workers in 2023, “It’s a constant struggle to keep our heads above water.”
This is reproductive freedom work on the cultural periphery—part blessing, part curse. “People underestimate us and think we’re just trolling as a joke. But there’s a gift to not being taken seriously,” Helian says. ”It gives us a bit of a David vs. Goliath impact. We’re able to sneak in at the right moment and shoot with our sling.”
*Name has been changed.
Update, October 25, 2023: Shortly after this story went to press, Indiana district judge Jane Magnus-Stinson dismissed TST’s lawsuit seeking religious exemption from the state’s near-total abortion ban for lack of jurisdiction. TST attorney W. James Mac Naughton tells Cosmo that TST is considering an appeal.
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