WASHINGTON — THE next "Wichita" is under way.
After making a name for itself last summer with its six-week siege of abortion clinics in that Kansas city, Operation Rescue (OR) has set upon Buffalo, New York, to save fetal lives.
But this "rescue," which began Monday, will be different, say OR activists and abortion-rights defenders.
OR media coordinator Jerry Reiter, contacted in Buffalo, acknowledges that OR has an image problem. So this time, he says, OR is highlighting a three-pronged approach that includes:
* The standard "rescue" activity of blocking entrance to clinics. Mr. Reiter maintains this will be achieved only through nonviolent civil disobedience.
* "Operation First Amendment," in which protesters exercise their right of free speech by singing, praying, and telling people about abortion without blocking clinics. Such people have always participated along the edges of OR rescues, but the media have paid little attention to them, says Mr. Reiter - thus, the title.
* OR's National Adoption Project. As part of a national effort, OR is recruiting Buffalo families to adopt special-needs children and other hard-to-place candidates. The hope is that the program will encourage women pregnant with special-needs babies not to abort.
OR also says the Buffalo rescue is not likely to be as long as Wichita, nor will it involve as many people. "This will be more of a regional effort," says Reiter.
The fact is, say Buffalo abortion-rights activists, that months ago, OR founder Randall Terry put out the call for rescuers to descend on Buffalo, but that OR has since had to scale back its expectations.
Valerie Colangelo, an organizer of Buffalo United For Choice, which was formed in January in response to OR's targeting of Buffalo, says the group studied the Wichita experience and learned a lesson: be prepared and act immediately.
"We felt the primary problem in Wichita was that the response was not fast enough," says Ms. Colangelo. As soon as the group formed, it set up an office and began planning tactics and raising money.
Its sole aim, she says, is to keep abortion clinics open. The group handed out 50,000 leaflets at the April 5 abortion-rights march in Washington and Colangelo says bus loads of clinic defenders are arriving.
Reiter of OR says he expects fewer arrests than in Wichita, where there were 2,600. Mayor James Griffin, who is Roman Catholic and anti-abortion, welcomed OR's arrival - and so OR expects kinder treatment from police.
But Reiter does expect more clashes between pro-choice and anti-abortion protesters than there were in Wichita, and cites an incident from Saturday as a taste of things to come.
An Assembly of God minister, the Rev. Paul Schenck, was bruised in a scuffle with militant feminists from the National Women's Rights Organizing Coalition, which has vowed to use any means necessary to keep clinics open.
Buffalo-based abortion-rights groups tried to distance themselves from the group, saying they will use only nonviolent means to defend clinics. "They're just some group of traveling outlaws," says Adeline Levine of the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York.
Some abortion opponents are also critical of Operation Rescue's tactics, but they don't like to say so on the record. They worry that OR's extreme tactics hurt the image of the entire pro-life movement.
The fact is, however, that after the grueling Wichita standoff, public opinion on abortion did not change, according to a Gallup poll. The number favoring fully legal abortion held at 33 percent; those favoring a complete ban on abortion stayed at 14 percent; and those favoring legal abortion, but only in certain cases, held at 49 percent.
More damaging to Operation Rescue were the data that showed that, of Americans who were aware of OR's activities, only 15 percent approved of its tactics.
No matter what happens in Buffalo, OR will be in the news again soon. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a case in which OR is challenging a federal injunction that bans clinic blockades. On April 22, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in another, more important case that the court could use to eliminate the nationwide right to abortion.