Using tactics reminiscent of the protest days of the Vietnam War era, a small band of antiabortion protesters is frequently turning Washington-area abortion clinics into battle-grounds over the morality of the operations.
By staging sit-ins at abortion clinics and sending "truth teams" to try to persuade prospective abortion patients that they should not abort their pregnancies, the antiabortion protesters have kept alive an issue that many thought was settled with the Supreme Court's 1973 ruline legalizing most abortions.
"Who would have thought in 1973 that huge billion dollar fundings in Congress could be held up solely on the abortion issue?" asked Robert Follett, Northern Virginia head of the Virginia Society for Human Life, and antiabortion group. "When politicians are forced to discuss something they'd like to forget, that's something."
It is a point that proabortion forces reluctantly concede. "It's always hard to keep what you've got instead of fighting gainst something," said Jean Marshall Clarke, state coordinator for the National Organization for Women (NOW). "We haven't taken to the streets like the antis have had to do," she said. "They're getting stronger and more sophisticated. It's really scary, we're definitely worried about it."
For the past three years, well-organized teams of abortion protesters have been sitting in at Washington-area abortion clinics and blocking the doors to the operating rooms, willing to risk arrest and jail sentences in order to keep their cause in the courts.
Other members of the so-called prolife groups in the state said they are planning to withhold part of their state income tax if Virginia should decide to continue to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients, now that the federal government is no longer financing them. A decision on the issue is expected later this week.
"There's no question about it," said Sharon McCann, administrator of the Northern Virginia Women's Medical Center in Fairfax, where abortions are performed. "They (the antiabortion groups) are absolutely getting stronger. Their tactics are getting more intelligent and so are their spokespeople."
McCann has been in a particularly well-placed position to observe. Her clinic at 3918 Prosperity Ave, is one of the most popular among anitabortion pickets. A total of 20 to 30 persons has participated at various times in the sit-ins in what is becoming a regular Saturday ritual of protest and arrest.
Last month, Fairfax General District Court Judge Lewis H. Griffith arrested on trespassing charges at the clinic after they blocked the halls and doorways there last May. Griffith ruled that the protesters were not guilty because they believed themselves to be acting to save peoples lives.
The decision surprised not only the clinic's operators, who saw it as a threat to their patients' privacy and peace of mind, but came as something of a shock to the protesters as well.
"Actually," said Mary Ann Kreitzer, a past president of Virginia Right to Life, "we were hoping for a conviction. We wanted to keep it in the courts." According, more protesters were back at theclinic several weeks later and four more were arrested.
The forays to the local abortion clinics are well organized, with spokes-people appointed for both those sitting in at the clinics and those waiting outside. In addition, Kreitzer said, "we try to case the joint before hand whenever we can, but somehow it seems to work better when we don't plan it that well."
The protesters also send out what they call "truth teams" to talk to prospective patients in the clinic waiting rooms about their decision to have an abortion. Visits to the clinics are sporadic, Kreitzer said, although once the protesters attempted their won version of psychological warfare. "We tried to hit this one clinic three times in one week," Kreitzer said. "We wanted to unnerve the clinic people."
If such tactics sound as if they were borrowed from a decade-old antiwar manual, it is not surprising that their introduction into the antiabortion cause came from a former antiwar activist.
Chris Mooney, 31, had been an antiwar activist in Philadelphia before she and her husband turned their attention to the antiabortion cause in 1973. "There was nothing happening legislatively," she said. "It really looked like abortion was here to stay. People were becoming desperate for some action" and Mooney began to get the idea of applying civil disobedience techniques to the antiabortion movements.
The essentially conservative nature of the antiabortion cause, however, chafed against some of the Mooneys' more liberal principles and their friends' as well.
"It was incredible," said Chris Mooney. "The first thing that happened was that we started losing a lot of our liberal friends. So many times, we've had to ask ourselves, are we really in the right movement?"
The seeming inconsistencies are felt, in fact, on both sides of the ideological fence. "I don't know, dearie, the world is getting pretty strange, that's all I can say," said one self-described grandmother of four at a recent public hearing on whether Virginia should continue to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients. "I hate welfare and I surely don't believe in all this sexual liberation stuff. But here I am clapping away for some girl whose got two babies out of wedlock and on welfare and all just because she didn't have an abortion."
Philosophical boundaries become even hazier when abortion foes emphasize the need for increased child support and welfare payments, while abortion proponents argue that unwanted children born to welfare mothers will only increase the taxpayers' burden.
"The conservatism of our (state) legislature almost dicates the use of that argument," Mary Denyes, state coordinator of the Virginia Organization to Keep Abortion Legal (VOKAL), said of the increased taxes tactic. "But it's not the argument I feel most comfortable with."
Similarly, there are a number of abortion foes who find the more flamboyant tactics of sit-ins and truth teams less to their liking than the traditional "profile" image of plastic roses and graphic pictures of aborted-fetuses. The emphasis, Kreitzer said, will remain on the methods that came into being when Right to Life chapters were first organized in Northern Virginia more than four years ago.
Then, as now, Kreitzer said, there are no paidstaff or offices. Instead there is a tightly knit core of several hundred people who keep in touch through newsletters and the telephone. The chief form of activism, she said, is public information - lecturing in the schools against abortion setting up information booths at shopping centers.
According to Kreizer, the Virginia Right to Life group operates on about 0 year, most of which comes from an annual statewide raffle.
"We used to auction off half a cow," said Robert Brever, president of the Alexandria Right to Life chapter. "But somebody decided there were image problems with that." Now Brever said, the person with the wimming ticket gets a cash prize."
Proabortion or "freedom of choice" groups say they see the current battle over state funding of Medicaid abortions as giving the antiabortion forces a focus that makes them more visible and disproportionately for forceful. In addition, they say, that since the Supreme Court decision, a certain complacency among proabortionists has set in while they have spent their time concentrating on other issues.
"It's especially hard here in Virginia," said state NOW coordinator Clarke. "With the ERA issue, we keep pulling our supporters in so many different directions, and asking them to do so much and give so much, that I think they may be reaching the 'sitting it-out stage.'"
In addition, Clarke said, the Medicaid abortion issue is not one that "is affecting most women. I don't think they make the connection and realize that it's their own rights that could be threatened next. And unless they fell the pinch, they just don't want to go out and face these ridiculous people."
Defending on the decision reached on whether state will continue to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients, both sides of the abortion issue plan to be in Richmond for the General Assembly budget discussions to get the decision changed.
Still while proabortion forces point to national polls and other indicators to prove that their is the majority position, none of them is prepared to dismiss the potential power of their opponents. "It's difficult," said Mary Denyes, "to work against a group with the kind of religious fervor these people have."