Militant anti-abortionists and a coalition of pro-choice demonstrators converged by the hundreds on an Orange County family planning clinic Thursday, engaging in an angry confrontation to determine whether pregnant women could make their way inside.
Within minutes after the clinic in Cypress was supposed to open, scores of police stepped in and began arresting hundreds of members of Operation Rescue, from churches here and around the country, who are seeking to create havoc at Southland abortion clinics during Holy Week.
Officials said 350 members of the group were arrested for blockading the offices of the Family Planning Associates medical group, as was one counter-demonstrator.
The chaotic but largely peaceful struggle, planned for months and carefully choreographed by both sides, was expected to be but the first of a series of similar clashes at Southern California clinics through Easter eve.
More Protesters Expected
After the Thursday morning clash, the Operation Rescue people expressed some dismay that more protesters did not take part in the initial skirmish.
“My disappointment is that this represents only a fraction of the membership of some larger churches in this area,” Joseph Foreman, national field director for Operation Rescue, said as he watched the day’s events. “This place (the clinic) does not have to exist.”
Barbara Martinez, a member of the National Organization for Women, said, “Operation Rescue didn’t accomplish anything today in terms of stopping women from exercising the right to choose.”
More than two dozen clients eventually were able to get into the clinic with the help of pro-choice escorts wearing orange-colored vests, but not before Operation Rescue “sidewalk counselors” showed them photographs of fetuses and called out, “Save your baby!” or “Don’t kill your baby . . . This is murder!”
The anti-abortionists sang “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” while refusing to move from doorways. They went limp as Cypress police hauled them off one by one to be cited and released.
Meanwhile, pro-choice volunteers chanted, “My body’s nobody’s body but mine” and told police, “Read ‘em their rights and take ‘em away.”
Some patients who were not immediately able to get through the demonstrators were given temporary shelter in a small business school across the street until police and pro-choice escorts could get them into the clinic through a side door.
In one case, anti-abortion protesters descended on the car of a young couple, plastering the windshield with pictures of dead babies. The woman put her head down on the steering wheel and appeared to be crying. A dog in the car began barking wildly.
When protesters refused to leave the couple alone, the angry man began pushing one of them. Finally, the woman persuaded him to get back into the car and they drove away. She shouted out the window, “You people have no right to do this!”
A 15-year-old girl who was seeking an abortion decided to go to another clinic rather than face the crowd and the cameras because she was afraid her parents would see her picture. “The poor little girl was scared to death,” said Katherine Cammack, executive director of Barclay College, the business school.
The New-York based Operation Rescue had promised to gather thousands of anti-abortion activists for the Southern California effort, envisioned as one of its most ambitious in a series of similar protests held across the country since a debut last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
Pro-choice groups have marshalled hundreds of their own people in a bid to beat the Operation Rescue forces to secretly targeted clinics, and thus prevent the anti-abortion forces from blockading the doors.
Although there had been claims that more than 2,000 people from throughout the country would come here to take part in the crusade to shut down Southern California abortion clinics, Operation Rescue official Ken Tanner estimated that about 85% of Thursday’s sit-in participants were from Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Look Toward Saturday
Operation Rescue officials had predicted that 3,500 would participate during the three days. On Thursday, however, Tanner said he expected a total of 2,000, and said Saturday should be the biggest day.
Operation Rescue claims to have had 20,000 people arrested at anti-abortion sit-ins throughout the country.
The Los Angeles area “Holy Week of Rescue” was organized to bring attention to the U.S. Supreme Court’s impending reconsideration of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion.
A federal court last week issued an injunction prohibiting the demonstrators from placing themselves within 15 feet of a clinic doorway. Operation Rescue members declared their intention to violate that order--and were as good as their word.
Cypress Police Lt. John T. Schaefer estimated that more than 600 anti-abortionists joined the demonstration at the clinic while about 150 pro-choice advocates showed up to counter them. Estimates by some reporters were lower.
70 Officers Assist
Nonetheless, 70 officers from seven jurisdictions, including the Orange County Sheriffs’ Department, were on hand to make arrests.
Although rumors persisted that clinics in Los Angeles and elsewhere were about to be hit with demonstrations, and as pro-choice groups waited at scattered locations to respond, the Cypress sit-in was the day’s main event.
Assistant Police Chief Robert L. Vernon of Los Angeles, after meeting with about a dozen top officers at the department’s Emergency Command Center, said Thursday afternoon that he was sure that the Operation Rescue demonstrators would turn their attention to Los Angeles either today or Saturday.
“My best guess is the biggest demonstration will be on Saturday,” Vernon said. “It’s the biggest business day for some of the clinics.”
He vowed that the Police Department will be ready either day and added, “We will respect rights, but we won’t put up with any foolishness.”
Among those arrested Thursday was Randall Terry, the 29-year-old founder of Operation Rescue from Binghamton, N.Y., who was exhorting his followers through a bullhorn to slow down the arrest process by refusing to tell police anything until given permission by the campaign leaders.
Like the others, he was holding a psalm book and went limp as five officers carried him to a police van. He lay on the passenger seat murmuring “Holy Jesus” while his supporters chanted, “Justice, justice, justice!”
Police took most of those arrested to nearby Cypress City Hall where they quickly overflowed the City Council Chamber and had to be moved to the Cypress Community Center tennis courts for processing.
They were cited for remaining at the scene of an unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor, and were released after being given dates in late April to report to West Orange County Municipal Court in Westminster for arraignment.
The first to be released on her own recognizance was Aleta Matthews of Torrance, who said she intends to appear for her arraignment on April 26. “I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. Arrested about 9:30 a.m. and released early in the afternoon, she pronounced the experience “absolutely worth it.”
Others said after they were released that during the several hours they remained on the tennis courts, they prayed and listened to short sermons by the 12 to 15 ministers who were among them. But it was about 1 p.m. before portable toilets were brought in, one person said, and there was some anxiety because police had advised people to drink water so the sun would not make them ill.
The location of the demonstration was kept secret by Operation Rescue leaders until all of the participants were ready in cars and vans to depart from the Melodyland parking lot in Anaheim before sunrise.
About half of the group departed in one caravan for the clinic at 9461 Grindlay Street in Cypress, while the others--referred to by the leaders as the “Delta Force"--awaited further instructions. They, too, were dispatched to the clinic to sit in doorways.
Some pro-choice people--part of a coalition including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, NOW and the California Abortion Rights Action League--reached the clinic ahead of the first Operation Rescue wave.
Within minutes, there were alternate layers of demonstrators: anti-abortion protesters in Operation Rescue T-shirts and pro-choice supporters in orange “Escort” vests and purple armbands. They carried blue-and-white signs reading “Keep Abortion Legal.”
Making Each Other Ill
The two sides almost seemed intent on making each other ill. For instance:
Sue Coorey, 33, a member of a Pentecostal church in Agua Dulce, held a poster showing the bloody, severed head of a fetus. A foot away, Anthony Herick, 20, a Harvey Mudd College engineering major, waved a placard bearing the photograph of a bloody nude woman he said had died after a botched abortion.
Cypress police warned demonstrators that they were participating in an unlawful assembly and that they would be arrested if they refused to move from the doorways. Most pro-choice people moved away, but anti-abortionists remained where they were.
As officers waded in to carry them off one by one, the protesters went limp. And, as instructed by their leaders, others crawled in to take the places of those arrested.
One woman, whose car was surrounded by “sidewalk counselors” as she entered the two-story office building, said later: “I don’t know why everybody assumes you’re there for an abortion. It’s nobody’s business why I was there. I could have been there to go to the dentist.”
As the last of those arrested were released Thursday afternoon, Operation Rescue leaders called it a day and repaired to Anaheim for another nighttime rally at Melodyland where, one of them said, they would “prepare spiritually for future protests.”
Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Michael Cicchese, Steve Emmons, Mark Landsbaum, Claudia Luther, Carol McGraw, Terry Pristin and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this article.