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Protesters Plotted 'Rescue'--and Then It Was Too Late

January 10, 1991|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Missouri Rehabilitation Center, where Nancy Cruzan died Dec. 26, was built in 1907 as a TB sanitarium. A lot of folks in the area still call it the Chest Hospital. For the week or so they were there, anti-abortion protesters called it the "Missouri Euthanasia Center." They had come to try to stop Joe and Joyce Cruzan from allowing their daughter to die. The protesters' goal was to "rescue" Nancy Cruzan. But how?

Their first idea was to remove her from the hospital and take her to "a safe place."

"We could take her gurney, pop her on a stretcher, whip her into a station wagon and just get her out of there," said protest leader Joseph Foreman in an interview after Cruzan died. "But where would we take her? We had nowhere . . . . "

So, they settled instead on a plan to feed Nancy Cruzan.

Cruzan's feeding tube was disconnected on a Friday evening. By Sunday, Foreman, a Presbyterian minister from Atlanta, his wife and five children were on their way to Mt. Vernon.

They arrived after midnight and slept in a Sunday school classroom not far from Cruzan's hospital. Before dawn, 15 or 20 other people arrived and, by afternoon, they had turned their sleeping quarters into a war room.

Foreman, 36, is a founder of Operation Rescue, the controversial right wing of the anti-abortion movement. The group believes in using civil-disobedience tactics to stop abortions. Now, some members are turning their attention to a new arena: the right to die.

In the church room, Foreman stood at the blackboard with a fat piece of yellow chalk. Operation Rescue had been talking about intervening in such cases as Cruzan's since 1985, Foreman said. This would be the first attempt.

"We talked all afternoon about what we were doing and why," he said. "We needed to find out just where Nancy was in the hospital. There were five or six scenarios. Somebody could go in and apply for a job. Or we could go in as gawking tourists and say something like 'Is this the place they're gonna kill that girl?' Or we could we could go in as Christmas carolers. What we finally settled on was to have a couple go buy a poinsettia and take it in for the Cruzans."

As Foreman stood at the blackboard drawing diagrams of hospital exits and entrances, Wanda and Eugene Frye walked in. As was the case with the others in the room, the Fryes, who had arrived by bus from Kansas City, had a long history of abortion-clinic protests and have the arrest records to show for it. Only weeks before, Foreman himself had done five months in an Atlanta jail on trespassing and other charges related to a clinic demonstration.

Wanda Frye, 46, a licensed practical nurse, was considered a key to the plan, Foreman told the group, because she would be the one who would push a feeding tube through Cruzan's nose and into her stomach.

"I've dropped quite a few tubes and I've never run into one I couldn't do," said Frye.

"The plan was for us to get into Nancy's room. The men, see, would block off the doors. I said, OK then, if, God willing, I got to her room, I would drop a tube down her."

Foreman acknowledged serious medical problems could occur if the tube were placed incorrectly, "so we didn't want to do it under duress. We decided if the room was empty, we would barricade the doors and feed Nancy as much as we could without having her choke. . . .

"We decided that if the family was there and created a fuss, we were simply going to step out in the hall and pray silently and abandon the force-feeding."

The next morning, Foreman led the Fryes and about 20 others up to a second-floor wing of the hospital. Outside, dozens of demonstrators continued their round-the-clock prayer vigil and protest.

At the end of a hallway, near Cruzan's room, police stopped the protesters. A hospital chaplain arrived and asked them to go to the center's chapel. Eugene Frye accepted the invitation. But Foreman and the others--including Wanda Frye, stethoscope draped around her neck, feeding tube tucked into her nurse's uniform--dropped to the floor and began to pray.

"We weren't going to get up and walk away. We were there to help," Foreman said. One by one, the protesters were lifted into wheelchairs and rolled out of the hospital into police vans.

In all, 19 were arrested. "When they asked our names, we all said, 'Nancy Cruzan,' said Anne Foreman, Joseph's wife. "Nineteen Nancy Cruzans, because if it's OK to starve Nancy, it's OK to starve any of us."

On the day Foreman's group was arrested, Gary Tebbets drove his 1977 Pontiac into the hospital parking lot, pulled on his stocking cap and looked around.

"I saw what was happening," said Tebbets, 42, a music teacher from a nearby town. "I wanted to do something, you know? I wanted to do something directly. "

He walked into the hospital and headed for the cafeteria. There he filled a white foam cup with cold water and walked to the hallway where police stood guard.

"I am here to bring a drink to a dying friend," he said.

"Who is your friend?" the guards asked.

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