Wendy Norris is a Denver-based freelance reporter working on special assignment for RH Reality Check.
Audra Reiff is on a one-woman mission to put Dr. Warren Hern
out of business.
As the organizer of the second annual anti-choice "40
Days for Life" prayer vigil and fast in Boulder, Colo., her enthusiasm for
denying women contraceptive care is matched only by the community’s apparent
disinterest in her crusade. Participation at the Sept. 23 kick-off rally
attracted just 34 people and attendance at the 24-hour clinic surveillance has
Talking with Reiff after the rally and while she stood alone
outside Hern’s Boulder Abortion Clinic Sunday afternoon, she is undeniably
devout in her beliefs. And, like many in the anti-choice movement, that fervor
is maddeningly convoluted — fueled by equal parts deep, personal piety,
frustration with the political process and unquestioning trust in outlandish
misinformation about long-debunked health risks peddled by a multi-million
dollar fundamentalist network seeking to ban abortion, contraception, in-vitro
fertilization and stem cell research.
While Reiff’s efforts haven’t yet ignited a groundswell of
support in Boulder, and probably never will in arguably one of the most liberal
cities in the nation, she’s got plenty of company.
According to a first-ever national survey of religious
political activists, 83 percent of conservatives said that abortion is the
most pressing issue for communities of faith, over seven other concerns
including poverty, health care, the environment, jobs/economy, the Iraq war,
immigration and same-sex marriage.
The comparative study conducted by Public Religion Research
and the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute for Applied Politics also found
how deeply intractable the abortion debate runs. Nine-in-10 conservatives
polled believe that abortion should be illegal with either no exceptions or
unless the mother’s health is gravely threatened.
Contrast that with the nearly polar opposite beliefs by 80
percent of progressive religious activists and 50 percent of the general public
who support legal access to abortion care.
While it’s evident that neither the debate over a woman’s
right to choose nor clinic protests will diminish anytime soon, a new more
worrisome trend was noted by Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics
and Public Policy Center, at a Sept. 15 National Press Club event to discuss
the survey results.
Evangelical and Catholic conservatives appear to be ceding
their long-standing strategy of top-down political messaging and organizational
control to a more decentralized, locally-focused activism. Think local chapters
of the many splinter groups that emerge from the perpetually in-fighting
national leadership, as well as entirely new factions supplanting the old-guard
Which is precisely what Reiff and the national 40 Days
organizers appear to be attempting by creating pre-arranged, peaceful vigils
steeped in literalist Scripture that appeal to armchair conservative religious
"slacktivists" whose involvement has largely been relegated to
private prayer and tithing.
But the oft-ignored nexis of this nationwide campaign with
groups that have long occupied the same rhetorical orbits as militant
anti-abortion protesters in their use of genocidal comparisons and subtle,
coded language to encourage violence and purport God’s will is also cause for
The 40 Days national campaign director, David Bereit, was
formerly the executive director of the American Life League and Stop Planned
Parenthood (STOPP), two well-funded organizations that pioneered the use of
clinic blockades and patient harassment techniques.
ALL is currently coordinating the "egg as a person"
state constitutional amendment ballot measures with Personhood USA, members of
the Jericho Riders motorcycle club and Life Coalition International, among
In turn, each of the ALL partners have close relationships
with more virulent and radicalized organizations, some of whom have been linked
to domestic terrorism. Most notably are groups, like Operation Save America,
the Randall Terry spin-off group headed by Flip Benham, and the Lambs of
Christ, a nomadic paleo-conservative network of activists well-known for clinic
invasions. Led by the oft-arrested Catholic priest Norman Weslin, the Lambs
also boasted early members James Kopp, who is serving a life sentence in the
murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, and Shelley Shannon, who is imprisoned for a
series of arson and acid attacks on clinics following her 1993 shooting of Dr.
George Tiller. Working through a network of "safe houses" that
provide accommodations and support, Weslin latches onto events organized by
Wichita-based Operation Rescue and various ultra-conservative Catholic groups.
Other supporters of the 40 Days campaign include another
long-time Terry associate Joseph Scheidler, who equates anti-abortion
protests as a Holy War, GodTV’s Lou Engle, who regularly calls for acts
of Christian martyrdom at clinics, and Royce Dunn of LifeChain who blames
the 9/11 attacks as God’s vengance for abortion.
Each of the men, and a cast of others who advocate various
conspiracy theories and apocryphal prophesies, are prominently displayed on the
40 Day’s Web site as endorsing the project. It’s hard to take seriously the
pledges of non-violence when a macabre game of six degrees of separation can
yield so many individuals with malicious intent and decades-long rap sheets.
Those extreme views sadly are not limited to the national
movement. The Catholic parish supporting the Boulder vigils, the Sacred Heart
of Mary, is well-known for retrieving cremated fetal remains of late-term
abortions performed by Hern from local mortuaries. The priest and congregants
began holding mass baptisms and burials on the church grounds in 1999.
A detailed, 40-minute presentation on the unauthorized rites
that dominated the kick-off rally also revealed that Fr. Tom Euteneur of Human
Life International, a fiercely anti-abortion and anti-contraception global
ministry that espouses strict Catholic orthodoxy and an odd blend of
anti-Semitic and freemason conspiracy theories, gave a speech at the church on
Sept. 11 billed as "An Evening with an Exorcist!"
All the while, the feisty and sometimes profane Dr. Hern is
having none of it.
The Boulder physician frequently refers to the protesters as
the "American Taliban." His life and clinic long under siege, Hern
and his family were the subject of a June 23 death threat that resulted in
the federal indictment of a Washington State man for violating the FACE
Act, just weeks after Operation Rescue associate and habitual Kansas City
clinic protester Scott Roeder was charged with Tiller’s May 31 murder.
"There is no such thing, in my opinion as a peaceful
anti-abortion demonstration as far as I’m concerned," said Hern. "The
patients are intimidated, they’re frightened. It’s a horrible situation. This
is not free speech. This is harassment. It is madness. They will stop at
And that murky confluence of First Amendment rights,
sidewalk-turned-prayer-chapel and menacing physical presence promises to
continue in Boulder through Nov. 1.