MotherJones ND93: Both Sides From The Inside

Go to church, get busted, then cross over to help devend a clinic--it's all in a day's work for our reporter as he covers the violent war over abortion.

Philadelphia--Twenty of us, the first wave of Operation Rescue volunteers, arrive at Planned Parenthood at 8:30 a.m. The clinic protectors are here before us, at least 150 of them, in white hats, arrayed across the front of the modern brick building, arms and legs intertwined.

It doesn't appear we can do much Rescuing here. Between us and the clinic protectors are a chain of metal barricades and a blue line of Philadelphia cops.

July 9 is already sweltering, headed for the second straight day at one hundred degrees. There is no shade.

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Our assignment for the rest of the day: stand and be ridiculed.

The Church Ladies for Choice are on our side of the street, but not on our side of the abortion conflict. The self-described "U.S.O. of the clinic-defense movement," the Church Ladies are seven men in drag and two women dressed as nuns. They specialize in songs about "psycho- Catholics." Now they're engaged in a lusty rendition of "God is a Lesbian," sung to the ponderous tune of "God Save the Queen."

God is a lesbian. She is a lesbian. God is a dyke! Send her Victoria, Mary, and Gloria. She'll lick clit on the floor with ya. God is a dyke!

The clinic protectors applaud and cheer. We continue to pray.

A female cop built like a three-drawer filing cabinet is standing her post just in front of the Church Ladies. The rigid look on her face shows that overtime pay is not sufficient. As she takes a break for some water, the officer allows that she is Roman Catholic, and those Church Ladies make her "nauseous."

It is the first morning of what Operation Rescue has promised will be the largest national campaign ever to shut down abortion clinics. For the next ten days, the hottest of the summer, Operation Rescue is determined to make Philadelphia one of its seven "Cities of Refuge."

In the past, OR protesters in Philadelphia have gotten little trouble from the law. During a sit-in or lock-in, the abortion center would be shut down. Police would take a couple of hours to make arrests, and protesters usually were charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct, then released.

But this year, the country's climate is altogether different. Instead of George Bush, who appointed anti-abortion judges, the president is Bill Clinton, who is appointing abortion-rights judges. National polls show the public uncomfortable with abortion but strongly in favor of upholding the right of women to decide the issue themselves. Before OR arrived in Philadelphia, Mayor Edward Rendell made a statement that was carried on the front page of the morning Inquirer: "Blockading health-care facilities is not protected by the First Amendment. . . . I want to say clearly and unequivocally to Operation Rescue that lawlessness will not be permitted in this city."

Still, OR's authority has never depended on being in the majority. Like other groups in the religious right, its outrage seems to be fed by its sense of isolation, of being on the defensive.

Operation Rescue has been more isolated than ever since March 10, 1993. That's when Dr. David Gunn, 47, was shot in the back outside his abortion center in Pensacola, Florida. OR has tried to distance itself from the shooting, but many of its statements have been, to say the least, provocative. In a letter to supporters, Operation Rescue National Executive Director Keith Tucci wrote, "It is your God-given right to destroy any man or woman calling themselves doctors who willingly slaughter innocent children."

Two days after Gunn's death, PP in Philadelphia received a note: "The fate of the baby killer in Florida is the opening shot in the war against murderers of the unborn. . . . It is time to meet violence against the unborn with violence against the murderers of the unborn." It was signed "Avengers for the Unborn." OR denies any connection to the Avengers.

The lines were drawn. Whatever happened during Cities of Refuge, I wanted to see it up close, hearing not what the two sides said to the media but what they said to themselves.

Getting into the frontlines at OR was easy. I called the national headquarters in South Carolina, and the secretary gave me the time and place of the opening rally. I didn't intend to tell them I am a reporter, at least not for the first half of the ten days. By day, I would see the war from the perspective of an Operation Rescue infantry soldier.

Figuring they were more likely to be Mother Jones readers, I told the Planned Parenthood leaders outright that I am a reporter. They agreed to grant me full access: by night, I would see the war at PP's strategic councils.

Thursday, July 8, 7:00 p.m. Operation Rescue boot camp begins. Three hundred and fifty of us, more Catholics than Protestants, are packed into an airless hotel auditorium.

Pastor Bob Lewis, a Baptist minister and former Marine with a quiet, humorous style, is giving us our marching orders. First is obedience.

"Whatever I say to you--or someone else wearing one of these red armbands, whatever they say--do it. No one has freedom to act independently when we act as a pro-life community. If God all of a sudden gives you a revelation--suddenly you think, 'I got it, I got it'--you come and make sure that I got it, too, 'cause if I didn't get it, it didn't come from the Lord."

That gets a big laugh, but the point is made.

The crowd is about half male and half female, from infants to the elderly. Nearly all are white. Most of the red-armbanded leaders are men, but not all. It takes a while to notice, but one demographic segment is missing: there are few, if any, single women of childbearing age.

On every chair is a copy of "The Rescuer's Pledge." Among its commitments:

  • I am here of my own free and independent choice and not as part of any group. In all that I do here, I am acting alone.
  • I commit to be peaceful, prayerful, and nonviolent in both word and deed.
  • I understand that certain individuals have been designated to speak to the media, the police, and any woman seeking abortion. I will not yell out to anyone, but will continue singing and praying quietly with the main body of Rescuers.
  • I understand that Rescue may call for me to be in jail. I am prepared to remain in jail as long as I possibly can.

There seems to be a lack of agreement between "No one has freedom to act independently" and "I am here of my own free and independent choice," but no one mentions it. I figure that "not as part of any group" is a legal dodge in case it gets bloody.

A week earlier, at the first night of Planned Parenthood boot camp in Philadelphia, the crowd is a bit different, about three women for every man. Most of the women are between eighteen and thirty. As at OR, nearly all are white.

There are ninety of us at Planned Parenthood that night, with three hundred others coming later. Standing in a line with our arms and legs intertwined, we practice clinic defense.

Here, too, there are rules, including:

  • We're right. Don't do anything to jeopardize the obviousness of that. Assume you're being filmed.
  • Be virtuous and wise. Be respectful.
  • No anti-Catholic statements.
  • Dress sensibly: Sun hat or lotion. Comfortable shoes. No dangly earrings. Tone down the political T-shirts.
  • Please, please, please, take a bath and use deodorant.

That first night, a young woman who starts to address the group is instantly shouted down by the leadership.

"We don't need you here," shouts Trish Sneddon, the director of the Philadelphia Women's Center.

The interloper is from the National Women's Rights Organizing Coalition, a socialist group that advocates militant action, with no reliance on the police, to block OR. No one asks what the NWROC woman intended to say.

For the next two hours, we talk about war preparations, but not about abortion. As far as I can tell, the word is never spoken the entire evening.

Friday, July 9, 7:00 a.m. We Rescuers rendezvous in a Sears parking lot in Valley Forge for the first day of Cities of Refuge. The place and time were announced to the 350 Rescuers at last night's rally, but only twenty of us show up.

Pastor Bob whispers to each driver and hands out maps to Planned Parenthood. I hitch a ride downtown with three guys from Rochester. "Are you Rescuing?" one asks. That's code for "Are you planning to get arrested?" I am not.

When we arrive at Planned Parenthood, we stare across the police lines at the clinic protectors. They stare back.

Jack, a quiet young OR protester praying with his wife, is followed by a punkish young woman with a video camera. As he walks past her, she steps in front of him abruptly, and when he brushes her, she screams, "I'm being hurt!" She tells police she has captured him on videotape, assaulting her. A review of the video reveals nothing. Police remind her of the state's stalking law. She is the only pro-choice person OR meets all week.

9:00 a.m. The first patient arrives, a young woman with a confused boyfriend. Accompanied by two PP escorts in yellow aprons, she is led down a gauntlet of protectors. The system is designed to insulate her from the Rescuers, but we're all across the street. If things had gotten out of hand, she would have been taken to a PP safe house nearby.

When she's inside, the PP site coordinator rolls out a victory sign: "Freedomkeepers 1, Oppressors 0." The clinic protectors cheer.

After only two hours as an OR volunteer, I'm demoralized. Our leaders, Pastor Bob and Joe Roach, stroll by occasionally, looking confident. We try to keep up our spirits in various ways: some pray, some squirt each other with water bottles. One man amuses himself by asking an Act Up volunteer for his brochures, then throwing them in the trash.

10:30 a.m. Word passes among us: We're decoys. At some other place, OR is winning a great victory. I'm skeptical, but a few minutes later, the order comes to bug out. We drive toward an abortion center in Chester, an industrial town half an hour outside Philadelphia.

With thirteen of us crammed into the van, we can't avoid getting acquainted.

There's Ruby McDaniel, 71, mother of five children, great-grandmother of one. She lives across from Planned Parenthood in Manhattan to save commuting time for Rescues. If she were your grandmother, you'd think she was flaky, but cool.

There are three college students, who have taken a semester off to go around the country protesting and organizing.

There's Denise, a thirtyish woman facing seven years in jail in New York for criminal mischief. She broke up surgical equipment in an abortion center.

And there's Anna, a grandmother with twelve kids. She was arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, for chaining herself to an abortion table. "My neighbor asks me over to play cards with the ladies," Anna says. "But why would I want to do that? Isn't this the life: traveling around the country, meeting new friends, doing God's work, one step ahead of the law."

We arrive in Chester after the battle. We really were decoys: while we new OR volunteers (who could, after all, be infiltrators) were downtown, the trusted had slept in. The night before, they had received whispered instructions to meet later.

The Chester clinic is completely undefended. More than one hundred Rescuers have commandeered the front, back, and side porches, singing hymns and praying. The day has been a classic cavalry action: the lesser force can't take the citadel, but it is mobile and secretive, and can attack outlying towns.

Pastor Bob tells us that Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke on nonviolent social action at this site, which was once a seminary.

No "pro-aborts" show up. A U.S. marshal reads an injunction, but reads it to a clump of reporters instead of to us; it's hard to see how that serves any legal purpose.

2:00 p.m. Mary Rodgers, 30, has come for her pregnancy test but can't get in. She says doctors have urged her not to have a baby because of medication she is taking. She's angry at OR. "They're trying to put a hold on my life and bring someone into this life who might suffer," she tells reporters.

3:00 p.m. Sheriff's deputies show up with a van to arrest us. Not all of us are planning to get arrested. But it becomes clear that anyone declining arrest will be stuck without a ride. So we all go.

It takes an hour, because we walk to the vans one by one, taking the tiniest baby steps. As we wait, we sing "Jesus Loves the Little Children." We sing louder when the television cameras come by.

Only one fellow, about sixty-five, refuses to walk to the van. As the only person carried by the cops, he is surrounded by a dozen photographers. His is the only angry face I'll see among OR the entire week, but the whole world sees it: he makes the front page of the local paper and even the New York Times, scowling.

The bored deputies drive us to the Delaware County courthouse. We fill out a form giving name, address, and Social Security number, then are photographed with a number. I'm number 34 out of 110; the median age of those arrested is sixty-two. Then we are free to go. We aren't charged with a thing.

8:00 p.m. We regroup for a rally with Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. He's also plugging his new book, Why Does a Nice Guy Like Me Keep Getting Thrown in Jail? The crowd tonight is about five hundred.

Raw Terry:

"Now, it's a given that all of us want legalized child-killing to be crushed and driven back to hell from whence it came. (Applause.) That's a given. But beyond that, what else do we want? What else does our vision for this nation encompass? Would the end of child-killing suffice for you? ('No!') What would be, for example, the status of the sodomite movement? What about pornography? What about government- sponsored, humanist, godless education? . . . What would the arts look like? Would the tax dollars that you work so hard to provide for Uncle Sam be used to pay for fecal matter and sodomite pornography and a crucifix of our Lord floating in a vat of urine? . . .

"Would euthanasia be practiced? Would there be babies conceived in petri dishes and then thrown out when they're not needed? How about our universities? Would our universities be continuing to undermine faith in the Bible and to graduate students who really don't know too much about the founding of America, but, boy, are they politically correct thinkers? Will the Ted Kennedys and the Barney Franks and the Hillarys and her husband be leading this country into moral anarchy? Or will our political, judicial, and cultural leaders be God-fearing men and women?

"Now, if you are envisioning reformation along the areas that I just spoke of, then what you are hoping for is a Christian culture, dare I say a Christian nation, built on the principles and the laws of the Ten Commandments and the sacred scriptures. (Applause.) A Christian nation.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you and I are not called to be passive watchers as the nation collapses into hell, clamoring for the return of the Lord, saying we're just called to preach the Gospel or we're just supposed to pray. We are the resistance! (Applause.) We are those who say, 'Over our dead bodies will this country go into hell!'"

Saturday, July 10. Planned Parenthood is outfoxed for the second day in a row. Same routine: decoys downtown, then a surprise hit--this time in Wilmington, Delaware. Our weight collapses the porch of the abortion center.

The Sunday Inquirer covers OR's success: pro-life group shuts "Philadelphia-area clinic." Worse for PP, OR can claim an honest-to- God Rescue: Andrea Taylor, 26, from Oxford, Maryland, was ten weeks pregnant. She was in her car when two OR counselors approached. "I don't have a lot of money," one said, "but I'll try to help you get through it." "You're going to cuddle that little baby in your arms," the other said. Andrea decided to have her baby, and the jubilant OR troops escorted her through the blockade for a refund of her $250.

The PP leadership is apoplectic.

"Delaware is not in Philadelphia. They said they were coming to Philadelphia," cries Jacquelynn P. Brinkley, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

9:00 p.m. Eight activists gather for an emergency meeting. They are from Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Defense Project.

They ridicule their opponents, criticize politicians, blame the Catholic Church. Then they settle on two courses.

One, to spin the story for the media: "OR are cowards and terrorists. Their numbers are few." They schedule a meeting with the Inquirer's managing editor, who is Roman Catholic.

Two--the master stroke--to disrupt OR's ruse of feinting this way and then going that way: "We're at war. . . . Why don't we let the air out of their tires?"

Project Flat Tires is delegated to the "affinity group," a ragtag bunch of college-age kids who have volunteered to do civil disobedience, surveillance, and other mischief that Planned Parenthood and the other mainstream groups don't want to be associated with.

Wednesday, July 14, 5:30 a.m. Today I am on the other side of the fence, defending Planned Parenthood.

The brick building is built for security, with a twelve-foot gate in front. Guards stay around the clock. The staff is trained by the bomb squad to handle suspicious mail with care. This is just an enhanced version of what takes place every week: protesters are outside the building every Saturday morning.

6:15 a.m. On the sidewalks, PP leaders taunt OR to the press as "Operation Fizzle" or "Operation Washout." Inside, they're worried. Someday, OR is actually going to come downtown.

7:00 a.m. "We have no idea where they are," says Sandi, a public- affairs officer at Planned Parenthood. "The spotters have lost them."

9:20 a.m. One man from OR shows up with a sign.

Jacqui Ambrosini, a PP site coordinator, is telling jokes over the megaphone to keep up morale. Then a volunteer says, "I've got a joke." Jacqui hands over the megaphone.

The jokester is from NWROC, the militant clinic-defense group.

"The joke," the interloper says through the megaphone, "is that Operation Rescue is shutting down clinics all around us. The joke is that we're relying on the police to defend a medical facility. We need to rely on ourselves."

10:00 a.m. A surveillance team heads out in search of OR, four of us in a PP employee's car. The others frivolously call themselves the UPM, or Underground Pro-choice Movement.

Matt, an English grad student at Penn and a fan of "Star Trek," shows off his tire deflators. He and the others are ready to let the air out of OR, if we find them.

Today the tip is that OR is headed to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Sure enough, when we arrive, the Rescuers have the undefended clinic surrounded.

The UPM take out their most offensive signs ("You Say Don't Fuck. We Say Fuck You") and try a little counterdemonstration. They get on TV, then get bored and leave. They'd like to flatten a few tires, but there are too many cops.

The UPM are beginning to see that the Rescuers are not what they'd expected. "I thought they'd have six heads, but they don't," Sandi says.

(Before we leave, I flag down OR's leader, Pastor Bob Lewis. I come out of the Mother Jones closet. He smiles and says he expects infiltrators. We agree that I couldn't find out anything because of the way OR guards information. He sends me off with a comment about the PP protectors: "Have you read Eric Hoffer's True Believer? They are true believers. That's why we don't talk to them. You can't reason with a true believer.")

12:00 p.m. Joan Coombs, the PP director in Philadelphia, tells me that OR's main function is to draw fire away from other religious-right groups. "One of OR's practical purposes is to play the fringe role, so groups like the Christian Coalition can look more moderate. Every movement needs its fringe, or you can't find the middle."

In other words, she agrees, OR performs the same function for Pat Robertson as UPM performs for PP, and NWROC for UPM.

Coombs was raised as a Roman Catholic but hasn't been to Mass in years. She acknowledges being mystified by the Operation Rescue protesters. "They're a little scary to me: the commitment to a set of values, the zealot climate, take what your leader says as gospel and you don't have to think." She's been with PP for fifteen years, and, in case you're wondering, volunteers that she has never had an abortion.

I tell her that, in a week with the OR troops, I haven't heard an unkind word.

"They may seem like not-hateful people, but there is a level of bigotry there, an inability to accept the concept of plurality. It is an arrogant act of self-deification to impose your view on someone else. Who made them God?!"

One thing bothering Coombs is that she can't talk about abortion in public, not when the discussion is conducted in ten-second sound bites and bumper stickers: "What does it mean that 'An abortion stops a beating heart'? Or that '[A fetus] has ten toes'? Of course it's human, potential human life. Does it have a soul? It's not my decision.

"I can't be candid, can't say these things. People would be horrified, because that's a cold thing to say. But how do you measure that loss against women who died having abortions or who kill themselves rather than have a baby they don't want? It was easier to be pro-choice when women were dying."

Saturday, July 17, 6:55 a.m. At PP, the leaders are tense. Today, the last day of Cities of Refuge, they expect OR to take its best shot.

OR's day is scheduled to start with Mass. I walk over to the church with half a dozen members of the UPM. On the way, there is talk of barricading the Rescuers inside the church so they can't march on the downtown clinics.

No chance. Thirty-five cops stand at ease across the street from the Church of Saint John the Redeemer, plastic handcuffs hanging on their belts. The UPMs wait outside, but I slip in.

Auxiliary Bishop Alex diSimone gives five hundred congregants the stamp of approval. "I don't know one bishop in the country who would not be in favor of what you are doing: prayerfully encouraging people to look at life."

After the service, the Rescuers march. The procession is led by twenty-three men of God, all dressed in white. The marchers and counterdemonstrators walk together to the Philadelphia Women's Clinic, where it's a standoff--OR on one side, UPM on the other, police in between:

"Holy Mary, mother of God, blessed are you among women . . ."

"Racist, sexist, antigay--Operation Rescue, go away."

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed . . ."

"Get your rosaries off my ovaries."

"Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning, our song shall rise to thee . . ."

"Suck my dick, lick my clit, Operation Rescue's full of shit."

"If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown . . ."

"Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate."

All the local and national TV crews are here. Tonight at six and eleven, the pro-life crowd will look prayerful, peaceful, committed. The pro-choice representatives will be the UPM, looking vulgar, antisocial, hateful.

Matt and his UPM buddies run around, whipping up the crowd. No one from the clinic seems to mind the help. But when he is interviewed by a television crew, the center director, Trish, comes over to warn angrily, "They're not with us. We're more mainstream. We're cooperating with the police. We don't agree with the sexist and antireligious language they're using."

Outside the church, where the Rescuers have gone for a final benediction, the Catholic cops shake their heads at the counterdemonstrators. "It's just one small group causing all the trouble," says a cop on video duty. "They're giving pro-choice a bad name."

Police release the official count to the media: 600 OR demonstrators. Operation Rescue says there were actually 700. (The official Mother Jones head count in the church: 518.)

Why didn't Operation Rescue blockade this summer as in the past? They weren't subdued just in Philadelphia: OR marched and prayed in six other cities, but for the most part didn't risk arrest.

Could it be that after sixty thousand arrests over five years, OR is changing, becoming more mainstream? Or is it just trying to appear that way?

After a week of OR cavalry actions, I've begun to think that OR is actually the group that is boxed in--by the new attitudes of mayors and police, by the more numerous clinic protectors, by the courts and the increased jail terms, by Congress and the proposed Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, by the White House and the Justice Department. In Massachusetts, repeat offenders who block clinics face two-and-a-half years in jail; OR hasn't rescued in Massachusetts in a year and a half.

But most of all, OR is boxed in by the shooting of Dr. Gunn. Patrick Mahoney, a national OR leader, has said, "We have lost church support that is critical to the movement. No one wants to be associated with extremism." Operation Rescue is afraid it will become a pariah.

I wonder if the new moderation will hold. Mainstream Christians who oppose abortion may well turn out for demonstrations in greater numbers if they are assured they won't have to risk arrest.

But what about the fringe, the Avengers for the Unborn, the individual zealot? If they lose their blockades and their lock-ins, if they see all the democratic processes aligned against them, will they be satisfied to march and pray? Or will they shoot to kill?

Postscripts:

  • Operation Rescue National Executive Director Keith Tucci declares Cities of Refuge a huge victory. With 9,130 Christians participating in the seven areas, he wrote to followers, "We were able to confirm over forty children saved." (Enclosed: a plea for a hundred dollars.)
  • Planned Parenthood declares Cities of Refuge a huge failure, because "the vital work of Planned Parenthood continued, almost uninterrupted." (One word not in the press release: abortion.)
  • The number of abortions in Philadelphia was about the same as usual during the Cities of Refuge: more than three hundred a week. However, the number of visits to contraceptive clinics fell sharply.
  • A month after Cities of Refuge, outside an abortion center in Wichita, Dr. George Tiller was shot twice and injured slightly by an abortion protester. The woman charged with his attempted murder had written letters of support to the man accused of killing Dr. Gunn: "I know you did the right thing."
  • Two days later, Dr. George Wayne Patterson, 44, was shot dead in Mobile, Alabama, as he confronted a man breaking into his car. He had replaced Dr. Gunn in Pensacola. Police said it may have been a botched robbery.

Bill Dedman, a contributing writer for Mother Jones, received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of racial discrimination by lenders.