Abortion Clinic Slayings May Kill Operation Rescue : Movement: Violence drives a wedge between militants and the Christian churches that backed Terry’s group.


Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group that mobilized a segment of Christian fundamentalists and brought the tactics of civil disobedience to the conservative cause, is on the verge of collapse as a significant political movement.

With Operation Rescue’s influence already in decline, the brutal slaying of an abortion doctor and his escort in Pensacola, Fla., on July 29 by the leader of an extremist anti-abortion splinter group may prove to be the movement’s political death knell, according to leaders of the organization and others involved in the abortion debate.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 11, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 11, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Anti-abortion stance--An Aug. 10 article in The Times incorrectly implied that Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and a few other conservative Republicans in Congress support the killing of abortion doctors by anti-abortion extremists. Dornan is a supporter of anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue but he opposes the use of violence.

Indeed, while sporadic anti-abortion violence and fitful street protests undoubtedly will continue, the ability of Operation Rescue and related groups to tap elements of the Christian right in large numbers seems likely to be a thing of the past. Although the anti-abortion movement includes Catholics and others, the bulk of its supporters, especially Operation Rescue members, are Christian fundamentalists.

Ironically, Operation Rescue’s hold on the fundamentalist movement is slipping at a time when “born-again” Christians are more politically active than ever and are making well-documented inroads into the Republican Party’s hierarchy. But the spreading anti-abortion violence has finally created a wedge between anti-abortion militants and their natural base in Christian churches, where Operation Rescue has always turned for money and recruits.

“I think the general feeling in the churches is that we don’t care what Randall Terry (Operation Rescue’s founder) has to say about abortion anymore,” said Bob Jewitt, a spokesman for Operation Rescue. “They are tired of the debate.”


“It is sad, but even Christian radio station managers tell me they are tired of hearing about” the anti-abortion movement, Jewitt said. “A lot of people in the Christian community are burned out on this.”

The murders, which included the third shooting of an abortion physician in less than 18 months, have been the most damaging of any because this time, a leader of the movement is accused of pulling the trigger.

Paul Hill, a defrocked fundamentalist minister and leader of his self-styled Pensacola-based group, Defensive Action, was charged with the murders. That has made it quite awkward for anti-abortion groups to dismiss the crime as an isolated incident, as they have attempted to do with previous acts of violence.

In fact, more than 20 other extremist leaders have signed petitions circulated and published by Hill in recent months endorsing the killing of abortion doctors as “justifiable homicide.”

Not only has that severely damaged the movement within the fundamentalist community, but it also has prompted an intensive, nationwide federal investigation of the anti-abortion movement’s leadership.

The Clinton Administration has deployed U.S. marshals to provide protection for abortion clinics in 12 cities, and the Justice Department has established a joint task force between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to investigate militant anti-abortion groups.

Almost overnight, Operation Rescue has been effectively stripped of its political rank in Washington. It has gone from being perceived as a player on the fundamentalist Christian right to the untouchable status of a violence-prone cult.

Hill’s crime prompted Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other congressional leaders who favor abortion rights to demand that the FBI begin undercover infiltration of anti-abortion groups.

The Pensacola killings are “not a form of protest against abortion, it is murder by terrorists, no different from the murders resulting from the World Trade Center bombing, and it must be treated just as seriously as we treat other terrorist attacks,” charged Schumer.

“They are clearly on the ropes--their former supporters are backing off because of the violence,” said Dallas Blanchard, a sociologist at the University of West Florida and author of two books on anti-abortion violence.

Only a scattered few conservative Republican lawmakers--notably Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.)--have rallied to the defense of anti-abortion militants this time. Most conservatives have remained silent.

Operation Rescue officials cringe at each act of violence and have sought to distance themselves from militants like Hill. The group’s new national director, Flip Benham, confronted Hill and others who are said to favor violence at a secret meeting of anti-abortion leaders in Chicago in April. That meeting followed an even more emotional leadership conference in Melbourne, Fla., last September, during which Keith Tucci, then head of Operation Rescue, decreed that the group would expel any members who advocated violence.

Yet Operation Rescue, founded eight years ago in Upstate New York, has suffered from the violence and has been hit by dramatic reductions in membership and contributions. At fundamentalist churches where Operation Rescue rallies once could draw thousands, they now can generate crowds of only a few hundred.

The group’s annual budget, which totaled $400,000 as recently as 1992, has been plunging since early last year, following the March, 1993, killing of Dr. David Gunn, another Pensacola abortion clinic physician. Donations slipped again after the August, 1993, shooting of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan. The organization fears another steep decline in the wake of last month’s shotgun slayings of Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort, abortion-rights advocate James H. Barrett.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Patrick Mahoney, national spokesman for Operation Rescue. “In terms of the public perception of our movement, the impact from the violence has been extremely harsh. It makes people who might join us view us in a different light and to be afraid to go out in front of a clinic. And it has been devastating economically for the finances of the major anti-abortion groups.”

Even before the Pensacola killings, Operation Rescue was reeling from a series of legislative and legal defeats in 1994. The group’s ability to mount headline-grabbing street theater and abortion clinic blockades--the key to its political influence--has been sharply eroded through a series of Supreme Court rulings and new legislation imposing tough federal penalties for abortion protests.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled that federal racketeering laws could be used to investigate and prosecute anti-abortion groups. Abortion-rights groups believe that ruling will prove a potent weapon against anti-abortion organizations that have learned how to change their legal names and hide their assets to skirt civil and criminal court injunctions.

In June, the court ruled that “buffer zones” to prevent protest and loud chanting around abortion clinics do not violate the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion demonstrators. Such zones are rapidly being thrown up around clinics throughout the nation.

Overshadowing the court rulings, however, was the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Signed into law by President Clinton in May, the act makes it a federal crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to blockade an abortion clinic or to engage in other forms of disruptive civil disobedience around clinics. Local anti-abortion leaders report that many volunteers are drifting away from Operation Rescue as a result.

Since it went into effect, only small handfuls of demonstrators have been willing to challenge the law by blockading clinics.

“Our free speech rights have been eliminated in front of abortion clinics by a politically correct Supreme Court and Congress,” fumed Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents anti-abortion demonstrators in court cases.

Internal divisions over the violence have also led to a breakup of the group’s national leadership, leaving Operation Rescue with just four full-time staff members in its Dallas headquarters.

At last September’s leadership meeting, Tucci demanded that all Operation Rescue leaders sign a written pledge condemning violence, and his hard-line stance on the issue angered many other leaders, creating a rift that now divides the anti-abortion movement into a series of small, largely ineffective factions.

Paul Hill and Michael Griffin, the anti-abortion extremist convicted of murdering Gunn, “have accomplished what (abortion-rights leaders) Patricia Ireland and Molly Yard failed to do--and that is split up a very tight-knit group of pro-life leaders,” Mahoney said.