WASHINGTON - Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group that mobilized a segment of Christian fundamentalists and brought the tactics of civil disobedience to the conservative cause, is on the verge of collapse as a significant political movement.
With Operation Rescue's influence already in decline, the brutal slaying of an abortion doctor and his escort in Pensacola, Fla., on July 29 - allegedly by the leader of an extremist anti-abortion splinter group - may prove to be the movement's political death knell, say leaders of the organization and others involved in the abortion debate.
While sporadic anti-abortion violence and fitful street protests will undoubtedly continue, the ability of Operation Rescue and related groups to energize elements of the Christian right in large numbers seems to be a thing of the past.
Ironically, Operation Rescue's hold on the fundamentalist movement is slipping while evangelical Christians are more politicized than ever and are making well-documented inroads into the Republican Party's hierarchy. But the spreading anti-abortion violence has created a wedge between anti-abortion militants and their natural base in Christian churches, where Operation Rescue has always turned for money and recruits.
Tired of the debate
"I think the general feeling in the churches is that we don't care what Randall Terry (Operation Rescue's founder) has to say about abortion anymore," said Bob Jewitt, a spokesman for Operation Rescue. "They are tired of the debate.
"It is sad, but even Christian-radio-station managers tell me they are tired of hearing about the anti-abortion movement. A lot of people in the Christian community are burned out on this."
The latest slayings, which included the third shooting of an abortion physician in less than 18 months, has been the most damaging of any because this time a leader of the movement is accused of pulling the trigger.
Paul Hill, a defrocked fundamentalist minister and leader of a Pensacola-based group, Defensive Action, has been charged with the slayings. That has made it quite awkward for anti-abortion groups to dismiss the crime as an isolated incident, as they have attempted to do with previous acts of violence.
More than 20 other extremist leaders signed petitions circulated and published by Hill in recent months endorsing the killing of abortion doctors as "justifiable homicide."
Not only has that severely damaged the movement within the fundamentalist community, but it has prompted an intensive, nationwide federal investigation of the anti-abortion movement's leadership. The Clinton administration has deployed U.S. marshals to provide protection for abortion clinics in 12 cities, and the Justice Department has established a joint task force between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to investigate militant anti-abortion groups.
Gaining cult status
Almost overnight, Operation Rescue has been effectively stripped of its political rank in Washington. It has gone from being perceived as a player on the fundamentalist Christian right to the untouchable status of a violence-prone cult.
The latest slayings prompted Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other pro-choice congressional leaders to demand that the FBI begin undercover infiltration operations of anti-abortion groups. The Pensacola killings are "not a form of protest against abortion - it is murder by terrorists, no different from the murders resulting from the World Trade Center bombing, and it must be treated just as seriously as we treat other terrorist attacks," Schumer said.
"They are clearly on the ropes - their former supporters are backing off because of the violence," said Dallas Blanchard, a sociologist at the University of West Florida and author of two books on anti-abortion violence.
Only a scattered few conservative Republican lawmakers, notably Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., have rallied to the defense of anti-abortion militants this time. Most conservatives have remained silent.
Group confronts militants
Operation Rescue officials cringe at each act of violence and have sought to distance themselves from militants such as Hill. The group's new national director, Flip Benham, confronted Hill and other pro-violence extremists at a secret meeting of anti-abortion leaders in April in Chicago. That meeting followed an even more emotional leadership conference in Melbourne, Fla., last September, during which Keith Tucci, then head of Operation Rescue, decreed that the group would expel any members who advocated violence.
Yet Operation Rescue, founded eight years ago in upstate New York, has suffered from the impact of violence and has been hit by significant reductions in membership and contributions. At fundamentalist churches where Operation Rescue rallies once could draw thousands, they now can generate crowds of only a few hundred.
The group's annual budget, which totaled $400,000 in 1992, has been plunging since early last year, after the March 1993 killing of Dr. David Gunn, another Pensacola abortion physician. Donations slipped again after the shooting of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., last August. The organization fears another steep decline will follow last month's shotgun slaying of Dr. John Britton and his escort, abortion-rights advocate James Barrett.
"It's been a nightmare," said Patrick Mahoney, national spokesman for Operation Rescue. "In terms of the public perception of our movement, the impact from the violence has been extremely harsh.
"It makes people who might join us view us in a different light and to be afraid to go out in front of a clinic. And it has been devastating economically for the finances of the major anti-abortion groups."
Even before the Pensacola killings, Operation Rescue was reeling from a series of legislative and legal defeats this year. The group's ability to mount headline-grabbing street theater and abortion-clinic blockades - the key to its political influence - has been sharply eroded through a series of Supreme Court rulings and new legislation imposing tough federal penalties for anti-abortion protest.
Overshadowing the court rulings was the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Signed into law by President Clinton in May, the act makes it a federal crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to blockade an abortion clinic or to engage in other forms of disruptive civil disobedience around clinics.
The law has raised the stakes for grass-roots protesters who previously only faced local misdemeanor charges, and local anti-abortion leaders report that many volunteers are drifting away from Operation Rescue as a result.
"Our free-speech rights have been eliminated in front of abortion clinics by a politically correct Supreme Court and Congress," fumed Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents anti-abortion demonstrators in court cases.
Internal divisions over the violence has also led to a breakup of the group's national leadership, leaving Operation Rescue with just four full-time staffers in its Dallas headquarters.
At last September's leadership meeting, Tucci demanded that all Operation Rescue leaders sign a written pledge condemning violence, and his hard-line stance on the issue angered many other leaders, creating a rift that now divides the anti-abortion movement into a series of small, largely ineffective factions.