Operation Rescue : Soldier in a ‘Holy War’ on Abortion
Randy Terry’s interview with the television crew from Syracuse University was coming to an end when the 29-year-old founder of Operation Rescue said: “We have a dead baby here. I hope you’ll take a shot of her before you leave.”
A few moments later, an assistant emerged from a back room at Operation Rescue’s storefront headquarters carrying a tiny coffin covered in cloth. He opened the lid to reveal a fetus.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 25, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 25, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 3 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, a March 17 story misidentified a television crew that had interviewed Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. The crew was from WTVH, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., not from Syracuse University.
“The American public has to see the truth, and that’s what pro-choice is all about--a dead child,” Terry said.
“She is shrunk,” he added casually. “She’s been dead two or three years.”
There is little that is subtle or ambiguous about Randall A. Terry. Since bursting onto the national scene with a bullhorn in protests during last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, the high school dropout and ex-used car dealer has become the nation’s most controversial anti-abortion leader.
Terry’s is a world in which there are still moral absolutes. Ending legal abortion is only the first step toward bringing what he views as “moral sanity to this country.” Not the least of the changes he hopes to bring is an end of “radical feminism,” which he says is intent on “destroying the traditional family unit.”
His is a campaign of lawlessness in the name of higher laws. Where the more established anti-abortion, or pro-life, organizations have battled within the judicial and legislative arenas, Terry has taken Operation Rescue to the streets, seeking to physically shut the doors of abortion clinics in scores of cities around the nation and producing thousands of arrests.
Southern California will be the next front for Terry’s shock troops. Disregarding a federal court injunction, Operation Rescue is planning to gather up to 2,000 people for three days of sit-ins next week. They do not plan to disclose the locations of their targets.
Pro-choice activists are organizing what they say is an equal number of volunteers. If Operation Rescue forces closure of any of its targets, they plan to assist women who want abortions to find other clinics.
“Operation Rescue has struck a deep anger in abortion rights supporters that these people would dare come in and impose their religious views,” said Patricia Ireland, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women.
At the same time Operation Rescue has driven a wedge in the anti-abortion movement. Many who say they hate abortion with a passion as strong as Terry’s say that even this fervor does not give them the right to break the law.
The National Right to Life Committee, which is the largest anti-abortion group, declined all comment on Operation Rescue. Spokesman Douglas Johnson said pointedly that its policy is to “engage only in lawful activities.”
But to the thousands Terry has recruited over the past two years, he is a visionary--nothing less than “God’s man"--as he was introduced recently to a cheering crowd in Orange.
“He is fast becoming the Martin Luther King of the pro-life movement,” says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who last year donated $20,000 to the growing Operation Rescue war chest that Terry has shielded from public scrutiny.
This secrecy has frustrated his enemies, as Operation Rescue marches right past the court orders, crippling fines and lawsuits that opponents place in its way.
Terry insists that his own activities are strictly nonviolent, but says he does not see anything immoral in those who go further and bomb abortion clinics.
“The NAACP was never going to change racism through legal channels,” maintains Joseph Foreman, chief organizer of next week’s protests in Southern California. “Under Martin Luther King, they started treating the Jim Crow laws for what they were.”
The comparison to 1960s protest movements infuriates pro-choice forces, who say Operation Rescue seeks to work its will by coercion.
“They remind me of the people who were jeering and screaming at us when we were trying to get access to lunch counters,” says Julian Bond, who had been a leader in the desegregation struggle. “Civil rights tried to expand life for everyone. These people want to restrict life for women.”
“This is not civil disobedience,” adds Lynn M. Paltrow of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It is a religious crusade.”
By Terry’s count, 20,000 members of his holy army have been arrested, including upwards of 2,000 in dozens of cities on the “National Day of Rescue” last October.
The numbers have strained municipal budgets and court dockets around the country. Officials in Atlanta estimate that their city alone has already spent more than $1.5 million since last summer arresting and prosecuting 1,300 protesters. More than 1,000 remain to be tried.
Some of those Terry calls “front-line foot soldiers” have emptied their bank accounts, even given up their jobs and homes in answer to his call to “send the death movement back to hell, where it came from.”
Planned Parenthood leader David Andrews describes Terry’s appeal as “magical, almost mesmerizing. . . . It’s a little scary that people are susceptible to that kind of manipulation.”
Atlanta Police Sgt. Carl S. Pyrdum Jr., who coordinated the arrests there last year, goes so far as to compare Terry’s Operation Rescue with “the Jim Jones deal,” the cult that followed its leader to mass suicide in Guyana a decade ago.
“It gets real close to being the same situation, in my opinion,” Pyrdum says.
Operation Rescue and its radical tactics have intensified the abortion battle at a critical moment when the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to reconsider its landmark 1973 decision establishing abortion as a legal right. But even if the Roe vs. Wade ruling is toppled, Terry says Operation Rescue’s mission will continue.
“Our country has settled into a cesspool of immorality,” Terry says. “The Rescue movement will provide the moral momentum and political force to not only make child killing illegal but to restore moral sanity to this country.”
Randy Terry, the son of Rochester, N.Y.-area school teachers, grew up in a home that was not particularly religious.
The family went to church “on and off,” he says. Along with others of his generation, he experimented with some of the things he now condemns, including marijuana. An avid musician, Terry even harbored ambitions of becoming a rock star, which he now dismisses as a youthful fantasy.
He dropped out of high school shortly before graduation and spent a few months traveling around the country. Terry was, by his account, “bewildered by our society,” and found the answers to his questions when he studied the Scriptures.
The account he presents of his adolescence differs dramatically from that offered by his aunt, Dawn Marvin, who as spokeswoman for the Rochester chapter of Planned Parenthood has often clashed with Terry publicly.
His aunt calls Terry “an egomaniac” and says he found God after his dreams of becoming a rock singer were dashed. During those years, she says, Terry was “really nuts . . .. He used to corner the teen-agers at family gatherings and tell them, this was a sin, that was a sin.”
Terry earned his high school equivalency certificate, and in 1978, headed for Elim Bible Institute, an upstate school that describes itself as “transdenominational, evangelical and charismatic.” He graduated fourth in a class of 39 in 1981, and married soon after.
Then began a series of jobs, most of which lasted only a few months. Terry was a potato chip salesman, a tire salesman, a cook, a supervisor with an electronics firm and a music teacher.
He also worked for two car dealerships but abandoned the second of those jobs in 1985 to devote all of his time to a cause that had begun to consume his life.
Terry and his wife, Cindy, had moved to Binghamton in May, 1984, because “there (was) a killing center in Binghamton where children were killed, and I wanted to be close to that and try to rescue babies from being killed and their moms from being exploited,” he said in a deposition last year.
At first, Cindy would stand an 8-hour-a-day vigil outside the Southern Tier Womens Services office, and Randy would join her on lunch hours. Together they would shout at and plead with people they believed to be entering the clinic for an abortion. Sometimes, they would shove pictures of bloody fetuses at the patients to make their point.
They also opened what they called a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Its name and advertisements of free pregnancy tests suggest that it might be an abortion clinic. However, it is actually a place where counselors would do their best to try to talk pregnant women into having their babies.
The conflict at Southern Tier escalated as Terry was joined by his pastor, the Rev. Daniel J. Little, and other members of their evangelical church. On Jan. 8, 1986, seven invaded the office, barricading themselves in one room and chaining themselves to the plumbing, the furniture and each other. Police bashed the door open, and arrested them for trespassing.
From then on, Terry was to become a familiar figure to Binghamton area police.
Terry’s vision had already grown beyond Binghamton. John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe first recalls seeing the bushy-haired young man on Jan. 22, 1985, as a group of anti-abortion demonstrators were being arrested on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
“Randy saw it happening and got all excited about it. He stood on the steps and urged the others to pray,” Cavanaugh-O’Keefe says. “We didn’t know who he was at the time.”
In many ways, it was Cavanaugh-O’Keefe and a small group of activist Catholics who started the “rescue movement” in the 1970s. Although their own church had been at the lead of the moral drive to end abortion, they contended it had always stopped just short of doing what would be most meaningful--physically preventing abortions from taking place.
The clergy are “more worried about the collections in their Sunday boxes than they are about ending this holocaust,” says Michael McMonagle, another Catholic and movement veteran. “If they ever got serious about it, they could end (abortion) overnight.”
If the movement had a leader, it was former seminarian Joseph M. Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, whose list of 99 anti-abortion tactics became a sort of manifesto. Now facing a spate of tough lawsuits and accusations that he has been behind abortion clinic bombings, Scheidler has ceded the helm to Terry, although many who are close to the issue say they still see his influence at work.
They operated at first in small, fragmented groups. Some, like John Ryan of St. Louis, who was arrested 400 times in the space of a few years, worked on their own.
Another, Joan Andrews, broke into a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic and damaged a suction machine in March, 1986. Offered probation, she vowed she would go out and do it again as soon as she was freed, so a judge sentenced her to five years in prison.
Her story caught the attention of TV and radio evangelists James Dobson, Eugene Kennedy and Pat Robertson, and suddenly, the anti-abortion cause had a martyr and an angry evangelical base.
Randall Terry, with his view of an angry God ready to smite a sinful nation, was just the man to move them out of their churches and into the streets.
He relentlessly pushed the idea of making a national movement of the loosely affiliated local rescue efforts. In November, 1986, at a rally in Pensacola for Andrews, a group of activists invited him to outline his plan at a meeting at a Sizzler Steak House.
Three hundred people would try it out on Thanksgiving weekend a year later, with a sit-in at an abortion clinic in Cherry Hill, N.J., just outside Philadelphia.
“We sang, prayed, read Psalms and basically had a church service on the doorstep of hell for nearly 11 hours! No babies died. It was glorious, peaceful and prayerful,” Terry wrote later.
And Operation Rescue was born.
Randy Adler, pastor of a charismatic church in Laguna Hills, warned an Operation Rescue planning rally in Lakewood on Jan. 21 that “We’re going into war, and every war needs finances.”
He announced that God himself had made a very specific request of the group: exactly $10,000, due immediately. The 600 people who had gathered at St. Pancratius Catholic Church reached for their wallets and checkbooks.
They donated $9,800 in cash and checks, and two diamond rings, a spokesman said later.
It is a scene repeated many times as Operation Rescue has built its war chest. Its precise size can only be guessed at.
Terry has made a determined effort to hide such information from his enemies by running Operation Rescue as his personal venture. Every dollar it collects or spends must be accounted for on Terry’s own tax returns, which, like that of any other other citizen, are private.
In an interview published in late January, Terry promised the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin that a financial statement would be available in February, but it did not materialize. Terry said this week that he has written the text, but his accountant has not yet signed off on the actual statement.
He claims to have raised about $300,000 in direct contributions last year, but critics insist the amount was probably far higher.
The money apparently began to flow in after Operation Rescue made its big media splash last summer during the Democratic convention in Atlanta.
An Atlanta Police undercover agent searching the suitcases of about 25 Operation Rescue members recalled that he was startled to come across tens of thousands of dollars in stacks of 100-, 50- and 20-dollar bills and travelers checks.
Terry denies that the demonstrators carried such large sums. “I only wish it were true,” he sighs. “Our enemies cannot conceive of having this much power without money.”
Atlanta Police Sgt. Pyrdum said he turned information about Operation Rescue over to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS declined to comment, but Terry says he fully expects an audit.
The New York State Attorney General’s office said that it is investigating to see whether Terry has been raising funds in the state. If it determines he has, it will require him to register and provide a breakdown of collections and spending. Terry says he will comply with such a ruling, if it is issued.
Terry himself appears to live modestly. According to his bookkeeper’s deposition in January, Terry’s annual Operation Rescue salary is $31,200.
Terry lives with his wife, daughter and three foster children in a simple two-story home in Windsor, a tiny town just east of Binghamton. They purchased it in Cindy’s name from a church acquaintance for $46,000 a year ago.
Terry’s assets are of some interest to courts and law enforcement agencies around the country who are trying to collect a mountain of fines levied on Operation Rescue.
Operation Rescue insists that God’s judgment is the one that matters, but in the here and now, the organization is becoming an almighty headache for courts all over the country.
“They have us litigating on so many fronts it’s impossible for us to know where our head is at,” said Hillary Weisman, an attorney for New York City, which is trying to collect almost $20,000 awarded by a court to cover the police and other costs it has incurred at the hands of Operation Rescue.
One federal judge in New York has grown so exasperated with Operation Rescue’s disregard for his orders that he has fined it $50,000, and warned that he will double the fine every time the group violates his injunction against blocking access to clinics.
Further, the court plans to distribute the money to the National Organization for Women and the very abortion clinics that Operation Rescue has attacked. That is, of course, if it ever collects.
“Can you believe your eyes?” Terry wrote in an Operation Rescue newsletter last November. “A federal judge ordered me and Operation Rescue to pay $50,000 to baby-killers and those who support baby-killers! This is beyond outrageous! It would be like asking civil rights leaders to pay money to the KKK! . . . I will not pay money to baby-killers!”
In California, Santa Clara County has declared a state of judicial emergency because of the overload it faces in prosecuting about 500 demonstrators arrested there since October. One proceeding in January ended in mistrial before trial even began, after Operation Rescue attorney Cyrus Zal insisted on describing abortion in the most graphic terms to potential jurors.
“The Holy Spirit guides and directs my whole conduct of the trial,” Zal said. “I’ve been cutting away all the fake words and terms, telling about abortion for what it is.”
In its literature, Operation Rescue advises potential demonstrators that the legal penalties are likely to be minor--a reprimand, and no criminal charges on their record. Law enforcement agencies in many cities are doing their best to prove that idea wrong.
“We have dealt with two-thirds of the first 248 and no case has been dismissed,” said Rebecca Hayworth, the Santa Clara deputy district attorney.
The stakes for those who join the protests also rose dramatically two weeks ago when a federal appeals court in Philadelphia upheld a ruling that the protesters could be punished under a tough, far-reaching federal racketeering law.
Terry, a defendant in a somewhat similar racketeering lawsuit filed in Chicago by the National Organization for Women, says the decision is “a blatant misuse of the judicial system, and it’s deliberately designed to crush this movement.”
Chet Gallagher, formerly with the Las Vegas Police Department, is one of the newest rising stars in the rescue movement.
Gallagher, 39, was fired Feb. 13 for disobeying orders while on duty and being arrested himself at an Operation Rescue sit-in. “I have a responsibility as a police officer to save human life,” he said. Gallagher, has since appeared at rallies and on Christian radio and television shows.
His ex-wife Diane Foster sees a bitter irony: Gallagher’s fame as a hero of the unborn has come at the expense of his own two children. “He was willing to sacrifice his job, and without a job, there’s no child support coming in,” she said.
Operation Rescue leaders say that such sacrifices are common--necessary, even--as the movement grows.
“People sell their businesses and possessions. You’re prepared to lose things you have. It’s the nature of the job,” said one organizer, who recently moved to Orange County from Atlanta to help with the upcoming Southern California protests.
Terry preaches that “God is love--absolutely--but God is also fire,” and unless America repents for abortion, it will suffer his fury. The consequences, Terry warns, could be economic collapse, plague, drought, famine, or even “military intervention from an outside aggressor.
“You can sacrifice now or later,” Terry adds. “You’ll pay anyway.”
“The blood of 25 million children cries from the ground for vengeance. How long can God stand by without judging this country? America will rise or fall on the blood of her children.”
Others in the anti-abortion movement have a different view of God.
One recent Sunday at Grace Community Church, an independent fundamentalist church in Sun Valley, Pastor John MacArthur passed out a brochure to at least 7,000 churchgoers.
“In a sinful world, God has sovereignly given human government the authority to keep peace and order, not to institute Christian values,” it read. “He will ultimately judge all sinners, including those who murder their children . . .. The church has never been called to prevent sin by force or intrusion, but to proclaim the gospel to sinners.”
Thus, Operation Rescue is making abortion a watershed religious quandary.
“We have a question which the church can no longer ignore. It’s going to divide the church,” said Donald S. Smith, president of the Anaheim-based American Portrait Films, which produced the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream.”
Catholic bishops, though opposed to abortion, have taken no official stand on Operation Rescue and its tactics. Still, Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughn of New York became the first U.S. Catholic bishop in memory to spend time in jail after he refused to pay a fine for demonstrating with Operation Rescue in Paoli, Pa. Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony has offered “prayerful” support, and Diocese of Orange Bishop Norman F. McFarland has offered to stand in at Mass and confession for any priest arrested.
Terry’s aide, Gary Leber, put the fetus back into formaldehyde storage.
Aborted at 19 to 21 weeks, it is one of 11 such specimens that a “pro-life pathologist in a lab out in Wisconsin” stole from his employer several years ago, Leber said. The fetuses often appear at Operation Rescue rallies, sometimes swaddled in baby blankets.
Terry added that eventually they will be buried properly.
Their images are everywhere at Operation Rescue’s Binghamton command center.
Photographs of fetuses appear on the lapel buttons that harried staff members wear. A wall poster with the caption “America’s Holocaust” features a photograph of a fetus that has been laid on an American flag. On a bulletin board, amid snapshots of smiling, healthy babies the movement claims to have rescued from abortion, is a photograph of a bloody fetus in four pieces.
Yet for all the gruesome overtones and religious fervor, the atmosphere at Operation Rescue headquarters is mostly business.
On that day earlier this week, Terry’s secretary was juggling his schedule so he could make an important appearance in Miami one night and be in Boston early following the morning. Between interviews Terry hammered out the details of a deal in which several of the songs he has written and sung may be featured on an religious record. Terry shouted that he needed to talk to “the marketing guy,” but no one seemed to have his number at hand.
Terry’s books, recordings and video tapes are hot sellers. He is planning more, as well as a four-color magazine somewhere down the line.
In the long run, if he wins his fight on abortion, Terry hopes to turn his attention to other issues--to fighting pornography, curbing the power of “little tyrants” who sit on the nation’s judicial benches and restoring what he regards as “moral sanity” to the arts, universities and media.
He deplores homosexuality, thinks women should stay home with their children if it is financially possible and believes teen-agers should not have access to birth control without their parents’ consent.
“Child-killing is the kingpin,” Terry says. “If we can defeat child-killing, we can restore the country.”
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.