Is Operation Rescue Over?

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

Marie Laberge

PRO-CHOICE MOBILIZATIONS have successfully held off several efforts to pass repressive legislation and forced politicians running for re-elections to moderate their rhetoric. One Catholic anti-choice magazine, Minneapolis’ Catholic Twin Citric (July 22, 1990; 19), lamented that “an estimated thirty previously pro-life congressmen have jumped ship, afraid that opposition to abortion might cost them their elected jobs.”

Ironically, the relative success of Operation Rescue’s mass mobilizations, arrests and clinic blockades across the country may have led to its decline as a organization Facing several lawsuits, fines and declining numbers, Operation Rescue has run out of steam. Even founder Randall Terry has acknowledged, “We are in a lull … .Rescuers are tired and battle-weary. The cost in many areas has gone up.” (New York Times, June 11, 1990)

But while pro-choice forces may be relieved at the decline of Operation Rescue, attacks on safe, legal abortion continue unabated, merely shifting focus. The recent resignation of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, and his replacement by David Scouter, increase the likelihood of severe restrictions on abortion over the next decade.

In particular, restrictions will especially affect the abortion access of poor and young women and women living in rural areas where doctors, afraid of anti-choice sentiment, are reluctant to provide abortion services. In 1988, for example, 93% of all rural counties had no abortion provider. By targeting women with the fewest economic resources and political power, the anti-choice movement has succeeded in passing parental notification and/or parental consent laws in over half the states—laws which the Supreme Court recently upheld.

In its 1990 session, the Court upheld an Ohio law requiring notification toone parent before a minor could obtain an abortion The law provided alternatively that a minor could go to court and prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that she should not be required to notify a parent Of course, such provisions are often useless. The Supreme Court also struck down a Minnesota two-parent notification law. However, the Court ruled constitutional two-parent notification laws with judicial bypass, even if a minor does not live with her father or has never met him, or if he has a history of violence or abuse. A provision for a 48-hour waiting period after notification was also upheld.

A Declining Force

After a flurry of activity in the Spring and Summer of 1989, during which Operation Rescue mobilized significant numbers in several cities, its membership sharply declined. As pro-choice activists developed the rapid responses necessary to outmaneuver the blockades of abortion clinics, Operation Rescue found itself increasingly stymied in its efforts to close down clinics. In many areas, though certainly not all, there has been a sharp reduction in both the number of “rescuers” and in the frequency of mobilizations. For example, in 1989 Mothers’ Day “Rescues” in Chicago, over 1,500 people attended a rally and nearly 200 were arrested in protest In a similar Mothers’ Day mobilization this year, 100 people rallied and only 26 were arrested.

In addition to the strain that local court cases and fines place upon Operation Rescue chapters, the national organization has lost several major court challenges. In May, the Supreme Court allowed two lower court injunctions to stand, injunctions which barred Operation Rescue from blocking or entering clinics. The group still faces $450,000 in unpaid fines and debts from New York lawsuits, as well as a dozen other suits which have not yet reached the courts. The Binghamton, New York headquarters closed in January, after the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York seized its bank accounts and financial information Why? The group has refused to pay the fines levied against it in a lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Randall Terry served four months of a two-year prison sentence for refusing to pay fines related to rescues during the 1988 Democratic national Committee in Atlanta. In January, an “anonymous benefactor” paid his fines and set him free But many anti-choice activists have found that they cannot afford to be arrested again—to lose time from work in order to make court appearances or serve their sentences, and to pay sizable fines. Other activists have shifted away from Operation Rescue’s militant tactics and towards lobbying not so much because of expense, but because the Webster decision increased the chances of passing legislative restrictions on abortion at the state level.


The history of how Operation Rescue was launched in 1987 by Randall Terry and Joseph Scheidler has been described in a diverse array of magazines from Time and Newsweek to Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, as well as Christianity Today. (See “Operation Rescue,” Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1990.) The “rescues” began in 1986 with a small group in Binghamton, New York.

Although its numbers increased slowly, Operation Rescue did not receive national publicity until its 1968 campaign at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. During the four-month- in Atlanta, over 1,200 people were arrested. Since that time, Operation Rescue has coordinated protests in several cities and smaller towns. Always, Operation Rescue has been less successful inclosing clinics and preventing women from obtaining abortions than in setting publicity and revitalizing the anti-choice movement.

Operation Rescue originates from a long-standing tradition of militant antiabortion activity. Following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, anti-abortion militants developed several different strategies to attack legal abortion. Some anti-abortionists resorted to clinic bombings, arson and vandalism, while some—mostly young Catholics—began to stage sit-in protests at clinics. These “peaceful presence? included women like Joan Andrews, a pacifist who served two and a half years in a Florida jail for attempting to disengage a suction machine used in an abortion.

In addition to this faction of protesters, another Catholic group focused more exclusively on patient harassment Joseph Scheidler from Chicago epitomizes this type of activist He hired a detective to follow and track down a woman who planned an abortion. Scheidler advoated picketing clinics and hospitals, and he also helped organize the first ‘sidewalk counselors’—people who, as Edy Scripps of Chicago’s Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition explained the Guardian,”’kind of place themselves between the women and the clinic” in order to convince them not to go in. “If that doesn’t work, they call them ‘baby-killers.’”

The massive involvement of Protestant evangelists in this direct action Wing of the anti-choice movement increased dramatically in 1986 when, at a direct action planning meeting, Randall Terry was introduced to Joan Andrews and John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, a Harvard graduate who coordinated many of the Catholic witnesses. Many consider him to be “the father of the rescue.”

This meeting led to plans for nationally organized sit-ins. With Terry’s involvement and the creation of Operation Rescue, the evangelicals became the dominant force among anti-choice activists. Time magazine (May 1, 1990) estimates that anti-abortion activists were roughly two-thirds evangelical and one-third Catholic. This split has led to the movement’s not always successful efforts to downplay doctrinal, as well as political, differences—differences that have recently begun to surface and to intensify.

Political and Theological Splits

While disagreements about tactics and strategies have long existed between the legislative and direct action wings of the anti-choice movement, the opening for greater state level legislative action created by the Webster decision has accentuated divisions and further marginalized the militants.

From very early on, Operation Rescue’s strategy left many more reform-minded anti-choice activists uneasy. The National Right to Life Committee (NRTL), for example, never officially endorsed “Rescues” but neither did it publicly condemn them. Not wanting to become entangled in court battles and lawsuits, but probably aware of the anti-choice pressure “Rescuers” were placing on local politicians, the NR1L kept a neutral stand.

Other anti-choice organizations have opposed Operation Rescue’s efforts altogether. One Catholic author cautioned that Operation Rescue activities have backfired because they have sensitized voters to the burdens women will face if restrictive legislation is passed. They have also activated voters’ support of “respect-for-a-woman’s-right-to-decide-free-from-government-interference.” (Commonweal, January 12, 1990) Others warn that the tactics, statements and philosophy of Operation Rescue have evoked concern that anti-choice forces want not only to end abortion but to roll back the equal opportunities and advances that women have made in the last twenty-five years.

There are also theological and political differences among anti-choice ranks, especially between pacifist Catholic and militant evangelical Protestants. While many Catholics within the movement are committed to nonviolent protest, the leadership of Operation Rescue implicitly endorsed activists who advocate the use of force in preventing abortions.

For many Catholic pacifists, the point of silent protests is to provide “moral suasion,” and they remain critical of Operation Rescue for “trying to enforce righteousness by intimidation.”-(Commonweal, Februaiy23, 1990) In addition to these internal organizational disputes, several Catholic groups, feeling excluded from the moral fervor that Operation Rescue incites, have begun to mobilize their own “Rescues” and to organize “pray-ins” at clinics in New York City and other areas.

While some Catholic bishops have scrambled to become involved in Operation Rescue, others have vocally criticized its tactics and ideas. In particular, in May 1990, Milwaukee, Wisconsin Archbishop Rembert Weakland attacked the rhetoric and literature of Operation Rescue as “ugly and demeaning.” Disturbed by the influence of fundamentalist positions on women, he criticized the narrowness of the anti-choice movement and the alliance it created with groups that were often anti-Catholic. Reiterating his own opposition to abortion, Weakland argued that the reasons for it must be examined and eliminated. Of course, Weakiand remains a minority in the Catholic hierarchy. Other bishops threaten excommunication for Catholics who perform abortion; and many attempt to censure Catholic politicians who are pro-choice.

State Legislative Restrictions

Increasingly, however, as the anti-choice movement orients towards state-level activism, political and theological disagreements within the anti-choice movement are eclipsed by battles over the direction of local legislation. The NRTL Committee created a state legislative division in November 1989 and has promoted caucuses of legislators and lobbyists in all fifty states in order to coordinate anti-choice initiatives which draw on several “model bills.” In June 1990, the NRTL Committee announced its plans to expand its efforts “precinct by precinct” to achieve the abortion restrictions that voters find least offensive.

Model bills include initiatives to prevent abortion as a means of birth control; to ban sex-selection abortions; to mandate “informed consent’ regulations before a woman can receive an abortion; to increase a father’s say over the abortion decision; to increase parents’ rights in the minor’s decision; and to prohibit abortions by federally funded facilities or employees. (Washington Post, June 15, 1990; Christianity Today, November 3, 1989.)

This emphasis on legislation has caused several significant battles within anti-choice forces about whether or not they should allow legal abortion in cases of rape and incest. Most groups oppose it as matter of policy, but some are willing to make pragmatic concessions. Disagreements about this issue between the NR1L Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life surfaced when, in the Fall of 1989, NRTL attempted to work out compromise measures concerning legislation about federal funding for abortions for survivors of rape and incest.

Fights over this legislation were eventually averted when President Bush vetoed the bill, but as Christianity Today (February 5, 1990) reported, “Many fear the stage was set for future confrontations.” While the NRIL Committee defended its positions as a strategic choice” necessary to help candidates win 1990 elections, other groups blamed this type of compromise for the defeat of several anti-choice bills. As they see it, such compromises make it seem that the NRTL is negotiating from a point of weakness. Attempts to bridge differences failed in June of this year when NRTL boycotted a’Unity90′ conference sponsored by the American Life League.

The increased emphasis on legislation does not, however, mean that Operation Rescue has disappeared. Instead, the organization seems to be refocusing its efforts and recuperating from setbacks. Terry has begun a Christian Defense Coalition (CDC) aimed at pressuring judges to be more lenient on clinic protesters. The Coalition plans also to target the sheriffs and police who arrest protesters. Terry claims that the CDC will train Christians to defend their communities against ‘police oppression, judicial tyranny and political harassment’ Tactics include writing letters, picketing the homes of judges and doctors, holding press conferences, and pressuring local prosecutors’ offices. (See New York Times, June 11, 1990 and Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1990.)

While the number of Operation Rescue operations have decreased, the leaders remain active and committed to the issue. And they are continually devising ways to keep the pressure on politicians and judges.

Some activists, realizing that they are no longer capable of organizing mass blockades and demonstrations, have moved onto other tactics. They maintain an anti-choice presence with a small but regular picket outside clinics and “sidewalk counseling,” where two or three anti-choice people attempt to talk women going into clinics out of having abortions. In an interview in the Detroit Free Press (October 10, 1990), one “counselor” claimed that he had “saved” 206 women from having abortions over the last two years.

The National Abortion Federation reports forty-four incidents of violence at clinics in 1990. Clinic files have been ransacked, equipment destroyed, and in some areas clinics have been firebombed.

Many areas of the country are experiencing a rise in the number of fake “clinics” that anti-choice people operate as tactic to talk women out of abortion. In total these tactics, coupled with the anti-choice legislative work, are in many ways more difficult to combat through direct action than the clinic blockades.

Pro-Choice Moves?

Across the country, pro-choice coalitions responded to blockades, often out-mobilizing Operation Rescue and keeping the clinics open. This success indicated the commitment of newly organized rank-and-file activists to protect women’s right to safe and legal abortion. Wherever the antis hit, there was a rise in the involvement of young pro-choice women. However, while the confrontation with the right wing can be a radicalizing experience for new activists, clinic defense was a reactive action that was draining and fraught with problems.

The rapid response mobilizations proved difficult for people with jobs and/or children to remain involved on a regular basis Mobilizations—usually occurring early in the morning—by necessity had a limited political agenda Given the tremendous pressure to organize to defend the clinics, feminist groups and coalitions were not able to draw the new activists into a reproductive rights movement or to help them develop a sophisticated understanding of women’s access to health care.

Generally the police took a great deal of time before arresting Operation Rescue, thereby allowing them to successfully shut down the clinic for hours. In some cases it was clear that the police were openly sympathetic to the anti-choice forces. But besides noting how friendly the police were to those preventing women from obtaining abortions (or other clinic services), pro-choice picketers usually didn’t discuss how to view the role of the police.

In addition, there was little opportunity to develop an understanding of the problems involved in defending some clinics that as feminists we considered not run to meet women’s needs. In many cases, clinic owners opposed a pro-choice presence at their doors. Some asked pro-choice picketers not to defend the clinics in order to have clean’ court cases, and others merely closed for the day of the blockade and directed their patients to different facilities.

Other owners, however, did work closely with pro-choice mobilizations, provided information on upcoming demonstrations to their clients, encouraged women seeking abortions to speak out on the issue, and organized and financially supported buses to local and national rallies in defense of abortion rights.

One impact of the decline in clinic activity by Operation Rescue in some areas has been a corresponding decline in the number of active pro-choice forces. In other areas, the antis’ ongoing picketing at and blockading of clinics has led many people to burn out and feel overwhelmed by the activity.

Ironically, Operation Rescue’s reliance on mass picketing forced several mainstream pro-choice groups to organize demonstrations and protests for the first time in years. The November 1988 and April 1989 demonstrations called by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and widely endorsed, were the largest demonstrations in support of a woman’s right to abortion ever held. However, with Operation Rescue in decline, the mainstream wing of the movement and the newly-emerged grassroots groups are thinking about how they can stop state legislatures from passing restrictive anti-abortion laws.

It seems logical for many in the women’s movement to attempt to replace anti-abortion legislators with people who are pm-choice. One proposed strategy is to pledge to vote for or against candidates on the basis of their commitment to legal abortion. The problem is that many so-called pro-choice candidates are in fact ambivalent about what they consider ‘fringe’ pro-choice issues, such as Medicaid funding of abortions and mandated parental consent and/or notification for minors. The fact is that the fight against legal abortion has been conducted through limiting access. In other words, these are not “fringe” issues, but the cutting issues of the fight for a woman’s right to control her body.

It may be that the pro-choice movement—both its more mainstream component and in its more local, grassroots groups—will not be able to agree about whether it is worth while to put efforts into electing pro-choice legislators. But it is clear that we need to build a broad-based movement which challenges the anti-choice forces.

November-December 1990, ATC 29

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