Operation Rescue is coming to Philadelphia. Last Saturday morning, about 60 people gathered in the basement of St. Agnes Church in West Chester to listen to a speech by the charismatic president of Operation Rescue, a well-known organization that represents a militant faction of the American anti-choice movement.
Under the leadership of 44-year-old Troy Newman, Operation Rescue has become known for zeroing in on defined areas and then pressuring individual clinics and practitioners until operating becomes unreasonable or impossible.
Newman calls this technique a refusal to compromise. Critics and judges have called it harassment. Newman took over the group that became Operation Rescue after an $880,000 judgement against former leader Jeff White for harassing Planned Parenthood staff and patients.
Ethical or not, legal or not, the strategy has been successful. Newman has boasted that in the early '90s in San Diego, 18 clinics closed and 50 of 72 "abortionists" quit, retired or left town during a five-year "No Place to Hide" campaign.
Then, Operation Rescue moved to Wichita, Kan., and focused on putting abortion provider and pro-choice champion Dr. George Tiller out of business.
In a documentary that aired last fall on the Rachel Maddow Show, Tiller's former staff described Operation Rescue's street campaign, which even targeted workers of loosely affiliated businesses like cab companies, FedEx drivers and garbage men who worked with Tiller's office in any capacity. According to ex-staff members, Operation Rescue would find employees' home addresses and then distribute photos of the workers alongside pictures of supposedly aborted fetuses to neighbors.
"It's like we became pariahs," said one former Tiller staff member.
Tiller was wearing a bullet-proof vest beneath his suit while serving as an usher at Sunday Mass when he was shot in the head and killed by anti-abortion crusader Scott Roeder in May 2009.
These days, Tiller's Women's Health Care Services is closed and Operation Rescue says Wichita is "abortion-free."
With that mission accomplished, the next step is Pennsylvania.
"This is ground zero, the abortion battle starts and ends here," announced Newman on Saturday.
"Imagine Pennsylvania being the first abortion-free state," he said. "We should set that goal today." On Saturday, Newman told the story of the Alamo before inviting the small crowd of mostly middle-aged, almost all-white faithful to serve as "foot soldiers."
"Philadelphia is in many ways similar to the Alamo," he says. "You're here, this is your moment … God handed you an opportunity for success, for victory."
The "gift from God" is Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who operated the now-shuttered Women's Medical Society in West Philly. He's currently facing charges that include murder, serial infanticide, third-trimester abortions and drug trafficking, among other charges.
As the 70-year-old sits in jail, his name is being loudly and repeatedly invoked by pro-life activists as a straw man in the abortion wars.
Next came recruitment. Operation Rescue is actively seeking volunteers to pose as pregnant women seeking abortions for phone calls and visits to hospitals and clinics. The effort is focused on obtaining and distributing the names of physicians who perform abortions and to gather evidence of clinics breaking the law. The latter part is to support the allegation, made repeatedly at the meeting, that all abortion providers in Pennsylvania are regularly breaking the law.
"We have great opportunities here," said another speaker. "If we discover something, we can expose it. We can have it in the governor's office in 24 hours."
Stapled packets listing local abortion clinics with details such as hours, prices and physician names were distributed. "Every abortion provider is violating provisions of the Abortion Control Act," said the speaker, holding the packet in the air.
There is no proof of this allegation. In fact, the statewide inspection of 22 abortion clinics ordered in January in the wake of Gosnell disproves it.
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