BRIA 16 3 c The Rescue Movement: Pushing the Limits of Free Speech

Bill of Right in Action
Summer 2000 (16:3)

Civil Disobedience

BRIA 16:3 Home | "You Can't Trust Anyone Over 30": The Berkeley Free Speech Movement | Bringing Down an Empire: Gandhi and Civil Disobedience | The Rescue Movement and Free Speech

The Rescue Movement: Pushing the Limits of Free Speech

In the 1980s, Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups adopted new tactics of protest and civil disobedience aimed at shutting down abortion clinics. By directly confronting abortion doctors and their patients, the groups used tactics that pushed and sometimes went beyond the limits of free speech.

Monica Miller from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, believes with all her heart that life begins at conception. She also believes that abortion is murder, a "crime against humanity." A wife, mother, and doctor of theology, Miller formed a group called Citizens for Life , which became part of the rescue movement. To Monica, rescue refers to protest and civil disobedience activities aimed at disrupting and shutting down abortion clinics. "I never had any questions about breaking the law, whatever law is used to defend abortion," she once said. Like many others in the rescue movement, Monica was arrested numerous times for her acts of civil disobedience.

Unlike other protest movements utilizing civil disobedience, the tactics of the rescue movement are intensely personal. The civil disobedience of the civil rights, student, and anti-war groups during the 1960s and 1970s was mainly against laws or official policies. By contrast, rescuing the unborn involves directly targeting individual doctors, clinic workers, and women seeking an abortion.

The Rescue Movement

In its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy included a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. This decision, in effect, made abortion legal in the United States (in the first several months of pregnancy). It did not, however, end the debate on abortion. For many years, those opposed to abortion campaigned against it in courts, legislatures, and elections. Although they have been successful in securing laws and court decisions that limit the right to have an abortion, the Roe v. Wade decision has remained basically intact.

By 1987, some anti-abortion activists had grown frustrated. Despite their efforts, more than 1 million abortions continued to take place in the United States each year. That year, Randall Terry, an evangelical preacher from Binghamton, New York, formed Operation Rescue. His idea was to take the fight against abortion directly to the clinics, doctors, and pregnant women who were closest to what he considered the murder of unborn babies. Terry quoted from Proverbs 24:11, Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.

Operation Rescue soon became the most well-known of the organizations making up the rescue movement. Terry's first major campaign took place in Atlanta, Georgia, during summer and fall of 1988. Rescuers tried to persuade pregnant women entering the clinics to change their minds about having an abortion. Some protesters carried posters showing a mangled fetus and yelled out, "Don't kill your baby!" Others practiced non-violent civil disobedience blocking entrances to abortion clinics and chaining themselves to doors and gates. More than 1,200 demonstrators were arrested.

Rescue protesters throughout the country soon adopted the dramatic tactics used by Operation Rescue in Atlanta. In Wichita, Kansas, 2,500 protesters, including 10 children, were arrested during the summer of 1991 for illegally blocking the entrances to clinics where abortions were performed.

One of the largest Operation Rescue campaigns took place over several weeks in the Buffalo, New York, area in spring 1992. A half-dozen abortion clinics were targeted by rescuers who marched, stood, knelt, sat, or lay down in doorways and parking lot driveways. Some threw themselves onto the hoods of cars. Others even entered the clinics themselves.

A few rescuers, called "sidewalk counselors," handed out literature and spoke to women arriving at the clinics. When they failed to persuade the women to change their minds, the rescuers began shouting in their faces. They also surrounded, grabbed, and pushed the women.

About 60 abortion rights volunteers tried to protect and escort the women entering the clinics. Sometimes, however, the protesters assaulted the escorts by elbowing, grabbing, or spitting at these volunteers. At one point, an Operation Rescue leader, Rev. Robert Schenck, thrust a hand-sized dead fetus in their faces.

In a related action, rescuers picketed with sound equipment at the offices and homes of doctors providing abortion services at the clinics. The demonstrations overwhelmed local police. Some protesters even harassed police verbally and by mail. When the rescue campaign was finally called off in May, nearly 700 had been arrested for disorderly conduct, trespassing, and resisting arrest. Some abortion rights volunteers were also arrested.

After 1992, several court actions significantly restricted rescue demonstrations. Some clinics began suing Operation Rescue and other such groups for the loss of business caused by the disruptive protests. In 1994, a Houston jury awarded a Planned Parenthood clinic more than $1 million in damages. Abortion rights groups also successfully used a federal racketeering law in suing rescue organizations and leaders for committing acts of intimidation. The racketeering law requires triple damages in such cases.

The threat of civil suits with large damage judgments demoralized many rescuers. As a result, the large-scale demonstrations began to subside. Only the most radical continued using the aggressive rescue tactics. Unfortunately, a few of these individuals turned to acts of violence.

In 1993, an anti-abortion supporter shouted AStop killing babies!" as he shot to death abortion doctor David Gunn. During the next few years, two other abortion doctors and several clinic employees were murdered in sniper shootings. In addition, arson attacks and bombings of abortion clinics took place. The violence did have an effect as fewer and fewer hospitals, clinics, and doctors agreed to perform abortions.

Those responsible for the violence justified their actions by arguing that they had "saved the babies" from the abortion death mills. To try to curb the upsurge in violent anti-abortion acts, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance Act of 1994. This law made it a federal crime to use "force or the threat of force" to prevent abortions.

Freedom of Speech

The rescue movement has raised several significant freedom of speech issues. During the period of mass demonstrations, some cities secured local court injunctions ordering protesters to remain outside a buffer zone surrounding the entrances to abortion clinics. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court in Madsen v. Women's Health Center upheld a 36-foot-wide zone of no entry for anti-abortion protesters. The high court ruled that such a zone protected public safety and the rights of women without placing an unnecessary burden on free speech. But the court threw out a restriction that prevented protesters from approaching and talking to clinic patients outside of this zone.

The disruptive Buffalo demonstrations of 1992 resulted in another Supreme Court decision in 1997. In Schenck v. Pro Choice Network, a 6–3 majority ruled that a 15-foot-wide "fixed buffer zone" around abortion clinic entrances was "content neutral" (i.e., not supporting or opposing any viewpoint) and thus was constitutional. In this case, two "sidewalk counselors" were permitted to enter the zone to try to persuade women in a non-threatening way against having an abortion.

By an 8–1 majority, the justices went on to strike down a portion of the lower-court injunction that prohibited all but the two counselors from coming within 15 feet of any individuals or vehicles approaching or leaving the clinic. This 15-foot "floating buffer zone" moved with the individuals or vehicles. The court majority said not only would it be hard to enforce, but it put too much of a burden on the protesters in exercising their right of free speech on the public streets and sidewalks. As Justice Scalia put it, "There is no right to be free of unwelcome speech on the public streets while seeking entrance to or exit from abortion clinics."

Another First Amendment issue over the right of demonstrators to speak to unwilling listeners in public places is before the courts. Early in 2000, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning a Colorado state law that placed an eight-foot protective bubble around anyone within 100 feet of a medical facility.

Yolanda Wu, from the National Organization of Women's Defense and Education Fund, commented that the Colorado law "is really just about protecting folks who need to get into a health-care facility." On the other hand, Philip Faustin, the Operation Rescue leader in Colorado, argued, "There should be nothing wrong with seeking to change someone's mind, walking along beside them and trying to convince them that what they are doing is wrong." Closely watched by civil liberties advocates as well as the rescuers, this case will probably be decided by summer 2000.


Those in the rescue movement believe their cause justifies their actions. Most reject violence and criticize the actions of the radical few who have resorted to violence. But many support the tactics of those who approach medical personnel and patients entering clinics as exercises of freedom of speech. A large number also support those who use non-violent civil disobedience.

Most of those in the rescue movement think it's proper to block entrances and disrupt the workings of the clinics even though this violates the law. Randall Terry has said: When God's law and man's law conflict, Scripture clearly teaches that man is not to obey that law. Some examples are when the three Hebrew children were thrown into the fire, when the apostles were jailed for preaching the Gospel, and when the stone was rolled away from the Lord's tomb. That was in defiance of a man-made law. God never gave the government a blank check to do what it wants to do. It is a heresy to teach Christians to obey a law which runs counter to His law.

Many rescuers believe they are working in the tradition of the abolitionists, who opposed slavery, and members of the civil rights, who opposed segregation. These people broke laws to end the evils of slavery and segregation. Rescue activists see abortion as killing millions of unborn babies. They view it as another Holocaust, which sent millions of people to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. As one rescuer, arrested for blocking a clinic entrance, put it: Back in my college days I wondered how people allowed the Holocaust to happen. I see the same pattern here. And I don't want anyone asking me someday, >What did you do about abortion?

Those opposed to the rescue movement think the abortion issue differs from slavery, segregation, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust, they say, involved mass murder. They argue that abortion is not murder and historically has never been considered murder. They point out that the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights movement involved breaking segregation laws, which the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. They argue this differs from abortion, which the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld as a woman's constitutional right. They also take issue with the comparison to abolitionists, who broke slavery laws to free slaves. They point out that a majority of Americans always opposed slavery whereas a majority favor a woman having the right to choose whether to have an abortion. They see rescuers as trying to impose their view of abortion and morality on Americans who don't share these views. Some opposed to the rescue movement have questioned whether rescuers' tactics of directly targeting individuals constitutes non-violent civil disobedience. Rekha Basu, a columnist for The Des Moines Register, argued: "While picketing, strikes and sit-ins against powerful institutions are legitimate civil disobedience activities, some of Operation Rescue's low-level personal tactics bore about as much relationship to the strategies promoted by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as stalking does to true love."

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Do you think the Colorado bubble law described above violates the First Amendment? Why or why not?
  2. Which, if any, of the tactics used by rescue organizations during their abortion clinic demonstrations do you think were protected by the First Amendment? Explain.
  3. Do you think rescuers are justified in using non-violent civil disobedience? Why or why not?

For Further Information

ABORTION: All sides of the issue: An extensive web site exploring the philosophical, medical, religious, ethical, and legal debates surrounding abortion.


The Limits of Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has ruled that this right is not absolute. For example, in 1969 in Watts v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law banning threats against the president. But the court stressed that a statute such as this one, which makes criminal a form of pure speech, must be interpreted with the commands of the First Amendment clearly in mind. What is a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech. The court ruled that only a true ð>threat could be outlawed. In Watts, a Vietnam protester had been arrested during an anti-draft rally for stating If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J. [President Lyndon Baines Johnson]." The court ruled that this was not a true threat but political hyperbole. The court declared that the First Amendment protects debate on public issues that is uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks . . . .

Abortion protests have raised many issues about freedom of speech. In this activity, students examine different examples of abortion protests and determine whether or not each is protected by the First Amendment.

Form small groups.

Each group should . . .

    1. read Hypothetical Abortion Protests below.
    2. discuss each example.
    3. determine whether or not the protest described is protected by the First Amendment.
    4. write down why the First Amendment does or does not cover this type of protest.
    5. be prepared to report each decision and the reasons for it to the class.
    6. Have the groups report their decisions. Debrief by voting on whether each of the protests is protected by the First Amendment.

Hypothetical Abortion Protests

  1. Protesters outside abortion clinics scream at those entering calling them baby butchers and murderers."
  2. In front of an abortion clinic, protesters hack to pieces an effigy of an abortion doctor.
  3. Abortion protesters in front of a clinic carry wanted for murder" posters showing the pictures of doctors who perform abortions.
  4. A protester sets up a web site listing the names, photographs, home addresses, license plate numbers, and names of spouses and children of doctors and clinic workers describing them as baby butchers.
  5. This web site is the same as number 4 except the names of doctors who have been killed are crossed out and those who have been wounded are listed in gray.



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