Report from Buffalo:
Defending Choice,
Confronting the Patriarchs

By Mary Lou Greenberg

Revolutionary Worker #1006, May 16, 1999

Buffalo. It's come to represent some of the fiercest attacks on abortion access--and some of the most determined resistance. I'd first gone to Buffalo in April 1992 to help defend clinics from the mass blockades of Operation Rescue. Then last October Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, one of the few remaining abortion providers in the Buffalo area, was assassinated by a sniper hiding in the woods behind his home. Dr. Slepian was killed as he stood in his kitchen talking to his wife and one of his four children, and his death has had profound repercussions. Not only were women of western New York deprived of the principal provider at Buffalo's sole remaining clinic and the only OB/GYN doctor who accepted Medicaid clients at his own office in nearby Amherst, but the murder had a decidedly chilling effect on other providers in the area and across the country.

Just a week after his murder, Operation Rescue made one of its most vicious moves ever. It announced that it was returning to Buffalo to close down the one remaining clinic in the city, saying "they prayed" that "by year's end" there would be no more clinics in Buffalo. This was nothing but a cold-blooded threat to doctors and all clinic workers in the Buffalo area, as well as to providers everywhere.

Buffalo United for Choice 99 (BUC99) --a coalition with a staunch pro-choice core who had trained hundreds to defend clinics in 1992 and led the rout of Operation Rescue that year--called on people to come to Buffalo, and Refuse & Resist! put out a national call to defend clinics there. Operation Rescue was able to mobilize only about 200 this time around, as compared to 1000-plus in '92. But everyone who cares about women's rights shouldn't be lulled by the numbers.

The Operation Rescue effort not only came in the wake of the chilling murder of Dr. Slepian but it occurred in the context of the continuing serious attack on abortion access--from assaults and assassinations of providers to acid and bomb attacks on clinics and numerous state laws making abortion more and more difficult to get, especially for poor women and young women. In the seven years from 1992 to 1999, seven providers and clinic workers have been murdered by anti-abortion killers.

In addition, while this time around the OR Christian fascists created much less disruption in Buffalo, they expanded their targets beyond clinics and doctors' homes--revealing their broader agenda of an overall repressive fundamentalist morality and their whole program of male domination. They said they would "storm the gates of hell" in Buffalo. They demonstrated at a Barnes & Noble bookstore against what they termed "child pornography" (art books which include photos of nude children). They went to high schools to preach against premarital sex and abortion. And they threatened to stage protests against homosexuality and secular humanism, but these actions did not materialize.

And, as in 1992, the battle at the clinics was definitely two-sided.

BUC99 organized for defense of the clinic, doctors' offices and gay bars that might be targeted. Dozens of activists mobilized before 6 a.m. daily for a pro-choice presence outside the clinic on Main Street. Refuse & Resist! activists followed and confronted the antis wherever they went and were quoted widely in the media, from The New York Times to local press, TV and radio.

Another very positive feature of Buffalo 99 was the active participation in pro-choice events by progressive religious forces, led by the Washington D.C.-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice which sent several of its national board members to Buffalo. The local chapter of Medical Students for Choice were active as well, and sponsored an evening showing of Dorothy Fadiman's pro-choice films during the week.

Confronting the Antis

I went to Buffalo with the lively R&R! crew, which included veterans of past battles with Operation Rescue along with younger women and men who saw the Christian fascists in action for the first time and got their first taste of going head-to-head with them. The first real opportunity came on Sunday, April 18. OR had called a press conference for the steps of the Federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo to denounce a Federal injunction which prohibited them from getting within 60 feet of the clinics. When we arrived, Operation Rescue was nowhere in sight but the media was all around, so we mounted the steps and began our own, pro-choice press conference. When OR National head Flip Benham finally arrived with his entourage, including the few local clergy who had taken up his call, he had to speak to the press in front of our signs which read "Abortion on Demand and Without Apology" and "Stop the Anti-Woman Thugs!" and he had to raise his voice to be heard over chants of "Pro-Life Your Name's a Lie, You Don't Care if Doctors Die."

A big militia-type guy began trying to elbow me down the steps. When I refused to budge, he said angrily, "You should be home baking cookies!" A TV reporter caught in the crush looked up astonished at such blatant anti-woman sentiment. Benham himself commented later on a pro-choice chant, "4-6-8-10, why are all your leaders men?""Why are all our leaders men?" he posed rhetorically with a gigantic TV evangelist's grin."Because that's the way it's supposed to be!"

Operation Rescue spent part of several days going to high schools where their younger forces handed out anti-abortion literature and the older antis held up huge, gruesome signs of late-term fetuses. They agitated around putting the Bible "back in school" and "the dangers" of premarital sex, as well as promoting their usual lies that "abortion is murder." Our crew at the high schools was outnumbered by the antis most of the time, but we tried to make sure the students entering and leaving school knew we were there by calling out "pro-choice--we support the woman's decision!" and handing out R&R! pro-choice flyers. One young woman who was trying to get through the crowd on the sidewalk turned around when she heard us."Pro-choice! At last!" she shouted, and rushed over and gave me a big hug. We encouraged her and her friends to get into the debate raging on the sidewalk--and they did, with great enthusiasm.

It's clear from our experience in Dayton, Ohio in the summer of 97 when OR was explicitly training a new generation of antis, and again in April in Buffalo, that the antis are placing a lot of emphasis on reaching youth. It's also clear that there's a lot of youth who resent Operation Rescue's self-righteous morality being forced on them and are eager for opportunities to express their sentiments. One such student ran over to the cluster of media hovering in front of his school right before class began. "Interview me," he shouted. "I'll tell you what I think." Pointing to Operation Rescue he said, "They have no right to be here! I'm pro-choice because it's the woman's life!"

Several of these high school youth joined the R&R! protest outside the "Spring of Life Reunion Dinner" ("Spring of Life" is what OR called its 1992 Buffalo actions) at the Buffalo Christian Center later that evening. One brought her mother, who enthusiastically joined in the rowdy chants and challenges to the crowd of mostly local antis who showed up. We confronted the antis with the fact that James Kopp, the man who last week was charged with the murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian in Buffalo last October, had participated in OR blockades. While a few Operation Rescue leaders sputtered about not condoning violence, one woman turned around before entering and said, "Kopp is a hero for killing that god-damned butcher!"

Whereas in '92 the police had allowed Operation Rescue to get close to the clinics and blockade streets and driveways, this time the police were out in force. There was one row of state troopers and another of local police in front of the clinic and a row of beefy, helmeted tactical squad cops on the other side of the street--facing the line of pro-choice forces.

Several clinic escorts were allowed inside the police lines to get women inside, and the clinic had posted on its door a sign which read: "This clinic stays open in honor of Dr. Slepian," a defiant answer to OR.

Standing outside the clinic as dawn broke on Tuesday, I looked at the cops lined up with a police helicopter flying overhead and thought how intimidating all this must be to any woman hearing about it on the news or daring to keep her appointment at the clinic that day. Unlike many of those active in the pro-choice movement, poor women, especially Black women, don't view the police as "our friends"--police harassment, brutality and murder are an everyday fact-of-life in the ghettos and barrios across the country. A clinic with a wall of police around it is no comfort. And even with all those supposed "protectors" around, there were still clusters of antis with their hateful signs that said abortion was the same as murder, and at one point the police allowed the antis to march around in the street led by Flip Benham, waving a bible.

I imagined another kind of clinic defense, where pro-choice women and men would greet clients with welcoming signs; where pro-choice defense teams would bodily move away any antis who dared approach the clinics; where women wouldn't have guilt and shame heaped on them for getting rid of unwanted pregnancies or be intimidated by rows of cops; where pro-choice defense squads would be on call 24-7 to defend and assist doctors at their homes, offices and clinics as needed.

The final act of Operation Rescue as it left Buffalo was to announce that it was changing its name to "Operation Save America." Male supremacy, like white supremacy, has been a cornerstone of the development and preservation of American capitalist society from the beginning. I think the cold truth is that so long as "America" in its present form exists, the fight to defend abortion providers and protect abortion access will be fierce and continuing. As a revolutionary communist, I see the struggle for women's liberation, and the battle around abortion which is a key element in this fight, as part of the larger revolutionary struggle for a whole new world. But no matter how people see this battle, Buffalo 99 once again brought out the necessity of relying on ourselves to challenge and defeat the enemy.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)