Has violence killed the anti-abortion movement?

Operation Rescue's Buffalo fizzle showed that big clinic protests are a thing of the past, but they may have already done their damage.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The right-to-life movement left Buffalo this weekend claiming victory.

Any more victories like this one and it'll be dead.

Outnumbered by counter-demonstrators and police at every clinic, shunned by the high school students it tried to educate and ignored by the bookstore patrons it attempted to awaken to the threat of pornography, the pro-life organization Operation Rescue left in its wake a largely Catholic, conservative city that was remarkably glad to see it go.

"We're certainly relieved that it ended peacefully," said Peter Cutler, spokesman for Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, who had given a cool welcome to the protesters the week earlier. Operation Rescue had chosen the city as an anti-abortion battleground only days after an abortion doctor had been slain there last October, a decision Masiello protested. The killer of Dr. Barnett Slepian is still at large, but indictments are expected to be handed down by a Buffalo grand jury any day.

Seven years ago, in April 1992, anti-abortion protesters got a very different reception when Operation Spring to Life targeted Buffalo for a militant anti-abortion challenge. Then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin welcomed the group, which proceeded to shut down clinics by chaining and locking themselves to the doors, a technique perfected by James Charles Kopp, the fugitive wanted for questioning in connection with Slepian's murder. Over 1,000 pro-life activists flocked to Buffalo then, and more than 600 were arrested.

This year Operation Rescue hoped to repeat or even surpass that record, mailing out some 60,000 invitations to activists nationwide, imploring them to turn Buffalo into "a battleground for life." But only about 250 people showed up. And despite signaling that they would attempt to shut down clinics, or at least challenge a last-minute injunction keeping them 60 feet away, the protesters stayed within the law with their posters and slogans.

Only two people were detained by police during the seven days of demonstrations, which began April 18 in Buffalo and spread to Rochester, N.Y. One was a pro-life man who spooked police by videotaping them too extensively. Another was a pro-choice man who mimicked shooting pro-life demonstrators with his thumb and forefinger. Guns were later found in his car and Rochester apartment. No clinics were shut down, and none even curtailed their operations.

A typical day last week found perhaps 50 pro-life demonstrators outside the clinic where Slepian once worked, praying, chanting anti-abortion slogans and holding large color posters of bloody fetuses said to have been victimized by late-term abortions. Their number was usually equaled or even topped by a combination of stern-faced police and raucous abortion advocates, who charged that the fetuses had been surgically altered to make them more gruesome.

The pro-life protesters also received largely cool or indifferent receptions at high schools and bookstores, where one patron passing by told Salon News that if people "don't like what's in the store, they shouldn't go in." Customers at a Barnes and Noble in the suburb of Amherst seemed unconcerned as a pickup truck circled the store with oversize billboards of bloody fetuses. At Kenmore East High School in Buffalo, a student emerged to lecture the protesters on their "bad manners."

All of which turned the much-ballyhooed events into a bust.

"We're calling it Operation Fizzle," said Shelley Hirshberg, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Buffalo and Erie County.

Operation Rescue, not surprisingly, claimed it was a victim of "media expectations" -- and the group had a point. If analysts had looked at trends over the past decade, they would have seen that clinic demonstrations are largely a relic of the past. Frustrated by recent federal racketeering laws and prosecutions, which made harassment of clinics a crime (and bankrupted Operation Rescue's founder, among others), and hamstrung by new restrictions on how close protesters can get to clinic entryways, the pro-life tactic of civil disobedience has been rendered ineffective. While more than 12,000 anti-abortion demonstrators were arrested in 1989, only 12 were handcuffed last year.

Sporadic violence has also scarred the movement's public face, and no doubt further dampened the enthusiasm of some people to be identified with the pro-life cause. The murder of Slepian, the 1998 bombing of the All Women New Woman clinic in Birmingham, Ala., the gassing of clinics in Florida and the rash of anthrax threats against clinics across the nation last winter cannot have helped build public support for the movement.

Nevertheless, the leaders of Operation Rescue stuck out their chins in Buffalo and called their week-long campaign a victory. Then they quickly changed their name to Operation Save America. The renamed group will emphasize a larger variety of issues ranging from abortion to the Bible and teenage sex.

"We do want to save this country, not just the unborn,'' said spokeswoman Eileen Schopf. "We want to show our love for this country and our desire to return to the moral grounds this country was founded on." The new thrust may also be designed to help bring the movement new recruits.

In Buffalo, the abortion issue already seemed almost beside the point, as pro-life leaders, mostly from out of state, railed about homosexuality, pornography and prohibitions on Christian prayer in the schools.

In a mirror image, the most visible counter-demonstrators came from the industrial city's robust lesbian community, about 200 of whom kicked off the week with an occasionally lurid drag-show fund-raiser in a rented American Legion hall.

When asked about the irony of lesbians, who rarely have to worry about unwanted pregnancies, leading demonstrations for abortion rights, Ellie Dorritie of Buffalo United for Choice explained that the same forces arrayed against abortion were targeting gays.

"They came in showing all their issues, the whole thing," Dorritie said. "Homophobia, women, books, sex education, anti-Semitism, evolution."

Rev. Bob Behn, a local protest leader, conceded as much after a press conference kicking off Operation Rescue's campaign. "It's all on the agenda," he said.

Tom and Linda McGlade, both 47 and married 25 years, echoed the attraction to a larger agenda when they explained why they'd driven 24 hours straight to Buffalo from Bradenton, Fla., with a van full of young children to attend the pro-life events.

Linda McGlade said she wanted her children "to be able to pray freely in schools, to read Bibles in school." Added her husband, "We're also going to get into pornography this week. I don't want to go into a bookstore and find pornography on the shelves. I want them out."

What else interested them? Homosexuality.

"When the country elevates that, accepts that, it brings God's wrath upon the nation," Tom McGlade said.

Both, however, opposed the killing of abortion doctors, which some extreme figures in the movement have defended. "If you take that logic to the extreme, you'd have to kill mothers" who had abortions, Tom McGlade said.

The minimal presence of ordinary-looking, middle-class, heterosexual women among the pro-choice demonstrators in Buffalo can be traced to the simple fact that abortion is legal, its prospects for rollback are unlikely and anti-abortion protest seems to have lost its steam. When the U.S. Supreme Court entertained a case that might have curtailed abortion in 1994, however, nearly a million demonstrators from all walks of life converged on Washington.

But the anti-abortion movement still has a pulse. State legislatures are churning with pro-life legislation, to either curtail late-term abortions, impose waiting periods on pregnant women, restrict the conditions allowing women to have abortions or require parental notification for teenagers.

It's not going to go away. Nor is the violence, as pro-life leaders like Rev. Flip Benham, who quarterbacked last week's demonstrations, often warns.

"If you have blood in the womb, you're going to have blood in the streets," he said, in a sound bite echoed by his followers.

But if the violence has played a role in dampening public support, it has nonetheless succeeded with its practical goal: limiting access to abortion.

In Buffalo, the late Dr. Slepian has not been replaced by permanent staff. "It was a brilliant assassination," says Debra Sweet, an activist with the militantly pro-choice group Refuse and Resist. An associate of Slepian said a fear of violence had crippled recruiting.

In Birmingham, where the All Woman New Woman clinic was bombed in January 1998, killing an off-duty policeman and gravely wounding a nurse, there is only one abortion facility still open, down from three a year ago.

About 60 percent of the medical schools that once taught abortion no longer offer the teaching, according to David Lackey, the head of Alabama Operation Rescue.

Nor can pro-choice advocates take comfort in a recent poll that showed that after a quarter century of legal abortion, only a narrow majority of voters continues to support abortion rights. Some 49 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans support abortions without any conditions and a further 9 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans support the procedure but oppose using federal funds to promote it, the poll found.

But popular opinion may be beside the point now. Absent a fundamental change in its leadership, the pro-life movement will always spawn radicals like James Kopp, who moved from sit-downs to a conviction that the "genocide" of abortion has to be stopped "at all cost." Even if the movement's leaders worked a mass renunciation of violence, however, it will always be burdened by new terrorists lurking in its branches.

One of them, apparently, was Eric Rudolph, the notorious fugitive wanted for the Birmingham bombing and three more in Atlanta, including the one at the 1996 Olympics. Rudolph's grudge was nurtured in a commune of the white supremacist, neo-fascist Christian Identity movement, which his mother -- who refused to take out a Social Security card -- took him to when he was a teenager.

"They don't give a damn about abortion," Mike Vanderbaugh, a leader of the right-wing populist Alabama Militia, said of the Christian Identity movement in an interview last year. "If they were killing black babies in those clinics, they'd be all for it. But they're mostly killing white babies, and people like Christian Identity think it's hurting the race."

"We're not winning in the legislatures," David Lackey said as a cold Lake Erie wind whipped through a small knot of demonstrators. "But we're winning in the streets."

He was wrong. They're winning in the night, with terror.

But if Buffalo is any guide, the protest side of the pro-life movement is dead.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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