Anti-abortion Democrat runs for president to show graphic imagery in campaign ads

Terrisa Bukovinac says FCC rules allow her to air a video of aborted embryos and fetuses on television

By: - September 22, 2023 3:15 pm

Anti-abortion-rights Democrat Terrisa Bukovinac announced her longshot presidential campaign Thursday in front of the Washington Surgi-Center in Washington, D.C. Bukovinac and a fellow activist obtained embryos and fetuses outside this clinic last year and are featuring their images in her presidential campaign. (Sofia Resnick/States Newsroom)

The morning of March 25, 2022, had started out like any other workday for Terrisa Bukovinac, as she and fellow anti-abortion activist Lauren Handy headed over to protest the Washington Surgi-Clinic in Washington, D.C. — until they asked the driver of a medical waste truck for a box that would change their lives.

Inside that box, the activists say, were more than 100 small embryos and five large fetuses, which they handled with gloved hands in Handy’s apartment, crying and gasping in a video they uploaded to their website.

In the year since, the group Bukovinac founded, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, has — without success — called for autopsies of the fetuses and for Washington Surgi-Clinic to be investigated for infanticide. The group has also been using these images to foment outrage against abortion. They unsuccessfully tried to introduce them in a recent federal trial in which Handy and four of the other activists were found guilty of blocking access to the D.C. clinic in October 2020 using chains, ropes, and bike locks. The five — another group will be tried separately — are now in jail awaiting sentencing. But Bukovinac has another idea for getting the footage out to the public.

She’s running for president.

“I am running to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Bukovinac, as she launched her Democratic primary campaign against President Joe Biden at a news conference in front of the Washington Surgi-Clinic on Thursday. “And with your support, I can expose the human rights atrocities happening in nondescript buildings like this across America. Any FCC TV station is required to run the ads of all federal candidates, and we will together expose this injustice.”

Managing Bukovinac’s campaign is her good friend Catherine Glenn Foster, a player in the anti-abortion legal movement, who recently stepped down as president of Americans United for Life and previously served as counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom. Both organizations played crucial roles in the eventual reversal of Roe v. Wade, a legal decision that has fundamentally altered and diminished access to abortion and pregnancy-related health care throughout the country. Bukovinac said she’s also working with Kristen Day of Democrats for Life of America.

Bukovinac is a self-described atheist, pro-life progressive, and she’s following in the footsteps of radical abortion rights opponent Randall Terry, who founded Operation Rescue in the 1980s and helped usher in the movement to blockade abortion clinics until it became a federal crime. A conservative Christian, Terry ran a longshot presidential campaign in the 2012 Democratic primary against then-President Barack Obama, primarily to air political ads with bloody fetuses during Super Bowl Sunday. In February 2012, the Federal Communications Commission denied Terry’s request to force a Chicago television station to run his ad during the Super Bowl, determining that the law requires stations to provide candidates with “reasonable access” to television time, but that candidates do not have the right to air ads whenever they want.

Bukovinac told States Newsroom she is hoping to show ads in at least a few key markets, including D.C., Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and possibly South Carolina. Her campaign has so far raised less than $8,000, according to its most recently available filing, since Bukovinac filed her presidential candidacy in June. Bukovinac said she’s hoping the fetal images will shock the American public and even abortion-rights supporters who are uncomfortable with abortion later in pregnancy.

The vast majority — over 93% — of abortions happened in the first trimester in 2020. Since the Dobbs decision last year, doctors and abortion funds have reported an uptick in second-trimester abortions because state bans and restrictions increased travel and wait times. Abortions in the third trimester are very rare and only performed by a small number of providers around the country, some of them in the D.C., which allows abortion at all stages of pregnancy.

“Just because post viability abortions are a minority doesn’t mean that they don’t matter,” Bukovinac said.

Bukovinac’s campaign posters feature large fetuses from the medical waste truck near the Washington Surgi-Clinic. But she told States Newsroom she doesn’t have any official details about the fetuses and embryos that she took last year, or the circumstances around any of the related abortions or miscarriages.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has said the fetuses appeared to have been aborted in accordance with D.C. law and that they’ve been investigating how Bukovinac and Handy obtained them. Bukovinac told States Newsroom that the police have never interviewed her or Handy about the situation.

Washington Surgi-Clinic did not respond to a request for comment.

Unlike Terry’s politics, Bukovinac’s have always leaned left, especially when it comes to her positions on labor and animal rights. The 42-year-old from Adrian, Michigan, said she would have voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 had he not supported abortion.

She left the corporate world about a decade ago when she lost her faith in God, she said, and around the same time started opposing abortion. She founded the secular, multi-partisan Pro-Life San Francisco and then moved to D.C. and created Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising in 2021 as a nonviolent civil disobedience group in the vein of extreme environmentalist activists. Along with a handful of other groups, PAAU represents a small corner of the anti-abortion rights movement that welcomes people who are not religious or are gender nonconforming.

Bukovinac said this campaign is also about the visibility of people who support progressive politics and oppose abortion, which is increasingly a nonviable political position for a Democrat. She acknowledged that her messages could benefit Republicans, who she said are desperate to ignore the abortion issue this election season.

“I think the Democratic Party absolutely needs to be shamed and held accountable for what they’ve done,” Bukovinac said, referring to the party’s abortion-rights position. “And if that ends up helping the Republicans, that’s the Democratic Party’s fault, not mine.”

Bukovinac told States Newsroom she worries about further alienating liberal friends and family with this campaign, but her immediate family is behind her so far.

“I’m pretty sensitive to the fact, too, that I’m going to be showing these ads, and children will see them — children like my nephew,” she said. “But there’s just no other way to disturb the conscience of this country.”

Bukovinac announced her run for office to about a dozen mostly conservative media outlets in the heart of George Washington University’s campus. Many students yelled obscenities at Bukovinac and some engaged in heated conversations with some of the abortion rights opponents supporting her campaign.

Second-year student L Vilauri was shaken after arguing with the activists. Vilauri told States Newsroom they had an abortion at 14 and likely wouldn’t have been able to seek higher education otherwise.

“It makes me feel invalidated,” they said, referring to activists who told Vilauri they should have kept the pregnancy. The criminal justice and fine arts major, who was not speaking on behalf of their university, argued that being progressive is antithetical to being against abortion rights.

“Being a progressive, you’re trying to progress the well-being of society,” Vilauri said. “Taking away a person with a uterus’ right to choose is taking away from the well-being of society.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sofia Resnick
Sofia Resnick

Sofia Resnick is a national reproductive rights reporter for States Newsroom, based in Washington, D.C. She has reported on reproductive-health politics and justice issues for more than a decade.