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Bowed, but Unbroken? : Activism: The killing of Dr. David Gunn, on top of legal setbacks and political reversals, has flattened the anti-abortion movement. Many ask what course the cause will take.

NEW BATTLE LINES: The changing face of the abortion--rights conflict. One in an occasional series. NEXT: After the death of Dr. David Gunn, leaders of the pro-choice movement say they are "in shock" but determined to continue their activism.

March 22, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Born-again Christians Allen and Karen Meadows say they have always believed life begins at conception. Last fall, they decided to become activists and formed their own Operation Rescue affiliate in Tustin, distributing handmade "wanted" posters and organizing pickets at the homes of abortion clinic doctors and staff. "We knew the pro-life movement really needed help," Karen Meadows, 22, said.

Most anti-abortion activists concede that their momentum has ground to a crawl. The killing of Pensacola, Fla., abortionist Dr. David Gunn and subsequent pro-choice fund-raising ads ("They shot him in the back because he stood up for our right to choose") are just the most recent setbacks. A combination of court decisions and Clinton Administration reversals had already driven the movement to its knees.

"The political/judicial sector (of the movement) has been very badly hurt. That sector is reeling," said Marvin Olasky, an abortion foe and historian and journalism professor at the University of Texas, Austin. "People are very frustrated," he said. "There's not a whole lot people can do."

As Sue Finn, spokeswoman for Operation Rescue in Southern California, sees it: "You have a country saying, 'Shut up and go back in your churches. We don't want to hear from you.' "

But anti-abortion activists say they will do neither. Full of passionate beliefs, Olasky said they are reinvigorated by adversity and are regrouping in two camps: performing one-on-one social work in crisis pregnancy centers and protesting against and picketing abortion providers in the hopes that they'll quit.

"I like the whole idea of exposing (the providers) to the community," said Allen Meadows, 23. "The more effort we put into it, the more medical schools won't teach and other doctors won't want to get involved in that work."

Even so, the question remains whether abortion foes can be effective. As the climate heats up and pressure builds, some fear that more violence will erupt or warn that the two camps will turn on each other, damaging the cause even further.

Two years ago, abortion foes were more optimistic. They were sure the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision guaranteeing abortion rights. Said Gary Thomas, a spokesman for the Christian Action Council: "Every pro-life organization I know was talking about post-Roe America. The concern was that people would stop becoming involved once Roe was overturned."

But last year, the Supreme Court upheld basic abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And Bill Clinton's election, said Thomas, "was the final nail in the coffin."

Already, Clinton has reversed the gag rule that forbade counselors to mention abortion at federally funded clinics; the Mexico City Policy, which denied funds to overseas birth-control programs that offered abortion; the ban on fetal tissue research, and the ban on abortion at military hospitals overseas. He has asked the Food and Drug Administration to consider the legal import of the morning-after pill, RU 486, for personal use. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has asked her staff to investigate whether existing federal laws can be used to protect clinic access.

Two bills are pending in Congress: the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify abortion rights from Roe vs. Wade, and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which would criminalize blockades of abortion clinics.

And now, with the planned retirement of Justice Byron R. White, Clinton, who is pro-choice, will be able to make at least one appointment to the Supreme Court.

For abortion foes, the battle looks very different.

Changing political winds altered the course of the Christian Action Council. The anti-abortion organization began in 1975 as a political lobbying group, but this January it shut down its program of boycotting corporate sponsors of Planned Parenthood to instead concentrate its efforts on what leaders call "the most effective care network ever known in the pro-life movement to women facing unplanned pregnancies."

"For 20 years, pro-life said what it's against," said spokesman Thomas. "We want to say what we're for: caring for women, for unborn children. . . . We think through improving our alternatives, we can save a lot of women from abortion regardless of what the law is."

The council runs 450 of the nation's 3,300 "crisis pregnancy centers," whose sole purpose is to persuade women not to have abortions. Thomas wonders how anyone could criticize this new program, which he says clearly states its agenda and offers emotional, practical and financial help throughout a woman's pregnancy and after the child is born. He said the program also offers post-abortion counseling.

"If anybody opposes it, it shows they have a definite pro-abortion agenda," he said. "We're providing a choice."

Since Clinton's election, such centers have seen more volunteers wanting to help.

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