WASHINGTON — In New York recently, two men who call themselves right-to-lifers asked a court to make them guardians of a woman in a coma and her 17-week-old fetus. The woman, Nancy Klein, had severe brain damage as a result of a car accident two months before. Her husband, Martin, had previously asked the court to name him guardian so that he could authorize an abortion which, according to Nancy Klein's doctors, might improve her chances of recovery.
Neither right-to-lifer had ever met the Kleins, but as part of a national network that seeks to make abortion a crime, they wanted to intervene. Their concern, one said, is for "the psychological and emotional state of Nancy Klein if she wakes up. Under our plan, we say the baby's down at the neonatal clinic getting the best care possible. Under their plan, they've got to tell her they've killed her baby."
Approving Martin Klein's request--and, thus, the abortion--a state appeals court found, "these strangers to the Klein family, whatever their motivation, have no place in the midst of this family tragedy." The defeat was not the first in this kind of suit: In a similar case a few years ago, a court rejected intervention as "distressing and offensive."
The defeat was also only a momentary setback. In the past year, the anti-abortion movement has grown in visibility and combativeness. If the Supreme Court ends or restricts the right to abortion, as some experts predict it will in a case called Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, the movement will carry strong momentum into the ensuing state-by-state fight over abortion laws.
The "Siege of Atlanta" during the Democratic Convention last summer, led by the relatively new anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, was a fair symbol of the movement's recent activities. Operation Rescue was founded by Randall Terry, who has said the anti-abortion movement was "too nice" through most of the 1980s. Terry's tactics, duplicated around the country, are sit-ins, picketing and other forms of sometimes illegal harassment described by participants as Christian civil disobedience and radical pro-family activism.
Operation Rescue is joined by the Pro-Life Action League, the American Life League and other anti-abortion groups in promoting such activism. One measure of their success is extensive media coverage. Some of their tactics are directly modeled on the methods of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s because they play so well for the cameras.
According to the National Abortion Federation, a pro-choice organization, the activism is also reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. While the number of actual bombings and burnings of clinics where abortions are performed has fallen since reaching a peak a few years ago, the number of threats remains high. They are sometimes reinforced by other tactics, like spreading nails in clinic parking lots, locking clinic doors with glue or "trashing"--recovering aborted fetuses from clinic refuse and displaying them as the grisly product of what they call "abortuaries."
A generation into its heyday, the pro-life movement is hardly uniform. The National Right-to-Life Committee is the largest group in the movement and it tries to distance itself from street activism. Members use mainstream tactics, lobbying and law suits, to try to keep doctors from performing abortions, insurance companies from covering doctors who do, state-funded hospitals from permitting abortions, federal and state governments from paying for abortions and drug companies from marketing products, like RU 486, that can end pregnancies at low cost without any operation. The expansion of these activities also reflects the increasing confidence of the movement.
The pro-choice movement has a complex response to the strength of its adversaries: The right to abortion is in jeopardy, leaders acknowledge, but only because of the influence of a small, vocal group. Pro-choice support, they say, is both wider and deeper than many realize:
-- In the 1988 elections, there were gains of two pro-choice votes in the Senate and four in the House.
-- Pro-choice voters are stirring who had long been complacent: The response was dramatic to the National Abortion Rights Action League's coat-hanger ad in newspapers across the country this January on the 16th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. ("To many of our daughters, this looks like a coat hanger. Please sign this pledge to keep it that way.")
-- Some polling data suggests that Michael S. Dukakis might have narrowed his loss to George Bush had he pressed his abortion views more widely. For example, in California, the response to radio ads in favor of abortion designed to influence working women raised Dukakis' standing in that group from 39% to 58%.