A controversial antiabortion leader with a checkered past has sparked outrage by staging demonstrations outside two north Texas high schools while holding signs that include graphic images appearing to show dead fetuses.
Jered Ragon, the director of the Abolitionist Society of Burleson, is unapologetic. The grass-roots movement based near Forth Worth, Texas, has the stated aim of warding youth away from abortion. “It seems like it is appropriate to take kids that age to the abortion clinic,” he says. “Parents take their kids there.”
But the protests have led to a torrent of calls from parents and residents, as well as a counterprotest by two schoolchildren. In suburban Johnson County – seen as conservative even by Texas standards – the object of anger appears more the images than the message.
“While I support your message, I respectfully ask you to stop putting disturbing and potentially addictive/harmful images in front of our high school children,” wrote one local mother, Lisa Winburne Fleming, on the group's web page.
The protests put a spotlight on Mr. Ragon, who was sent to jail for 15 months for attempting to plant a Molotov cocktail outside a church in 2007 to draw attention to his religious beliefs.
Ragon says he cannot defend his past but has left violence behind. Instead, he has started a group that is local and small – currently there are only 24 members – but is thinking big. He plans to establish more chapters, and he hopes to change the national conversation on abortion in a radical way.
To groups like Live Action, which has produced undercover videos purporting to show how Planned Parenthood steers women toward abortions,
the Abolitionist Society of Burleson is doing vital work.
Live Action Spokesman Drew Belsky says the pro-abortion rights movement has infiltrated schools: "These are not babies running around, these are young adults who must be educated on what they are getting into."
But to others, confronting teens with disturbing images of abortions goes too far – and limits the abolitionist movement's potential influence.
The type of message portrayed in Burleson and Crowley, Texas, "turns off even people who consider themselves pro-life," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Even at abortion clinics and other public venues, they generally turn people off rather than bring people in. Shoving this kind of revolting material in front of young kids is very likely to backfire."
There is evidence of that in Texas.
"While we appreciate what other groups do, our policy is never to use these images either in the center or outside," says Jane Burton, executive director at Burleson Pregnancy Aid Centern. "I have heard a lot of negative reaction to their use of the images, including from those who are pro-life."
The Abolitionist Society of Burleson has targeted a number of schools in Burleson and Crowley during the past two weeks. Dubbed Project Re-education, the protests mark a shift in focus to schools from abortion clinics and churches the group deems apathetic. The goal, Ragon says, is to capture waning public attention by stepping in where parents fail: Show young people what abortion really looks like.
A number of parents have called the schools to express concerns over the imagery, says Victoria Sykes, spokeswoman for the Burleson Independent School District, which includes one of the schools targeted.
The comments by Ms. Fleming, for example, suggest some sympathy for Ragon's message: “Those you are trying to reach – high school children having sex – are not going to respond well to the scare tactics that your images are presenting. The best way to stop abortion is to prevent it – I encourage you to promote education about birth control and even encourage abstinence.”
In a video posted online of one recent demonstration, another mother, also apparently a proponent of the message, is seen to confront society members outside North Crowley High School, calling their actions “appalling.”
But others appeared to be angrier. During recent demonstrations, angry parents approached the group to denounce its pictures, passing motorists slowed to voice opposition, and, on one occasion, schoolchildren themselves set up a counterprotest. One of the girls told the Cleburne Times-Review she chose to act after her 5-year-old sister started to cry when she saw the signs.
Burleson Independent School District took no position on Ragon and his group’s protest, telling parents it had neither approved the demonstration nor could do anything about it, Ms. Sykes says. Because the protesters are not on school grounds, they are free to air their views in public space, protected by the First Amendment. The City of Burleson issued a statement outlining a similar position. Police officers, the city added, had patrolled the demonstrations to ensure participants were playing by the rules.
Ragon says high schoolers need to hear his message. “We are trying to wake a culture up to the evil of abortion and want to show them what abortion really is, something not given to them by their parents. The images help bring the idea into light more.”
Group members say their cause differs from that of most anti-abortion activists, because it is about abolition -- akin to the fight to get rid of slavery and child labor, they insist. For example, they are indifferent to the fact that a Texas court recently stopped implementation of a state law that would set much tougher regulations for abortions. Says Ragon: “We are against legislation that is incremental.”