Anti-choice Vigil Reveals Paradox of Prayer and Militancy


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
been sparse.

 

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.

Audra Reiff, the vigil organizer, stands in front of Dr. Hern’s clinic.

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
movement.

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
concern.

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
others.

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
nothing."

And that murky confluence of First Amendment rights,
sidewalk-turned-prayer-chapel and menacing physical presence promises to
continue in Boulder through Nov. 1.

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  • kate-ranieri

    In today’s NY Times, columnist Thomas L. Friedman recalls interviewing Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. He talked about the ugly mood in Israel in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, much like the extreme right-wing settlers and politicians today who are doing all they can to delegitimize President Obama. Like Obama, the extremists questioned Rabin’s authority, accused him of treason, created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all. And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did. Just how different is Rabin’s world in 1995 from our world in 2009?

    Dr. Hern calls these extremists the American Taliban. I have to agree.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/opinion/30friedman.html?ref=opinion

  • marysia

    Wendy, you are tarring all people who oppose abortion with one brush. Please visit the common ground section of this website & the Nonviolent Chocie Directory to find other views.

    Nonviolent Choice Directory, http://www.nonviolentchoice.blogspot.com

  • crowepps

    I think the article makes it pretty clear that there’s a broader movement that opposes abortions and a very small minority who organize extremely aggressive clinic protests verging on and sometimes stepping over the line into criminality because they believe anything at all is justified. Perhaps the appropriate thing would be for those who also oppose abortion to recognize that the extremists are hurting the cause overall and REIN THEM IN THEMSELVES. They’re certainly not going to be willing to hear anything said to them by those who don’t oppose abortion. At a minimum, moderates should make it clear to each other that sending financial donations to support these aggressive extremists hurts their cause overall. While it’s true that some of them are entirely volunteer, getting those who make their living entirely from those donations out of the field would certainly lighten things up for everyone, and I honestly don’t think they’d stay with ‘the cause’ if the money dried up.

  • colleen

    Wendy, you are tarring all people who oppose abortion with one brush.

    Seriously? Where and how is she doing that? The poll she links to:
    http://www.publicreligion.org/research/?id=237
    does a great job of describing the wide differences in values and priorities between the religious right and left and certainly demonstrates that opposition to abortion is, overwhelmingly, a conservative issue and that amoungst conservatives, abortion is, again overwhelmingly their main issue. If anything it is conservatives in the ‘common ground’ section who need “find other views” and stop pretending that they speak for God.

    I’ve found Wendy’s reporting to be well researched and very informative. I’ve been particularly impressed by her ability to follow the money.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • paul-bradford

    the appropriate thing would be for those who also oppose abortion to recognize that the extremists are hurting the cause overall and REIN THEM IN THEMSELVES. They’re certainly not going to be willing to hear anything said to them by those who don’t oppose abortion.

     

    crowepps,

     

    You couldn’t be more right!  We need to get more dialogue between Pro-Life extremists and Pro-Life moderates.  As you probably know, if you read my posts on the PLCC website, I spend a lot of time and energy pointing out the folly in the extremists’ position.  Of course when I visit conservative Pro-Life ‘sites I get attacked and called ‘pro-abortion’ because I’m skeptical of the wisdom of trying to get in between a determined woman and the abortion procedure.

     

    The conservatives make the most noise but they don’t represent the majority of Pro-Lifers who are, remarkably enough, interested in respecting all human life — not simply life in the womb.

     

    REIN THEM IN….  From your lips to God’s ears!

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • colleen

    The conservatives make the most noise but they don’t represent the majority of Pro-Lifers who are, remarkably enough, interested in respecting all human life — not simply life in the womb.

    I know that you would like this to be true but the available evidence points to the fact that the ‘pro-life’ movement is overwhelmingly conservative and that conservatives do indeed represent the overwhelming majority of ‘pro-lifers’. You and Marysia are welcome to try to invent some silent majority of ‘moderate’ pro-lifers or try to claim that the ‘pro-life’ movement isn’t really primarily a reactionary and dangerous conservative religious movement but the facts and the polls say otherwise.

    Did you even read the poll Wendy links to? There’s a 40 page pdf to download and while it busts apart many of your claims I think you might find it interesting.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • paul-bradford

    You and Marysia are welcome to try to invent some silent majority of ‘moderate’ pro-lifers or try to claim that the ‘pro-life’ movement isn’t really primarily a reactionary and dangerous conservative religious movement but the facts and the polls say otherwise.

     

    It’s too late in the evening for me to crack open a 40 page pdf, so that will have to wait for later.  My Pro-Life ‘majority’ referred to the majority of Pro-Lifers I personally like to hang with which is an admittedly skewed sample.

     

    I still maintain that crowepps hit the nail on the head.  Pro-Lifers who are not reactionary (whatever percentage that turns out to be) have to take responsibility for pointing out the behaviors that are done in the name of Pro-Life but which are actually anti-life.  And I’m not talking, merely, about the Scott Roeders out there — there’s plenty of anti-Life behavior among the Pro-Lifers that doesn’t rise to the level of physical violence.

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • colleen

    I still maintain that crowepps hit the nail on the head.

    You’ll get no quarrel from me there.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • steveloveswomen

    Is anyone here aware that abortionists have murdered many more people than abortionists have been killed by “pro-life” nutjobs? Do you know how many mass murderers have been abortionists?

    Doctor Josef Mengele, one of the most disgusting mass murders of all time, after fleeing from Nazi Germany, became:

    a) A brain surgeon

    b) A podiatrist

    c) A dermatologist

    d) An abortionist

    You only get one choice, so make it count!

  • steveloveswomen

    A group of little old ladies praying rosaries in front of an abortuary are *the same as* a group of people whose mission is to kill as many infidels as possible.

    If you pro-abortionists are wondering why no one takes you seriously except your own “amen choir”, it’s because of nonsense like this.

  • liberaldem

    To Steveloveswomen-Steve, perhaps you should lower the thermostat before you post incendiary comments such as this one.  It adds nothing to a worthwhile discussion about how we can work together to reduce unplanned pregnancies and respect the right of women and men to make the very personal decision about whether and/or when to start a family.

  • steveloveswomen

    Libdem, you probably have a point, but if you’ll read the rest of this thread, I’m hardly the first to post an incendiary comment. And if by “worthwhile discussion” you mean unfairly comparing peaceful, prayerful protestors to murderous psychopaths – without qualification – then I’m afraid you need to revisit your understanding of the relevant terms. This may play here, but nowhere else is such a comparison considered valid or “worthwhile”. The same could be said for implying that all or most pro-lifers’ language hides some kind of violent code or betrays some hidden hatred of women.
    So if you’ll repudiate the nonsense that has occurred here, we can indeed get on to a reasonable discussion about the issues at hand.

  • wendy-norris

    Marysia, I think I do make the distinction here and in my other reporting on the subject that there is a wide spectrum of people who oppose abortion — those who are peaceful and have no intention of committing violence and others who are militant and under law qualify as domestic terrorists.

     

    But I’ll be mindful of the need to make that point more clear. Thanks to you and Paul for the tweak.

     

    What I’m exploring is where those groups eventually intersect, how and why.

     

    For instance, when the Lambs of Christ roll into town they are provided aid and shelter by a network of ultra-conservative Catholics — people who may never personally threaten or intimidate clinic staff or patients but they are actively engaged in assisting in the commission of violence by helping Weslin, et al.

     

    That’s where individuals/groups/churches have a moral and ethical dilemma: To what extent can they continue to claim peaceful means when the fellow protesters they bring into their homes, churches,  and businesses are well-known advocates of militancy?

     

    For the front line protesters that I’ve talked to that differentiation between a passive vs active role in clinic violence is neither as stark nor as wide as one might think. It’s a fascinating multi-layered confluence of faith, cognition and behavioral dissonance that I hope to continue to explore to help keep everyone safe.

  • arium

    Paul,

     

    I’m curious: What is this "PLCC website" you speak of? I’ve Googled "Pro Life Catholics for Choice" (with the quotes), but found no organization web presence. Scanning through the 49 "most relevant" results, the closest I could find was your personal blog at USA Today. Your bio there mentions having "joined PLCC," yet I can find no evidence that this organization exists outside of your imagination. Incidentally, Googling "Pro-Life Catholics for Choice" -"Paul Bradford" (with the quotes) yields 3 results.

     

    Am I missing something?

  • wendy-norris

    I hope my reporting is helpful in peeling back the context and pretext of the anti-choice debate.

  • paul-bradford

    I can find no evidence that this organization exists outside of your imagination.

     

    Arium,

     

    There’s plenty of room inside my imagination!  PLCC is small and the twelve posts on the website you referenced constitute my lame attempt at to whip up a web presence.  I’m interested in what you think of the posts.  The website might not be much, but I put a lot of effort into those writing efforts.

     

    I googled Paul Bradford Pro-Life Catholics for Choice and I found 50 ‘sites with posts I’ve made.  In addition to a powerful imagination, I’ve got a long paper trail….. 

     

    Peace, 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • paul-bradford

    It’s a fascinating multi-layered confluence of faith, cognition and behavioral dissonance that I hope to continue to explore to help keep everyone safe.

     

    Wendy, 

     

    I wrote about the responsibility of Pro-Lifers to curb violence back in June. You can read it here.

     

    There’s much more that has to be done and the mainstream Catholics have a particular responsibility (and opportunity!) to bring to the light anti-life activities done in the name of Pro-Life advocacy.  [I hope you will research the efforts made on behalf of the unborn by the institutional church.  You will note that, not only are these efforts non-violent, they are joined together with other Pro-Life issues: opposition to unjust war, opposition to the death penalty, end-of-life concerns]

     

    I think you can do more, though, than simply ring the warning bell for people on the ‘Choice’ side of the debate.  I would urge you to start trying to engage Pro-Lifers in conversations about the importance of using peaceful means to attain peaceful results.  Believe it or not there actually are a few Pro-Lifers that are bona fide human beings!  Respectful conversation is a good way to de-escalate the violence. 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • paul-bradford

    Steve,

     

    You know, and I know, that there are one hundred times as many devout ladies (and gentlemen) offering rosaries on behalf of the very young than there are violent and offensive protesters.  But the violent protesters get the attention.  The fact that 50 parishioners show up every Saturday morning at Our Lady’s to pray for an end to abortion doesn’t get any press at all.

     

    I sincerely wish that those who are concerned about freedom for women and reproductive health would attend a truly non-violent Pro-Life activity.  Not to change your mind about ‘Choice’, but to discover that people who disagree with you aren’t all monsters. 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • crowepps

    The fact that 50 parishioners show up every Saturday morning at Our Lady’s to pray for an end to abortion doesn’t get any press at all.

    Why would anybody at all besides the participants be at all interested in a religious activity like this?  Why would any of the participants WANT anybody else to know about it?  It was my understanding that the purpose of prayer was to ask God for intercession, not to ‘get press’.

  • my-life-insurance

    Wendy, your blog is a vote for live and helps Audra Reiff to get more publicity in her fight against this doctor. I wish more people would think in the same way but for some people money dominates too much and live is only secondary – specially others live! my live insurance