it is a perfect late winter Saturday in Huntington Beach. The Santa Anas have scrubbed the sky an almost violent shade of blue. Volleyball players leap about the sand, surfers frolic in the waves, lowrider trucks and Harleys cruise PCH. Ambling toward the pier, a group of girls in bikini tops and cutoffs encounters Jeff White, a thickset man with small blue eyes and a graying blond goatee. He is handing out fliers alongside two more modestly dressed teenagers who hold between them a giant full-color poster of the severed head of an aborted fetus. ”Abortion Is Choice,“ the caption reads. The bikini girls cringe.
”Disgusting pigs,“ one of them says.
White responds with a tight-lipped smile, ”That’s Mr. Disgusting Pig.“
Today, accompanied by a few hideously gory posters and a dozen or so Christian teens, White is vastly outnumbered by the masses here assembled to worship the decidedly pagan gods of sun, sea and flesh. But a decade ago, the Zeitgeist flitting about his shoulders, White was at the very center of one of late-20th-century America‘s most heated battles. He was one of Operation Rescue’s top organizers, part of founder Randall Terry‘s inner circle, and was routinely mobilizing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people for mass sit-ins in front of abortion clinics all over the country. Today, White is the head of Survivors, an anti-abortion youth group he founded in 1998 (the name implies that every child born since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is a survivor of abortion), which parades on the pier once a month. He’s still doing what he‘s been doing in one form or another for almost two decades: fighting, as he puts it, for the babies.
That fight, whether configured in the language of life or of choice, of the body of Christ or of the wombs of living women, occupied America for much of the 1990s and has worked its way into the very fiber of our contemporary civil discourse. The trajectory of Jeff White’s activism over those years mirrors the fate of the movement he once helped to lead, that bizarre hybrid beast, a radical, grassroots, far-right, Christian movement which borrowed its tactics and much of its rhetoric from the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. Its story is littered with all the paradoxes of American civil life, with hopes both great and petty, with pieties and hypocrisies equally grand, with ashes and rubble and too many corpses and lives destroyed. It is a story that is day by day still being told and telling itself, its battles not yet over, its victors and losers for now still undetermined. It‘s not too soon to ask, though, whether the movement’s visibility has declined and its crowds dispersed because they overreached and self-destructed, or because they‘re winning.
For Jeff White it began in the mid-1980s, when he grudgingly caved in to his wife’s demands that he watch the film The Silent Scream at church. Before that, he says, ”I was against abortion, but I was not an activist. I may have even been antagonistic toward an activist kind of mindset.“ To his surprise, he says, ”When I saw the reality and horror of abortion, it just changed my heart.“ It was one of those falling-off-your-ass-on-the-road-to-Damascus moments, an experience of revelation similar to those described by others who would go on to devote their lives to fighting abortion. It brought with it a newfound certainty that a great evil existed in the world, a conviction grand enough to elevate a staid suburban life to a plane of biblical absolutes.
Within a few years White had sold the BMW parts store he ran in Santa Clara and devoted himself full time to the cause. The strict demands of Operation Rescue‘s battle cry, ”If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it,“ appealed to him, and, whether you agree or not about abortion, the motto’s integrity merits some respect. I do not believe abortion is murder and have a hard time entertaining a notion of human life abstract enough to include an embryonic growth, but if I believed as White does, and as all who call themselves pro-life claim, that every abortion kills a living human being, that an undeveloped fetus is no different from my 5-month-old niece, I hope that I would be out in the streets with the believers, and not simply content to vote Republican, write my congressman and wait for a Supreme Court justice to die.
The issue, of course, is larger and more complicated than that, but for White and others like him, it seemed that simple. His commitment and ambition pushed him quickly through the organization‘s ranks, from Southern California director to national tactical director and police liaison. He joined one of a small circle of men who helped Randall Terry put abortion on the evening news again and again throughout the late ’80s, organizing massive blockades at clinics around the country. Protesters chained themselves to doors, hurled themselves in front of patients‘ cars, hollered ”baby-killer“ as loud as they could, fell on their knees and prayed, did whatever they could to stop what they saw as the greatest holocaust the world had ever known. White was arrested, by his own reckoning, more than 60 times, and spent, all told, about 18 months in jail. He has been slapped with legal judgments adding up to more than $1 million, which will prevent him from ever drawing a salary or owning anything in his own name again. It was all, White now insists, done out of passion and love of God: ”Why would I sell my business?“ he asks. ”Why would I take my family on the road? Why would I go to jail? Why would I miss my daughter’s birthday, my son‘s birthday, my daughter walking? All these things happened while I was in jail. Why would I be in jail during Thanksgiving? Why would all these men and women do those things?“
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.
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.
The courts ruled in favor of Morris, granting him an injunction that forbade White and his companions from coming within 15 feet of Morris or driving within three car lengths of him. Morris declared in documents submitted to the court that ”I suffer from mental anguish and anxiety due to my fear of being murdered or seriously injured.“
He had good reason to fear. The sole motivation for the ”No Place To Hide“ campaign, according to Newman, was to dissuade doctors from performing abortions, to make it unpleasant enough for them that they would just give up. ”If there weren‘t more abortionists,“ the logic went, ”there wouldn’t be any abortions taking place.“ By the mid-1990s, some activists were taking that theory all too literally.
The Los Angeles offices of the Feminist Majority Foundation are in an unmarked brick building on Third Street. When you push the buzzer, a voice speaks through the intercom, ”Hi, can I help you?“ Depending on your answer, and your image on a video monitor a couple yards inside the door, you may or may not be allowed to enter. In the conference room down the hall, one wall is decorated with framed, blown-up photos of early-20th-century suffragette marches. The wall beside it is lined with dozens of shoebox-size filing cabinets. One is labeled ”Marches,“ another ”Anita Hill.“ There are boxes labeled ”NOW,“ ”Parental Consent“ and ”RU486,“ and there are boxes labeled ”Stalking & Intimidation,“ ”Arsons & Bombings,“ ”Murders & Shootings.“
It‘s part of the legacy of the anti-abortion movement that security is taken so seriously even here, in the middle of an affluent Westside commercial strip. Because it’s not just clinics that have been targeted: In 1984, the National Abortion Federation‘s Washington offices were firebombed. Katherine Spillar, the Feminist Majority’s executive vice president, says there has never been an incident of violence here, though there have been threats. Between 1989 and ‘91, this office was the center of resistance against Operation Rescue’s ”Holy Week“ assaults on Los Angeles clinics. ”We mobilized over 10,000 people in Los Angeles and trained them how to literally put their bodies between the extremists and the clinics to make sure that patients and doctors and health-care staff could get in,“ Spillar says. As a result, she says, Operation Rescue‘s attempts ”to position themselves as the new civil rights movement of the ’90s“ failed. ”Instead, what became clear so quickly, especially when we would be out there, arms linked, protecting the clinics, is that they were the bullies.“
Bullies, in some cases, is putting it mildly. Abortion opponents have been destroying clinics since a few years after Roe v. Wade: There have been 41 bombings at clinics that provide abortions since 1977 and 167 acts of arson. In the early 1990s, as the ”rescue“ movement ground to a halt, the violence began to escalate. Since 1991, there have been 17 attempted murders of doctors and clinic employees. And since the 1993 shooting of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, seven people have been murdered by abortion opponents, including three doctors. Bulletproof glass is now the norm at clinics that offer abortions, and high-profile physicians wear bulletproof vests on their way to and from work. Despite it all, White claims emphatically that ”There is no organized movement of violence within the pro-life movement. It doesn‘t exist. It’s totally a fabrication for fund-raising for the other side.“
Organized or not — and Spillar insists it is — the violence has forced pro-choice activists like Spillar into law-and-order stances rarely encountered among liberal feminists. Spillar at times takes up an almost Giulianiesque ”broken-windows“ theory of anti-abortion crime, praising police for understanding that if they ”allow“ picketing ”then the next thing is the blockades, and then it escalates to following people to their homes.“ The ”worst of the violence,“ she says, has occurred in jurisdictions where police tolerated picket lines ”and looked the other way, thinking it‘s their right to be out there protesting.“
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.“
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.“
Benham’s move, and his insistence that his followers publicly condemn violence, was at least as important as a PR strategy as it was a principled stand. The belligerence of Operation Rescue‘s tactics had already alienated a good portion of American fundamentalist ministries, and Benham had every incentive to distance what was left of the group as far as possible from anyone who refused to openly condemn violence (which included White, who, though he insists his own commitment to peaceful protest is absolute, says, ”I believe that what I am doing is right, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t know that in God‘s eyes it’s not going to come up short. So I don‘t condemn“).
Regardless of any attempts at damage control, in the mid-’90s, Operation Rescue ”took the brunt of the heat“ for the escalating violence, says Troy Newman. ”It became very, very unpopular within churches and on street corners to say that you were pro-life, because if you said you were pro-life, all of a sudden people equated you with being a bomber and a murderer.“
Tim and Terri Palmquist learned that lesson well. Tim, sitting in the lobby of the Bakersfield ”Life House“ — a blue A-frame just across the street from the only clinic in all of Kern County that provides abortions — remembers a brighter era, before violence and factionalism slowed the movement to a crawl. A tall man with a red beard and tired blue eyes, he was in Wichita in 1991 with Terri, his wife. ”You had the feeling,“ he says, ”that we had got the momentum going here, and abortion was going down and it was going down fast.“
Back then, Tim and Terri regularly took part in Operation Rescue actions, traveling around the state and participating in, by Terri‘s estimate, about 30 clinic blockades. Terri, Tim says, has a gift for what people in the movement call ”sidewalk counseling,“ confronting women as they approach family-planning clinics to talk them out of having an abortion. ”Most of the time my wife was out there sidewalk counseling, and I was watching the kids,“ Tim laughs. (The Palmquists have nine children. Large families are the norm in the anti-abortion movement: Jeff White has 10 kids.) ”Throughout the rescue period there were times that she did let me do something, but most of the time it was her, because she is just more effective in terms of being able to talk one-on-one with the women.“
The Palmquists originally wanted to stage a rescue in Bakersfield, says Terri, a small woman with brown frizzy hair, dressed in khakis and Winnie the Pooh sneakers. They decided against it, though, once the sentences started getting tougher. ”When we sidewalk counsel,“ she says, ”one or two babies are saved every time I’m here, so it‘s really more effective one life at a time than to spend a whole bunch of time in jail.“ They ruled the possibility out completely in 1993. That year, the Family Planning Associates clinic in Bakersfield was burned to the ground, along with the entire office complex in which it stood. (In the same month, two other clinics in Illinois and Pennsylvania were burned, and a bomb exploded at a clinic in Newport Beach.) The Palmquists were out of town when it happened, at an Operation Rescue leadership meeting in Florida, but right after the fire, Terri says, ”They were showing our pictures on the news, trying to blame us for it.“
They were never even questioned by police, Terri says, but they nonetheless lost the support of most of Bakersfield’s Christian community, ”because they didn‘t want to be associated with pro-lifers who burned down the clinic.“ The arson was never solved. Four years later, after the clinic moved to its current location, across the street from the Palmquists’ ”Life House,“ Peter Howard, a Bakersfield anti-abortion activist who had taken part in prayer vigils with the Palmquists, drove a truck loaded with propane tanks and gasoline through the clinic‘s glass doors. The fire was put out before any serious damage was done; Howard was sentenced to 15 years. The two attacks have effectively alienated the Palmquists from the portion of Bakersfield’s Christian community that wasn‘t already turned off by Operation Rescue’s confrontational tactics. ”It‘s been a constant struggle, especially dealing with the churches and pastors, to help them understand what we’re doing, that it‘s not something that they should be afraid of being associated with.“
Despite the setbacks, the Palmquists have continued to focus on sidewalk counseling, though since they began leasing this house in 1998, they’ve been offering free pregnancy tests as well, which takes up a good deal of their time. Throughout the afternoon, anxious Latina teenagers shuffle through the door to be tested. Between tests and counseling sessions, Terri explains her methods. She stands on the sidewalk outside the clinic next to a sign like the ones White brought to Huntington Beach. ”When they‘re going in, I just will say, ’Hi, my name‘s Terri. Is there something I can do to help you? Are you going in here? We offer free pregnancy tests over here, and if you’re thinking about abortion, I just want you to know that I‘ll adopt your baby, I’ll help you in any way I can.‘
“Most of them just ignore us,” Terri admits, but if they do agree to come inside, or if they come in off the street for a pregnancy test, she sits them down in a room lined with inspirational posters and framed photos of sleeping infants. She tries to talk to them about the problems in their lives that led to their thinking about ending their pregnancies, and shows them the video, about half of which depicts an abortion, followed by a few minutes of tiny red severed fetal legs and hands being poked and jiggled, for maximum gross-out effect, with tweezers and forceps. Terri says that 98 percent of the women who stay till the end of the video decide against having an abortion.
Before they go she gives them a Zip-loc bag filled with baby paraphernalia: a tiny knit hat or booties, a picture frame and a rubber ducky. “I tell them that if they come back with their baby, we’ll give them some clothes and stuff, if they need any maternity clothes.” In this manner, she says, she and other volunteers dissuade two or three women a week from getting an abortion out of the approximately 75 who she says go in seeking the procedure. Until the previous week, Tim had arrayed 75 white crosses on the lawn in front of the house, one for each “baby” they fail to “save.”
Asked if after the high hopes of the late ‘80s and early ’90s, they are ever disappointed at how little has changed, and how long and hard they‘ve had to work, Terri admits that it is “frustrating to think that we did come close. I think we came real close, and then God came down and blessed the effort, and then because of the price to keep it up or whatever, people decided not to do it.” She won’t admit, though, to feeling defeated. “We have our days,” Terri says, “but for the most part we‘ve just hung in there.”
Tim, on the other hand, jumps at the chance to talk “about wanting to give up,” as he, unprompted, puts it. “It’s been a constant crisis going on for so long,” he says. “It keeps you constantly on the point of saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this,‘ but that’s just where we have to depend on God and say, ‘God, we need your strength to be able to make it through this.’ Because on our own I would have given up a thousand times — I probably have given up at least a couple hundred, and then Terri brought me back.”
Now, Tim says, their work is moving in a new direction. “We feel that God may be leading us to do some things that we haven‘t done before.” The Palmquists are turning their energies inward, toward the Christian community that has kept them at a distance for so many years. “What we want to do is be able to mobilize the churches,” Tim says. “The first thing is for the churches to recognize that this is their concern.” To that end, the Palmquists have been trying to keep track of the church backgrounds of the women they deal with, and eventually to put together a database that they can show to pastors so they can say, “Well, you know what? We’ve had three girls from your church this year come here, and this is something that affects your church.”
The Palmquists are not alone in this newfound focus. Troy Newman again and again cites the figure that 70 percent of the women who have abortions are Christian. “The problem is really internal,” he concludes. Today, Newman says in his theatrical salesman‘s voice, there “is less emphasis on the tactic of going down and rescuing, sitting in front of the door of an abortion clinic, picketing an abortionist in his neighborhood or running for office even. We need to start with ourselves. Jesus said take the log out of your own eye before you can remove the speck in your brother’s eye. So you know what that means? We need to stop killing our own children.”
Speaking of logs and specks, it‘s worth mentioning that the anti-abortion movement has itself been repeatedly torn asunder by some fairly un-Christian behavior. Jeff White insists that the early squabblings within the ranks of Operation Rescue — which led to a coup of sorts, in which White and Joseph Foreman attempted to unseat Randall Terry — “were not ego trips.” Every argument, he says, occurred “because we loved God and we loved each other.” Since then, there’s been a series of splits, alliances forged and broken, with plenty of bad feelings left behind. Newman and White once worked together, but today Newman jumps at the chance to leak the allegation that White has an unreported income: “He‘s got a judgment hanging over his head for a million bucks, so he keeps pretty low,” Newman confides, adding, “He’s got his own business, I don‘t know if he wants anybody to find out what he does.” White denies this. “It’s kind of weird that he would even say something like that,” he says.
Flip Benham, who cites Scripture like other men stutter, displays equally little eagerness to turn the other cheek to an old comrade-at-arms. White, he says vaguely, “has often lied and done a lot of foolish things.” Benham refuses to explain what sort of foolish things he means, and adds, “There was a falling out long before the violence issue. Jeff White wanted to be king, and nobody wanted him there.”
Benham was also instrumental in the final downfall of Randall Terry, who, in the years since he left Operation Rescue, would flirt with the militia- and white supremacist–linked U.S. Taxpayers Party, broadcast a right-wing Christian radio show, run for Congress (and lose miserably) in upstate New York, and wage battles against gay rights and so-called child pornography (by leading a boycott to pressure Barnes & Noble to stop selling Jock Sturges‘ coffee-table photo books). Shortly after Terry left his wife in 1999, Benham posted a plea on the Operation Save America Web site beseeching the faithful to “Please Pray for Randall Terry,” who had fallen into sin. Terry was ostracized by the few supporters he had left, and lost his radio show. He now sells used cars in upstate New York and is attempting to remake himself as a country crooner, hawking his CDs — which feature such tracks as “Got It Bad for You” and “The Holy One” — on the Internet.
If anti-abortion forces have proved themselves adept at intra-Christian bickering in the past, they are now making it an official focus of their work. Newman’s Operation Rescue West has joined Flip Benham‘s Operation Save America in launching a project they call “Establishing BloodGuilt” to, in Benham’s words “remind the church of her responsibility to stand in the gap.” Though that project was officially launched in January for the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, activists in Wichita last summer briefly abandoned their positions in front of the clinic and marched on several churches, protesting their tolerant stands on abortion and, in at least one case, on homosexuality. Terri Palmquist promises that if Bakersfield churches “slam the door in our face,” she and Tim and their scattered followers will have to move their picket lines and oversized signs from the sidewalks in front of the clinic to those in front of the churches.
Part of this more insular focus, Newman admits, stems from disillusion at the fickleness of the national mood. “There was a lot of early enthusiasm. We thought that if we could just sit in front of the door of an abortion clinic a couple of times, abortion would end. That‘s when we began to realize that Americans have no staying power for difficult issues,” Newman says. “We’re beginning to think of this battle as long term. It could happen in our lifetime, but we can see reformation and revival happening in our children‘s lifetime.” Substitute revolution for those other R words, and he sounds every bit the exhausted midcentury Marxist.
Despite the shift, though, anti-abortion activists haven’t entirely given up on the public at large. Clinics all around the country still have regular picketers, the Palmquists still stand on the sidewalk across the street, and Troy Newman hasn‘t given up on what he calls “education.” Newman’s Operation Rescue West now sponsors “Truth Trucks,” which cruise the freeways of Southern California, and occasionally tour the rest of the country, their trailers plastered with oversized images of aborted fetuses. (Robert Rudnick, the driver of one such truck, was arrested last year outside a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Police confiscated three handguns and two shotguns from the truck. Newman denies any connection to Rudnick. No charges were filed.) “If America is going to support abortion on demand,” Newman says, “she‘s going to view the decapitated heads of the children she helped kill on a regular basis to the point where they are sickened by it.”
In the end, Newman’s and the Palmquists‘ disenchantment is probably best understood as indicative of an age-old American David-and-Goliath complex, of a Christian delight in persecution, or of the inevitable result of their impossibly absolutist expectations. Because even if the extremist wing of the movement they represent has been isolated and enfeebled, their cause has rarely looked brighter. If the public has repeatedly shown itself to be more pro-choice than not — a fact illustrated by Richard Riordan’s and Elizabeth Dole‘s pragmatic stands on abortion — it is nonetheless harder now than at any point in the last two decades to get an abortion in America. More than 800 clinics, hospitals and private doctors’ offices have stopped performing abortions. In most rural areas, there‘s simply nowhere to go: 84 percent of American counties lack even one abortion provider. What pro-choice activists call “guerrilla legislation” has been quietly passed at local, state and federal levels to deny public funding of abortion and slowly but effectively chip away at choice with mandatory waiting periods and parental-consent requirements. And of course, with Bush in the White House and the remaining pro-Roe Supreme Court justices aging rapidly, legal abortion is on shakier ground than ever.
Back at the beach, Jeff White is not holding his breath. “I don’t take solace in politicians,” he says. He is also steadfastly optimistic. “A lot of the pro-life movement is down in the mouth,” White admits. “I don‘t know why.” As if to answer him, a blond head leans out the window of a passing white pickup and screams, “Get outta here!” White shakes his head. “The last time I was here, there was a guy thumping me on the chest,” he says. It’s happened enough times that whenever anyone approaches, White says, he immediately assumes that they‘re going to try to hit him. “It actually happens far less than you would imagine.”
Either way, he doesn’t let the jeers and blows get him down. “Historically, it‘s when the other side appears as if they have all the cards that it can change in a flash, the whole center of the battle.” He points to the teens working with him a few yards away, all members of Survivors, which White says has been gaining momentum, growing “in leaps and bounds.” The kids are recruited at local churches, and it’s in the enthusiasm of these unusual teens, who are willing to give up a beautiful Saturday to be ridiculed by strangers, that White places his hope. He talks about the “high-intensity activist training camp” he runs for youth each summer, and about their tours of college campuses — “the battleground for the hearts and minds of the next generation” — where they do much the same thing they are doing right now, standing around in public places trying to win converts with their gruesome posters. “It‘s just a trickle now,” White promises, “but it will become a flood.”