It is late into a crystal-clear fall night high above the Southern California urban landscape, and Jeff White and Joe Foreman are wolfing down steaks at a local restaurant, trading war stories from the front lines of the Christian fundamentalist battle against abortion--and plotting a comeback.
White, the 37-year-old leader of Operation Rescue of California, has retreated from his former base in Orange County to this resort town near Lake Arrowhead to regroup his battered organization, now one of the last active statewide chapters left in Operation Rescue. And he has just enlisted Foreman, who was ousted from the national leadership of the anti-abortion group four years ago as a result of his radical views and his repeated personality clashes with founder Randall Terry, to help him re-energize a grass-roots movement politically devastated by the effect of anti-abortion violence.
Since a major protest campaign in the summer of 1993 that targeted clinics in the San Jose area, White, a born-again former BMW parts distributor from Santa Clara and the father of seven children, has been unable to generate much attention for his organization, and financial contributions have been halved over the past year. Like other anti-abortion leaders, he manages to make ends meet for his group and for his family through cash and in-kind donations from a hard-core group of loyal supporters in the fundamentalist community; he and his family are now living in a townhouse here, and he keeps his group’s offices in a second one nearby.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Operation Rescue of California is now just a shadow of the powerful statewide force that was able to blockade dozens of clinics and put thousands of protesters onto Southern California streets in the late 1980s.
To return to his glory days, White, with Foreman’s help, is organizing a team of 10 full-time fundamentalist, anti-abortion “missionaries” at his office to rebuild a statewide activist network.
“There is an awful lot you can do when people think you’ve been beaten,” says Foreman confidently.
Yet as they try to resurrect their struggling cause, White and Foreman find themselves embroiled in increasingly bitter battles with rival leaders across the country over how to keep Operation Rescue afloat at a time when a wave of violence has led to declining membership and plunging financial donations for anti-abortion groups from their traditional base among Christian fundamentalists.
And that fight shows the degree to which the violence against abortion doctors by a handful of extremists--two doctors have been killed within the last two years, and a third has been wounded--has come to dominate the entire national debate over abortion, especially inside the anti-abortion movement itself.
In fact, White’s decision to bring Foreman to California has been enough to create a serious rift between White and Flip Benham, the national director of Operation Rescue, largely because of questions about Foreman’s track record on the issue of violence. White and Foreman have not been linked to any acts of violence, but Benham believes that leaders of the movement have to make it clear to the world that they do not even tacitly endorse it.
That is especially true since Operation Rescue continues to target doctors by name for protest and personal harassment, and its leaders identify doctors by name during rallies and charge that they are baby killers. If Operation Rescue officially took the next step and openly supported the murder of the doctors that its leaders identify, the group would almost certainly bring the wrath of the federal government down upon its head.
Benham, a Dallas fundamentalist minister, has been outspoken in denouncing the attacks on abortion physicians; he argues such public statements are the only way to protect Operation Rescue from the pressure of federal conspiracy investigations and political ostracism. So he angrily charges that White and Foreman endanger Operation Rescue’s credibility because they have refused to join him in openly opposing the violence. In fact, the ambivalence with which leaders like White and Foreman have greeted the violence has already sparked a firestorm of protest from many abortion-rights advocates, who chide that some anti-abortion leaders are guilty of encouraging acts of violence by “praising with faint damns.”
What’s more troubling for Foreman is that he is finding it hard to live down his past. He initially allowed his name to be attached--and then had it quickly removed--from a petition passed around earlier this year by extremist Paul Hill endorsing the “justifiable homicide” of doctors who perform abortions. Later, Hill was arrested for the August killings of Dr. John Britton and his escort in Pensacola, Fla.; those who signed his petition have come under growing scrutiny from law-enforcement officials.
Before the killings, Foreman also hosted a summit meeting of anti-abortion leaders in Chicago to debate whether violence was justified; the meeting was dominated by supporters of violence, including Hill. Foreman’s credibility on nonviolence has also been eroded by his past leadership of a Milwaukee group called the Missionaries to the Pre-Born, which he co-founded with the Rev. Matt Trewhella, reportedly a target of a federal investigation of a possible conspiracy in a campaign of violence against abortion clinics.
So by bringing Foreman to California, White has left rival leaders guessing about his future policies.
“Jeff White is no longer a spokesman for Operation Rescue,” says Benham flatly. “There are too many unanswered questions. . . . I absolutely have a big problem with the fact that he is dealing with someone like Foreman. And if Foreman is not able to toe the line on the issue, then he cannot speak for Operation Rescue either.”
Yet despite the attacks from Benham, White and Foreman still refuse to publicly denounce all anti-abortion violence--clouding their hopes to bring their California operation back to life in the coming months.
White and Foreman argue that they are being misunderstood both by their rivals in the movement and by the media. “Martin Luther King Jr. preached the same creed of nonviolence from day one until he was shot, but the way he was portrayed in the press changed dramatically; at first he was viewed very negatively, and only later did the press recognize what he was about,” observes Foreman.
“I think in the long run, it will be seen that there is a distinction between Operation Rescue and those who advocate and commit violence.”
Still, talking to White and Foreman about their rather tortured and complex views on violence makes it clear why Benham is confused about where they stand.
White and Foreman insist that they personally oppose the use of violence, and that neither of them would tolerate anyone in their organization who committed violent acts.
“I know absolutely, positively that violence is not the answer, and I think for someone to insinuate something different after all these years that we have been in the movement is out of line,” notes White.
Yet at the same time, they refuse to speak out against all acts of anti-abortion violence, and complain that Benham’s hard-line stance against dealing with any leading advocates of “justifiable homicide” only polarizes the anti-abortion movement, and divides longtime allies who worked together for years before violence against doctors became an issue.
“By pushing (Benham’s) line, you keep people from coming together,” says Foreman. He adds that he has trouble condemning advocates of violence because he is not convinced that all acts of anti-abortion violence “are intrinsically a sin.”
“There are people all over the map on this issue in the anti-abortion movement, and many of them agonize over whether they would endorse violence in different hypothetical situations, and I don’t want to get into that debate.”
White says he believes that by not speaking out against violence, he can keep more people inside what he insists is a nonviolent movement, thus ensuring that anti-abortion activists don’t get so frustrated that they turn to violence.
“I believe that the answer is not in shooting abortionists, but in laying down your life (through nonviolence) for the children,” White says. “That is the history of the true church. I did not sell my business and my home to lead a secret life.
“But I do not engage in debate over the justifications of violence. I’m a leader, not a debater. I make it clear that if anyone wants to be in an Operation Rescue of California event, they will follow the path of nonviolence. But if a person will commit their life to nonviolence, not just when they are at an Operation Rescue event but all the time, then I don’t care where they are on the spectrum of thinking about violence as an issue. I don’t care what they think , as long as they commit in action to nonviolence.
“Tactically, what’s the best way to reduce violence?” White asks. “Is it to polarize those who are on the fence, to shut them out and push them to violence, or to keep them busy with nonviolence?”
Ironically, the attacks on White and Foreman over their views on violence come at the same time they have been attempting to organize a “peace summit” with abortion-rights advocates in Southern California to talk about the issue of violence. White says he’s amused that Benham also has chastised him for sitting down with the enemy, even while he criticizes White for his refusal to speak out more clearly about violence.
Yet abortion-rights advocates, meanwhile, have dismissed White’s attempts to organize meetings with them about violence, arguing that he is simply trying to generate publicity for his shrinking organization.
“We have nothing to talk to Jeff White about; there is no common ground,” says Leslie Sebastian, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood in the San Diego area.
Yet in spite of his troubles stemming from the violence issue, White remains confident that he and his group will ultimately be back in good graces with other anti-abortion leaders like Benham.
“I am confident that Flip and I will be able to work together again, maybe before the year is out, maybe even sooner,” says White. “Hey, I’ve been thrown out of Operation Rescue and thrown back in more times than anybody else, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t hold grudges. If you are pro-life, then I am your friend.”