Right Wing Watch: In Focus | Sept. 2015

Operation Rescue’s Big Break: How an Organization Rooted in the Radical Fringes of the Anti-Choice Movement Is Threatening to Shut Down the Government

Planned Parenthood Kills Children sign
J. Bicking / Shutterstock.com

Three years ago, a young activist named David Daleiden walked into the offices of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in Wichita, Kansas, with a plan to take down legal abortion in America by accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue for profit.

Troy Newman, the head of Operation Rescue, explained the meeting this way in an interview with Religious Right broadcaster Jerry Newcombe:

The genesis happened three years ago in my office in Wichita, Kansas, where we discussed the fact that we already knew that Planned Parenthood was breaking the law in trafficking in human organs after their abortions, and so we decided and set out to go ahead and expose that and create an investigative journalism organization that would embed ourselves into the abortion cartel and to catch them off-script.

Newman told Fox News that he and Daleiden “hit it off very, very well, and we began discussing all the various techniques he would have to use in order to infiltrate Planned Parenthood.”

Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue’s senior policy advisor, who spent time in jail in the 1980s for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic, told an anti-abortion radio program in Ohio that Daleiden approached Operation Rescue because he “shared our vision for obtaining criminal prosecutions” of Planned Parenthood officials with the ultimate goal of bringing an “end to the abortion industry in America”:

About three years ago, David Daleiden came here to Wichita and actually visited us in our office, and he had discussions with Troy about his visions for this undercover project. …

David was really motivated to conduct a long-term investigative study of Planned Parenthood and their practices regarding the buying and selling of aborted baby remains. And the reason that he came to us was because he shared our vision for obtaining criminal prosecutions and really doing something substantial to report these abuses, document and report them, and bring an end to not only these practices, but an end to the abortion industry in America. And he knew if he focused on Planned Parenthood that would be probably the most powerful way to do that.

Thus was born the Center for Medical Progress, the “investigative journalism organization” that Newman and Daleiden had envisioned, whose deceptively edited videos claiming that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for profit have been roundly debunked, but have nevertheless led to House hearings, the withdrawal of some state funding from Planned Parenthood and the threat of a government shutdown, and contributed to the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner.

The fact that Daleiden is a relatively fresh face in the anti-abortion movement and formed a brand new organization to back up his activism has somewhat obscured the extent to which Operation Rescue appears to have been involved in his work. The Center for Medical Progress’ initial tax filing lists only three officers of the organization: Daleiden as its CEO, Newman as its secretary and Albin Rhomberg, the California activist, as its chief financial officer.

The Daily Beast pointed out that in Operation Rescue’s announcement of Daleiden’s second video, “the logo for the CMP’s Human Capital Project includes the phrase ‘In consultation with Operation Rescue.’”

Newman told Newcombe that he has acted as an “adviser” and “consultant” and provided “a bit of material support” to Daleiden (it’s still unclear how much that “bit” was; Daleiden says his shoestring budget of about $120,000 came from “15 to 20 very dedicated donors”), but said that he left it to Daleiden to do most of the on-the-ground work on the project because the young activist would not be recognized by Planned Parenthood employees. “The beautiful thing about David Daleiden is he’s just a courageous young man with a very clean record,” Newman said. “Just coming right in, he’s not recognizable by anybody, so he was able to walk into these meetings completely unnoticed.”

David Daleiden
David Daleiden (American Life League/Flickr)

The Center for Medical Progress’ existence as a separate entity from Operation Rescue has also provided cover for the anti-choice activists and politicians who have flocked to promote Daleiden’s videos. Members of Congress and state legislators were given advance screenings. Conservative groups coordinated behind the scenes to push them far and wide. House Republicans played excerpts at a hearing.

It is doubtful that so many leading conservatives would have been willing to associate themselves with a project conducted under the name of Operation Rescue, which has become synonymous with anti-choice radicalism.

Troy Newman does not speak in the polished talking points of more prominent anti-abortion leaders. Instead, he pickets in front of schools with posters of aborted fetuses, calls women who have had abortions “murderers,” thinks emergency contraception is also “murder,” and has blamed everything from the AIDS epidemic to the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the current drought in California on God’s disapproval of legal abortion. Although Newman has never directly advocated for violence against abortion providers, and has occasionally explicitly renounced it, he and Operation Rescue grew out of activist circles that included advocates of violence and assassins of abortion providers.

Decades of Attacks on Planned Parenthood

In the summer of 2015, Daleiden, through the Center for Medical Progress, began releasing a series of videos, the product of his three-year effort to infiltrate Planned Parenthood, which he claimed showed that the women’s health organization illegally “sells the body parts of aborted babies” for profit. What Daleiden was referring to was the option that a small number of Planned Parenthood affiliates gave to abortion patients to donate fetal tissue to medical research, in compliance with a 1993 law permitting the practice. The more extensive footage that Daleiden made public showed that he had edited out numerous instances of Planned Parenthood officials explicitly stating that the organization does not profit off such donations and only accepts cost reimbursements, in compliance with federal law. Daleiden has yet to make his full footage available.

Numerous states launched investigations of Planned Parenthood after Daleiden’s project became national news. Not one has yet found evidence of wrongdoing. This follows the pattern of previous anti-choice “sting” operations against Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.

American Life League/Flickr
American Life League/Flickr

Daleiden said he had gotten the idea to pursue an attack on fetal tissue research, and subsequent strategic advice, from Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics, whose group had launched a very similar “sting” in 1999 claiming that abortion providers were selling fetal tissue for profit. At a congressional hearing, the group’s star witness admitted to having been paid more than $20,000 by Life Dynamics for his story, and the accusations fell apart. Sullenger, then still an activist in California, had taken notice of the Life Dynamics case. In an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sullenger cited Life Dynamics to make the astounding claim that those who opposed restrictions on so-called “partial-birth” abortions did so to protect the “booming business” of “buying and selling of fetal tissue.”1

Daleiden also had experience with anti-Planned Parenthood smear campaigns through Live Action, an anti-choice group that he joined as a college student and for which he later served as research director, until he quit to pursue his own anti-Planned Parenthood project. In 2011, when Daleiden was serving as its research director, Live Action attempted to show that Planned Parenthood was covering up child sex trafficking; its claims were quickly debunked but nevertheless prompted Republicans in Congress to try to eliminate all federal family planning funding.

Live Action’s sex-trafficking “sting” seems to have been modeled on a similar attempt by Life Dynamics in 2002 to claim that Planned Parenthood was covering up statutory rape. Life Dynamics failed to prove any wrongdoing to law enforcement, but its “investigation” was nevertheless used by anti-abortion campaigners around the country. One of those was Albin Rhomberg, the California activist who would later become a Center for Medical Progress board member, who led a campaign for a law requiring parental notification for minors obtaining abortions, claiming that Life Dynamics had proved “pretty unequivocally that Planned Parenthood is protecting men who sexually abuse children.”

Despite the fact that investigations into Daleiden’s claims have likewise turned up empty, the Center for Medical Progress’ videos have driven a new round of attacks on Planned Parenthood and on legal abortion as a whole, including a House vote to revoke federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a failed attempt to do the same in the Senate, and the threat of a government shutdown if funding continues. The success of Daleiden’s venture in driving legislative attacks on Planned Parenthood is a major coup for Operation Rescue, a group that has existed for decades on the outer fringes of the anti-choice movement.

The Center for Medical Progress’ “sting” on Planned Parenthood grew out of the tradition of Operation Rescue, Life Dynamics and “direct action” abortion protest and must be understood in the context of that history.

Operation Rescue and the Anti-Choice Fringes

The bitter power struggles and shifting allegiances among the men who have led the Operation Rescue movement can be difficult to follow — think of the feud between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” — but are important for understanding the ideology that led to the Center for Medical Progress’ attack on Planned Parenthood.

After the Supreme Court guaranteed the right to an abortion in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, opposition to abortion rights began to coalesce in the National Right to Life Committee, which had its origins in the Catholic Church. But some anti-choice activists soon became fed up with NRLC’s efforts to end legal abortion through legislation and litigation. NRLC activists Joseph Scheidler and Paul and Judie Brown split from the group to found their own “direct action” organizations that confronted legal abortion by picketing in front of clinics and harassing abortion providers and patients.

A manual Scheidler published in 1985 outlined some of these “direct action” tactics, including physically blocking the doors of abortion providers, “sidewalk counseling,” recording the license plates of everyone who drives to a clinic, harassing vendors who work with clinics, and “adopting” — i.e. stalking — individual abortion providers and their families. In the 1980s, Scheidler also went after Planned Parenthood, specifically targeting its contraception and sex education efforts. (Decades later, in 2006, he would host a “Contraception Is Not the Answer” conference at which one speaker compared the lives “lost” through contraception to “a 9/11 every day.”)

In 1986, a protégé of Scheidler’s named Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue, which achieved a national profile by staging “rescues” — described by the SAGE Encyclopedia of Terrorism as “large-scale sit-ins and blockades in which hundreds of activists faced arrest” — at abortion clinics. Terry’s famous motto was “If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it.” In 1991, Terry handed his organization over to Keith Tucci, who that year led the famous “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita in which hundreds were arrested protesting Dr. George Tiller and other abortion providers.

Splinter groups linked to Operation Rescue sprung up throughout the country. In California, Newman and Sullenger, then activists working under the leadership of Jeff White of Operation Rescue of California, participated in a “No Place to Hide” campaign, picketing in front of an abortion provider’s house shouting, “Baby murderer!” and “Repent!” When California Operation Rescue activists sent letters to dozens of abortion providers threatening to picket outside their homes and “educate” their neighbors and churches about their careers if they did not stop performing abortions, Newman told reporters that if the letters made providers feel uneasy, it was just “the guilt they’re feeling that makes them feel threatened.”2 In 2014, Newman wrote that the litigation that the letters prompted meant that he “would never recommend such a foolish ultimatum today,” although he noted with satisfaction that “several abortionists quit on the spot.”3

As the “rescue” movement took hold throughout the country, it was accompanied by a wave of violence against abortion providers and clinics.

One early instance of this involved Sullenger. In 1988, Sullenger and her husband Randall pleaded guilty, along with several members of their fundamentalist church, to conspiracy to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic in the previous year.

Sullenger, who ran a local chapter of Operation Jericho, a protest group inspired by Joseph Scheidler, had decided to intensify her activism after attending a conference with Scheidler in 1986.4 As part of her renewed commitment to anti-choice activism, Sullenger joined a church run by a fringe fundamentalist pastor named Rev. Dorman Owens, who, as the San Diego Union reported at the time, “actively opposed such issues as witches, humanists, homosexuals, liberal politicians, pornography, X-rated movie theaters, Mormons and the euthanasia of a 92-year-old comatose woman.” Owens taught a fundamentalist view of men’s headship over women, and the church ran an unaccredited school that banned female teachers after the fifth grade to prevent them from having authority over male students.5

Owens also led his church in abortion clinic pickets inspired by Scheidler’s book. But at some point Owens and some of his parishioners decided that picketing wasn’t enough. According to a federal indictment, Cheryl Sullenger provided a fellow church member named Eric Svelmoe with materials for a pipe bomb and a women’s wig to wear as a disguise as he deposited it an abortion clinic. (Svelmoe’s previous activism included flying a plane over a gay pride parade with a banner reading “Repent fag.”)4 The bomb failed to detonate, and detectives, tipped off by an informant, were there to meet him.

Sullenger told the judge in the case: “I know what we did was wrong. We were not trying to harm anyone. We were trying to save lives. I believe abortion is murder. There was a lot of emotion compelling us to act this way.”7

Eventually, Sullenger spent two years in federal prison and later publicly renounced violent tactics. Newman, who would go on to work closely with Sullenger for many years, wrote in 2014 on the subject of Sullenger’s past that “if we in the pro-life movement can forgive and embrace women who have had abortions … then we should also be able to forgive those in our own ranks who have made mistakes but have repented and amended their ways.”8

In 1993, when Florida abortion provider Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed by anti-abortion terrorist Michael Griffin, the “rescue” movement faced a very public split over whether violence was an acceptable way of furthering its cause. After Gunn’s murder, Christian Reconstructionist and militant anti-abortion activist Paul Hill began circulating what has become known as the “defensive action statement,” a justification of the murder of abortion providers that was signed by 34 “pro-life” leaders:

We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We assert that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children. Therefore, he ought to be acquitted of the charges against him.

In April 1994, a former Operation Rescue national director named Joseph Foreman convened about 80 anti-abortion leaders in Chicago to discuss Hill’s statement. Among them was Flip Benham, then national director for Operation Rescue, who was appalled. Benham called Hill’s statement “heresy” and “sin,” but said that in the room he was “in the minority.” Joseph Scheidler was also there and said he was “surprised at how much support there was for Paul Hill.” A few months later, Hill acted on his words and murdered an abortion provider and his security guard.

One person who did sign Hill’s pro-murder statement was Foreman himself, who had previously been ousted from Operation Rescue’s national leadership for clashing with his fellow leaders. At the time of Gunn’s murder, Foreman was a leader of an organization called Missionaries to the Pre-born that he had co-founded with Matt Trewhella, another “defensive action statement” signer. Foreman later removed his name from the statement, but that didn’t stop him from being blacklisted by Benham, who knew that such outright endorsements of violence undermined the movement’s credibility. (Benham later blamed some acts of violence against abortion providers on “those in the abortion-providing industry” attempting to discredit the anti-choice cause.)

Benham was livid, then, when shortly after the controversial meeting in Chicago, Jeff White, who was then working with Newman in the California “rescue” movement, invited Foreman to join him at Operation Rescue of California. White justified his invitation to Foreman by telling a reporter that the “best way to reduce violence” is to keep “those who are on the fence … busy with nonviolence.”

At a rally White and Foreman convened the next year, Foreman offered his thoughts on another controversial issue, birth control and the role of women: “The government would have us believe that a small family is a good family, but this is entirely false. A small family is not a good family. What happens when a family stays small? The woman goes out and seeks a career so she can be fulfilled. Then the kids are put in day care and government-run schools. This is how the government gains control of our families and our personal lives.”

In the summer of 1994, Newman, who was then in his late 20s and heading up Operation Rescue’s efforts in San Diego, sounded similarly noncommittal on the issue of violence, telling a reporter, “Violence outside the abortion clinic does not solve the problem of violence inside the abortion clinic. All murder is tragic, but the murder of the unborn child is even more tragic.”9

After President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, which cut off the so-called rescue movement’s ability to physically prevent women from entering abortion clinics, Newman blamed subsequent anti-abortion violence on the new clinic protections, saying, “With the upsurge of legislation against peaceful and nonviolent free speech, some people, unfortunately, are being driven to different means.”

“Martin Luther King preached peace,” he continued. “If there were some in the movement, like the Black Panthers, who engaged in violence, that wasn’t his fault.”10

Newman’s remarks echoed what Foreman said after the murder of Gunn, the Florida abortion provider: “I’ve been saying for years that if the government insists on suppressing normal and time-honored dissent through injunctions, it turns the field over to the rock-throwers, the bombers and the assassins.”

Newman worked closely with White and eventually became his second-in-command at what became known as Operation Rescue West, as Benham, running from legal judgments, changed the original Operation Rescue’s name to Operation Save America and expanded its focus to include opposition to gay rights, Islam, and pornography. (Benham’s twin sons, David and Jason, shared his far-right activism and later became Religious Right “martyrs” when it cost them a home-repair TV show.)

Newman’s activism at Operation Rescue West included holding graphic pictures of aborted fetuses outside of high schools;11 warning that legal abortion “cannot be without judgment” from God; and opposing emergency contraception, saying, “Emergency contraception is a euphemism for abortion. Abortion is a euphemism for murder;”12 and promising to picket pharmacies that dispensed morning-after pills.13 He also traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to take part in a “Summer of Mercy Renewal” organized by Benham, in which protesters picketed in front of a number of churches, including Dr. Tiller’s church and one that supported gay rights.

After her release from prison, Sullenger started joining the California Operation Rescue protests. Protesting outside a clinic in 1993, Sullenger told a reporter that the U.S. was “asking for God’s judgment” for allowing legal abortion, “adding that AIDS and unemployment are ways God is punishing society for allowing abortion.”14

In 1999, Newman took the helm of Operation Rescue West from Jeff White, who was facing an $880,000 legal judgment for harassing staff and patients at Planned Parenthood clinics. In 2002, he moved the organization to Wichita, still the heart of the “rescue” movement because of the practice of Dr. Tiller, one of the few late-term abortion providers in the country. The next year, Sullenger and her husband followed him. Newman later recalled that the Sullengers sold their San Diego area condo for “top dollar” just before the real estate bubble burst, which he attributed to God’s approval of their project.15

After Operation Rescue West lost its tax-exempt status for engaging in electioneering in the 2004 election, Newman changed the name of his organization to just plain Operation Rescue, causing Randall Terry — the founder of the original Operation Rescue, who had considered Newman to be his protégé — to come out of relative obscurity to file a trademark infringement claim, fueling yet another round of infighting in the movement.

Shortly before he moved to Wichita, Newman published a book titled “Their Blood Cries Out,” which he revised in 2003. In it, he argued that abortion providers and women who obtain abortions should be treated as murderers and claimed that AIDS and the 9/11 terrorist attacks were warnings from God about legal abortion. The entire nation, he warned, was afflicted with “bloodguilt” for allowing abortion to go on without legal punishment for those involved.

Joseph Foreman, Newman’s fellow California activist who signed the statement defending the murder of abortion providers, penned the foreword. Sullenger, Newman’s colleague who had conspired to bomb a clinic in the 1980s, is credited as a contributor. Scott Roeder, who later murdered Dr. Tiller, boasted that he had a signed copy.

In 2003, the state of Florida executed Paul Hill, who had drafted the “defensive action statement,” for his murder of the abortion provider and his bodyguard. In a conference call with reporters, Newman said he disagreed with Hill’s tactics, but insisted that Hill was a “political prisoner.” Newman and Sullenger issued a joint statement arguing that Hill should have been allowed to argue that his crime was justifiable homicide and that “the killing of the abortionist was necessary to save the lives of the pre-born babies that were scheduled to be killed by abortion that day.”

“We pray for Paul Hill today, for his wife and children, and for our nation that sees no value in the lives of the innocent victims of abortion that Hill endeavored to rescue, but instead protects and defends their killers,” they wrote.  “Today, it is justice that has been aborted. May God have mercy on us!”

Mark Crutcher and the Origins of Anti-Abortion “Guerilla” Tactics

As Troy Newman was cutting his teeth at Operation Rescue and Cheryl Sullenger was reentering the “rescue” movement after her time in prison, Mark Crutcher –  the Life Dynamics leader who decades later would inspire David Daleiden’s Planned Parenthood smear ­­­– was pioneering his own brand of anti-choice activism in Texas.

In 1992, Crutcher wrote an influential underground manual called “Firestorm: A Guerrilla Strategy for a Pro-life America,” which laid out his strategy of ending legal abortion “through the attrition of the pool of abortionists” – making life so difficult for abortion providers that few would choose to stay in the field or go into it in the first place.

His goal, he wrote, was “to make it as hard as possible for the abortion industry to recruit new abortionists by reinforcing and heightening the stigma within the medical community which abortionists already experience … If we accomplish that goal, we will create an environment in which no legitimate physician would ever want to become an abortionist, and we will win through the attrition of the pool of abortionists.”16

Crutcher started offering trainings in his techniques to activists across the country. As long as abortion providers could legally continue with their work, he told one group, they should know that their lives are “going to be miserable.”17

Among the tactics that Crutcher himself used for making the lives of abortion providers miserable were printing the faces of abortion providers on posters and plastering them around the doctors’ neighborhoods; recruiting “spies for life” to find which doctors and hospitals performed abortions;18 encouraging lawyers to file malpractice lawsuits against providers for what he called “post abortion trauma syndrome;”19 and encouraging his followers to spam the 800 numbers of abortion clinics across the country to drive up their costs.

In 1993, Crutcher made national news when he somehow obtained the addresses of tens of thousands of U.S. medical students and sent them a “joke book” called “Bottom Feeders” in which he had taken jokes about lawyers and other professions and edited them to be about “abortionists.”

Many of the students who received the booklets were not amused. One sample “joke” read:

Q.: What would you do if you found yourself in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and an abortionist and you had a gun with only two bullets?

A: Shoot the abortionist twice.

Crutcher said that he was merely trying to illustrate that jokes that seem innocuous when told about lawyers suddenly get people “excited” when you tell them about “the slime of the earth” – abortion providers.20 But he admitted that the purpose was to scare off future doctors from providing abortions. “Basically, what we’re saying to the medical community is, ‘Look, if you want to do abortions, that’s fine, but you’d better understand something,’” Crutcher told a reporter. “‘There’s a hell of a price to pay.’”21

In the 1990s, Crutcher also began experimenting with the sham investigative techniques that Life Dynamics later became known for. In one early project, he invented a fake pro-choice organization and contacted hundreds of abortion providers pretending to be conducting a survey. He asked the providers if they felt “ostracized” or if they had been victims of “harassment,” and was encouraged by the numbers who answered “yes,” taking it as a sign of the anti-choice movement’s success. When Crutcher revealed who had really been behind the survey, providers were left feeling “violated” and uneasy.22 He later mailed the results of his sham survey to his list of medical students.23

When asked about his tactics in 1995, Crutcher responded, “It’s a war, and in a war you do things that are distasteful in a non-war environment.”24

Crutcher, like Troy Newman, was less than unequivocal in denouncing the violence that was taking place on the fringes of the anti-choice movement. After multiple abortion clinic workers were killed in 1994, Crutcher, who had predicted growing anti-abortion violence in “Firestorm,” blamed the FACE Act, the law that had ensured free access to abortion clinics.

The Clinton administration is creating a situation where there's more danger for a pro-lifer to protest abortion clinics than to blow them up.

Mark Crutcher

“The Clinton administration is creating a situation where there’s more danger for a pro-lifer to protest abortion clinics than to blow them up,” he told a journalist. He added: “Before we get on our high horse about whether this is justified or not, we need some kind of benchmark for what justifies violence in this country. We thought it noble when we killed people [in the Persian Gulf] for oil that wasn’t even ours … So what’s the standard? Before we can start casting stones at Paul Hill, [John] Salvi and the others that are to come, we need to decide what our standards are going to be.”25

Crutcher was also an early advocate of a tactic that is well known today. He called for “guerilla legislation,” or efforts to chip away at abortion access, as a legislative companion to his harassment of abortion providers. The goal, one commentator said, was to create “an America where abortion may indeed be perfectly legal, but no one can get one.”

Throughout this time, Crutcher was evidently in touch with Newman and Operation Rescue, writing a blurb for the back cover of Newman’s 1993 book “Their Blood Cries Out.”

The subsequent investigations of Crutcher and his “spies for life” grew out of this work, whose goal was not to uncover the truth but to intimidate abortion providers. The goals and tactics of Daleiden and his former colleagues at Live Action, however much they call themselves “citizen journalists,” are little changed from the Mark Crutcher projects on which their work is modeled.

Troy Newman vs. Dr. Tiller

Newman moved his operation to Wichita in 2002 with one goal: to shut down Dr. Tiller’s practice.

He used many of the same methods he had used in California. Under Newman’s leadership, Operation Rescue targeted individual employees of Tiller’s clinic and their families, picketing outside of their homes, mailing gruesome postcards to their neighbors, trailing their cars, going through their trash, and trying to harass them until they quit. On one occasion, Tiller’s office manager quit after Operation Rescue found out where her husband worked and threatened to go after him. “I want these employees to realize that their lives have changed,” Newman told Rolling Stone. “As long as they’re embedded in the abortion industry receiving blood money, they can’t live a normal life. They just can’t.”

Dr. George Tiller (Nonameplayer/Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. George Tiller (Nonameplayer/Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Rescue also targeted companies that did business with Tiller, from the dry cleaner that cleaned his and his wife’s clothes to the hospital that had agreed to take Tiller’s patients in the event of a medical emergency, threatening to harass them until they stopped taking Tiller’s cleaning or stopped agreeing to care for his patients.

They also trailed Tiller himself, making a special point to picket outside of his church with Newman’s “Truth Truck” emblazoned with graphic images of aborted fetuses. (One Operation Rescue “missionary” in charge of driving the “Truth Truck” was Keith Mason, who went on to found the fetal “personhood” group Personhood USA.)

Operation Rescue and its allies also tried to defeat Tiller through litigation, bringing repeated charges of various wrongdoings, none of which held up in the courts. In one case, anti-abortion activists in Kansas took advantage of a little-used 19th century law to bypass prosecutors and force the convening of a grand jury to investigate Tiller. The grand jury attempted to subpoena the personal medical records of thousands of Tiller’s patients. In an email soliciting funds to buy radio ads pressuring Kansas officials not to interfere with the grand jury, Newman called Tiller the “kingpin” and “godfather” of abortion providers, and wrote, “You Can Help Put George Tiller In Prison!”:

With your help, the light will shine in the darkness.

Tiller will be exposed for illegally killing late-term babies.

And he will go to prison where he belongs!

Then and only then will all the baby-killers realize that we will not rest until they stop the wholesale slaughter of God’s innocent children!

And only then will God withhold His terrible wrath from our nation, where the blood of the innocents already soaks the ground and cries out to Heaven for vengeance!

On another occasion, anti-abortion activists meeting at Cheryl Sullenger’s house launched a plan to convene a grand jury to investigate the death of a 19-year-old with Down syndrome who had been sexually assaulted and sought an abortion at Tiller’s clinic, later dying of complications. Sullenger dug through records to expose the name of the woman; during a later legislative fight over abortion clinic regulations they sent lawmakers pictures of her that they found on the Internet.26 The grand jury ultimately found no wrongdoing.

In 2009, seven years after Operation Rescue had devoted itself to driving Tiller out of business, an activist named Scott Roeder, who had ties with extreme anti-government groups and with the violent, underground anti-abortion “Army of God,” gunned Tiller down in his church.

Newman publicly condemned the attack, saying that his group had been close to shutting down Tiller’s clinic and that Roeder had set back their cause. He also denied having any ties to Roeder, although Roeder later claimed to have met with Newman and to have participated in Operation Rescue events. When Roeder was arrested, a post-it note with Cheryl Sullenger’s phone number on it was found in his car; she later admitted to having given Roeder information on dates when Tiller would appear in court, though said she was just being polite. She said that she would sometimes avoid his calls because “the guy frankly made me uncomfortable.”

In fact, Operation Rescue had made information about Tiller’s whereabouts available to all who might want it. A section on the group’s website called “Tiller Watch” listed Tiller’s home address and that of his church, and Sullenger tracked the doctor’s movements on her Twitter account.

Newman told PBS that he resented being linked to Roeder: “A lone student shot up Virginia Tech, but not all students are murderers. Postal workers have been known to kill fellow employees, but not all mailmen are terrorists. Muslims killed 3,000 Americans in the 9/11 attacks, but not all Muslims act out Jihad. However, all abortionists murder children.”

Terry, who had since his Operation Rescue days tried to become a country star and a congressman, showed up at Roeder’s trial to warn that more anti-abortion violence was to come, telling the Associated Press, “The blood of these babies slain by Tiller is crying for vengeance.” The new Operation Rescue scrambled to disavow his comments.

But while Operation Rescue might have stopped short of cheering on the cold-blooded murder of Tiller in his church, it had no such compunction about abortion providers who died of other causes. In 2010, abortion provider and outspoken pro-choice advocate Dr. William Harrison died of leukemia. Newman issued a statement rejoicing in his demise:

“We are thankful that this man will never again have the opportunity to kill any more babies, hurt any more women, or cause any more human misery on this Earth,” said Operation Rescue President Troy Newman. “In the end, God always gets the last word. Our Christian faith informs us that one day we will all have to stand before God and give an account for our lives. Without faith in Christ, the outlook for Mr. Harrison’s meeting with his Maker is grim. We pray other aging abortionists around the nation will not follow Harrison’s example, but will instead find repentance and forgiveness for their bloodguilt through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.”

Going National

In their 2014 book “Abortion Free: Your Manual for Building a Pro-Life America One Community at a Time,” published by the far-right outlet WorldNetDaily, Newman and Sullenger offer a case study of how they ended legal abortion — for a time — in Wichita. They roundly condemn Roeder’s murder of Tiller, claiming that they were close to forcing Tiller to retire or to lose his license anyway, and that Roeder “snatched defeat from the mouth of victory.” They began to expand their activism nationally.

“It was only after our Kansas project was concluded that Operation Rescue began to grow in influence and reputation through the exposure of abortionists around the nation who were breaking the law,” they wrote. “ … Our work flourished. Sometimes God has a way of moving us on through traumatic events into a new place where He wants us to be, and we were now exactly where He wanted us.”

Today, Operation Rescue runs a website called AbortionDocs.org that lists the photos, addresses, and phone numbers of abortion providers, modeled on the public dossier it had put together about Tiller.

In “Abortion Free,” Newman and Sullenger train their fellow activists in the methods they experimented with in California and perfected in Wichita. It essentially acts as an update of Scheidler’s 1985 “direct action” manual for a new age when protesters can no longer block the doors of clinics and when even the more mainstream segments of the movement have latched on to the strategy of ending legal abortion through chipping away at clinics’ ability to operate. Newman and Sullenger advise activists to dig up information on providers and patients in hopes of finding even the smallest infraction that could result in legal troubles for a clinic. They also detail how to conduct “sting” operations, like the one undertaken by David Daleiden, explaining that “stretching the truth” is acceptable when trying to destroy a “godless enemy.”

“Abortion Free” abandons the fire and brimstone of Newman and Sullenger’s earlier work in favor of the more restrained tones of a movement that increasingly talks about “protecting women’s health” rather than avoiding God’s judgment for mass murder.

But that doesn’t mean that Operation Rescue has entirely toned down its rhetoric. Shortly after “Abortion Free” was published, Newman joined with Gary Cass, a longtime ally and head of the Christian Anti-Defamation League to launch the “Abortion Free Communities Project,” which they hoped would prompt activists to use Operation Rescue’s tactics throughout the nation. Cass had tied his anti-choice activism to his anti-gay efforts, saying that “gay abortionists” are out to “destroy the fruit of heterosexuality” and contended that President Obama is “not a Christian” because he supports LGBT rights and “the Bible is very clear about homosexual acts being a very evil thing.”

Newman continues to explain his strategy of targeting abortion providers as an attempt to “shut off the supply side of the abortion industry” in order to cut off “the Enemy’s ability to make war on the children.” He calls abortion a “demonic enterprise” that providers undertake for profit. He claims that God is sending “weather patterns,” including the drought in California, as punishment for legal abortion. Of religious denominations “that approve of abortion and homosexuality and other sins,” Newman says, “I don’t want to be on the Day of Judgment, period, but I definitely don’t want to be in their shoes.”

'We Serve a Very Big God That Answers Prayers'

In 2009, shortly after Dr. Tiller was murdered and as Troy Newman and Randall Terry continued to squabble over who owned the name “Operation Rescue,”  Marvin Olasky, editor of the conservative Christian “World” magazine, told the Los Angeles Times that “Operation Rescue is largely a blast from the past, and fairly marginalized in the pro-life movement now.”

“About 20 years ago, the Operation Rescue activities were probably creating more support for abortion overall, and as the pro-life movement recognized that, the emphasis became one of offering compassionate help to women in a crisis,” he added.

Seven years later, Operation Rescue has helped to create a story that, despite being thoroughly debunked, has made it into House hearings and presidential debates, threatens to instigate a government shutdown, and contributed to the resignation of a speaker of the House.

In an interview with the Moody radio network in August, Newman said that he was “extremely encouraged” by the inroads Daleiden’s project had made, saying that the recent protests in front of Planned Parenthood clinics were “what I think is the largest protest of abortion clinics, the largest coordinated protest of abortion clinics, probably since the late ’80s and early ’90s, since the rescue movement.”

But, he said, he wasn’t surprised, because he knew that God would come through for him in the end:

I’ve never seen anything like this in the 25 years of my pro-life activism. But I will say this. I’m not surprised by it. I’m not surprised, because we serve a very big God that answers prayers. And for 43 years, Americans have been praying every day, I know people every day are on their knees saying, ‘Lord, end this holocaust.’ These are the prayers being answered. We know that when you pray according to Jesus’ name, or a better way to say it is according to His will, that He answers prayers. So, do we believe that Jesus wants babies to be saved? Yes. Do we believe that He wants abortion clinics to close? Yes. Do we believe that He wants Planned Parenthood defunded and dismantled? Yes. So, that’s why I say I’m not surprised. I’m delighted at this, in fact, we should expect God to do big things like this.

  1. Cheryl Sullenger, The San Diego Union-Tribune, “28 years after Roe vs. Wade Judicial activism that must be countered,” January 21, 2001
  2. Lisa Petrillo, The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Abortion foes target doctors countrywide,” May 25, 1993
  3. Troy Newman and Cheryl Sullenger, “Abortion Free: Your Manual for Building a Pro-Life America One Community at a Time,” WND Books, 2014 (p. 21-22)
  4. Lisa Petrillo, The San Diego Tribune, “He had time to think, and had a change of heart,” December 20, 1987
  5. Lisa Petrillo, The San Diego Union, “Owens’ feelings on abortion appear as strong as tactics,” December 20, 1987
  6. Lisa Petrillo, The San Diego Tribune, “He had time to think, and had a change of heart,” December 20, 1987
  7. Bill Ott, The San Diego Union, “2 in clinic bomb plot sentenced,” May 6, 1988
  8. Newman and Sullenger (p. 21)
  9. The State Journal-Register, “Abortion Foes Must Not Equivocate on Violence,” August 3, 1994
  10. Uri Berliner, The San Diego Union-Tribune, “God’s Will or Terrorism?” January 13, 1995
  11. Wendy Wilson, The Press-Enterprise, “Protesters take heat on two fronts,” March 18, 1997
  12. Imran Ghori, The Press-Enterprise, “Pill ban denounced as unfair to the poor,” June 12, 2001
  13. Emily Bazar, Scripps Howard News Service, “Access to ‘Morning After Pill’ Hopefully Will Reduce Unplanned Pregnancies,” October 25, 2001
  14. Ed Jahn, The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Abortion foes again target Hillcrest clinic,” January 24, 1993
  15. Newman and Sullenger (p. 23)
  16. Laura LaFay, The Virginian-Pilot, “Norfolk Clinic a Focal Point in Escalating Abortion Fight,” July 4, 1993
  17. Herb Marynell, The Evansville Courier, “Anti-Abortion Movement Is Now at a Crossroad, 800 at Dinner Told,” February 19, 1993
  18. Carol Gentry, St. Petersburg Times, “Anti-abortion cards target doctors,” April 24, 1994
  19. P.L. Wyckoff, The Star-Ledger, “Minister Urges Jersey Abortion Opponents To Fight For ‘America’s Soul,’” April 24, 1994
  20. Ben Stocking, The News and Observer, “Joke Book Attacks The Supply Side Of Abortion,” March 26, 1993
  21. Judy Lundstrum Thomas, The Wichita Eagle, “Clinics Pushed Into A Corner,” April 18, 1993
  22. Judy Lundstrum Thomas, The Wichita Eagle, “Anti-Abortionists Use Ruse To Poll Doctors,” April 15, 1993 Wyckoff
  23. Timothy Egan, Contra Costa Times, “Trying To Find Elusive Cabal,” June 18, 1995
  24. Kathleen Parker, The Orlando Sentinel, “Murder Isn’t The Solution To Abortion,” January 6, 1995
  25. Newman and Sullenger (p. 35-49)
  26. Newman and Sullenger (p. 134)