Pro-lifers win few converts with protests and prayers

THE blockade of the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Philadelphia was conducted with military precision. In the middle of Locust Street, a dozen anti- abortionists fell to their knees in prayer. Drivers skidded to a halt. The police arrived and scooped the unresisting protesters into their vans. Moments later on 12th Street, which also leads to the clinic, more anti-abortionists sat down and waited for arrest.

'It's despicable,' said Cheri Carminati, as she watched the protesters being taken away. 'I work in a shelter, and these people have no idea what happens to children born to people who can't look after them.' A janitor in a nearby building said: 'These are wealthy retired people whose families can afford to have a child by accident.' The protesters, pledged to silence, said nothing.

The demonstration was the high point of a 10-day campaign in Philadelphia by Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group. In seven cities across the country, abortion clinics were to be blockaded in order to show that, despite the election of President Clinton, who favours the right to abortion, the pro-life cause is not lost. At a rally before the demonstration, Keith Tucci, Operation Rescue's national executive director, said: 'Doctors are abandoning the abortion trade. They understand that, if we persist, abortion may be legal, but it may be unobtainable.'

This is optimistic. Founded in 1987 by Randall Terry, Operation Rescue's most famous blockade was its 46-day siege of a clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Doctors' homes were picketed and wanted posters pasted up for physicians who carried out abortions.

However, the venom of the group's propaganda has produced a counter-reaction: the political tide has turned against the pro- lifers. The Republicans believe their firm anti-abortion stance in the election last year lost them votes. The Supreme Court has refused to change Rowe v Wade, the 1973 ruling legalising abortion. The pro-lifers' only real success has been Congressional rejection of federal funding for poor women seeking an abortion.

Operation Rescue is keen to restore its reputation for non-violence after the shooting of a Florida doctor by a militant anti- abortionist in March. At the Valley Forge Hilton, headquarters of its Philadelphia campaign, organisers said: 'Rescuers make a commitment to total non- violence, and silence - except for prayer or prayerful singing.'

The average age of the 300 Operation Rescue activists in the Hilton was high, with a sprinkling of clergy and nuns. Almost all were deeply religious and some had a long history of arrests. One woman said: 'I have been arrested 14 times and spent two months in jail. People don't seem to realise how revolting abortion is. Babies are ripped limb from limb.'

Early next morning the campaigners divided into two groups: those prepared to risk arrest and those not. 'I feel like a draft dodger,' said a woman called Kim, as she joined the latter group.

In Philadelphia, the police and pro-choice groups were also well organised. At three downtown abortion clinics men and women in yellow aprons were preparing to protect their patients. They were organised by co-ordinators wearing green aprons. Ever since Operation Rescue announced its campaign six months ago, they, like the police, had rehearsed their tactics.

Trish Sneddon, administrator at the Philadelphia Women's Center, said the demonstrations were having little effect on patient numbers. She was unimpressed by the protests: 'There are only three or four hundred people, and this is supposed to be the big event for Operation Rescue.'

The main weapon at the Locust Street demonstration was the video camera. The pro-lifers filmed anybody abusing them, particularly if the abuse was anti- Christian. They show the film in recruitment drives.

The clinic's defenders were also equipped with videos, and both groups competed with television cameramen. The constant filming meant that everybody was on their best behaviour.

How difficult has Operation Rescue made it to obtain an abortion? For a woman with money, it is easy enough to buy, but even in liberal New York City a poor woman may wait a month while doctors check whether she has medical insurance.

Keith Tucci's boast, that it is now harder to get an abortion, is true - but only if a woman cannot afford to pay for it herself.

(Photograph omitted)