Antiabortion protesters try a tougher strategy. But civil disobedience remains controversial

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This summer in Atlanta, a strategy of trespass, confrontation, and arrest lurched from the fringes of the antiabortion movement toward its mainstream. The protests that brought nearly 800 arrests in the six weeks following the Democratic National Convention have returned to Atlanta this week.

Not even the staunchest advocates of this new direction are sure where it leads. But it is pushing many opponents of legal abortion to a difficult soul-searching over the morality of civil disobedience.

The persistence and popularity of the Atlanta protests have surprised even their organizers. Many antiabortion leaders remain very uncomfortable with the strategy. But it comes, according to both sides on the issue, from years of frustration over changing abortion law.

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In the space of a few months, Randall Terry - the young, erstwhile used-car dealer organizing the ``Operation Rescue'' protests - has become the best-known figure in the ``pro-life'' movement.

Last week, Atlanta's new archbishop, the Most Rev. Eugene Marino, gave his blessing to those Roman Catholics whose consciences lead them to join in the civil disobedience. He stops short of endorsing the strategy, though, and warns his flock to avoid any physical, emotional, or verbal violence.

At least four Catholic priests were among the more than 350 people arrested this week in the so-called ``siege of Atlanta.''

Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell is less tentative. He has donated $10,000 to Operation Rescue and predicts he will join the civil disobedience and face arrest himself soon - probably after the national election.

The notion of breaking laws and getting arrested is a departure for pastors and churchgoers reared to obedience, says Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss. ``But it gains ground every week.''

Some conservative Christian leaders, although strongly opposed to abortion rights, remain strongly opposed to Operation Rescue and its flouting of trespass laws. The most prominent is Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church and recent president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The National Right to Life Committee in Washington - longtime champion of change by legislation - has likewise held Operation Rescue at arm's length. Notes the Rev. Peter Dora of the Atlanta archdiocese: ``All the pro-life forces are being very, very careful to keep this from becoming a squabble.''

But according to Mike Schwartz, director of the Center for Catholic Policy, the eruption of Operation Rescue represents a failure of the old strategy geared to electing antiabortion politicians and lobbying for antiabortion laws.

John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, counters that lobbying successes have been substantial, especially in cutting off federal payments for abortions. The US Supreme Court, too, has become a more promising forum for antiabortion rulings.

Most abortion opponents seem to wrestle to reconcile their distaste for civil disobedience with a growing sympathy with the protesters.

``I personally would not go that route and get arrested,'' says Ike Reighard, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. ``But it's hard for me to criticize people who are trying to stop murder.''

There is also ambivalence over where civil disobedience leads and how it serves the cause of fighting abortion. ``If I believed that lying down in front of an abortion clinic doorway would change the abortionist laws ..., then I would do it,'' says Richard Lee, pastor of Atlanta's Rehobeth Baptist Church.

Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, is convinced that Operation Rescue's aggressive tactics are alienating people, showing its members to be ``wild-eyed right-wing extremists.''

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