It was barely dawn of the third and final day of anti-abortion protests, but the small office that served as pro-choice headquarters was already in a frenzy.
Armed with mobile telephones, they had infiltrated two Operation Rescue convoys. As hundreds of cars loaded with anti-abortion protesters were making their way to Los Angeles from Anaheim, pro-choice tacticians at headquarters feverishly tracked their progress.
“Planned Parenthood in East L.A.'s been hit! Hold on! It’s not!” Robin Schneider shouted as she juggled phone lines and scanned the walls that had been papered with maps and charts. “We need to get people to Westmoreland right away. There are only about 10 people there. . . . Secure the back door!”
Change of Tactics
For years, pro-choice activists held press conferences, stuffed envelopes and gave their money to political candidates who support a woman’s right to an abortion.
In Los Angeles last week, they fought a war.
They matched their opponents in number. They outshouted them. They countered grisly photographs of aborted fetuses with graphic posters depicting a naked woman in a pool of blood on a motel room floor.
If last week’s choreographed protests hold any clue to the future tenor of the national debate over abortion, it is in the new stridence shown by the pro-choice forces.
“For too long, we’ve taken the rational ground, the public policy ground,” said Schneider, the executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League. “The intellectual arguments don’t mobilize people.”
The other side also noted the shift. “The opposition is shrewder,” said Barbara Magera, one of Operation Rescue’s top national organizers. “They are reacting in a much more defensive way, and they need to, because we’re on the offensive.”
The attack on abortion rights goes far beyond Operation Rescue and the Southern California clinics it shut down last week. “A much more serious threat is that the Supreme Court may be blocking those doors, instead of a few fanatics,” said Linda Burstyn, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The U.S. Supreme Court, with a new and largely untested conservative majority, has agreed to reconsider its landmark 1973 decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.
The immediate issue before the court is a Missouri law that prohibits the use of public facilities and employees to perform abortions. No one on either side expects the court to completely knock down its 16-year-old Roe vs. Wade decision, but they both say any weakening or restriction will amount to an invitation to all 50 state Legislatures to reconsider their own abortion laws.
Thus, the national debate over abortion will move from the judicial arena to the political, where it may last years or even decades. Next month alone, pro-choice organizations are planning a march on Washington, while Operation Rescue has declared a “National Day of Rescue.”
Other anti-abortion organizations, which have shied away from Operation Rescue’s radical tactics, say they are stepping up their lobbying. On the legislative front as well, anti-abortion groups say, they are encountering increased pressure from pro-choice organizations.
When Operation Rescue began its demonstrations throughout the country a little more than a year ago, pro-choice forces consciously avoided a headlong confrontation that would draw even more media attention. They sent a handful of “escorts” to help women keep appointments in clinics where the sit-ins occurred, and depended on local police to clear the protesters away.
Some still believe that is the best strategy. “We have basically cracked them in Atlanta,” said Margie Pitts Hames, a prominent attorney who was instrumental in pressuring Atlanta police to take a hard line against Operation Rescue.
Hames views large pro-choice demonstrations, such as the ones in Los Angeles, as a mistake, because they cause even more disruption at the clinics that are under attack.
“What they are doing is endangering women’s lives,” Hames said.
But others argue that the impending Supreme Court decision has upped the stakes. Now it is a battle not for temporary control of a few clinics but for public opinion.
“What we learned was that it was a one-sided story,” said Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women. “We were totally invisible.”
Moreover, it is no longer simply a question of whether abortion should be legal.
In 1973, the Supreme Court skirted even the basic question of when life begins. Now, 16 years and an estimated 24 million legal abortions later, judges and lawmakers throughout the country are struggling with issues that few had considered back then.
What, for example, are a father’s rights in determining the fate of the fetus he conceives? Can a state require a minor to notify her parents before she gets an abortion? Can it be required to spend public money on abortions for the poor? To whom does an aborted fetus belong? And who should make the abortion decision for a pregnant woman who is physically or mentally incapacitated?
Lynn M. Paltrow of the American Civil Liberties Union’s reproductive freedom project was among the pro-choice leaders throughout the country who cheered the turn of events in Los Angeles.
Planning a Response
ACLU members in Southern California and eight other pro-choice groups started planning their response to Operation Rescue months ago.
“It was just a matter of time before this happened,” Paltrow said. “When people feel they are losing something--or that they have nothing left to lose--they take to the streets.”
So it was that Donna Connelly found herself standing outside a clinic in Long Beach on Friday morning with a picket sign in her hand.
Connelly, who describes herself as a 40-year-old “stay-at-home housewife” from Redondo Beach, had never felt particularly inclined to be involved in any political cause.
But she is now considering getting pregnant, after having put it off until the last and most risky of her child-bearing years. She wants the option of abortion if tests indicate birth defects.
“I got really scared, and that’s why I’m here,” Connelly said.
Students Take Stand
None of the 30 teen-age students from Joanne Parker’s woman’s studies class at Westlake School for Girls had been born when the court handed down the Roe vs. Wade decision. The Bel-Air students gave up their Good Friday holiday to join the pro-choice demonstrators.
“They’re learning the value of commitment,” their teacher said with satisfaction as she watched her students chanting and shouting. “They’re learning that women’s rights are worth fighting for.”