THE scene Saturday at 12th and Walnut Streets outside the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center could only be described as a three-ring circus.
On one side of the street, cordoned off by a metal barricade, stood the defenders of the unborn: people fingering rosary beads, their heads bowed in prayer. Middle-aged women chatting among themselves, one holding a graphic poster showing an aborted fetus. Young couples with children in tow. Placards declaring "Killing Center Open" and "We want to help you and your baby, 626-4006."
Across the street, the defenders of the clinic doors - mostly young women and men - stood cheek by jowl, escorting women inside. Their T-shirts, buttons, and posters echoed their chants: "We're tired, we're bored, enough about your Lord" and "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Operation Rescue go away!" Some men in drag calling themselves "Church Ladies for Choice" entertained the crowds with a rendition of Amazing Grace.
In the middle, scores of police milled around, ready to arrest any right-to-lifer who sought to block the clinic's entrance. One man obliged and was whisked away, the only arrest of the day at this site.
This was but one day in one city of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue's 10-day "Cities of Refuge" event, which is targeting seven metropolitan areas around the country July 9-18. Operation Rescue (OR) didn't claim that it saved any babies at Blackwell, though some anti-abortion activists say they did counsel women on the sidewalk. Of the 25 women scheduled for abortions there on Saturday, 19 showed up, a normal no-show rate says clinic counselor Alison Sprague.
So on the face of it, victory went to the pro-choice forces at Blackwell, who turned out in greater numbers. In the other "cities of refuge" - Dallas; Minneapolis; Jackson, Miss.; San Jose, Calif.; Melbourne, Fla.; and Cleveland - abortion-rights forces are generally outnumbering the OR forces.
But at Blackwell, the calm demeanor of the OR demonstrators - in contrast to the raucous and sometimes nasty behavior on the pro-choice side - did seem to promote at least one of OR's aims: to improve a public image that has been tarred by violence, both threatened and actual.
After OR's siege of Wichita, Kan., in 1991 and Buffalo, N.Y., in 1992, this summer's event is the first multicity "rescue" - and the first since the murder in March of Florida abortion doctor David Gunn. The killing was not directly linked to OR, but abortion-rights forces, and some anti-abortion activists as well, say OR's tactics create an atmosphere that breeds violence.
Two weeks ago, a man named Oldrich Tominek, an OR activist from Dallas, was arrested in New Jersey for telephoning a bomb threat to a Dallas clinic. The head of OR Dallas, Flip Benham, says he doubts that is what Mr. Tominek was doing. But the arrest does not help OR's image.
OR seeks to protect itself from the actions of those present at its events by saying it is not a membership organization. In Philadelphia, those who attend OR's nightly rallies are handed a "rescuer's pledge," which begins: "I am here of my own free and independent choice and not as part of any group. In all that I do here, I am acting alone.
"I understand the critical importance of being peaceful and free of any actions or words that would appear violent or hateful," the pledge continues.
OR has also instructed Philadelphia rescuers not to speak to the media, the only "city of refuge" with such a gag order. The reason is the media's pro-abortion bias, OR says. "The media doesn't show the babies," a priest told the group. "It doesn't show what happens with abortion."
THERE'S too much media focus on the number of arrests, says Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for OR National. But OR seems to encourage that by issuing tallies on arrests. In fact, for many OR activists, being arrested or being named in an injunction is a badge of honor.
"Did Larry get arrested?" one woman was overheard asking another before Friday's rally. Yes, she is told. "Good! He wanted to."
Earlier that day, OR targeted the one area clinic that chose not to participate in a well-prepared defense network, a clinic based at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Police arrested 115 protesters, who shut the facility down for six hours.
On Saturday, as clinic defenders kept protesters at bay at the Blackwell clinic, OR had already set its sights on another unprepared clinic about a half-hour away: the Brandywine Valley Women's Center in Wilmington, Del. Hundreds of OR protesters descended on the clinic, shutting it down. Police handed 130 people citations for disorderly conduct.
But the crowning achievement, OR says, was the success of talking one woman out of having an abortion.
For every alleged success, however, OR faces a myriad of other challenges to its public image - including harsh rebukes from other anti-abortion leaders and from some Roman Catholic leaders.
Last week, the head of Texas' largest anti-abortion group called on OR to cancel its Dallas rescue. He also said he had received telephoned threats from people saying they were OR members. In Minneapolis, Archbishop John Roach expressed deep reservations about OR's planned visit. He acknowledged OR's claim that violent acts blamed on OR are committed by others. "The end result, however," he said, "is that violence does too often occur in the atmosphere created by their presence."
OR is fighting back. Last Thursday, it announced lawsuits against people who have charged OR with violent acts or allegedly fabricated evidence against OR leaders. OR is also seeking to win more support among some natural allies. The group bought ads on conservative talkmeister Rush Limbaugh's program calling on people to "see for yourself what OR is," says Ms. Wright, the OR National spokeswoman.
In Philadelphia, most of those attending the opening rally indicated that they were local. But one young man named Christoph said he had come from Dortmund, Germany, for the event.
"They're not as extreme as I had heard," Christoph said, before being pulled away by an organizer and scolded for speaking to a reporter.