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Operation Miscue 

How legal problems, cultural shifts and internal turmoil muffled America’s radical anti-abortion movement, and why the battle isn’t over

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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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.

Until then, White had tried various tactics. ”I’ve never done anything because I‘m disappointed that something else didn’t work,“ he claims. But each new strategy clearly attempted to make up for the failings of previous ones, and, perhaps not coincidentally, each one was more aggressive than the last. As early as 1992, White had begun organizing what he called Minuteman Strike Teams, small groups that would blockade a clinic unannounced, then leave when police arrived. ”We found that when we did rescues with 500 people in front of a clinic, one in three would close. When we did rescues with 40 people and went to three in a day, one in three would close,“ White says. ”So it was tactically a much better option, without the arrests.“ It was also, of course, one of the only options available to a group that could no longer muster protesters by the hundreds. One Northern California pro-choice group referred to White‘s minuteman teams as ”paramilitary formations,“ describing them as ”extremely aggressive, tactically sophisticated and physically violent.“ In 1993, White, Randall Terry and one other man staged a minuteman strike of their own in Los Angeles. They spontaneously dropped in on the Her Clinic on Figueroa, pushing their way through the doors and, according to one patient, ”screaming in a loud voice at the patients“ a in the waiting room. One clinic volunteer later testified that the three refused to leave the clinic and that he was punched by White, who countered that it was he who was punched and that he was forcibly prevented from leaving.

At around the same time that he formulated the minuteman tactics, White and his Operation Rescue of California launched its ”No Place To Hide“ campaign. The idea was to picket in front of the homes of physicians who perform abortions. Troy Newman, who now heads Operation Rescue West, was then one of White’s colleagues (the two have since parted ways). Protesters would go to doctors‘ homes, Newman recalls on the phone from Wichita, where he’s recently moved his family from San Diego, ”and we would pray for them, we would hold signs exposing them to their community . . . We would create fliers warning, ‘Your neighbor is an abortionist,’ or ‘Unwanted in this neighborhood,’ or ‘Beware, so and so is a child killer,’ and we‘d couple his name and address, and if we could get it, a picture of him, with pictures of aborted babies.“

Operation Rescue of California published an ”Abortion Buster’s Manual,“ which provided instructions for digging up dirt on doctors. ”You are at war against people who make big money cutting live babies into squirming pieces,“ it read. ”There can be no mercy in a war against this kind of enemy. If your digging leads to your local abortionist losing his practice or even his license, feel good!!“

With intimidation as their goal, the ”No Place To Hide“ protests invariably got ugly. In 1994, White and other activists began protesting every Friday morning in the driveway of Dr. Michael Morris in the town of Crestline, not far from White‘s home near Lake Arrowhead. Morris reported being followed and boxed in by protesters’ cars on the twisting mountain roads he drove to work, being forced to ”run the gauntlet“ of jeering, threatening protesters as he left his home in the morning, and, on one occasion, being detained and assaulted by White and four others as he attempted to write down the license plate number of a protester‘s car. White told the story differently in a police report, asserting that Morris pushed protesters and became more agitated when White tried to make a citizen’s arrest for battery.

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