Emory Report

Feb. 22, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 21

Risen and Thomas report from 'abortion wars' to Emory audience

On Feb. 8, a small group met in Emory's Winship Ballroom to hear authors Jim Risen and Judy Thomas discuss their new book, The Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War.

Risen, Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and Judy Thomas, a reporter with the Kansas City Star, have covered abortion issues since the 1980s. In investigating the complex history of the right-to-life movement, Risen said, "We began to realize there was a narrative traceable to the '70s. We found liberal intellectuals to be the initial instigators of the whole movement. We wrote the book because we believed that the media coverage of the impetus for this movement had been superficial."

According to Risen and Thomas, the pro-choice decision of the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade mobilized the movement and significantly increased Protestant fundamentalist involvement in politics. "Twenty-five years ago, the 'religious right' did not have the identity and lobbying power that it does today," said Risen, who believes the pro-life movement has been the most important American social movement in the last 30 years.

The two writers discovered that those engaged in the right-to-life cause had come of age in the '70s. All had undergone a "born again" religious experience. "After converting to small fundamentalist churches, they began to search for a way to express their newfound zeal. Anti-abortion was a breakthrough political issue that allowed them to take their fervor to the streets," Risen said.

Though distant observers may not be aware of distinctions, the pro-life movement has always had two separate wings: militant and mainstream. The mainstream group, led by the National Right to Life Committee, works through legitimate politics, letter writing, prayers and picketing. In the last 20 years, the militant faction has developed a much higher profile than the more conservative group because of street-based civil disobedience and specific moes against doctors and clinics.

The militant group actually started with a few Catholic fundamentalist veterans of the anti-war movement. Their consistent opposition to killing led them to an anti-abortion stance, though the Catholic church never endorsed their actions of protest. Those fundamentalists were the first to stage sit-ins in the '70s, 10 years before Randall Terry organized Operation Rescue.

In the '80s pro-life groups fanned out to embrace Protestant fundamentalists. Protestant preachers and authors discovered that abortion was an easy, black and white/good and evil issue that could engage those who normally wouldn't get involved. The "Jesus movement" in evangelical churches helped religious leaders to harness the energy of millions of young people. By the late '80s, the mushrooming movement had nationalized into Operation Rescue.

The group's blockades and other militant actions caused a pro-choice counterattack. The power of the courts and law enforcement were applied to curb Operation Rescue, and in the early '90s the group collapsed, splintering into smaller, more violent militant groups.

Thomas began reporting on abortion issues in the late '80s. Her chronology of the movement's pivotal events included the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests in Wichita, Kan., where many of the protesters renewed relationships made when they were jailed protesting abortion rights during the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta.

Thomas also noted the violent attacks on four doctors and numerous clinics in the past six years. The debate about whether to use violence has been constant in the pro-life movement. Risen and Thomas found frequent crossover between anti-abortionists and the American militia movement in their research. In fact, the series of bombings in Atlanta--an abortion clinic, a gay bar and Centennial Olympic Park--suggest a larger agenda for those who believe violence is a viable means for expressing outrage.

One person attending the Emory discussion mourned the media slant in covering pro-life issues; reporters have been drawn to the sensationalism of the militant protests. Tina Trent, director of Georgians for Choice, acknowledged the problem. "Now that violence is involved, we've had to focus on clinic safety. Forty-two percent of all women in America will have an abortion at some point in their lives. This is a common surgery affecting two out of five families. It is taking place behind barbed wire and bulletproof glass. To me, this is a disturbing state of affairs."

--Cathy Byrd

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