Monday, July 24, 2006

How NOT to be salt and light

Anti-abortion protesters' tactics questioned

Some fear events in Jackson have distorted group's message

By Julie Goodman, July 23, 2006

Anti-abortion activists over the last week have trotted out an aborted fetus in a vacuum-packed bag, torn up then burned a Quran, shredded a gay pride flag, and preached Jesus' message over loudspeakers in the street.

While their style of activism has gotten attention, it also has left some Christians and anti-abortion supporters in the state unsettled, worried these out-of-town protesters have given them a bad name and distorted their message.

"Anything that anyone pro-life does that does not show respect for all human life - born, unborn or dead - does not represent our movement," said Terri Herring, a longtime anti-abortion activist in the state and former head of Pro-Life Mississippi. "It's important not to judge the entire pro-life movement based on the events of this week."

Activists from the national Operation Save America have been in Jackson since July 15 to protest the state's only abortion clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization in the Fondren neighborhood.

The group wants to make Mississippi the first state free of abortion clinics.

Outside the clinic, the anti-abortion activists prop up large, graphic photographs of aborted fetuses, shouting out to motorists as they pass in the sweltering heat.

The protesters come from Louisiana, Alabama, Michigan and other states, and many are hardcore activists who've devoted years of their lives to the movement.

The men chanted: "This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies," as they held up crosses bearing the bloodied body of Jesus.

Some kneeled, grasping prayer beads, as Christian spiritual music played. They referred to their fellow protesters as "soldier" or "brother."

"God calls us to be radical to display his truth. We are not violent, we are attempting to display his love," said Susan Rule, a former nurse from Palm Bay, Fla., as she propped up a large photo of a fetus.

David Lackey of Birmingham said facing the opposition directly is what's effective.

"There's always this idea that we can appease instead of confront and that never works," he said.

Daniel Green, from outside Lafayette, La., said he disagrees with people who yell their messages out of anger.

"But, I'd rather have him than somebody that does nothing," he said, gesturing toward a man preaching into a microphone outside the State Street clinic, the spot where a woman gave a graphic account of her abortion and another man bellowed, "Should we obey God or obey man?"

Mary Woodward, of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said what she saw last week was hatred and bigotry, and intolerance not representative of Christianity.

"And I think what made me saddest is that they included their children in these acts," said Woodward, who also chairs the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference.

"I'm opposed to abortion, but I didn't see what happened with the burning of the Quran and everything as having anything to do with the issue."

The activists outside the clinic have been verbally abusive and pushed the limits of the law, said McCoy Faulkner, a security consultant for the clinic.

A white-haired woman walked repeatedly on the sidewalk across the clinic's driveway, moving deliberately slow. Faulkner pointed out the woman's slow walking is a well-used tactic: It forces a motorist to stop before pulling into the clinic, giving the demonstrators time to surround the car.

Susan Hill, president of North-Carolina-based National Women's Health Organization, did not attend the events last week because of death threats she received, Faulkner said.

Earlier in the week, a church in Pearl shut its doors to Operation Save America after learning its members burned a Quran in the church's parking lot. The group also held a memorial service for an aborted fetus.

Outside the Capitol on Friday at their own, less-attended news conference, abortion-rights activists denounced the anti-abortion tactics.

They called the burning of a rainbow flag, representing the gay community, "hateful" and an attempt to evoke fear and terror.

With free-style hair and multiple piercings, the group of feminists, socialists and anarchists from Mississippi and other states who gathered to counterprotest over the last week, was markedly different from the conservative-looking anti-abortions activists.

At one point, a man in a dress used a coat hangar and a plastic bag of what looked like spaghetti sauce to re-enact a "back-alley abortion," falling down to the ground screaming.

Ginger Green, who owns a chain of dry cleaners in the area, one of which is down the street from the Fondren clinic, said she is not part of either side.

"It's too political ... Too radical, way too radical on either side," said Green, pointing to the anti-abortion activity on the street. "These people aren't even from here. You've got to be a little radical to spend your summer vacation doing this in 100-degree weather in Mississippi in July."

At the abortion rights news conference outside the Capitol, Jackson lawyer Ali ShamsidDeen, a Muslim, said, "We want everyone to understand that you will not see Muslims out burning Bibles or ... the Torah. We all believe that we believe we are brothers in this faith and that we should learn to live together and make the society one that we all can prosper in."

An anti-abortion demonstrator who tried to pass out literature during the news conference said she does not agree with destroying property.

"To me, when you walk in that destruction and you walk in that hatred of anger, you're not representing Jesus Christ," said Amy Williams, of Pearl. "Jesus was not a violent man."

Tanya Britton, head of Pro-Life Mississippi, though, in an e-mail defended the use of the graphic photos, saying, "There is no way to 'sugar coat' abortion."

Herring says she applauds the courage of those who stand up for "the unborn," but those in the anti-abortion movement have to be cognizant they can become ineffective when they are perceived as radical.

Herring recently left her role with Pro-Life Mississippi, saying she and the group were going in different directions.

Herring said she hopes to broaden the movement's base by working more with churches and getting more supporters involved by making sure they know they can help in other areas such as legislation. She said she wants to change the "hearts and minds" of people.

Herring said she hopes the state can look beyond the events of last week. "Because I think we have gained too much ground to lose momentum now," she said.

©2006 The Clarion-Ledger
Complete article available here.


Blogger CrimsonLine said...

Hoo boy. Burning a Quran is somehow "pro-life"? Sounds like a muddy message. Our communication always needs to be seasoned with respect, not manipulative, and never dishonest. When the medium discounts the message, we're in serious difficulty.

July 24, 2006 2:46 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Well said, Crimson Line!

July 25, 2006 7:56 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Absolutely! but I don't think it's wrong to use pictures of aborted fetuses - it's all about attitude and approach. I think it's important for people to know what an aborted fetus looks like, and movies like The Silent Scream have been used extremely effectively, but presented in a calm and rational way, and perhaps in more quiet and private settings.

August 08, 2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

Points well taken, Beth! My main problem with the demonsration was the burning of the Quran, etc. Evangelicals would be the first to complain if anyone burned a copy of the Bible, so the least we can do is treat the holy books of other religions with the same respect we would hope for. This certainly wasn't a case of "doing unto others."

August 09, 2006 12:49 PM  

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