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the Body Politic
Vol. 08, No. 02 - Mar/Apr 1998, Page 25
Copyright © 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Relocating the Abortion Debate:

A Proactive Response to Clinic Violence

By Karyn Brownson, Portland Stand Up Sunday Committee

Boring, Oregon is a harmless-looking suburb of the city of Portland. It is a fairly small, fairly wealthy, very white town, set in the green rolling hills of northern Oregon. Boring is the kind of pretty little town you might smile at as you drive through it on the way somewhere, the kind of quiet little town local kids say lives up to its amusing name. On the corner of two main roads outside town stands a huge building complex with well-kept lawns and pale grey siding. A large white cross decorates the front beside the words Good Shepherd Community Church.

The words "community church" may bring to mind a gathering space for townspeople, a place where everyone goes to celebrate the birth of a young married couple's baby or pray for someone's aging grandmother who has gone to the hospital. But Good Shepherd is no friendly neighborhood congregation. On a Sunday morning one can find among the 2,000-member congregation some of the most virulent anti-choice activists in the Portland area. These men have been using their leadership in the congregation to recruit the groups of protesters harassing women at Portland's abortion clinics for almost as long as abortions have been performed legally in Portland.

On another street corner, this one in northwest Portland, stands the embattled Lovejoy Surgicenter, a clinic which provides abortions and other kinds of reproductive health care. As the clinic in Portland most accessible to protesters Lovejoy has taken the brunt of anti-choice violence in the area. Lovejoy is picketed every Saturday morning by members of local fundamentalist churches, often including members of Good Shepherd.

Escorts, staff and clients of the clinic are subjected to verbal and emotional violence in the form of shouting; physical intimidation; scare tactics including gory descriptions of, and even outright lies about abortion procedures; huge touched-up photographs of bloody aborted fetuses being waved in their faces and held in front of the doors. This January Portland's pro-choice community decided to respond to the harassment in an unconventional way.

The idea was first brought to me when a group of women gathered in October for a clinic escorting workshop, part of National Young Women's Day of Action. Through a discussion of clinic violence, it became clear that Lovejoy was the most targeted clinic in the area and that the Good Shepherd Community Church was responsible for a part of the problem. The suggestion by the leader of the workshop that a protest be staged against the church itself met with the initial fears that seem to have kept pro-choice activists from targeting churches all along: What if this escalates the violence against the clinic? What if we are seen as attacking religious freedom? If we think their picketing is violence, how could we justify using the same tactic? How would the media report on such a protest? Would it be too much of a risk, to ourselves and the pro-choice movement's reputation?

Between prayers for the protesters' souls, the pastor and other speakers described clinic escorts as the spawn of Satan...
Finally, a decision was made to pursue the idea of a church protest, based on the fact that the church was behaving in a political rather than a spiritual capacity by actively sanctioning political actions. We were therefore justified in treating the church as a political institution and protesting it the way we would protest any other anti-choice organization.

The guidelines were carefully set: The protest was not revenge but a chance to expose and hold the protesters and church leaders publicly accountable for their actions and their abuses of power. The purpose was education, not harassment or violence. The protest was about politics and not meant to disrespect anyone's spiritual beliefs. The protest would be peaceful and non-violent. And hopefully, by breaking the taboo against church protests, we would allow other activists to question the taboo.

By January 18, the day dubbed Stand Up Sunday, criticisms from other pro-choice people suggesting we were using poor tactics, being violent or putting the clinic in danger had been addressed and processed as best we could. The media had been notified, security marshals had been trained and someone had volunteered to go to the church service and tape record everything that was said about the protest. The local newspaper had run a short blurb about the event and a longer article, which contained interviews with the committee's media contacts and several church officials. The initial group of pro-choice protesters arrived at the church at eight in the morning, uncertain as to what we could expect for the day and prepared for the worst.

We were greeted by a cheerful group of women, from the church offering us donuts, coffee, water and tents to use as shelter from the predicted rain, all of which we refused. Their forced smiles did not cover the church's discomfort with the protest, however. Sophisticated video equipment set up on the roof recorded our every move, and the parking lot and the inside of the church swarmed with volunteer security people from the congregation. Local police cars sat at the intersections surrounding Good Shepherd, lights flashing.

As churchgoers entered the building, they were handed a two-page tract describing the church's anti-choice philosophy and how to deal with the protesters, whom they referred to as "our special visitors." Maintaining good public relations appeared to be the church's main goal that day, but the recording we obtained of the service showed what was really behind the grinning donut-bearers and professions of Christian love.

Good Shepherd does not have a traditional sanctuary; instead, as in many other evangelical churches, there is a huge room furnished with rows of chairs and a projection screen and decorated with large crosses. The words to the hymns, relevant Bible verses and images relating to the theme of the service are projected for the congregation to see. That forced concentration combined with hypnotic music and lights that confusingly brighten and dim throughout the service was described as very disorienting and almost trance-inducing. The theme for the day, of course, was abortion. Between prayers for the protesters' souls, the pastor and other speakers described clinic escorts as the spawn of Satan, gave detailed and erroneous descriptions of the "baby-killing" done in clinics and obliquely suggested - of course in a way that could not be proven to actually encourage picketing - that members of the congregation do their duty by protesting the Lovejoy Surgicenter the next Saturday.

At one point, photographs of fetuses and video footage of fetuses' heartbeats in the womb were projected on the screen while the congregation stood and sang Jesus Loves the Little Children. The sermon, which followed a statement that the church and its clinic protesters do not advocate violence, described a section in the Bible in which God asks Joshua to kill every man, woman and child in the Amorites, a conquered tribe, because they practice child sacrifice. Before going on to compare this to the abortion situation in the United States, the pastor explained that some might find it confusing to read Bible passages about murder while condemning abortion. "Why support one kind of slaughter and condemn another?" he asked. "Because the killing of children is not acceptable, and the killing of the Amorites was God's will."

Outside the church, the thirty-three protesters who had turned out on this rainy Sunday chanted, held signs, and talked with media members. Also present were hostile reporters from local Christian newspapers, who asked the few men who had appeared what they were doing at a women's event and asked everyone with whom they talked how they felt about killing babies. During speakout periods, people shared personal experiences getting abortions, helping friends through them and working at clinics. When the protest ended at noon, we returned to our cars without incident and left.

Because the Stand Up Sunday Committee used unusual tactics, and because we timed the action the weekend before the 25th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, we received a level of media attention that made Good Shepherd's actions a public issue in a way that an action covered only by pro-choice media would not. This kind of attention was a vital part of our protest.

The fundamentalist church is the grassroots organization of the religious right, the place where full-time anti-choice activists spread their ideas, and find their allies. It is inside these churches, not inside women's clinics, where the real wrongdoing in the abortion debate takes place. And anti-choice churches like Good Shepherd get away with spreading propaganda and organizing harassment partially because pro-choice activists are afraid to address their wrongdoing on a public level.
...anti-choice churches like Good Shepherd get away with spreading propaganda and organizing harassment partially because pro-choice activists are afraid to address their wrongdoing on a public level.

When escorts face protesters at our clinics, we are in a defensive position and have a limited ability to make political statements. By extending the debate to a place besides the clinic doorway we can have an effect more proactive than survival. We need to let the public know that the moral high ground is falsely claimed by anti-choice organizers. At least part of why the public puts so much stock in the anti-choice movement is that it claims God as its leader.

But the presence of the pro-choice religious community is proof that Christianity itself does not define abortion as morally wrong; the anti-choice position is a politically motivated interpretation of Christian doctrine. Although they say, and may even believe, that they are acting on religious belief, anti-choice actions actually reflect right-wing misogynist political beliefs. If we can educate the public about this fact, we can begin to erode the false credibility that has allowed the religious right to pursue clinic harassment unchecked.

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