Operation Rescue and other right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups over the last nine years have carried out a campaign of terror and violence against abortions clinics, their staff, especially doctors, and the women who use their services. CLAUDETTE BEGIN, a leader of the San Francisco Pro-choice Coalition and co-chair of the East Bay National Organisation of Women's Reproductive Rights Task Force, described the campaign to defend the clinics to Green Left Weekly's CATHERINE BROWN.
Through July and August, the pro-choice forces mobilised regularly to defend clinics throughout the Bay Area around San Francisco. "You don't just stand at a clinic; you organise like an army, with the equivalent of generals and leaders on strategy. At each clinic there are captains with walkie-talkies.
"You have to mobilise like soldiers essentially", explained Begin. "Women are not usually trained in hand-to-hand combat. What happens is Operation Rescue, when they come to a clinic, generally try to push through the line physically. So the men are in the front kicking and trying to get in between your legs."
Given the level of intimidation and violence the anti-abortionists will resort to (one doctor was murdered and another shot), security is important. The Bay Area defence was organised from a command centre. Captains are supplied with a phone number, but few are given an address.
The atmosphere is electric at the clinics: "antis" screaming obscenities at the defenders and trying to break through the defence line, defenders trying to shield women using the clinics and, through a well-rehearsed technique, get them in the clinic doors without breaking the line.
The attacks against abortion clinics by Operation Rescue and other fundamentalist groups in 1991 and 1992 were a new strategy. The arson, bombing and butyric acid attacks by the most fanatic were applauded, if not carried out, by the more rabid anti-abortion organisations.
Begin gives a lively account of how the pro-choice movement has organised to defend and keep abortion clinics open in the face of this organised, well-funded and often violent opposition.
"Operation Rescue tries to portray its organisation as regular working-class Americans, everyday Joes. They have stories about people arriving in their beat-up old cars, having driven hundreds of miles to a clinic, trying to create the mystique of the average person. They actually say its image is patterned on the civil rights movement of the 1950s", said Begin.
In contrast with this image, the anti-abortion movement, despite representing a minority, commands resources far beyond its numbers. Its millions of dollars' worth of propaganda are distributed internationally as well as in the US. During Ireland's 1992 referendum on abortion, the opposition relied on anti-abortion material from the US.
First, Operation Rescue targets a city, making a public announcement that it will come and terrorise an abortion clinic to close it down, explained Begin. Sometimes, in anticipation, a clinic would close down temporarily just to avoid a confrontation.
In the first major defeat for Operation Rescue in 1991, the mayor of Buffalo actually invited them to come. Women were so outraged by this, for weeks in advance they organised a defence campaign, explained Begin. "There was just a general feeling that we were going to outmobilise Operation Rescue people. When they came, it wasn't going to be police and the courts that were going to meet them, rather hundreds and thousands of Buffalo citizens and women."
Buffalo, known as a Catholic city, is an old industrial town with miserable weather, commented Begin. Operation Rescue, confident after the defeat of the pro-choice forces the year before in Wichita, was shocked by the hundreds of women, including Catholic women, who mobilised to defend the Buffalo clinics. The defeat deeply demoralised Operation Rescue. "For the first few days the 'antis' didn't come out of the church!"
"The Lambs of Christ are even more vicious than Operation Rescue. One year they used the 'minute men' — 300 pound guys who charged the line; obviously that's bit harder to withstand." Public outrage after media coverage of women fending off the "minute men" forced the Lambs of Christ to drop this tactic.
Begin described the training sessions, at which women are taught how to lock arms, where to place their feet, how to cross their legs with the person next to them. "This is like a real picket line. We're doing everything that is legal to defend the clinic.
"A number of the clinics felt they didn't want swarms of people in front of them. Do you then defend a clinic that doesn't want a pro-choice defence, was a question the movement had to decide on", added Begin. "You have disparate interests among clinic owners. Some are medical people, others non-profit and some are run by the self-service part of the women's movement.
"Once there are hundreds of people at the clinic, then what do you do? Do you do what the police say, which is that you stand over there and Operation Rescue should sit over there. Normally, the police are more on Operation Rescue's side. Even in San Francisco we have problems with the police.
"The police tend to treat this like it is a domestic dispute. So the police tend to take the approach 'Well how can we tell who is doing what? After all, it is just two different sides.'" A police inspector at one of the Bay Area clinics told the defenders and Operation Rescue, "When you go home today, I want you both to feel like you achieved something".
Begin contrasted the approach the police took when the World Trade Centre was bombed. "They didn't say, 'Well it was between two sides — people who like to use the Centre and people who like to bomb the Centre. They don't say that."
Police claim to defend Operation Rescue's right to free speech but are ready to move on pro-choice activists defending a legal service. The clinics, of course, are on private property and the "antis" trespassing often damage property and assault people. Nevertheless, there have been no prosecutions.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating how the message on the answering machine at the Planned Parenthood clinic in San Jose was replaced by an anti-abortion message.
At the Santa Fe Planned Parenthood clinic local women, who use a range of services there, spontaneously rang in for appointments on the week Operation Rescue had announced it would target the clinic.
Sometimes the "antis" bring children, mentioned Begin, shaking her head in disbelief. "You can see the children are terrified; they've been told we murder children."
For the last two years, doctors have been targeted as "the weakest link" in the abortion process, according to Operation Rescue's head, Randall Terry. He said, "We are going to shame them, humiliate them, disgrace them, and expose them".
Two weeks before the murder of Dr David Gunn on March 10, Terry proclaimed, "Intolerance is a beautiful thing. We are going to make their lives hell." In September another doctor was shot.
"When Gunn was shot, people were just outraged. How could you do that? Clinton had just been elected and there was an expectation that there wouldn't be this sort of problem. The tide was just 'No way! Tell us when Operation Rescue will be there and so will we.' Especially men then came out and wanted to help defend clinics."
There is a national shortage of doctors to perform abortions. Only 12% of medical training schools in the US now teach the termination procedure. With the campaign against doctors becoming more violent and systematic, active support for doctors has become important.
In the last year, Operation Rescue tried a new technique of "Wanted for Murder" posters with doctors' photos, their address, their children's names and schools. The posters are distributed at the doctors' children's schools, up and down the street in which the doctor lives, at their local shopping centre or church.
"As a result, some of the doctors have become more political. We have been sending out overtures to them and some of the doctors have responded by asking for help. Many doctors are afraid but don't want to stop. We have provided protection on the day a particular doctor might work at a clinic and have given out support leaflets for doctors to give to their neighbours to put in their windows."
"It is time", points out Begin, "to mount a campaign to expose the anti-choice fanatics, by demanding a real federal investigation and prosecution of the terrorists who bomb, set fires, inject butyric acid and kill. Authorities have been complicit by not treating these attacks seriously."