Pro-Life and Rescue Movements

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Time Period
1965
Description
The pro-life movement originated in mid-1960s in response to efforts to liberalize abortion laws at the state level. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion in 1973 nationalized and diversified what had been a decentralized and predominantly Catholic movement. By the early 1980s, a significant number of evangelicals and fundamentalists had joined its ranks.

The rescue movement was a phase in the pro-life movement from the mid-1980s into the early 1990s that focused on blockading abortion clinics. After trying conventional political means, extreme pro-life advocates, like Joseph Scheidler, promoted "rescuing" unborn fetuses by having protesters block access to abortion clinics for providers and patients. The rescue movement drew controversy, and thousands of rescuers were arrested, many of whom were white middle-class suburban Christians.

While the rescue movement fizzled out in the early 1990s, the pro-life movement continues to gain prominence, though often using less controversial methods.
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Narrative
The pro-life movement originated in mid-1960s in response to efforts to liberalize abortion laws at the state level. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion in 1973 nationalized and diversified what had been a decentralized and predominantly Catholic movement. By the early 1980s, a significant number of evangelicals and fundamentalists had joined its ranks.

Initially, the pro-life movement tried to advance its aims through conventional political means. As these avenues proved ineffective, pro-life advocates shifted to grassroots direct action strategies such as picketing, protesting and vigils. In 1985, activist Joseph Scheidler published Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, which outlined the various direct action techniques that came to characterize the rescue movement.

The Rescue Movement Begins

The term "rescue" was first used in reference to the techniques used to shut down abortion clinics in 1985. Rescues primarily involved large gatherings of protesters in front of clinic doors and entry to providers and patients. For the protesters, the rationale behind the rescues was straightforward: fetuses were human beings and thus, terminating a pregnancy was a form of infanticide. Blockading the clinics was therefore an act civil disobedience aimed at saving lives.

In 1987, Joseph Scheidler coordinated with Randall Terry to form Operation Rescue, which coordinated rescue activities throughout the late 1980s. The organization came to national prominence during the "Siege of Atlanta," a five-month series of protests in 1988 from the start of the Democratic National Convention in July through October. Of the 1,300 protesters arrested, many were white middle-class suburban Christians getting their first exposure to inner city prisons and criminal justice systems. From Atlanta, protests spread to New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities throughout the country. Operation Rescue coordinated approximately 180 blockades in 1988, leading to more than 11,500 arrests. In 1989, there were roughly 200 blockades and 12,000 arrests.

The Rescue Movement Declines

Operation Rescue activities dropped abruptly in 1990 (with just over 30 blockades), due to both internal and external factors. Externally, the increasingly aggressive confrontations with pro-choice activists tarnished the image of a movement that perceived itself as engaged in a new phase of the civil rights struggle. Internally, these confrontations brought to the fore a philosophical divide between its nonviolent wing and those who defended violence as a last resort. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 essentially ended remaining rescue activities by levying prohibitively high fines on those engaging in blockade activities.

Legacy

The rescue movement intensified and crystallized the debate around abortion in a way that has boosted the profile and political influence of the pro-life movement as a whole. Further, it showcased the importance of direct action for keeping the abortion debate in the national consciousness, as evidenced by the continued widespread use of tactics such as picketing and sign holding. Finally, it has helped ensure that abortion remain a salient issue in U.S. Christianity for the foreseeable future.


Biographies
Schlafly, Phyllis
Photographs

March for Life 2006- Flickr- photo by American Life League (CC BY-NC 2.0)

March for Life at the White House- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-40975

Pro-life silent protest in front of Supreme Court- photo by RattleMan at the English language Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Randall Terry at Equality March- Wikimedia Commons- Ben Schumin (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Jeremy L. Sabella

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