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Polite Protest : Life Chain Avoids Confrontation in Spreading Anti-Abortion Message

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

A more unlikely leader or inauspicious beginning for a burgeoning national movement could hardly be imagined: Life Chain, a grass-roots anti-abortion group that offers an alternative to the brash confrontational tactics of Operation Rescue, was born in the bedroom office of Royce E. Dunn, a semi-retired real estate broker and former teacher.

By phone, fax and prayer, the unassuming, mild-mannered Dunn coordinates the Life Chain network from his modest 100-year-old home set in the middle of a walnut and prune orchard.

But don’t judge Life Chain’s impact by its humble Northern California base: From a single 1987 rally in the twin cities of Yuba City and Marysville that drew several thousand participants, Dunn and his growing band of volunteers have mounted an ever-widening campaign--one that has alarmed abortion-rights forces and raised charges that Dunn is attempting to paint the entire Christian community with a broad anti-abortion brush.

In October, 846,000 demonstrators were organized into “life chains” that lined the streets of 450 U.S. and Canadian cities, according to media reports and Life Chain estimates. The combined attendance represents one of the largest church-sponsored activities ever held in North America. An even bigger turnout is expected at next year’s National Life Chain Day on Oct. 4.

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Dunn’s approach appeals to many who oppose abortion but don’t want to face arrest, break laws or get physical. Unlike Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue, life chainers don’t block sidewalks or entrances to abortion clinics, and they adhere to a code of ethics that includes not responding to taunts or jeers.

Lay participants agree to carry only one blue and white placard with the message, “Abortion Kills Children.” Clergy carry a single sign saying, “Jesus Forgives and Heals.” So far, no life chain participants have been arrested and no acts of violence have been reported, according to the organization’s records.

“It could be easy to go out and bash abortionists and anyone who would oppose us,” Dunn, 53, said over a light meal of pears, potato chips and pasta. “But that’s not what Jesus would have us do. . . . I see a real need for pro-life leaders to practice biblical principles of self-control.”

But, his jaw set, Dunn added: “We are relentless in our picketing. . . . Abortionists have just not found it pleasant.”

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Indeed, some abortion-rights groups resent what they view as Life Chain’s representation that the entire Christian community believes abortion is murder.

“That simply isn’t true,” said Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights of Southern California, part of a national coalition of 35 denominations and faith groups committed to reproductive choice as a religious right. “They are seeking to drive a wedge in the Christian community by using the symbol of the cross"--a reference to Life Chain’s practice of forming huge human crosses along the sidewalks at major intersections during demonstrations.

“They co-opt the cross as theirs only. It’s a sacred symbol--not something (that should be used) to deny women’s consciences or their relationships with God,” Riedel said. “Clergy and laity of diverse faiths and denominations . . . hold varying viewpoints as to when abortion is morally justified.”

The National Organization for Women has also criticized Life Chain. Nicolette Worley of the Ventura-Oxnard chapter said Life Chain pickets “are not only in the religious minority, but the minority of the general population as well.”

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Life Chain is a division of Please Let Me Live, a nonprofit ministry founded by Dunn in 1985. After the first life chain here in 1987, Dunn organized a 1989 chain in Bakersfield, followed by ones in Fresno and Sacramento, as well as in Riverside and Orange counties. In 1990, the movement went national--abortion foes formed 165 chains in 40 states. The largest crowd--30,000--lined 13 miles of roadway in Torrance and surrounding cities; another 28,000 turned out in San Diego.

On Oct. 6, National Life Chain Day, organizers reported that 1,500 miles of sidewalks were staked out by placard-carrying abortion opponents in 373 U.S. cities in 42 states and 71 Canadian sites. The demonstrations typically lasted one to two hours and the participants stood three to 20 feet apart in a single-file line. Attendance ranged from fewer than 100 in small communities to 28,000 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dunn describes Life Chain as “church oriented and pastor focused. . . . Our goal is to help the church recognize its true invincibility in dealing with evils and social problems.”

Life Chain uses individual churches as organizing blocks. Church leaders sign up parishioners, distribute placards and are responsible for picketing on a pre-assigned stretch of sidewalk.

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“It’s not just for individuals,” said Bev Cielnicky of Fountain Valley, who with her husband, Bob, coordinated life chains that included members of about 260 Orange County churches. “It’s to get the churches involved.”

Cielnicky noted that some demonstrators feel uncomfortable with radical protests, tactics such as Operation Rescue’s clinic blockades last summer in Wichita, Kan., where 2,700 people were arrested. Life Chain “is totally legal, yet they are able to make a public statement . . . for life,” she said.

Tim McKinney, organizer of the 1991 life chain in Torrance, estimated that about three-fourths of those who participate in Life Chain subsequently engage in a variety of other activities, such as ministries to women with problem pregnancies, writing letters to congressmen and editors and joining Operation Rescue demonstrations.

“We support Life Chain 100%,” said Keith Tucci, director of Operation Rescue’s national office in Summerville, S.C. “We need all forms of pro-life activism. . . . It’s not a matter of being too soft; it’s a matter of doing everything possible to see lives saved.”

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Because of its peaceful, law-abiding approach, even some who favor abortion rights praise Life Chain.

“These people seem to do their ‘Pro-Life Hands Across America’ in a respectful way,” said Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice. “I think it’s far more appropriate than . . blocking, harassing or preventing women from exercising their constitutional right to choose.”

But Rosemary Stasek, co-chair of Southern California Catholics for a Free Choice, said Life Chain is composed of “a narrow set of conservative Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists. It doesn’t have the broad, ecumenical support they want to project.”

Stasek also accused Life Chain pastors of pressuring their members to take part.

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Dunn responded that participation is strictly voluntary and that scores of denominations are represented, including liberal ones. He acknowledged, however, that conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics make up the bulk of participation. Dunn is a member of Yuba City Glad Tidings Church, a conservative, charismatic congregation of 400 members.

The son of a “true Alabama dirt farmer,” Dunn attended college on scholarships and came to the Marysville area in 1962. After teaching high school English for 15 years, he became an independent real estate broker. Now, he said, he devotes 95% of his time to Please Let Me Live. He lives frugally and draws no salary from the organization, which has no regular budget and is directed by a volunteer board of four men and three women.

“We very softly recommend a $1 donation per life chain participant,” Dunn said. He estimates that it costs about 25 cents “to get a person out on a line with a sign.”

Although Dunn was reared in a “Bible-believing home,” he says it was his father’s death in 1977 that made him reassess his goals and pray for “a lay ministry--a calling on my life.”

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Dunn believes his prayer was answered in 1984--in an unlikely place: the office of Yuba City attorney John Larimer, where Dunn had gone to discuss a real estate deal.

“He was the toughest, hardest attorney in the city,” Dunn said. During their meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of abortion. “He asked me if I’d thought about abortion. And he began to cry. His tears impressed on me how much abortion meant to this man. I began reading prolifically on the subject--on both sides.”

A year later, Dunn sent a three-page letter to 82 area pastors urging them to support his fledgling ministry opposing abortion. Not one minister responded.

Undaunted, Dunn personally visited the clergy, and within a year about half had signed a letter of support. By 1987, nearly 90% had signed on, setting the stage for the first life chain when members from more than 50 Yuba and Sutter County churches occupied assigned sections of a three-mile route.

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Dunn, who enjoys reading about Bible prophecy and riding his aging tractor on the eight-acre family farm, believes God also healed him “from a football addiction. . . . I had an undue interest in sports,” he said. “Sometimes I used to watch Sunday games on television instead of going to church.”

He has no desire, however, for the Lord to take away his meek determination.

“I feel comfortable with my role,” he said. “I have no trouble picketing an abortionist very heavily and then taking him a nice basket of fruit.”


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