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Single Voices Speak Within Cacophony of Mass Protest

Times Staff Writer

In 3 days of defiant sit-ins and arrests last week, Operation Rescue’s Christian soldiers raised the volume--if not the quality--of the debate over abortion.

You may wonder what this accomplished.

Contrary to the leaders’ goals, few if any pregnant women were permanently turned back from abortion; no one I know was moved to change his or her opinion over an issue that seems fundamentally personal and emotional.

Instead, after 3 days of viewing the grisly photos of severed fetus heads or women dead from botched abortions, Randall Terry’s public displays of an aborted fetus, listening to prayers and hymns by bullhorn and the angry chants of counterprotesters, many of us became more firmly entrenched in the opinions we had held all along--either pro, con, or profoundly ambivalent.

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In fact, as the sit-ins wore on, they turned into something exceptional. Many journalists covering Operation Rescue, people normally pledged to the appearance of neutrality or objectivity, found themselves drawn into conversation with the activists or one another. And suddenly, people were confiding past secrets and strong, private beliefs:

- A married journalist who said she was using an intrauterine birth control device when she became pregnant by accident and had an abortion. Those who would impose their beliefs on her freedom infuriated her.

- A writer who still regrets an abortion his girlfriend had many years ago. “He would be 20 now,” he said wistfully.

- Another who said her decision to abort an accidental pregnancy was easy--"It would have ruined my life,” she said--but who found the process itself overwhelmingly sad.

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- A born-again male photographer who tried in vain to engage a female photographer in a Biblical debate.

To the ubiquitous question, “What do you think?” many replied openly and thoughtfully. Among them:

- A reporter said she came to realize the great commitment required of a good parent only after giving birth herself. “No one should have a child unless she really wants to.”

- A newspaper reporter, watching Operation Rescue convoys move out before dawn on the third day of the blockades, said he found the protesters’ dedication to their cause “moving.”

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- Throughout, one said, “I’m confused.”

Operation Rescue has lionized police officers with strong religious beliefs who have refused to arrest protesters in the name of a higher law. But those officers I talked with spoke out for man’s laws. They included:

- A born-again police officer who, against policy, blurted out a Biblical quote to prove that God wants believers to obey governmental law.

- A Catholic officer, waiting for his police chief’s decision on whether to arrest the demonstrators, said he believes abortion is murder. But he said he left his beliefs at home because he needs the job to feed the children he already has.

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Leaders on both sides put forth unyielding positions: A pro-choice leader claimed that 99.9% of all abortions leave no emotional trace, and an anti-abortionist refused to consider working with the other side to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancies because they are “bloodthirsty executioners.”

Their rank-and-file followers showed sincere pain. An old priest stood weeping at the sight of women chanting, “Women must decide their fate.” A middle-aged woman retold the agony and humiliation of her abortion before the process was legal.

Occasionally, I heard voices willing to give a little.

One devout protester who works with disadvantaged children qualified his views with the phrase, “in my opinion.” One member of the National Organization for Women applauded the story of an Operation Rescue heroine--a pregnant cancer victim who refused an abortion that could have saved her life in order to bear her fifth child.

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Compared to the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of abortion rights this spring, Operation Rescue’s real impact may be puny--a mosquito buzzing the nation’s divergent convictions.

At the least, they made the 11 o’clock news.

They also introduced several hundred believers to the inside of a jail. And they prodded many of us to get to know one another much better.


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