An anti-abortion Republican in the White House, the US Supreme Court within one vote of overturning Roe v. Wade, and anti-choice zealots attacking women’s clinics — in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the stakes were high for women’s right to choose abortion.
And the battle was taking place in the streets of many US cities, after hundreds of anti-abortion protesters descended on clinic facilities, determined to shut them down.
Randall Terry, leader of the extremist anti-choice organization Operation Rescue, claimed the crusade used the peaceful disobedience tactics of the civil rights movement in the interest of “saving unborn children.”
But there was nothing “peaceful” or “civil” about their movement — or their goal of reversing women’s right to abortion and making decisions about their own lives.
In some cities, the best known being Wichita, Kansas, the anti-abortionists succeeded in completely shutting down women’s clinics. But later, they were stopped — most spectacularly, in Buffalo, New York. In the process, people were forced to take sides in this debate — and a number of them defied the myth that America had become deeply conservative during the years of the Reagan Republicans in the White House.
The women and men who were part of the grassroots organizing that confronted the Religious Right and kept them from shutting down abortion clinics provide important lessons for today about challenging the right and defeating the ideas they try to spread.
During the 1980s, there was a real fear that Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, might be overturned.
The Court narrowly stopped short of reversing Roe in its 1989 decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, though the 5-4 ruling still limited access by upholding state restrictions on abortion.
Three years later, the Court took another shot at Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — once again, abortion remained legal, but the divided Court upheld further state restrictions and formulated a less stringent “undue burden” standard to determine the legality of future curbs and bans.
The tone was largely set in Washington, with 12 years of Republican administrations hostile to abortion rights and women’s rights in general. “The election of Ronald Reagan invigorated anti-choice zealots,” said Sharon Smith, author of Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital, in an interview. “It was also a time of the ascendency of the New Right and the Christian Right.”
The attack on women’s right to choose was part and parcel of the New Right’s strategy of scapegoating women and minorities as part of reversing the hard-fought gains of the 1960s and ’70s social movements.
Reagan eagerly promised his support for the anti-choice movement. “Abortion is not a harmless medical procedure but the taking of the life of a living human being,” Reagan told anti-abortion protesters gathered near the White House in 1987. “This tragic and terrible toll continues at a rate of more than 4,000 young lives lost each day. Our national commitment to the dignity of all human life must begin with respect for the most basic civil right, the right to life.”
Reagan’s vice president and eventual successor, George H.W. Bush, also jumped on the anti-abortion bandwagon, though he was a past supporter of Planned Parenthood and the right to choose.
The anti-abortion movement — largely led by white men like Operation Rescue’s Terry, a 26-year-old used car salesman from upstate New York — built a dedicated and fanatical following.
Susan Faludi described the zealots in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women:
As resentment over women’s increasing levels of professional progress became mixed with anxiety over the sexual freedoms women had begun to exercise, they developed a rhetoric of puritanical outrage to castigate their opponents.
For public consumption, the spokesmen of the militant anti-abortion movement called feminists “baby-killers”… But more revealing was what they said under their breath: their whispered “whores” and ‘dykes’ were perhaps their more telling epithets. Sexual independence, not murder, may have been the feminists’ greater crime.
The right-wingers were also no strangers to violence, despite the claim to act in the tradition of the civil rights movement.
Between 1977 and 1989, 77 family-planning clinics were firebombed, 117 were targets of arson, 250 received bomb threats, 231 were invaded and 224 vandalized. As one chant of the clinic defense movement put it: “Pray by day, bomb by night, that’s the tactic of the right to life.”
The views of this fanatical minority stood in stark contrast to the ideas about abortion and women held by the majority of people at the time. An unwavering majority supported Roe v. Wade, as is the case today.
In the aftermath of the Webster decision, public opinion shifted even further in support of abortion rights. A majority now supported Roe in every region of the country, every age group, both political parties, and even in the Catholic Church, according to Faludi.
Alongside these views on abortion, women exercised more independence and greater control over their lives, without the interference of men. A 1987 poll showed that 87 percent of single women thought it was perfectly acceptable for women to bear and raise children without being married, up 14 percent from four years earlier. Some 40 percent of women responding to a 1990 Virginia Slims poll thought that in making a decision about whether to have an abortion, the man involved should not be consulted.
Their fringe status didn’t stop the “right to life” movement from taking their crusade on the road — to women’s clinics, in an effort to blockade and close them down during the 1980s. Anti-abortion groups mobilized their forces to harass patients and clinic workers and, and if they could, block clinics and shut them down.
Pro-Life Action League director Joseph Scheidler wrote the movement’s handbook, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop an Abortion, in which he emphasized having a positive message about saving “babies” or the “unborn” (not fetuses), and being “pro-life,” not anti-abortion.
But their true mission was undeniable: shut down the clinics, no matter what the consequences for the women who needed those clinics, and no matter how vicious their behavior.
In some cities, hundreds of anti-choice bigots would descend on a clinic, screaming at women who tried to go in — many of whom were there to get basic health services — and calling them “baby killers.”
The pro-choice movement responded in different ways, explained Sharon Smith, who helped organize clinic defenses in Chicago in the 1980s:
What was then called the National Abortion Rights Action League [now NARAL Pro-Choice America] organized clinic escorts, which was very helpful to get women past the screaming mob of religious zealots. The problem with that is that they didn’t organize a visible pro-choice presence in the sense of organizing people to hold signs and chant pro-choice chants. In fact, they opposed people doing that.
A group of socialist women in Chicago formed the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (ECDC) to organize that visible, confident presence. According to Smith:
Groups like ECDC were the left wing of the feminist movement at the time because we thought it was important to have a demonstration and be a visible strong as large as possible to demoralize the other side. Escorting is very valuable, but from our point of view, this is also a political battle, and the larger and more visible we are, the bigger difference we will make.
Pro-choice activists didn’t mobilize every Saturday, but when the right mobilized in greater numbers, so that the pro-choice side could have as large a show of force as possible. “At first, our forces were quite small, but as time went on and the Christian Right was growing, so, too, did our side grow, and we began to have a much larger, visible presence at abortion clinics and women’s health centers,” Smith said.
This experience was repeated in other cities. In Cincinnati, socialists and other activists also organized clinic defenses so that anti-choice zealots wouldn’t go unopposed. Kirstin Roberts, who helped organize those defenses, said:
We knew about clinic defense because the International Socialist Organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s was in a clinic defense network with other groups like R2N2 [Reproductive Rights National Network]. There had been a feminist movement that had done clinic defense — my mom was part of that, and we knew what clinic defense could look like.
One of the largest mobilizations of anti-choice forces came in the August 1991 when thousands of Operation Rescue supporters hit Wichita, Kansas, as part of its “Summer of Mercy.” The pro-choice side relied on injunctions and police to keep the clinics open.
No protests were organized, and Operation Rescue successfully shut down the clinics for weeks.
After Wichita, the anti-abortion fanatics thought they could go to any city and shut down abortion rights. But for some pro-choice activists, the new slogan became “No more Wichitas!”
From the right’s point of view, Cincinnati was a perfect choice.
“Cincinnati was known as the Anti-Sin Capital,” says Roberts. Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis tried shut down a 1989 showing of artist Robert Mapplethorpe at the Museum of Contemporary Art because it was “pornography.” “Operation Rescue thought they had a friendly environment,” said Roberts.
When activists approached the local National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter about protesting, some in the group were interested in helping, but Planned Parenthood said no, because it didn’t want a battleground in front of a health clinic.
The abortion rights activists organized their protest to defend the clinic anyway, and on the first day, they were outnumbered. Roberts remembers that the right-wingers “were also super-aggressive, and they beat us up. We didn’t expect that.” Abortion rights supporters were punched, kicked and sprayed with Mace by the anti-choice side, which was trying to get past them and scale the fence outside the clinic to get inside.
That first day, NOW had coordinated people to be legal observers across the street. They saw what happened, and so did those who watched coverage on the news. According to Roberts:
That second day is when the tide changed. Some people from NOW came out, more students came out from the campuses, others came in from out of town that weekend, and that day we way outnumbered the right — we had about 400 or 500 people — and we were able to shut them down. They couldn’t get over the fence into the clinic, like they had done the first day.
According to a pro-choice protester who was stuck in jail with the bigots on the first day, the sheriff personally served all the anti-choice protesters boxed dinners in jail. “So Operation Rescue was right about Cincinnati in many ways,” Roberts said. “They just didn’t realize there was an organized left there. It was small, but it was real.”
“This is the most opposition we’ve had,” Operation Rescue organizer Burr Robinson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I was in Wichita, and this did not occur in Wichita that I saw. The pro-choice action there was not of that nature — it was not confrontational.”
Later, Operation Rescue went to Buffalo, New York, where it met probably its most decisive defeat.
Pro-choice activists from around the country mobilized for loud and confident defenses of the clinics. Students from Catholic-run Loyola University were among those of us who made the long drive from Chicago to New York state to take on the bigots.
“No clinics were closed, even for a minute,” reported the Buffalo News. “No doctors were driven out of the abortion business. Mainstream Buffalo turned its back on Operation Rescue, even as a nation watched.”
As our chant went: “The people have spoken, the clinics will stay open.” Or this old favorite: “Pray, you’ll need it, your cause has been defeated!”
After weeks of trying to shut down the clinics, Operation Rescue was turned away — because activists confronted them directly. Time magazine renamed Terry’s group “Operation Fizzle,” and their bigoted, anti-women campaign was never quite the same afterward.
Smith draws out some of the lessons for today:
We’re going into the Trump presidency with a much more restricted set of abortion rights than we did in the 1980s. State by state, restrictions that have been passed really limit women’s right to exercise the right to choose, even though it still exists on paper. That provides the backdrop for anything that happens.
Trump has stated his intension to overturn legal abortion, presumably through the appointment of anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. But what’s going to happen locally is something similar that happened with Reagan’s election — having an ardent opponent of abortion in the White House tends to invigorate these organizations locally.
So we can expect something similar from the pro-choice side, including our role as the left wing of the pro-choice movement. Maybe our role will be more prominent because of the drastic situation for abortion rights going into Trump’s first term — and hopefully his last term.
Anti-Trump protests after the election demonstrated something else by “uniting a number of different demands, including women’s rights, immigrant rights, the rights of Muslims,” Smith added. This mutual support can be critical to future struggles, she says:
This is a relatively new development, in which there’s a sense of solidarity between different types of movements. Hopefully, we’ll see that continue. There will be a Women’s March on Washington on January 21 that promises to be quite large and states clearly that the organizers are in solidarity with all oppressed groups, particularly racially oppressed groups.
That leaves me feeling very hopeful, as frightening as it is to have Trump in the White House. There’s also a resistance brewing, because the majority of the population is against overturning Roe v. Wade.