Louisiana Confrontation Over Abortion a Stalemate
BATON ROUGE, LA. — AFTER five days in the broiling-hot Louisiana sun, nearly 100 arrests, and more than $100,000 in extra city and state police expenditures, Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion organization, concluded its "Summer of Purpose" campaign here with advocates on both sides in an angry, resentful mood.
Even in a state as unconventional as Louisiana, where colorful parades are as common as the rain and the politics is almost always full of carnival and hoopla, the pro- and anti-abortion activists presented a spectacle here not seen before and not likely to be repeated again.
On the Operation Rescue side, husbands and wives, with their children, carried large wooden crosses and plastic fetuses. They frequently fell to their knees in moments of religious exaltation.
Pro-choice activists, were just as visually intriguing: women with spiked hair wearing nun's dresses, all yelling epithets at those who hoped to block access to the Delta Women's Clinic.
"It wasn't a very inspiring experience," said Eleana Irimia, an abortion-rights supporter from New Orleans who expressed disappointment in the pro-choice demonstrations in Baton Rouge. "I expected Operation Rescue to be peculiar, but the pro-choice people were just as bad; they were the extreme leftists, practically Communists to judge by the signs they carried, who ran around half-naked making obscene gestures.
"I think many of those people did the pro-choice cause a disservice," she said.
Equally glum was the Rev. Charles Smith, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, who said the Operation Rescue forces left a bad taste in the mouths of many pro-life believers.
"I am anti-abortion, and I regularly preach against it," said Mr. Smith, "but you don't win any converts by taking to streets and yelling in people's faces. That's not the way to act when you're talking about such an important moral issue. The Operation Rescue campaign here was, on the whole, I think, contained, but I'm glad it is over because what they mostly do is alienate people."
There were no significant confrontations during Operation Rescue's campaign in Baton Rouge, and the Delta Women's Clinic remained open and treated patients. But Wendy Wright, media coordinator for Operation Rescue, called the "Summer of Purpose" campaign a success - principally because it failed to live up to its worst billing.
"There were a lot of negative things said about us at first," she said, "that we were nothing but a violent group of fanatics. But I think once people came out and saw that we were nothing more than responsible Christians trying to stop murders, we won over the doubters. All-in-all, it was a very nonviolent campaign."
City officials believe, however, that the real reason violence was contained at the clinic had less to do with any self-imposed restraint on the part of both pro- and anti-abortion demonstrators, and more to do with a six-foot-high, block-long, chain-link fence that cost more than $8,000 to erect. It kept the two sides separated, and specifically kept the Operation Rescue activists from the Delta Women's Clinic.
Decorated with white signs marked, "Police Line, Do Not Cross," the fence proved to be a particular source of frustration for many of the anti-abortion demonstrators, some of whom sang a song beginning: "This fence will be removed by my spirit, says the Lord."
Even if the Operation Rescue campaign here came off without any major incidents, some observers said they believe most Louisianians who watched the demonstrations on TV were probably nonplussed.
"The one thing that both sides failed to take into account, particularly in Louisiana, is that the vast majority of people are opposed to both extremes in the abortion debate," said Susan Howell, a pollster for the University of New Orleans.
"I think a big block of people here were probably turned off by the antics of both sides, which just goes to prove that anyone who hits the street to demonstrate a cause is not typically representative of the American majority; they only represent themselves," she said.
Because Louisiana has been in the throes of two emotional, divisive summer legislative sessions in which the abortion issue was thoroughly aired, continued Ms. Howell, "there probably aren't too many people here who haven't already made up their minds on how they feel about it all."
Although state lawmakers eventually passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, outlawing all abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when a mother's life is in danger, many polls in Louisiana have actually shown an increase in the number of people who want abortion to be available as an option for women.
"We are still more pro-life in Louisiana than the nation as a whole," said Howell, "but we are more pro-choice than we were before. And that's that vast middle ground that neither Operation Rescue people or the really radical pro-choice forces in Baton Rouge took into account."