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Kansas Abortion Protest Garners Quick Boost But Shaky Results

Is mass civil disobedience best way to promote dialogue on the issue?

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TO hear Operation Rescue spokesman the Rev. Pat Mahoney talk, the anti-abortion group isn't only having its day in court, it's also having its day in the sun.The group's month of protest at abortion clinics in Wichita, Kan., resulting in more than 2,000 arrests for obstructing access to the facilities, captured media attention nationwide. That, says Mr. Mahoney, spells success for the nearly four-year-old group that has until now been dismissed as the extremist fringe of the anti-abortion movement. Several factors helped Operation Rescue's (OR) effort: * TV networks lapped up scenes of police carrying off Bible-toting protesters. * Kansas Gov. Joan Finney, who is against abortion, addressed an OR rally - the first public support a governor has given the group. * The federal Justice Department last week unexpectedly intervened on behalf of OR's effort to remove a federal judge's order forcing the protesters to stop blocking the clinics.

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Across the movement But the more-mainstream National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the Christian Action Council do not support OR's tactics, says Mahoney, speaking from Wichita. "However, they're clearly excited about our success," he says. "Operation Rescue provokes thought, dialogue, and discussion. The more people talk about [abortion], the more they come to support our position." Mahoney and other anti-abortion leaders are not fazed by an opinion poll released Sunday by the Wichita Eagle and KAKE-TV that reported 78 percent of the residents of Sedgwick County disapprove of OR's tactics. "How many people approved of Susan B. Anthony's tactics when she fought for women's right to vote? How many people supported the Rev. Martin Luther King's tactics?" Mahoney asks. Groups like NRLC get the best of both worlds: They can distance themselves from OR, saying that they prefer to work within the law to change the law; and they can use the media's focus on abortion to put their slant on the issue. David Johnston, executive director of the NRLC-affiliated California Pro-Life Council, agrees that, to an extent, OR's effort is representative of the anti-abortion movement as a whole - not the illegal aspect, but the ardor. "There are many more pro-lifers working actively in campaigns in the civic arena," says Mr. Johnston. "The numbers of supporters have grown exponentially in the last year and a half." Other mainstream anti-abortion activists are less charitable, describing OR protesters - who converge on designated clinics from around the country - as "gypsies" and religious fanatics. To groups supporting abortion rights, the Wichita "baby rescue" presents neither a victory nor a defeat for their side. "The actions of Operation Rescue have done damage to their cause," says Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). "When they cross the line from peaceful protest to lawlessness and vigilante tactics, they lose support immediately." Ms. Michelman says NARAL phones have been ringing nonstop with callers asking what her group is doing to counter OR. But Michelman is reluctant to declare Wichita a victory for pro-choice forces. Rather, she says she is saddened to see the issue get "distorted." The challenge she faces is "to put the issue in a different light, to elevate the discussion," she says. In response to Operation Rescue, NARAL has introduced its latest media campaign into Wichita and Pennsylvania, where President Bush and outgoing Attorney General Dick Thornburgh visited yesterday. NARAL's thrust is that abortion should be made "less necessary - not more dangerous, not more difficult." For OR itself, few disagree that its month-long protest - originally meant to be just five days, according to Mahoney - is a watershed. The organization has moved from relative obscurity to, for now, center stage in the abortion debate.

Primed or peaked? But OR may be miscalculating the lasting effect of its activity, according to Arthur Shostak, a professor of sociology at Drexel University who has written about the abortion issue for The Futurist magazine. "I think this activity in Wichita ironically may prove to be something like a Roman candle that bursts and will not be followed by more," says Professor Shostak. OR founder Randall Terry "and his crowd may have reached their peak." Still, Shostak says, if he were a strategist for the anti-abortion movement, he would favor civil disobedience because, he says, it resurrects the issue and prods the conscience of the middle mass. "But," the professor continues, "I think Randall Terry and the others fail to see the full cycle. I think they get momentary emotional support from a small portion of the undecideds, but it does not translate months later into November election returns." OR, however, is buoyed by its recent success and is looking to take its "Wichita blueprint" to other cities. The group plans to target Washington, D.C., clinics beginning Jan. 22, 1992, and clinics in New York City and Houston during next summer's political conventions.