Hundreds of anti-abortion activists fanned out to four abortion clinics across this city during the first full day of Operation Rescue’s “Spring to Life” offensive Tuesday, but abortion-rights advocates showed up in even stronger numbers to counter the protesters and the clinics kept operating.
As rain fell, there was a daylong standoff, amid much chanting and singing. Abortion-rights advocates locked arms and legs to defend clinic entrance ways and abortion opponents continued to demonstrate across the street.
“We’ve been organizing and training people in nonviolent clinic defenses for the last four months, ever since Operation Rescue said that they were going to make Buffalo bigger than Wichita,” said Kit Bonson, a spokeswoman for the abortion-rights group Buffalo United for Choice. “We can put the brake on Operation Rescue here in this town. If they’re not able to succeed here, they’re less likely to go to another city.”
Operation Rescue, a militant national anti-abortion group, has modeled its Buffalo campaign after its 46-day protest last year outside clinics in Wichita, Kan., that resulted in 2,600 arrests.
In Washington, President Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, urged anti-abortion protesters in Buffalo “not to break the law in any way.” Bush, who has shifted his stance on abortion over the years, opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother’s life.
New York state’s abortion law, adopted in 1970, permits abortions during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Police, acting under a federal court injunction ordering anti-abortion demonstrators to stay at least 15 feet away from the clinics, erected barriers between the opposing groups and stood guard with batons at their sides.
Despite the opposition his group encountered from abortion-rights forces, the Rev. Keith Tucci, Operation Rescue’s national director, said that the Buffalo campaign was “going better than we planned.”
“This is the largest group of demonstrators we’ve ever had on the first day,” he said. “We’re not here to get arrested. We only get arrested if we can keep clinics closed.”
Two ministers, both well-known anti-abortion activists in the Buffalo area, were arrested outside a clinic on Main Street near downtown. Police also confiscated a human fetus that one of the clergymen had been holding up in front of abortion-rights demonstrators.
One of the ministers, the Rev. Robert Schenck, 33, was taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct for displaying the fetus under a law that prohibits “creating a physically offensive condition,” authorities said. His twin brother, Paul, was arrested for trespassing after he got into the the bus where police had taken his brother.
The brothers, who were dressed in black clerical garb with Roman collars, are ministers at the evangelistic New Convent Tabernacle in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. Over the weekend, Paul Schenck was shoved and spat upon by abortion-rights demonstrators when he walked into their rally outside the Main Street clinic.
The Erie County medical examiner later determined that the fetus Robert Schenck had brandished had been 19 weeks old, but he was not able to determine whether it had been aborted.
“This is not a political issue. This is not an issue of rights. This is a dead baby, this is a dead human being,” Robert Schenck said as he displayed the pale, wrinkled fetus to the crowd.
There were no other arrests Tuesday and no reports of violence.
Anti-abortionists claimed that they were successful in preventing women from getting abortions at the clinics.
“I feel it’s going great,” said the Rev. Daren Drzymala of Buffalo as he led a protest across the street from a clinic on Linwood Avenue, not far the the Main Street clinic. “I feel it’s a victory today.”
But clinic operators and abortion-rights advocates said the clinics suffered no disruptions in their schedules.
“They haven’t stopped them at all,” Lisa Gerber, a Pro-Choice Network supporter who served as an escort at the Main Street clinic, Buffalo GYN Womenservices. “There hasn’t been any stopping of any of the normal workday.”
Tucci, Operation Rescue’s leader, told his followers that the women who came to the clinics were “plants.”
The rain that fell during most of the day did not seem to dampen the turnout or the spirits of protesters on either side.
Abortion-rights advocates in front of the Linwood clinic brandished a forest of blue-and-white placards saying, “Keep Abortion Legal,” and chanted, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, Randall Terry’s boring,” referring to Operation Rescue’s founder.
Later, they chanted: “Real men choose choice” and “Pass the condoms with the wafer, everyone will be much safer.”