A Shadow of Doubt : Kathi Hudson gave up her job to spy on Operation Rescue. But then she was 'born again,' sending shock waves through the abortion-rights movement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was time to pray.

Jeff White, California director of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, asked: "Do you want to pray?"

Kathi Hudson--a committed feminist, abortion clinic defender and pro-choice spy against Operation Rescue--couldn't believe it when she heard herself reply: "Yes."

It was late on a sweltering night in Houston last August, in the midst of the Republican National Convention, and Kathi Hudson and Jeff White were standing in the parking lot of Liberty Revival Church at the end of a long Operation Rescue rally.

As an abortion-rights "shadower," Hudson's job was to follow White and other Operation Rescue leaders everywhere, to listen and learn as much as possible about their plans and tactics, and to testify against them in court whenever necessary. Hudson, 47, had been doing it for years, first in her hometown of Washington and later across the country. She knew Operation Rescue's leadership, from founder Randall Terry on down, better than almost anyone in the pro-choice movement.

Operation Rescue people liked her low-key, friendly manner and talked freely with her; she never shouted in their faces, as did many of their other adversaries. They sometimes joked that Hudson was their "favorite pro-abort."

She was on such good terms with Operation Rescue, in fact, that the group allowed her to openly attend its private rallies, even though members knew exactly why she was there.

Standing nearby in the church parking lot was Elizabeth Volz, Hudson's close friend and fellow shadower, puzzled as she watched Hudson get into Randall Terry's car with White. As Volz walked up, a crowd of anti-abortion activists surged out of the rally and past her into the night.

Inside the rented Chrysler, Terry sat behind the wheel, impatient to leave. But as Hudson and White began to pray aloud, Terry suddenly quieted, seized with fascination as he watched Hudson.

Volz was worried. She wasn't certain what was going on, but she knew Hudson shouldn't be in the car with these men.

Of course, they could all be friendly to one another. Terry and White knew Volz almost as well as they knew Hudson--although they didn't learn about a third, anonymous abortion-rights spy at their rallies until later. Here on the fringes of America's most irresolvable issue, there was, among a very few abortion-rights shadowers and anti-abortion leaders, a certain . . . tense camaraderie, born of shared battles.

It was, Volz thought, sometimes easier to understand and respect a committed opponent than those who haven't taken up a cause.

"There is a sense that we are drawn to each other and have a common feeling that at least they care. . . . It is the people in the middle, who don't care, that we don't understand," observes Volz. "But there is probably only a handful of us on both sides who have gotten to know each other well enough to have a sense of common feeling and understanding of each other."

But the relationships have limits. Fire-bombings, death threats and now the slaying of a Florida physician outside an abortion clinic have seen to that.

They were still sworn enemies. Just a few months earlier, Hudson's eyewitness testimony had helped convict five Operation Rescue leaders, including White, of violating a federal court injunction to stay away from a Buffalo, N.Y., abortion clinic. White was facing jail time as he sat and prayed with Hudson.

A small crowd was forming around the car. Half a dozen opponents of abortion gathered to watch and wait, recognizing, along with Volz, that something must be going on.

Volz knocked on the window.

"Are you all right?" she asked Hudson.

"I'm fine."

Thirty minutes later, Jeff White emerged from the car, beaming.

"Kathi has been saved," he announced.

"When she surrendered her life to Christ, I was thrilled, and I ran out and told Elizabeth and the others," White recalls.

Hudson came out a moment later, and Volz approached her:

"What happened?"

"I don't know."

Two nights later, Kathi Hudson was called onstage at yet another Operation Rescue rally. She stood quietly as a conservative minister introduced her to the crowd and joyously announced that Kathi Hudson, their longtime nemesis, a member of the militant Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force, had been "born again."

"You're next!" jubilant abortion foes exclaimed, pointing at Elizabeth Volz, as she stood numbly in the audience.

News travels fast in the activist subcultures on both sides of the abortion issue.

Two weeks after Houston, after Volz and Hudson had quietly gone home, an Operation Rescue newsletter announced that a "pro-abort named Kathi" had found Jesus Christ. Its subscription list was loaded with abortion-rights activists, and calls were soon rolling in from friends on the Washington task force, asking Hudson if she could possibly be the "Kathi."

Panic set in when she said yes.

Almost immediately, the task force changed the access codes to its telephone voice mail, to prevent Hudson from gaining entry. An abortion-rights activist, working undercover at Operation Rescue rallies, had already identified herself and gone home, assuming--incorrectly--that Hudson would point her out.

Now, the task force's leaders discussed whether to hold an emergency meeting to determine what to do if Hudson, who knew everything about their operations, had revealed their plans and tactics to Operation Rescue. The Washington task force, like others around the nation, was created to respond to Operation Rescue's confrontational, and often illegal, practice of storming abortion clinics to shut down their operations. The task force had developed tactics to escort and defend patients as they entered clinics.

When Hudson's closest friends urged calm and counseled against an emergency meeting--stressing that she would never betray them--a few members stormed out and promptly quit the organization.

"There is a fair amount of paranoia in this organization," observes Ellen Paul, a task force member and Hudson friend. "But her friends didn't turn on her."

Her critics at the task force had jumped to conclusions that Kathi had yet to reach.

Yes, she was "born again." But she wasn't sure quite what that did to her views about abortion, and she certainly wasn't about to help Operation Rescue.

Not yet, anyway.

Hudson acknowledges that she may gradually shift to an anti-abortion position but insists: "My views on abortion are still evolving. I'm not sure what I think about it now."

She had traveled a long road to become an abortion-rights activist; she was much older and had had a much more complicated life than many of the young, single and often childless members of the task force.

Now the path Kathi Hudson has chosen is even more tangled.

"I can't say I've been overwhelmingly happy for a long time," says Hudson, sounding very tired. "I feel like I've been looking for something. For a while, I thought (pro-choice) activism was it. But I know it wasn't. There was something missing."

One thing's for sure: Kathi Hudson has had a tough life. And she came by her support for abortion rights the hard way.

When Hudson was 17, well before Roe vs. Wade, a close friend hanged herself because she was pregnant and unmarried. Pregnant herself at 18, Hudson chose to marry rather than accept her future mother-in-law's offer of an illegal abortion or her own mother's offer to wangle a rare legal one. After two children in two years, her marriage fell apart, and her husband failed to pay support or visit his children.

Quickly pregnant a third time by another man, she had to declare that she would kill herself if denied an abortion in a Washington hospital and had to track down her husband, from whom she was separated, to get his consent.

After quietly raising her children as a single mother, Hudson was bored with her job, her suburban life in general. "I was just going to work and coming home," she says. And so, after stepping off the subway in 1989 and receiving a flyer for the new clinic defense task force, she decided, for the first time, to get involved.

Soon, the clinic defense task force became Hudson's life; she lost her regular job as a legal secretary because she was putting all of her time and effort into abortion rights. And she found that she had a special gift for shadowing and intelligence gathering.

"She was good," recalls Beth Kingsley, a task force organizer.

For Hudson, shadowing anti-abortion leaders like Terry, being in on national events, was a heady experience, and doing it only when they came to Washington became too confining. She began to follow them to major abortion battlegrounds across the country--often with no orders or financial backing.

"I think I became obsessed with it as it went on," says Hudson. "Less obsessed about clinic defense itself and more about Operation Rescue--where they were, what they were doing, who they were. I made myself into an OR expert. I started traveling to 'hits,' or rescues, out of town. I was listening to Christian radio all the time, to find out where OR would be. It was starting to take over my life."

By early 1992, Hudson was angry that the Washington task force wouldn't pay her expenses, forcing her ever deeper into debt. At the same time, she was hoping to create her own national information clearinghouse on Operation Rescue and was unquestionably becoming alienated from the Washington group. But she continued to follow the anti-abortion leadership at her own expense, working occasionally with the National Organization for Women, or with pro-choice groups in each city she visited.

"Toward the end, she became much more of an independent player, and she wasn't sharing information with us," says Kingsley. "She was doing it for her own interests. She kept the information for herself."

"I felt," she says, "that we were getting out of touch with her."

Indeed, as she moved from town to town, the only people Hudson saw regularly were the Operation Rescue leaders.

She found herself holding long talks with Jeff White and others as she shadowed them. She even felt sorry for them after her testimony in Buffalo last spring helped ensure they would go to prison.

Clearly, Operation Rescue leaders sensed Hudson's growing ambivalence about the abortion-rights movement. Finally, during protests in Baton Rouge, La., last summer, White presented Hudson with a Bible and told her that he had a "burden"--he was praying for her. Not only that, but her name was now on prayer lists in fundamentalist churches across the nation.

Hudson was surprised--and touched. White was one of the few Operation Rescue people who had never tried to preach to her. She read the Bible.

"In Baton Rouge . . . I told her to be aware that there were now two competing forces fighting for her life, both physically and spiritually," says White.

Almost as soon as she got to Houston, Hudson came face to face with her internal conflict. As she watched an Operation Rescue demonstration at a clinic, White was arrested for violating a court injunction against trespassing on the grounds.

This time, Hudson believed White was innocent and agreed when Operation Rescue asked her to testify on his behalf. White was freed, and Hudson was quickly viewed as a traitor by the abortion-rights side. She was frozen out.

"I knew that was going to cause problems for her," says White. "Patricia Ireland (president of the National Organization for Women) thought they had me for six months, and I got off because of Kathi's testimony."

Hudson went to talk to White. Openly spurned by her abortion-rights colleagues, she had never been so depressed.

I want the peace that you people have, she said.

"I said, 'If you've seen peace in me, it's the peace that God has given us,' " said White.

And he asked her to pray.

Given her background, Hudson's conversion remains open to widely varying interpretations.

Kathi Hudson's pro-choice friends argue that she is a lonely woman with an identity crisis, financial problems, no job and a daughter embroiled in a messy divorce and custody battle. She became obsessed with shadowing Operation Rescue as a way to bring meaning to her life, they say, but then she started doing it on her own, without orders or direction from the task force.

"I think part of why Kathi was traveling (without orders from the task force) is that she got a sense of being really important," says Kingsley. "She liked hanging out with the famous national Operation Rescue leaders."

Her role as a shadower also left her isolated from her pro-choice allies, and she began to identify with those she was following. Her friends in the abortion-rights movement believe that Operation Rescue exploited her loneliness and need to identify with a group.

"I think whatever she was missing was filled up by the people she was following around for months and months," says Jan Collins, a task force member and Hudson friend. "But she doesn't seem like the other people I know who have found Jesus. They all seem happy. She doesn't seem happy at all."

Adds Volz: "If the pro-choice community has a fault, it's that it doesn't always recognize or support people who have put years and years and a lot of energy into the movement. Kathi had put a lot of energy into it, and she wasn't getting any feedback from her group. And at the same time, she had gotten close to the most committed 'pro-lifers' in the country."

Kathi Hudson's new friends in the anti-abortion movement have a much simpler explanation.

"It was a miracle of God," states Judith Fetrow, a former abortion clinic worker in Northern California who is now a "born-again" Christian involved with Operation Rescue.

"She was looking for spiritual answers, and it was a time when a lot wasn't going right for her," adds Patrick Mahoney, a national spokesman for Operation Rescue. "It all came together in Houston when she made a personal commitment to God. To portray this woman as someone who just flitters from group to group is very unfair. Kathi's move had nothing to do with group identity."

In fact, Mahoney stresses, it took courage by Hudson to leave her former allies and come to the fundamentalist Christian community, where some skeptics initially questioned whether she was still acting as a pro-choice agent.

There is, of course, a third possibility, that once an individual has reached one extreme of the political and emotional spectrum, it doesn't require such a big leap to get to the other side.

"Is it possible," wonders Volz, "that you can be so far off to the left that you're looking into the face of the right? And you find that the people who are way on the other side of the circle are really the people in the middle?"

In January, Kathi Hudson, still not sure how she felt about abortion, went out to the clinics in Washington again for the annual confrontations that mark the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. She wasn't actively protesting; she just wanted to visit and pray with her friends in Operation Rescue.

But just in case, the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force assigned a shadow to watch her.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°