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In abortion fight, lines have shifted

Ten years after a historic rally, the antiabortion cause has made gains.

Dozens of tiny American flags flap in the hot prairie wind atop the privacy fence surrounding Women's Health Care Services just off the main highway in Wichita.

This is the clinic that sparked 46 days of protests by Operation Rescue 10 years ago, producing thousands of arrests, clogging the local courts, and polarizing the people. The protesters called it the "summer of mercy," and they have returned this week with their Bibles and banners to mark the anniversary.

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Their goal is to force the nation again to confront abortion, one of its most divisive and emotional issues. But they're coming to a very different Wichita - and nation. Ten years ago, the antiabortion forces were still scrambling to find a way to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. Scattered protests and legal challenges had produced only limited results.

Today, after a string of victories in the courts and legislature, it's the abortion-rights forces that are on the defensive. More than 100 clinics have shut down over the past decade in the face of daily protests, routine threats, and the murders of seven abortion providers since 1992. That's in addition to dealing with new restrictions at the state level on women who want to terminate unwanted pregnancies - such as 24-hour waiting periods and parental notification for minors.

"We've lost a lot of ground on the state and local levels ..." since Republicans took over Congress in 1994, says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Over the last six years, there were more than 130 votes on reproductive rights or health policy, and we lost all but 25 of them."

Still, the antiabortion forces have not yet achieved their ultimate goal: banning the procedure altogether. And they are again determined to make Wichita a national battleground. But this time, the abortion-rights forces are here in large numbers as well.

'A powder keg'

The tension that has created is evident as this generally mild-mannered prairie city braces for the week ahead.

"It's like a powder keg in this town," says Debby Moore, a longtime resident who sits on a city council advisory board. "You don't bring it up in polite conversation because you never know who's on which side, and you might get slammed."

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Ten years ago, Wichita city officials welcomed Operation Rescue for what they were told was going to be only a week of prayerful protest. Today they are wary, as another fence attests. This one, erected Friday by local police, blocks access to the clinic from the adjacent sidewalk. The road in front of the building is closed to traffic, and at least a dozen police officers stand guard.

"They're trying to keep us from speaking!" says Philip "Flip" Benham, the director of Operation Save America, the new name for the radical antiabortion group.

In a starched white shirt and brown-and-white saddle shoes, the Texas-based evangelical preacher decried not only the city's efforts to contain the protest, but also the intervention of Attorney General John Ashcroft. After being criticized for indifference to the threat of violence, Mr. Ashcroft sent federal marshals to help protect the Wichita clinic and its owner, Dr. George Tiller, who was shot by an antiabortion protester in 1993.

As a car with two marshals pulled into the clinic driveway Friday, protesters jeered them.

"It takes a village to kill a child," Mr. Benham says. "What we're seeing is the federal marshals, the government, and hospitals all covering up for the abortionists and botched abortions."

City officials beg to differ. They're just hoping to maintain some civic order, and new laws have made it easier. In response to the 1991 Wichita protest and the violence that erupted at clinics around the country afterward, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Entrances to Clinics Act in 1994. Known as FACE, it provides six months in prison and up to a $10,000 fine for obstructing access to clinics.

On top of that, Wichita this week is requiring $2,000 cash bond from protesters if they're arrested. Operation Save America's lawyers are challenging that - along with a denial of parade permits - in the courts.

But those protections were welcomed by the abortion-rights advocates - whose ranks now include the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Made up of mainstream religious groups and their pastors, they plan to line up silently in front of the clinic wearing T-shirts that read "Pro-Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice." Over the weekend, at least eight clerical collars were spotted in the abortion-rights crowds.

So were lots of young people. "Abortion is a flash point," says Jesse Williams, a tall, dark-haired 20-something who'd flown in from New York. "It's more than about whether a group of developing cells is a person. It's a symbolic issue about how you view the role of men and women in society, the role of government, and whether you want to see women free to participate in society."

In this debate, like many others in American culture, the extremes on either side tend to dominate the political discussion. But they don't necessarily reflect the nation.

"The vast majority of the public is in the ambivalent middle on abortion, and that hasn't changed," says Jean Schroedel, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. "We don't like it, particularly the later it gets, but we don't want to outlaw abortion either."

That's true in Wichita as well, where many people on both sides of the debate are tired of their town being made a symbol.

Two neighbors, two outlooks

In the lush garden of Ms. Moore's College Hill home, which is near both of the city's abortion clinics, a few neighbors have gathered. Jim Dolenz opposes abortion. Trina Heath favors it; in fact, she ran one of the clinics that was targeted 10 years ago. At the same time, the protesters used a lot of land adjacent that Mr. Dolenz owned.

"All of a sudden, we had a national debate on our doorstep," says Dolenz.

The experience left them both Dolenz and Ms. Heath changed - and allies. The two agree that the hundreds of cars parked bumper to bumper, day after day, leaving trash and creating congestion was a disaster 10 years ago.

"We got invaded by radical fanatics who tore the city apart," says Heath.

Dolenz says he was "probably more frustrated" than Heath, in part because he felt extremists were giving the cause a bad name.

The two now say it makes more sense to work together on issues that can make a difference in people's lives, like trying to prevent teen pregnancy, than arguing about who's right.

"He will never convince me that it's murder, and I'll never convince him a fetus is not a human being," says Heath, smiling. "So we just don't talk about it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor