WICHITA, KAN., AUG. 25 -- During her visit to Wichita this summer, Pat Wickens learned how to slither under police barricades to blockade the front entrance at an abortion clinic. The 57-year-old chemistry teacher from Madison, N.J., also refined her considerable talent at secretly twisting her sweaty wrists out of handcuffs after an arrest.
The lessons of the summer for Shaunna Balman, a 19-year-old college sophomore from Eldorado, Kan., included how to use her body to shield anxious, often quivering abortion-clinic patients from the taunts of protesters. She also learned how to live without the support of relatives in Wichita, who stopped speaking to her the day after they saw her on television wearing a T-shirt from the Kansas Prochoice Action League.
On this, the 42nd and final day of an antiabortion campaign in Wichita that its organizers in Operation Rescue called their "Summer of Mercy," participants on both sides took stock of what they learned, what had been accomplished and what difficult times all of them see ahead as they contest one another physically, emotionally, legally and politically over an issue that will not go away.
Operation Rescue leaders plan to linger in Wichita to continue court challenges and to seek the release of nearly 200 supporters who remain in jail. Among the more than 2,600 arrested during the campaign are 61 who were arrested during a blockade at a clinic this morning, where police said they were forced to use Mace to quell the protesters. But there will be fewer mass blockades at clinics here, organizers say, and they passed the leadership burden to local abortion opponents at a climactic "Hope for the Heartland" rally this afternoon that drew 25,000 people to Cessna Stadium at Wichita State University. Abortion-rights activists who came to Wichita this weekend for rallies and workshops left after a noon prayer vigil downtown at the Joan of Arc monument.
What did Operation Rescue accomplish after swirling into Wichita like a prairie funnel cloud on July 14? One of the group's leaders, Mike McMonagle of Philadelphia, said this weekend that the clinic blockades had prevented 29 women from having abortions. "We saved 29 babies and mothers," McMonagle said, although he could offer no documentation. Abortion rights leaders said the blockades were intended not to save babies but to harass women. In the 'Pro-Life' Mainstream
Beyond the specific consequences of the blockades, McMonagle said, the summer in Wichita "rejuvenated the pro-life movement nationally" and placed Operation Rescue into what he called the mainstream of that movement. "Until the Summer of Mercy, we were the Rodney Dangerfield of pro-life," McMonagle said of the organization whose modus operandi is militant action that it terms civil disobedience. "Now we are in a leadership role."
As evidence of Operation Rescue's acceptance into the antiabortion mainstream, McMonagle noted that the Hope for the Heartland rally today was sponsored by moderate antiabortion groups, not by his organization. The rally showed the diversity of the antiabortion movement: Men, women and children of all ages and races, many of them carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the brutal 100-degree Kansas sun, filled one side of the football stadium and half of the other.
In Southern California last week, however, several antiabortion groups balked at joining an action with Operation Rescue until it promised not to undertake Wichita-style blockades. Polls in the Wichita Eagle showed that Operation Rescue's tactics here were not winning converts: more than two-thirds of those polled rejected the group's confrontational style.
While abortion-rights leaders believe the Summer of Mercy backfired in a public relations sense, they said it is difficult to assess what affect it will have on women seeking abortions. "If you deny access to a right, that right does not exist, so they have hurt some individuals," said Loretta Ucelli of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). "But at the same time, they are turning off much of America to the anti-choice crowd."
Robin Schneider of NARAL's Southern California office noted that under pressure from Operation Rescue an outpatient surgery center, Surgicenter of Torrance, agreed it would no longer perform abortions. "We're distressed that any provider would cave in to Operation Rescue's threats," Schneider said. "To have medical procedures abandoned due to threats is a bad precedent."
Schneider said Surgicenter is among the smaller abortion providers among more than 80 in the Los Angeles area, but she said the impact could be far greater if similar tactics worked in other parts of the country. The number of abortion providers has declined in 33 states since 1985, according to NARAL statistics. The Administration's Role
Both sides said the Wichita drama intensified the politics of abortion on a national level. They agreed that President Bush's recent criticism of Operation Rescue's tactics was of no consequence: Far more important, they said, was the administration's decision to side in court with Operation Rescue's challenge of U.S. District Judge Patrick F. Kelly's jurisdiction over the Wichita blockades.
"Actions speak louder than words," said McMonagle, who became Operation Rescue's spokesman in Wichita after founder Randall Terry left town to avoid arrest last week. "We feel we help Bush politically. We make him appear part of the moderate, mushy middle."
"Women are very, very angry about the hypocrisy we see on this issue," said Irene Stuber, a National Organization for Women leader in Hot Springs, Ark. "We see President Bush speak out of both sides of his mouth. He can't have it both ways. He can't side with the vigilantes in court and then try to disown them."
McMonagle said Operation Rescue leaders concluded this weekend that they had made a tactical mistake by focusing so much of their rhetoric on Kelly and the U.S. marshals he dispatched to arrest them in order to ensure women access to Wichita's abortion clinics. "Our major mistake was that our statements made it look like this was Judge Kelly versus Randall Terry," McMonagle said. "This was really George Tiller versus unborn babies. We regret some of the things we said." Tiller runs Wichita's primary abortion clinic and performs later-term abortions.
When Kelly sent in the marshals to make arrests and rounded up Operation Rescue's leaders on conspiracy charges, the organization denounced him for using "Gestapo-style terrorist tactics." They called him a "loose cannon" and a "Lone Ranger" and said they were certain the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would overturn his actions. So far, the opposite has happened. On Friday, the 10th Circuit upheld Kelly's injunction against the abortion-clinic blockades. An Issue of Free Speech
The Wichita drama has raised several complex issues involving civil disobedience and free speech. One of the more interesting incidents occurred Wednesday, when Phil Vollman of Painesville, Ohio, was arrested by marshals on the sidewalk outside Tiller's clinic after delivering an extemporaneous sermon.
"I opened my Bible and began preaching from Psalm 37, about how God will cut down the evildoers," Vollman said. "I said at one point, 'George Tiller, your days are numbered. George Tiller, your family is in danger. God is going to deal with George Tiller and anyone else that is with him.' " After his sermon, Vollman said, he was approached by a marshal who said: "Come with me. Judge Kelly wants to see you."
"I screamed down the street: 'Wake up, America! I'm being arrested for preaching on a street.' " Vollman had been videotaped by the marshals. He was charged with making threats against Tiller's life. Before his court appearance, Vollman lambasted Kelly. "Judge Kelly is boxing with God," he said. "The thing motivating Kelly now is pride. His pride is out of control."
But in court Friday, after viewing the videotapes of Vollman's sermon, Kelly dismissed the charges, saying that Vollman's sidewalk diatribe was not a threat to Tiller but "an expression of one's First Amendment rights personified." 'The Opposite of Violence'
Operation Rescue leaders characterized their actions here as civil disobedience in the tradition of the civil rights movement. Randall Terry compared himself to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Operation Rescue," McMonagle said this weekend, "is the opposite of violence." But lawyers for the nation's leading civil liberties organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged Operation Rescue's definition of civil disobedience.
"Civil disobedience has a history of touching the heart, not threatening with rowdyism," said ACLU senior staff attorney Lynn Paltrow. "You cannot push women to the ground and be nonviolent. . . . You can't threaten and harass nonviolently."
The year ahead will be an intense one for both sides. Operation Rescue leaders said their next large action will come next January in Washington, D.C., during the week when antiabortion groups congregate in the capital for their annual national rally. They also plan actions at the Democratic and Republican conventions in New York and Houston next summer.
Abortion rights leaders are mobilizing for the fight against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas this fall. Over the next year, they expect Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision establishing the right to abortion, to be overturned. That could transform the abortion rhetoric once again, with antiabortion groups then embracing the law and abortion-rights supporters flouting it -- the opposite of what happened here.
"We may lose Roe. Then what will we do?" ACLU's Paltrow said at an abortion-rights rally Saturday. "We will never go back! We will never go back!" women chanted in reply. Speaking of the militant abortion opponents who descended on Wichita this summer, Paltrow added: "We cannot turn into them."