On the night of October 23, 1999, a sniper killed Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home near Buffalo. His murder, probably part of a pattern of sniper-inflicted injuries in Canada and the U.S. against abortion doctors, severely cut access to abortion for women in a large area of Western NY, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He had been the principal doctor at Buffalo WomenServices, and had his own OB-GYN practice where he was one of the few private doctors to treat women on Medicaid. The community and those who support abortion rights all over the country were shocked and outraged.
Immediately, members of R&R!'s Reproductive Freedom Task Force went to Buffalo to help organize pro-choice protest and resistance to this attack. Doctors from around the country flew in to help the clinic continue to do abortions. A week after the murder, a rally of 500 people gathered to protest. Two doctors, who had never performed abortions before, announced that they would now learn the procedure in order to keep the ranks of abortion providers from shrinking. Medical Students for Choice, religious figures, union members, and gay activists spoke of their determination to defend abortion access.
While this rally was happening, in an outrageous and implicit endorsement of murdering abortion providers, Operation Rescue leaders called for a reunion of the 1992 "Spring of Life," when 1,000 anti-abortion protesters spent 2 weeks targeting clinics in Buffalo.
Calling Buffalo the "flash point in the abortion war," Operation Rescue director Flip Benham said, "When we brought the Gospel of Christ to the streets of the city during the Spring of Life campaign in April 1992, there were six abortion mills (sic) Today there are only two and we pray, by year's end, both [clinics] will be history."
Operation Rescue brought 150-200 activists to Buffalo for the week of April 18-25, 1999 and called it "Operation Save America." News reports repeatedly emphasized that OR's number were extremely diminshed from '92, and many used this fact to write Operation Save America off as a wash. While it is true that OR's massive clinic blockades are a thing of the past, we must be careful to look at the big picture before dismissing Operation Rescue entirely. OR and other anti-abortion groups are going after those most vulnerable to anti-abortion propaganda: young women raised in the era where the lie that "abortion is murder" has become more widespread. They are determinedly going after youth, and are doing ongoing work at high schools to spread shame and guilt not only against abortion, but against sexual education and birth control. OR's wide-ranging strategy exemplifies what R&R! means when we say that "it's all one attack." Coming to Buffalo, after Dr. Slepian's assassination, was a blatant statement of support in favor of the terrorizing of doctors and women.
OR announced at the end of the week that they are officially changing their name to "Operation Save America" because it better describes their goals. Those goals exemplify what R&R! calls the "reactionary agenda". They expanded their focus beyond attacks on abortion to include attacks on homosexuality, sex education, freedom of speech, and what they call "secular humanism. They still protest outside clinics, but now also take their images of bloody fetuses and signs proclaiming Jesus as the "Standard" to intersections, bookstores, doctors' homes, gay bars and "gay-friendly" churches, and to public high schools, which they term "the gates of hell" because there is not enforced school prayer. Their professed goal is a theocratic state, based on their interpretation of the Christian Bible as law.
By coming to Buffalo after Dr. Slepian's assassination, and by using tactics such as pickets at doctor's homes, OR has shown complete support for the terrorizing of doctors and women.
Operation Rescue's tactics go hand in hand with the national escalation of attacks on abortion access: the murder of doctors and clinic workers, bombings and arsons, butyric acid attacks, anthrax threats, and hospital mergers that result in cutting off of reproductive health care services. State after state has imposed restriction after restriction on who can receive which abortion services when and how, protests outside clinics make landlords reluctant to renew leases, and the guilt and shame women are made to feel when they decide to terminate a pregnancy has increased.. The percentage of U.S. counties with no abortion provider now stands at 86%.
Buffalo pro-choice activists responded to Operation Rescue's threat by regrouping the coalition they formed in response to OR's 1992 attack, when hundreds of pro-choice defenders kept the clinics open. Buffalo United for Choice [BUC], organized to defend the two remaining clinics and do "peacekeeping" at area gay bars. Refuse & Resist! put out a national call for pro-choice people to go to Buffalo with the additional goal of following and countering OR everywhere they went, putting forth a strong pro-choice presence. We were greatly successful in this commitment, as for most of the week, OR was never able to face the press at public events without being challenged by a group of veteran and new pro-choice activists from R&R!, students from two Catholic colleges, gay rights activists, and others we met along the way. Refuse & Resist! members, old and new, were constantly approached by the media for comment, appearing in New York state and city newspapers, on CNN and network media stories.
R&R! mobilized about 20 pro-choice people to protest OR's opening church rally. We brought signs and banners announcing our intent to "Boot the bigots out of Buffalo!"
There, four young college women experienced pro-choice activism for the first time. They had taken a bed sheet and drawn a huge hanger inside a circle with a line through it, the powerful symbol for "We won't go back! Keep abortion safe and legal!" When Flip Benham responded to the chant "4, 6, 8, 10 why are all their leaders men?" by saying that God calls on men to lead women, these students were so infuriated that they joined R&R! for an entire week of protests against OR." OR called a press conference at the Federal Court building to denounce the emergency injunction ordering them (and pro-choice people) to stay 60-feet from the clinic. R&R! got there first, with our pro-choice signs, and took advantage of the moment to stage our own press conference. A large part of Refuse & Resist!'s mission was to follow and confront OR everywhere they went, especially where there was to be media, to expose their lies and true agenda. When OR showed up, they had to meet the press surrounded by such signs as "Stop the Anti-Woman Thugs!" and "Abortion Saves Women's Lives!" and they had to talk over our chants of "Pro-life, your name's a lie; you don't care if women(/doctors) die!" As Flip Benham, OR's bronzed leader, grinned and condescended toward the "pro-choice ladies", he attributed the murder of Dr. Slepian to the same "spirit of murder" that made Slepian "shed the innocent blood of babies". When he announced Operation Save America's goal of remaking society based on a fundamentalist model, R&R! made it clear that we would challenge them every step of the way."
Protesting outside Buffalo's Christian Center, where OR was holding a "Spring of Life" reunion dinner, was the perfect opportunity to challenge the antis on the violence of their movement, borne of their rhetoric which calls abortion murder and abortion providers "baby butchers". We also challenged OR on their connection to James Kopp. Kopp, charged with the murder of Dr. Slepian, was with OR in Buffalo in 1992. As the antis entered the Christian Center, we used their own "sidewalk counseling" tactics on them, calling out, "Don't go in there! They just want your money! They'll suck your brains out!"
One of the most effective of OR's tactics was their concentration on Buffalo's public high schools. They are trying to instill in youth the mindset that, having been born under Roe, one-third of their generation has been lost to the "abortion holocaust." OR has announced plans to launch a spin-off group for youth called "Survivors." This, "it could've been you" scare tactic is coupled with other lies and distortions such as the mini comic book distributed at the schools. Entitled "The Clinic," it depicts abortion providers with dollar signs for eyes and is loaded with medical inaccuracies.
R&R! knew it was important to have a pro-choice presence to counter these manipulative words and images. Our presence at the schools was appreciated by many students. The young men and women largely resented the presence of the anti's, especially the huge bloody fetus pictures. The students mostly ignored the protesters, but several students skillfully engaged OR members in debate. Some students ripped up the OR literature and told them off, while others came out carrying their own pro-choice signs they had made in class. Every morning at Buffalo's only abortion clinic, GYN WomenServices, where Dr. Slepian had worked, pro-choice activists gathered at 5:30am. Because of the injunction, only the police were allowed in front of the clinic, where they massed to form an intimidating blue wall. BUC organized pro-choice clinic defenders into a line directly across the street from the clinic. The anti-abortion protesters spread out down the street, with some trying constantly to mix in with and debate pro-choice people. Chants were usually the order of the mornings: "What do we want? The right to choose! When do we want it? Always!
The largest event OR staged was a day of protest in Rochester, NY, where they protested at a large Planned Parenthood clinic, a hospital which does Medicaid abortions, a doctor's office, and the home of Dr. Eric Schaff. Dr. Schaff has been a leading researcher into RU-486. Police allowed OR to march and preach on the sidewalk right outside the doctor's house. Pro-choice activists had been waiting at possible targets around the city. We formed a line across the street and delivered the message that Dr. Schaff is a hero for helping women. Several neighbors came up to us and thanked us for being there to support the doctor. The most outrageous event of the week was OR's staging of a "fetus funeral".
Over 100 anti's paraded to the Rotunda at Buffalo City Hall, with six of their children acting as pall-bearers for tiny coffins. About 15 pro-choice activists stood in their midst in the pouring rain, our signs turning to mush, ceaselessly chanting "Pray by day, bomb by night, that's the motto of the Right to Life!"
We come away from the confrontation in Buffalo knowing that we cannot relent in our pursuit of reproductive freedom. We must not back down from our call for 'abortion on demand and without apology". The response to the attack on Buffalo from the pro-choice community was very encouraging. All of our efforts must extend to building a stronger network of support for abortion providers under siege, and toward connecting with youth on the message that reproductive freedom, and access to abortion, saves women's lives.
[posted Sat, May 29, 1999]
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