Operation Miscue | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

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

Page 5 of 9

Since the 1990s, the Feminist Majority, NARAL and the National Abortion Federation have been lobbying for tougher laws and stricter enforcement to fight the anti-abortion movement. In 1994, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as the FACE Act, which made crimes against abortion providers felonies and gave the federal government clear jurisdiction over anti-abortion activists who jump from state to state. Throughout the ’90s, several states and cities (including Los Angeles) passed ”buffer zone“ laws, forbidding protesters from coming within a certain distance of a clinic. In 1998, after the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, pro-choice groups convinced then--Attorney General Janet Reno to establish a federal task force devoted solely to investigating crimes against abortion providers.

Over the last few months, Spillar and other pro-choice leaders have been cheering Attorney General John Ashcroft‘s promises to crack down on domestic terrorism. Substitute ”the Army of God“ (an organization -- for which journalists usually reserve the term ”shadowy“ -- which has taken credit for numerous acts of violence against abortion clinics and employees) for ”al Qaeda,“ and their rhetoric at times mirrors that of Bush-administration hawks. ”Unless you close down the network that is funding and aiding and abetting and orchestrating,“ Spillar says, ”you’re never going to really get rid of this violence.“ A quite justified fear of violence has pushed the inheritors of ‘60s radicalism into an equivocal and ironic stance, as they mime the conservatives of that era who pilloried the SLA and the Weather Underground to justify crackdowns on student radicals. While Ashcroft mounts the most frightening assault on civil liberties since Joseph McCarthy, the pro-choice leadership take their opportunities where they can. The Feminist Majority has even prepared a document titled ”Similarities Between Domestic and Global Terrorists,“ which draws some obvious parallels among fundamentalists the world over, but goes on to compare clinic-bomber Eric Robert Rudolph’s alleged smalltime marijuana dealing to the Taliban‘s involvement in opium production.

Those parallels, the real ones anyway, are worth mentioning. Because for most anti-abortion extremists, it’s not just about abortion. What‘s actually at stake is often obscured when the abortion debate is reduced to biology -- to the intractable and ultimately academic question of when life begins. The real fight is whether biology is relevant at all, and whether secular, humanistic values have any place in American civil life. ”This is a spiritual battle,“ says Flip Benham, the Dallas-based preacher who currently holds the reins of Operation Save America. ”It’s not about reproductive rights, it‘s not about homosexuality, it’s not about condom pass-outs -- it‘s about who is Lord and whose laws reign.“ Troy Newman agrees: ”We’re about societal reformation,“ he says, ”returning to the values that made this country what she is.“ Newman and Benham have their own take on just what those values are. ”What makes us great is not that we‘re diverse,“ Benham says of America. ”What makes us great is that we have a rock-solid foundation in Jesus Christ.“

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That is a sufficiently disturbing statement for those of us who are not Christians, and for Christians who are not biblical literalists like Benham and Newman. The threat of physical violence is also still very real, and still spawns an atmosphere of fear in reproductive-health clinics across the country. The violence has fallen off considerably since its peak in the mid-’90s, and no one has been killed in the United States since Slepian‘s assassination in 1998, but a clinic security guard was fatally shot in Australia last summer, and a doctor was stabbed in the back while entering a Vancouver, Canada, clinic in July 2000. A bomb went off at a Washington clinic as recently as last June, and the lobby of a Michigan Planned Parenthood was set afire in January 2001. Last year, Clayton Waagner escaped from jail and, in postings to the Internet, promised to kill 42 abortion providers. He has taken credit for mailing hundreds of fake anthrax threats to abortion clinics last fall. Waagner was arrested last December, but Nancy Sasaki, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood--Los Angeles, says the mere a presence of protesters, no matter how diminished their numbers, is enough to inspire fear. ”You don’t know that one of them couldn‘t be one of those crazies,“ she says. ”So it doesn’t matter that they‘re not chaining themselves to the doors anymore. The fact that they’re there and they‘re still yelling at you and you can hear and you can feel their anger and their hatred for what you represent to them [means] the threat is there.“

The violence has also caused its share of damage within the anti-abortion movement. In 1994, anti-abortion extremists organized a conference in Chicago. In attendance was Paul Hill, there to push a biblical justification for the murder of abortion doctors. Just a few months later, Hill would kill a physician and his escort in Pensacola, Florida. Thirty-four people, including Joseph Foreman, at the time a close associate of Jeff White, ended up signing a statement declaring ”the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force.“ Flip Benham, in his trademark Texan twang, recalls attending the conference to argue against the proponents of ”justifiable homicide.“ ”I can remember beseeching them in the name of Jesus to cease and desist from their heresy,“ Benham says. ”That led to a great and much-needed split in the group.“

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