BATON ROUGE, LA. — FOR Laura Johnson, a self-employed word processor from New Orleans, Operation Rescue's arrival in Louisiana is proving to be a cataclysmic event that is swallowing up almost all of her free time and energy.
"I feel like we're being invaded," says Ms. Johnson, who adds that until now she has been only minimally involved in social and political causes. "I mean, here's this group with this really vast and threatening agenda coming into my backyard and telling me what to do with my body. It's sort of like warfare; it has that same energy to it. Except in this case we're not marching off to some land. Instead, we're standing together to defend our own turf."
Johnson's reaction to Operation Rescue's "Summer of Purpose" campaign here, which began on Monday and will conclude July 11, is hardly singular.
From throughout the state and beyond, volunteers and activists both opposed to and in support of abortion rights have been coming into Louisiana's capital, attending organizational and educational meetings in preparation for a series of protests and counter-protests this week in front of and near clinics where abortions are performed.
"We have come to Baton Rouge with a sense of mission and purpose," says Mike Hadley, regional director for Operation Rescue. "Our only goal is to stop women from entering abortion clinics and killing their own children. We will only engage in peaceful activities, because that's what our organization is all about. And I feel confident that our supporters will act appropriately. This is a pretty tight organization."
Operation Rescue is also a highly controversial organization whose 46-day campaign last summer in Wichita, Kan., saw the arrest of more than 2,600 people. A second campaign this spring in Buffalo, N.Y., lasted for two weeks, resulting in about 625 arrests.
BUT the police blotters don't tell the whole story of the Operation Rescue's crusades. Compared, because of their missionary zeal and singleness of purpose, with abolitionists in the Civil War and, more unflatteringly, with fascists during World War II, Operation Rescue activists often verbally assault women entering and departing from abortion clinics and publicly threaten the physicians who work in the clinics.
Although Operation Rescue officials say they would not condone any physical violence during their Louisiana effort, some members have already begun to follow abortion-clinic physicians home, and have carried signs calling the doctors murderers. Such actions, says Operation Rescue's national director, Keith Tucci, are needed to expose doctors "who perform abortions and commit murder."
While officials with the Baton Rouge police department say they expect anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 Operation Rescue protesters for each day of the Louisiana campaign, offset by perhaps an equal number of abortion-rights demonstrators, others here are wondering why Operation Rescue chose Louisiana as a a battleground in the first place: After two highly charged summer legislative sessions, lawmakers last year finally succeeded in passing a law outlawing almost all abortions except in cases of rape, inces t, or when a mother's life is in danger.
"In terms of changing any opinions, this kind of campaign seems almost doomed," says Perry Howard, a retired Louisiana State University sociology professor. "All something like this really does is harden attitudes on both sides."
But Mr. Hadley says his group's efforts in the state have nothing to do with changing the attitudes of those who favor abortion rights: "We appreciate greatly the efforts of the Louisiana Legislature in outlawing abortion.... Even so, that measure has still not saved a single life, and that's why we're here."