By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Sitting in the shade at the base of the pier, as his teen allies stand beside their posters a few yards away, passively absorbing jeers from passersby, White reminisces about the fruit of that passion, what he calls ”the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States.“ Operation Rescue, White says, ”was a movement of the Holy Spirit. Things happened in Operation Rescue that were beyond normal, that spread like a wildfire.“ For instance, he says, in 1991, thousands of anti-abortion activists descended on Wichita, Kansas, intending to shut down a clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller. He closed his doors for a week, hoping they’d go away. On a Saturday night, White says, Operation Rescue decided to stay. ”The next morning we had 80 churches open their doors for speakers. Now I challenge you, go tell somebody that you‘re a speaker of any sort and try to get them to open their church to you tomorrow. You can call hundreds of churches and you might get one, but in 12 hours, 80 churches opened their pulpit. That’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. If you were secular, you would say it was a popular uprising, where somehow through the night, it passed from pastor to pastor and home to home so that the next morning thousands of people were on the street. How did that happen?“
Attempts to repeat the fervor of that ”Summer of Mercy“ -- which saw more than 2,600 arrests over six weeks -- in Buffalo, and later in Baton Rouge and Houston, failed miserably. Wichita was the anti-abortion movement‘s last hurrah. There would never again be a successful large-scale ”rescue,“ as the mass sit-ins were called by their participants. By 1991, Operation Rescue was already in shambles. Randall Terry had left, dethroned by factional infighting led by White and a handful of others. Over the years, the group would splinter into regional fragments, its leaders and its tactics rejected by the fundamentalist mainstream and reviled by secular America as surely as taunts of ”Assholes!“ are shouted at White’s Survivors a from about every 20th passing SUV. Last summer, when Operation Rescue‘s successor, Operation Save America, threatened to shut down George Tiller’s clinic once again as part of a ”Summer of Renewal,“ only a few hundred die-hard activists showed up in Wichita. No one was arrested, the clinic stayed open, and the protests barely made the news. The Holy Spirit, it seems, had gone elsewhere.
There are a lot of ways to explain the dissolution of the grassroots anti-abortion movement. You can point to the bickering and backstabbing among the leadership, to the movement‘s abandonment by mainstream fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell, or to the increasingly effective response of pro-choice groups, which, by the early ’90s, were able to muster large numbers of activists to engage in ”clinic defense,“ escorting patients and clinic staff in and out of the building, keeping the doors unblocked and the clinic open. You can speculate about the cultural factors that spurred -- and later ceased to spur -- a group largely composed of middle-class white men to aggressively declare themselves the protectors of America‘s unborn children and the guardians of the nation’s wombs. But, says Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, ”There‘s no sociological analysis that stands up to the raw fact of incarceration.“
In the early days of the movement, police were hesitant to arrest anti-abortion protesters. Those arrested were usually let off with a slap on the wrist, often to the extent that they were able to get arrested and released several times over the course of a single blockade. After a few cities were overwhelmed by Operation Rescue’s antics, police, prosecutors and judges began to get tough, seeking felony convictions and handing out more serious sentences. By 1990, White says, it was already clear to the Operation Rescue leadership that the methods that had been grabbing them headlines -- the highly confrontational mass sit-ins -- could not be sustained much longer. ”How many times can you get arrested and go to jail and keep your job?“ he asks. ”It was a middle-class American movement. Seventy-thousand people got arrested. [The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) puts the number at just under half that.] That‘s great. But how many times can you do that?“
By the early 1990s, clinics and pro-choice groups were also learning to use the law to hurt Operation Rescue financially. In 1989, the National Organization for Women sued Operation Rescue under the federal anti-racketeering RICO laws, and others began to seek restraining orders to prevent anti-abortion activists from approaching clinics or harassing patients and staff. When they violated the orders, which -- convinced that they had only God’s laws to answer to -- they invariably did, they would be sued and frequently slapped with enormous judgments. Randall Terry and his officers grew adept at juggling their finances to avoid collection, but the debts eventually caught up to them. Operation Rescue has been forced to change its name twice, first to Operation Rescue National and later to Operation Save America, to avoid paying judgments. Jeff White‘s Operation Rescue of California, which he founded after the breakup of the national group, was forced out of business by an $880,000 judgment won by a San Diego lawyer in 1995.