250 Anti-Abortion Protesters Seized : Operation Rescue Leaders Dismayed at Turnout at Orange County Clinic
About 250 anti-abortion demonstrators were arrested Thursday for blockading an Orange County family planning clinic, but organizers expressed dismay that more did not participate in the opening of a three-day civil disobedience campaign.
Operation Rescue followers, estimated by police to number more than 500, descended Thursday morning on the Family Planning Associates Medical Group offices in Cypress, and were confronted by about 150 counter-demonstrators who waved pro-choice signs and shielded pregnant women attempting to enter.
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.”
More than two dozen clients eventually were able to get into the clinic with the help of pro-choice escorts wearing orange 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!”
“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.”
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.
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.
Claims 20,000 Arrests
Operation Rescue, which soared into public view with demonstrations during last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, claims to have had 20,000 people arrested at anti-abortion sit-ins around 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.
Some estimates of the number of demonstrators and counter-demonstrators in Cypress on Thursday were less than those offered by police. 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 Los Angeles Police Chief Robert L. Vernon, after meeting with about a dozen top officers at the Police 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 LAPD 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 not 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.
Taken to City Hall
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 late April dates 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 intended 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 their release that during the several hours they remained on the tennis courts, they prayed and listened to short sermons by the 12 to 15 ministers among them. But it was about 1 p.m. before portable toilets were brought in, one 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 approximately 500 participants were ready in cars and vans to depart from the Melodyland church 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.
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 away 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.
Some clinic patients who were not immediately able to get through the demonstrators were--at the request of police--given temporary sanctuary at Barclay College across the street.
As pregnant women arrived to keep their appointments at the clinic, Operation Rescue’s “sidewalk counselors” surrounded their cars and attempted to dissuade them from going inside.
Staff writers Stephen Braun, Michael Cicchese, Steve Emmons, Mark Landsbaum, Claudia Luther, Carol McGraw, Terry Pristin and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this article.