Meet the extreme anti-abortion group trying to close Kentucky's last clinic

Meet the extreme anti-abortion group trying to close Kentucky's last clinic

››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

The extreme anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) gathered in Kentucky for a week in July to protest -- and ultimately try to shutter -- the state’s one remaining abortion clinic, EMW Women’s Surgical Center. Given that OSA’s protests have garnered national media attention, here’s what media outlets should know about the violent history and rhetoric of the group and its leaders.


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

OSA engaged in a weeklong protest of Kentucky’s only remaining abortion clinic

Operation Save America’s week of protests aimed to shutter Kentucky’s one remaining abortion clinic. On July 22, Operation Save America (OSA) began a week of protests outside of EMW Surgical Center (EMW), Kentucky’s only remaining abortion clinic, as part of “a weeklong vigil, with the long-term goal of making Kentucky a national model in its push to end abortion,” ABC News reported. According to the article, “The group’s leaders state their purpose unequivocally: to rid Kentucky of its last abortion clinic.” Formed in 1988 by Randall Terry, OSA originally operated under the title Operation Rescue until 1999. OSA is best known for organizing groups of protesters outside abortion clinics who are willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to harass women visiting the clinics and impede their access to reproductive health care. [ABC News, 7/22/17; Montana Human Rights Network, accessed 8/1/17]

OSA’s July protest garnered considerable media attention. After OSA announced it would be holding its national event in Kentucky, mainstream media took notice. Major news outlets, including NPR, The Associated Press, ABC News, USA Today, and Slate, all wrote about the group’s quest to end women’s legal access to abortion in Kentucky. The group was also featured prominently on CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, which included interviews with members of the group. [NPR, 7/24/17; The Associated Press, 7/24/17; ABC News, 7/24/17; USA Today, 7/21/17; Slate, 7/21/17; Media Matters, 7/24/17, 7/24/17]

Last year, clinic violence and harassment of abortion providers was at an all-time high. Data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) shows that protests and targeted harassment at abortion clinics rose in 2016 to the highest level since NAF began tracking them in 1977. There was also an increase in “a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.” While data from 2017 is not yet available, NAF explained, "In the first five months of 2017 ... there have been four times as many online threats and death wishes directed at abortion providers compared with the same period in 2016." [The Cut, 4/20/17; National Abortion Federation, accessed 8/1/17; Slate 7/21/17]

OSA has a long history of protests and targeted harassment

OSA is best known for the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protest. OSA’s central tactic of organizing large protests in front of abortion clinics is best exemplified by its 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protests which put the group on the map. The event took place in Wichita, KS, and was scheduled to last a week but ended up lasting for almost seven weeks. It comprised demonstrators, sometimes “hundreds at a time,” protesting at three abortion clinics, including the clinic of Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated by an anti-choice extremist in 2009. By the end of the event, 1,718 protesters had been arrested. The event was capped off by a rally with 25,000 attendees. [People For The American Way Foundation, accessed 8/1/17]

In 2016 OSA celebrated the 25th anniversary of the “Summer of Mercy” protest. In July 2016, OSA held an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protests. An extensive report from People for the American Way Foundation about the anniversary protest noted, “Whereas the 1991 Summer of Mercy paralyzed the city of Wichita, the 2016 protests often dissipated by lunchtime.” Despite diminishing numbers, the anniversary event still included protesters engaging in violent rhetoric outside the homes of abortion providers as well as distributing flyers with the providers’ photos and home addresses. [People for the American Way, accessed 8/1/17]

OSA’s signature move is engaging in targeted harassment of abortion providers. Targeting abortion providers is a common tactic among clinic protesters, but OSA has often taken such harassment one step further by protesting in the neighborhoods of the abortion providers and distributing flyers to their neighbors with identifying information -- including the provider’s photo and home address. CBS Evening News detailed three abortion providers who were murdered in the 1990s following a harassment campaign from OSA which included flyers designed as “wanted” posters identifying the providers. Speaking about how it felt to be a subject of harassment by OSA, one Colorado abortion provider said: “It’s terrorism. It certainly makes me feel like I’m being hunted down and that’s the idea, as though I did something wrong.” [CBS Evening News, 10/26/10; University Wire, 7/22/05, via Nexis]

OSA maintains that it does not condone violence against clinics or providers. Despite the organization’s focus on protest, OSA attempts to distance itself from the murder of abortion providers by invoking “an oath of non-violence” signed by its members. The oath attempts to distinguish between OSA’s targeted harassment tactics and “the violent acts of a few.” [Operation Save America, 5/17/17]

In addition to Kentucky, OSA has targeted Mississippi -- another state with only one abortion clinic. In 2006 and 2014, OSA targeted Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The 2014 protest was called “Operation: Let My People Go” in an apparent attempt to emulate the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Both the 2006 and 2014 protests centered on closing the clinic, which would make it impossible for women to access abortions in Mississippi. [Right Wing Watch, 7/17/06; 10/10/14]

OSA has an affiliated group based in Charlotte, NC. Before it relocated to Texas, OSA was based in North Carolina under Flip Benham’s leadership. Benham’s sons currently operate a group in Charlotte that is affiliated with OSA called Cities4Life that “deploys protesters outside [the clinic] six days a week.” [American Defense League, 3/25/11; Cosmopolitan, 6/26/17]

In addition to clinic protests, OSA has also protested against Islam and LGBTQ rights. In 2010, OSA organized protests at Ground Zero in New York City and at mosques across the country, calling them part of its “nationwide outreach.” The group claimed the purpose of this “outreach” was to “offer to our Muslim friends enslaved in the tyrannical bondage of Islam, the true source of liberty -- Jesus Christ!” The protests resulted in Muslim leaders at one mosque in Connecticut contacting the police for protection from OSA members. In 2004 and 2006, the group also burned copies of the Quran during demonstrations. The group also held anti-LGBTQ rights protests, including a rally in support of Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was facing ethics charges for refusing to follow the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. [Christian Newswire, accessed 8/1/17; New Haven Register, 08/09/10; The Clarion-Ledger, 7/20/06, via Nexis; Right Wing Watch, 8/9/16]

OSA has had numerous extreme leaders, and it associates with radical anti-abortion groups

OSA’s former leaders have espoused violence as a tactic. OSA’s founder, Randall Terry, argued in favor of OSA’s members endorsing violence and harassment tactics. In 1995, Terry advocated for implementing biblical law in the U.S. and urged Christians to “take up the sword” and “overthrow the tyrannical regime that oppresses them.” After Terry stepped down, OSA leader Keith Tucci continued to endorse the use of violent language by the group. In the 1990s, he wrote to the group’s supporters, “It is your God-given right to destroy any man or woman calling themselves doctors who willingly slaughter innocent children.” Benham, who took over OSA after Tucci, blamed clinic protection laws for the murders of abortion doctors, claiming: “Once you silence that, once you get it off the street, what happens, you’ve placed a lid on a boiling pot. It’s going to blow somewhere and unfortunately it has.” OSA’s current leader, Rusty Thomas, previously blamed the 9/11 terrorists attacks on abortion, claiming, “If we repent and end abortion, God will deliver us from the evil of Islamic terrorism.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 9/15/98; Mother Jones, November/December 1993; Operation Save America, accessed 8/1/17; Cosmopolitan, 6/26/17; NPR, 6/9/09, via Nexis; Christian Newswire, accessed 8/1/17]

OSA has splintered from the modern-day extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. OSA was originally founded under the name Operation Rescue, and at times, still goes by that name. However, another anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue, led by Troy Newman, came out of a disagreement with Operation Save America. Newman created Operation Rescue West as an affiliate of the original Operation Rescue and, according to Operation Save America, took “a name that clearly does not belong to him.” Media Matters has highlighted Newman’s Operation Rescue in the past, including the questionable activities of its members, such as Cheryl Sullenger who was served two years in prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic. Newman’s Operation Rescue also employs violent rhetoric similar to OSA’s against clinics and providers, but Newman has disavowed the group’s association with OSA. [Operation Save America, accessed 8/1/17; Media Matters, 11/20/15; 7/21/15; KWCH, 7/11/16]

Despite denouncing violence, OSA has known associations with violent anti-abortion extremists. Although OSA’s current leaders have apparently denounced violence, the group has hosted extremist Matthew Trewhella, the founder of Missionaries to the Preborn and an advocate of church-based militias, as a speaker at its annual conference in 2016. OSA’s current president has also cited Trewhella as shaping his thinking on the anti-abortion movement. In 1993, Trewhella signed the Defensive Action statement -- “an infamous declaration that called the murder of abortion doctors ‘justifiable.’” In addition to Trewhella, OSA is also associated with James C. Kopp, who was convicted of the murder of an abortion doctor in 1998. Kopp was an “avid” follower of OSA founder Randall Terry and worked with him at OSA. In addition, clinic bomber Michael Bray defended the murderer of an abortion doctor by saying the murder was a “rational way of following the Operation Rescue dictum: ‘If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it.” [WFPL, 2/4/17; Slate, 7/21/17; Media Matters, 3/21/05; Southern Poverty Law Center, 3/24/10]

OSA’s week of protest in Kentucky showcased the group’s harassment tactics

Before the week of protests in July, OSA met with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. In February 2017, OSA leaders had a meeting with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in which, according to OSA, “he ministered from God’s word and called us to authentic, genuine Christianity.” Bevin also praised a book Trewhella wrote in addition to sharing OSA’s goal of ridding Kentucky of any abortion clinic. Bevin has tried to close EMW for its failure to comply with technical state licensing requirements about the clinic’s hospital affiliations. EMW has said the requirements are not necessary because of its existing agreement with the physicians at the University of Louisville hospital and has sued the state. It retains its license while the lawsuit is ongoing. [Operation Save America, 2/10/17; Bustle, 7/10/17; The Courier-Journal, 6/22/17; The Associated Press, 7/21/17]

OSA violated the law in an attempt to see how far the Trump administration would go to protect "religious freedom." OSA has a recent record of not respecting the law. On May 13, 10 members of OSA were charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), by blocking EMW’s entrance. According to Slate, “It was the first such coordinated clinic blockade in 13 years and a sign that the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement feels newly energized in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.” As Rewire noted, the arrests “were also a test of the Trump administration to see how far its recent executive order on so-called ‘religious freedom’ will protect activities like abortion clinic ‘rescue missions.’” [Rewire, 5/15/17; Live Action, 7/19/17; Slate, 7/21/17]

Members of OSA claimed they would not respect any buffer zones outside EMW. As a result of the May protests, and because of OSA’s reputation for breaking the law, the Louisville city council considered a buffer zone -- a protective area around an abortion clinic -- outside EMW prior to the July week of action. In response, OSA member Joseph Spurgeon declared, “We will not obey buffer zone laws!” Spurgeon additionally claimed that OSA had no intention of blocking the entrance of the clinic during the July protest, and that the May 13 clinic blockade was a “one-time event.” Spurgeon has also stated that OSA wouldn’t support any violence but that individual protestors can risk arrest on their own. [WDRB, 7/14/17; Courier-Journal, 7/21/17, 7/19/17]

OSA harassed clinic providers during the July protests. While OSA members were not violent during the July protests, they reverted to OSA’s old tactics of targeted harassment against abortion providers and patients. In addition to protesting outside the clinic, OSA members distributed flyers with pictures and home addresses of clinic providers in neighborhoods where they live. The fliers were headlined with “KILLERS AMONG US, ” which can be seen from a screenshot of one of the fliers obtained by Salon. As WHAS11 News reported, people who received the handouts “were afraid the fliers were inflammatory and could incite violence.” [The Courier-Journal, 7/25/17; Salon, 8/1/17; WHAS 7/25/17]

NAF and clinic escorts documented OSA’s harassment during the protests. On July 24, NAF noted on Twitter three times that U.S. marshals had to tell anti-abortion protesters to step outside the buffer zone, including one incident when a protester began chalking anti-abortion messages in the protective area. Protesters also staged a fake funeral and wore vests meant to imitate ones worn by pro-choice clinic escorts. As is typical of clinic protesters, OSA members intimidated patients by taking their photos and harassed the escorts who were standing outside the clinic to protect them. On July 26, NAF and the Twitter account of Louisville clinic escorts tweeted that OSA’s attorney was violating the buffer zone. As Courier-Journal reporter Philip M. Bailey noted, convicted abortion clinic bomber John Brockhoeft was also in attendance with OSA at the protests. [Twitter, 7/24/17; 7/24/17; 7/22/17; 7/25/17; 7/25/17; 7/26/17; 7/26/17; 7/26/17; 7/28/17; Right Wing Watch, 8/26/15]

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