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Jeff White wants to revitalize the state chapter of Operation Rescue. But the issue of violence might impede his efforts. : Operation Rebound

October 24, 1994|JAMES RISEN

BLUE JAY — It is late into a crystal-clear fall night high above the Southern California urban landscape, and Jeff White and Joe Foreman are wolfing down steaks at a local restaurant, trading war stories from the front lines of the Christian fundamentalist battle against abortion--and plotting a comeback.

White, the 37-year-old leader of Operation Rescue of California, has retreated from his former base in Orange County to this resort town near Lake Arrowhead to regroup his battered organization, now one of the last active statewide chapters left in Operation Rescue. And he has just enlisted Foreman, who was ousted from the national leadership of the anti-abortion group four years ago as a result of his radical views and his repeated personality clashes with founder Randall Terry, to help him re-energize a grass-roots movement politically devastated by the effect of anti-abortion violence.

Since a major protest campaign in the summer of 1993 that targeted clinics in the San Jose area, White, a born-again former BMW parts distributor from Santa Clara and the father of seven children, has been unable to generate much attention for his organization, and financial contributions have been halved over the past year. Like other anti-abortion leaders, he manages to make ends meet for his group and for his family through cash and in-kind donations from a hard-core group of loyal supporters in the fundamentalist community; he and his family are now living in a townhouse here, and he keeps his group's offices in a second one nearby.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Operation Rescue of California is now just a shadow of the powerful statewide force that was able to blockade dozens of clinics and put thousands of protesters onto Southern California streets in the late 1980s.

To return to his glory days, White, with Foreman's help, is organizing a team of 10 full-time fundamentalist, anti-abortion "missionaries" at his office to rebuild a statewide activist network.

"There is an awful lot you can do when people think you've been beaten," says Foreman confidently.

Yet as they try to resurrect their struggling cause, White and Foreman find themselves embroiled in increasingly bitter battles with rival leaders across the country over how to keep Operation Rescue afloat at a time when a wave of violence has led to declining membership and plunging financial donations for anti-abortion groups from their traditional base among Christian fundamentalists.

And that fight shows the degree to which the violence against abortion doctors by a handful of extremists--two doctors have been killed within the last two years, and a third has been wounded--has come to dominate the entire national debate over abortion, especially inside the anti-abortion movement itself.

In fact, White's decision to bring Foreman to California has been enough to create a serious rift between White and Flip Benham, the national director of Operation Rescue, largely because of questions about Foreman's track record on the issue of violence. White and Foreman have not been linked to any acts of violence, but Benham believes that leaders of the movement have to make it clear to the world that they do not even tacitly endorse it.

That is especially true since Operation Rescue continues to target doctors by name for protest and personal harassment, and its leaders identify doctors by name during rallies and charge that they are baby killers. If Operation Rescue officially took the next step and openly supported the murder of the doctors that its leaders identify, the group would almost certainly bring the wrath of the federal government down upon its head.

Benham, a Dallas fundamentalist minister, has been outspoken in denouncing the attacks on abortion physicians; he argues such public statements are the only way to protect Operation Rescue from the pressure of federal conspiracy investigations and political ostracism. So he angrily charges that White and Foreman endanger Operation Rescue's credibility because they have refused to join him in openly opposing the violence. In fact, the ambivalence with which leaders like White and Foreman have greeted the violence has already sparked a firestorm of protest from many abortion-rights advocates, who chide that some anti-abortion leaders are guilty of encouraging acts of violence by "praising with faint damns."

What's more troubling for Foreman is that he is finding it hard to live down his past. He initially allowed his name to be attached--and then had it quickly removed--from a petition passed around earlier this year by extremist Paul Hill endorsing the "justifiable homicide" of doctors who perform abortions. Later, Hill was arrested for the August killings of Dr. John Britton and his escort in Pensacola, Fla.; those who signed his petition have come under growing scrutiny from law-enforcement officials.

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