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Remember the abortion wars? Remember the placards, the bumper stickers, the plastic handcuffs? Remember turning on the tube and seeing 500 liberals charge head on into a crowd of Bible-beating Christians before both get hauled off in the paddy wagon?
If you do, chances are you remember at least a few televised scenes from outside the Hillcrest Women’s Surgical Center, on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just inside the District line. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the center was the subject of massive and intense clashes between pro-choice advocates and pro-lifers. Organizations like Operation Rescue and the Army of God once staged large-scale “rescues” at Hillcrest, physically blocking access to the facility and trying to otherwise disrupt clinic operations. Pro-choice advocates used to show up in equal numbers to defend the clinic.
Veterans of those battles recall frightening demonstrations with hundreds of angry protesters and police on horseback. Both sides had spies to monitor the opposition. Folks who were around back then remember pro-life protesters surrounding the clinic in human vises that the opposing army would then try to break. Back in the day, legendary abortion guerillas like the “Glues Brothers” used to seal the locks on the clinic doors.
Those, of course, were different times. In 1994, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrances Act, or FACE. The legislation was a reaction, in part, to the Feb. 10, 1993, murder of Dr. David Gunn, killed during a protest in Pensacola, Fla. FACE prohibits the use of force, the threat of force, physical obstruction, intimidation, or interference with people obtaining or providing reproductive health services. In fact, the law makes such activities felonies and prescribes a series of stiff penalties for violators.
Participants on both sides of the debate agree that FACE has scared a lot of people off, deflating the high-stakes tenor of the interactions at Hillcrest. “There hasn’t been a blockade here since FACE passed,” says one Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force (WACDTF) volunteer who used to participate in the protests. Instead, scenes from the picket lines outside Hillcrest have more of the historic interest of a Civil War re-enactment than the real danger of a smoldering culture war. The battles may still be raging in courtrooms and Congress, but outside the Hillcrest Clinic, they’re taking place only in pantomime.
Every Saturday morning, the small group of about five pro-life demonstrators from a group called Lifeguard arrives at the clinic at around 7:30 a.m. Their aim is to convincethrough “sidewalk counseling”women and men entering the clinic to reconsider their decision on moral and religious grounds. It’s an all-volunteer, explicitly nonviolent group of mostly middle-aged white men from the suburbs. They wear blue baseball caps labeled “LIFEGUARD,” pace the sidewalk, offer anti-abortion pamphlets, and mostly get rebuffed.
On the other side is WACDTF, an explicitly nonviolent pro-choice organization that provides escorts to clinics in the D.C. area. Usually about 10 mostly younger women and men from WACDTF show up at Hillcrest on Saturdays. They wear orange WACDTF smocks, keep their eyes on the Lifeguard volunteers, and try to make sure women get into the clinic unmolested. It’s not too hard a job: Lifeguarders are barred by law from the clinic premises, so they stay on the sidewalk.
There are no physical clashes between the two groups. “We have an unwritten understanding,” one Lifeguard volunteer says.
Everybody waits, and waits, and waits. By now, they’ve gotten to the point where there’s a pretty much agreed-upon schedule for protestinga logical thing, since they pretty much all know each other, too. They stand around, pass out a few pamphlets, exchange a few congenial words between the ideological rhetoric, andsince they all have day jobs and busy weekendsthey all get home by lunch.
People from both sides take breaks to go to the convenience store next door for coffee. Both sides engage in banter among themselves, but often drift toward one another for conversation. While the inactivity leads members of the groups to engage in seemingly futile ideological debates, the discourse can’t help but turn to the banal. Subjects include: abortion, abortion, Elvis, God, footwear, the Bible, abortion.
Pro-lifer: “Philip, I was talking to you.”
Pro-choice volunteer: “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
Pro-lifer: “Do you have any of that Elvis junk in your living room?”
Pro-lifer: “Those boots don’t offer much ankle support.”
Pro-choicer: “They offer tons of ankle support.”
One wizened pro-life preacher, with a white beard, piercing eyes, and a black suit, who calls himself the “Rev. Jim,” delivers the gospel, sidewalk-style, by the telephone pole out front. Two faded, old pictures of tormented and shredded fetuses blow from the pole, left over from days gone by.
Ironically, the Rev. Jim says that the quiet on his picket line also has lots to do with increasingly violent pro-life extremism. On top of FACE, the anti-abortion fringe has a chilling effect, he says. Acts like the October 1998 killing of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, N.Y., and the January 1998 bombing of a clinic in Birmingham, Ala., got huge coverage nationally. “When you put the two together, it has been brutally devastating for the pro-life movement,” the Rev. Jim says.
“Our numbers have also thinned out,” says WACDTF volunteer Heather Brewer of recent pro-choice interest in the issue. Like the Rev. Jim, Brewer is facing a recruiting problem.
There are few budding friendships across the ideological divide. But in the subdued dullness of Saturday morning at Hillcrest, most people on both sides now know a little about one another. “That’s Mike,” one WACDTF volunteer says of a Lifeguard member. “Mike is one of the loud ones. He is also very funny,” she confides.
Of course, there is a weird mistrust, as well. One pro-lifer, Jose, is convinced that the WACDTF volunteers are “all homosexuals.” Occasionally, a passing car honks in support.
When a patient does arrive, the Lifeguard volunteers crowd around in meager efforts to get a word in about the sanctity of human life or God. The WACDTF folks dutifully intercede, inserting themselves physically between the patients and the Lifeguard guys, protecting them from the hail of pamphlets offered to them on the lonely sidewalk. The whole process takes place on just a few feet of public cement outside the clinic.
But the whole scene is played out in the routine twilight of the battles that raged before. The dwindling troops take their positions every Saturday, shout a little, talk, and then dribble off in groups. By noon, the Hillcrest corner is just like any other corner in the city. And that is how it is all week long. The two sides still genuinely disagree, and there is no love lost between them. But the trench warfare over abortion has boiled down two armies into a handful of extremely dedicated folks who just seem to be going through the motions. The battle still rages in courts and Congress, but at Hillcrest, the players are no longer soldiers. They’re just sentries.CP