Protesters Who Push the Limits

Times Staff Writer

In the failing light of dusk, a dozen protesters pace a street corner in silence. They wave photos of tiny, dismembered limbs. On the posters, in neat black letters, they have written the name, address and apartment number of a nurse who works at a local abortion clinic.

She lives in the worn brick building behind the picket line; a protester points to her window with a plastic arrow, the kind that might direct traffic to a garage sale. Only, this one says in red: "ABORTION NURSE."

The men and women, and several bundled-up children, stand vigil for an hour in a cold gray wind, then head home for supper. They will return. For this is just the start of a campaign that tests the far limits of free speech: a crusade to expose abortion providers, to isolate them, to shame, even harass them into quitting.

They have chosen Wichita to make their stand because it's home to one of the few clinics in the country that offer abortions to women in advanced stages of pregnancy.

Local activists maintain a steady vigil outside the clinic, clutching baby blankets as they kneel on the sidewalk in prayer.

Bent on more aggressive confrontation, Troy Newman, president of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue West, moved his family here from Southern California two years ago. He then persuaded half a dozen like-minded friends to join him.

Forces marshaled, he drew up the most far-reaching battle plan that abortion rights advocates have ever seen -- legal, but deliberately invasive. He calls it the Year of Rebuke.

Over the next 12 months, Newman and his followers will point their arrows at everyone who works for Women's Health Care Services, from the chief physician to the armed security guards.

Photos of the mangled heads of fetuses will greet the receptionist at her favorite restaurant. Protesters will point out the nurse as she walks into the mall, the office manager as she heads into church. Every clinic employee can expect pickets at home, yellow arrows pointed at their front doors.

Newman will pick through clinic workers' trash to figure out where they do business; he'll trail them at a distance to learn their routines.

His goal is not just to make their lives uncomfortable. He wants to unsettle and disgust their friends and associates, so their hairstylists and their pharmacists, even their neighbors, make it clear they're not welcome in Wichita.

"If Josef Mengele came into a bank saying, 'Here are a few gold teeth I ripped out of the Jews before I gassed them,' the bank would be horrified. They'd say, 'I'm not taking your blood money.' That's the picture of abortionists that we have to paint," Newman said.

"This is a personal campaign. It's letting people know abortion is not abstract," he said. "There's a real person who holds the scalpel, and he lives next door to you."

Hardball tactics are nothing new in the abortion wars, even among activists sworn to hold only peaceful protests.

Abortion opponents photograph women entering clinics and post the pictures online. Warning of the "baby butchers" nearby, they send gruesome postcards to neighbors of clinic workers. They boycott construction firms building clinics. Activists have even trailed doctors through grocery stores, hissing, "How can you live with yourself?"

Newman's campaign aims more broadly; he vows to make abortion "an unavoidable issue" throughout Wichita. If he offends people, fine. If he repulses them, even better, so long as he gets them to think about what happens at the clinic on East Kellogg.

"The whole idea is to create an atmosphere in which people are forced to deal with it," he said.

Abortion providers insist they will not be intimidated.

"Unfortunately, we're used to dealing with protesters," said Carrie Klaege, the clinic manager, whose suburban home has been picketed frequently. "If their point is to get us to quit, this is probably the worst way to go about it."

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In a windowless clinic wedged between a Mazda dealership and a sports bar, Dr. George Tiller performs thousands of abortions a year, including several hundred on viable fetuses.

In Kansas, as in most states, it is legal to abort a fetus that could survive outside the womb, but only to save the life or protect the physical or mental health of the mother. Tiller is one of just four or five physicians in the U.S. to offer the procedure; women fly in from all over to see him.

Some of his patients are victims of rape or incest. Many have just learned, in their second or third trimesters, that their fetuses have severe deformities and would probably die within hours of birth.

Tiller did not respond to requests for an interview; he rarely talks to the media. But in 31 years of performing abortions in Wichita, he has shown he won't be pressured into quitting.

In 1986, a pipe bomb exploded at his clinic. In 1991, abortion opponents put the facility under siege, blocking access to the gate for six tense weeks. In 1993, Tiller was shot through both arms by a protester. He was back at work the next day.

"He's endured a lot," Newman acknowledged. "But he hasn't endured Troy Newman." He flashed a grin. Then he winced at his own brashness.

"Just kidding," he said.

But he isn't. He's convinced he can shut down Tiller's clinic.

Newman says he helped force 19 clinics out of Southern California during the 1990s through peaceful protest. His opponents from that era dispute the claim; they say he blusters and bullies with little to show for it.

"I can't think of a single clinic they shut down," said James McElroy, an attorney who represents Planned Parenthood clinics in the San Diego area.

The number of abortion providers in the nation declined steeply in the last decade as the threat of violence and harassment escalated. Fewer than 2,000 physicians offer abortions; nearly 90% of counties in the U.S. have no provider. Still, Ann Glazier, director of security for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says intimidation campaigns tend to be more distressing than effective.

"It's rare that we hear about someone actually quitting because of it," she said.

Newman, 37, directs his effort to force abortion providers out of Wichita from a trailer parked next to the studio of a Christian radio station. Anne Geddes photos of beaming infants in flower costumes adorn the walls. So do posters of dead fetuses. Among the jumble on his office shelves are a Bible, a bullhorn and a three-ring binder of fundraising tips.

A quick talker -- earnestly polite unless he's cut off in traffic -- Newman wears cowboy boots with his corduroys and says his wife tells him he looks like a grayer George Clooney. He says he raises $250,000 a year for Operation Rescue West from 35,000 activists spread out from California to Missouri.

Some of the funding supports the "Truth Truck": a white Isuzu with 211,000 miles on the odometer and color photos of fetal body parts plastered to every surface. Operation Rescue West's seven paid staff members and dozens of volunteers drive the truck -- and three others just like it -- coast to coast. They circle outside schools, sports arenas and clinic workers' homes -- anywhere they might draw a crowd.

Parents complain that the photos horrify their children. Even some leaders in the antiabortion movement consider Newman's trucks unnecessarily provocative.

"He alienates a lot of people because he slaps them in the face with it," said Timothy Wiesner, who runs a crisis pregnancy center next to Tiller's clinic.

"We show the truth," Newman responds. "I don't care if people get mad.

"If abortion is so horrible that we can't bear looking at it, maybe we shouldn't be tolerating it."

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In 1999, a federal judge in Oregon shut down a website called the Nuremberg Files, which listed the home addresses of abortion doctors across the country -- with lines through the names of those who had been killed. The judge ruled that the site was a threat, not an opinion, so it was not protected under the Constitution.

Authorities in Kansas have been reluctant to make a similar call on Newman's tactics.

So far, they have judged his strategy legal. Invasion of privacy is not a crime in Kansas, so even publicizing the names and addresses of clinic workers is protected under the 1st Amendment, said Georgia Cole, a spokeswoman for the Sedgwick County district attorney's office.

A few cities across the nation, including San Diego, ban pickets that target a specific home. Others crack down by citing activists for disturbing the peace or violating noise ordinances. In California and several other states, abortion providers have sued their harassers in civil court and obtained judicial orders limiting the size and location of the protests.

Such restrictions are the exception, not the rule. In general, as long as demonstrators remain peaceful and keep to public property, the Constitution protects them.

Newman and his staff aim to keep their tactics within the law: "They know what we expect of them ... and they do it," said Janet Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Wichita Police Department.

One of Newman's closest advisors in Wichita, Cheryl Sullenger, pleaded guilty in 1988 to conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in San Diego. She served more than two years in federal prison and has since renounced violence. And Newman says his staff is committed to peaceful protest. Face reddening, he pounds his chair and shouts, "Violence will never, never, NEVER be the solution!"

His critics, though, fear his protests could yet prove explosive.

"You don't know who these demonstrations will attract," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "These people have crossed the line many times."

Asked if the protests could provoke extremist wrath, Michele Herzog, an Operation Rescue West staff member, fell silent.

"It is very inflammatory," she said.

Herzog's four children were helping her hold up an enormous photo of crushed fetal parts at the protest outside the nurse's apartment in north Wichita. Herzog positioned the banner -- at least 15 feet long by 5 feet high -- so passing drivers could not miss it. Several honked their approval. Three joggers glanced quickly, then turned away.

Herzog said she hoped no one would target the nurse for violence: "That would not be a good thing."

But she added, "That's the risk you take when you're in this battle."

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Newman believes the Bible calls the faithful to speak out. Some speak out against homosexuals, others against Muslims. Some fight pornography.

"That's all good," he said. But he prefers to focus his energy on the cause he considers important above all else.

Newman came to his crusade through a chance encounter. Adopted at birth, he was raised Catholic and later converted to Presbyterianism, but he never gave much thought to abortion. He even took his girlfriend to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the blood tests they needed to get a marriage license.

Then one night in 1990, a stranger approached him to praise the Christian bumper sticker on his car. They struck up a friendship, and the man invited Newman to an antiabortion rally in Southern California.

"I'll never forget that day," he said. "A lady gave me one of those fliers with a black-and-white picture of babies in a trash can. That just turned my world upside down. Or, you could say, right side up. I've never been the same."

Newman began spending his weekends linked arm in arm with activists outside clinic entrances, blocking patients from making their appointments. (A federal law enacted in 1994 later made such tactics illegal.) He quit his job as a computer engineer in 1995 to dedicate his life to the cause.

For years, he paid his bills mostly with help from supporters who pledged a monthly contribution to the Newman family. In 1999, he took over as president of Operation Rescue West and began drawing a salary.

Newman now supplements his income with a side business he will not describe: "I'm not going to divulge my private life."

After work, he retreats to his 7-acre farm outside Wichita, where his wife home-schools their four children. He sometimes has the kids help him make posters. But he'd rather spend family time taking care of the chickens or crafting wooden swords for his son's Robin Hood play.

At home, he uses the name Troy Newman-Mariotti to honor his birth father, whom he found several years ago. At work, he still goes by Newman.

"I keep a separate life at home," he said.

He acknowledges that's a comfort he denies his targets, but Newman will concede no hypocrisy.

Any tactic, as long as it's peaceful, strikes him as fair, because the stakes as he sees them are terrifyingly high: "It's not like we just want a tax cut, or school vouchers. It's life and death for these children."

Whether he can persuade others to join him remains to be seen. Outside the nurse's apartment late last month, one couple came by to volunteer for future protests. A few neighbors also expressed support.

"I think they should harass her like this," said Kat Pitzer, 22. "It's kind of mean, but abortion is disgusting."

In clinic manager Klaege's subdivision, however, residents are angry about Newman's tactics. Even those opposed to abortion resent the constant pickets and "Truth Truck" patrols.

"By coming into the neighborhood, all they've done is harden attitudes against them," said Mike Sly, 69. "The way to stop abortion is to work through the political process. To try to terrorize a bunch of people ... that's just stupid."

Newman disagrees. It's not enough, he says, to vote for antiabortion candidates or attend a prayer vigil now and then or donate money to a crisis pregnancy center.

He wants the abortions to stop, first in Wichita, then in cities across America. He insists it can happen if he creates an atmosphere so intolerant that no nurse or doctor or secretary can bear it.

Newman stands on the street corner, pointing the arrow, and prays he will succeed.

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