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Abortion Foes Tell of
Their Journey to the Streets

New York Times Logo
Published: October 10, 2009
Behind the Scenes Foot Soldiers
Click the above link to go to the New York Times web site for the Oct. 9, 2009 article on Lens Blog which includes a slide show of abortion photos. The article is called "Behind the Scenes: Picturing Fetal Remains". Click the above link to go to the New York Times web site for the Oct 10, 2009 article, called "Abortion Foes Tell of Their Journey to the Streets", which includes a video about the pro-life activists called "Foot Soldiers". A version of this article appeared on the front page of the paper version of the NYT on Oct. 10, 2009.

OWOSSO, Mich. — Action means many things to abortion opponents. Lobbyists and fund-raisers fight for the cause in marble hallways; volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers try to dissuade the pregnant on cozy sofas.

Then there are the protesters like James Pouillon, who was shot dead here last month while holding an anti-abortion sign outside a high school. A martyr to some, an irritant to others, Mr. Pouillon in death has become a blessing of sorts for the loosely acquainted activists who knew him as a friend: proof that abortion doctors are not the only ones under duress, proof that protests matter, and a spark for more action.

“Jim suffered the persecution for us,” said Dan Brewer, who recalls swearing at Mr. Pouillon during one of his one-man protests in the ’90s, only to join him later after becoming a born-again Christian. “Now we just have to go out and do it.”


A national tribute is already planned. Anti-abortion groups are calling on protesters to stand outside schools with signs that depict abortion on Nov. 24 in 40 to 50 cities nationwide.

Some who plan to take part, like Chet Gallagher, a former Las Vegas police officer, have been answering such calls for decades; he first got involved in the ’80s, when every month seemed to bring a new “rescue,” another chance to lock arms with fellow Christians and block access to an abortion clinic.

Others have arrived at the cause after experiencing personal traumas — in the case of Deborah Anderson, an abusive childhood and then an unwanted pregnancy — while still more fell into it through personal connections.

Truth Truck
Photography by: Stephen McGee for The New York Times
Anti-abortion protesters near their van at a prayer vigil in Owosso, Michigan, in September.

Together, these street activists make up an assertive minority of a few thousand people within the larger anti-abortion movement. Neither the best financed nor largest element in the mix, they are nonetheless the only face of anti-abortion that many Americans see. Indeed, persistent provocation is their defining attribute: day after day on street corners from California to Massachusetts, they stand like town criers, calling to women walking into abortion clinics, or waving graphic signs as disturbing as they are impossible to ignore.

Their ranks are more infused with emotion — they would say commitment — than top-down discipline.

Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who has interviewed hundreds of abortion opponents, said street protesters rarely moved into other areas of the movement and tended to work alone or in smaller groups. Even in cases when they form large and influential organizations, it is sometimes difficult to get beyond the culture of passionate dispute.

Mourners at Jim Pouillon's Vigil Praying
Photography by: Stephen McGee for the New York Times
Mourners at a prayer vigil held in honor of Jim Pouillon
who was shot while protesting abortion in Owosso, Michigan.

To critics, like Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, these protesters look like bullies bent on harassment. Among those who share their views but not their tactics, street activists have been marginalized as attention hogs who prefer to attract outrage rather than inspiring compassion.

In the case of Mr. Pouillon, that outrage may have led to death. The police said the man charged in the killing, Harlan J. Drake, a local truck driver, was bothered by the signs Mr. Pouillon showed children as they came to school. The day he was shot, Mr. Pouillon was showing a mangled fetus, part of an almost daily effort to put abortion into the minds of his neighbors. “It’s all about the eyes,” he used to say to fellow demonstrators. “It’s all about the eyes.”

But as the personal stories of Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Brewer and Ms. Anderson suggest, the motivations of many protesters are more complicated. They see themselves as righteous curbside critics, prophets warning the world with what they describe as the horrific truth no one wants to see. They have endured insults, threats and even estrangement from their families because they have found what nearly every activist craves: conviction, camaraderie and conflict.


The Police Officer: From Civil Law to Biblical

Chet Gallagher did not plan to join the blockade at the abortion clinic in Atlanta when he traveled there 21 years ago. But when he saw the passion of so many Christians outside the clinic, he said, he could not resist: he ended up in jail for 11 days, with James Pouillon and 700 others.

Three months later, Operation Rescue, the umbrella anti-abortion group, arrived in Las Vegas, where Mr. Gallagher was a police officer. He refused to arrest protesters, and when his sergeant suspended him, he joined the “rescuers.”

“I learned something that changed my life,” Mr. Gallagher said. “It wasn’t civil disobedience; it was biblical obedience.”


Christian fervor nourishes anti-abortion activism like little else. Church groups nationwide regularly ask Mr. Gallagher to speak because he chose his spiritual beliefs over the law. Bible quotations appear on posters and on motor homes that have become traveling billboards, and in conversation they serve as evidentiary support, like statistics.

This is a particularly American brand of faith: confrontational and action oriented. The most cited verses come not from the Gospels detailing the life of Jesus Christ but from the Old Testament prophets. Mr. Gallagher said he was inspired by Jeremiah 7, where the Lord says Israel’s “people, animals, trees, and crops will be consumed by the unquenchable fire of my anger.”

Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, said she worried that the emphasis on judgment provides tacit approval for violence, like the recent killing of Dr. George R. Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas.


But Mr. Gallagher, 60, a white-bearded father of six, disagreed. He said Christianity must be emphasized because churches are the only institutions with the power to put abortion clinics out of business. Like Mr. Pouillon, who often protested outside congregations on Sunday mornings, Mr. Gallagher said far too many Christians nodded, but did not act.

“It really can end,” he said of abortion, “if all the Christians just went out there for seven days in a row to tell the truth peacefully.”

As for the more aggressive tactics he employs, like bringing protests to the neighborhoods where abortion doctors live, he said they were a product of faith, economics and politics.


Faith, because he said he believed abortion doctors deserve to be shamed; economics because that shame might motivate them to do other work; and politics because the era of rescues ended in 1994, after President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

The law made it a felony to use “force, threat of force or physical obstruction” to prevent someone from providing or receiving reproductive health services. “That required us to use some other strategies,” said Mr. Gallagher, who left the police force shortly after and is now director of operations for Operation Save America in Las Vegas.

Among other things, the clinic law led to the proliferation of large anti-abortion signs with graphic pictures of mutilated fetuses. Mr. Gallagher said he believed that everyone, including children, should see them. “I know I offend a lot of people,” he said. “But I’ve talked to mothers who said, ‘Because you were there with those signs I decided to have that baby.’ “


Even in protesters’ families, not everyone agrees with the approach. Mr. Gallagher said his wife divorced him in 1989 after revealing she had three abortions before they met. They remarried in 1991, but Mr. Gallagher said some of their six children had gone years without speaking to him.

“We know this is a real war and we have to fight it,” he said. “Some of our families suffered as a result. I wish I could say it was different but it’s not.”


The Survivor: An Early Gusto for a Fight

Deborah Anderson, 62, a professional test-driver for Ford with the style of a no- nonsense grandmother, introduced herself as “someone who should have been dead.”

“I’m an unwanted child,” she said, standing at a vigil for James Pouillon with an anti-abortion poster peeling from overuse. “My mother couldn’t find a back-alley abortionist, so she gave me up for adoption.”

She was 18 months old. Her sister was 4, and their adoptive mother, Ms. Anderson and her sister said in interviews, turned out to be abusive.


Childhood in their suburb of Detroit was defined by broken bones beneath frilly dresses, she said. The girls ran away when they could, but when friends or the local priest visited, Ms. Anderson said, their mother chained them to poles in the basement.

“I learned to bite and kick and scream,” she said.

That gusto for the fight is a highly valued trait in protester circles. Mr. Pouillon earned kudos for standing with anti-abortion signs even while attached to an oxygen tank. Ms. Anderson also told stories of long, cold protests, insults and jail (after being arrested at Notre Dame in May when President Obama spoke).


Her son, Jason Anderson, 35, an automobile engineer, said that as a teenager, he learned to take pride in his mother’s passion when he saw her enduring abuse for holding a graphic sign. “She’s really trying to open up people’s minds to the horrific nature of this,” he said.

The most repeated anecdotes involve abortions averted. Ms. Anderson recalled what she said was her first triumph. It was the early ’80s. After becoming pregnant with a boyfriend while separated from her husband — and deciding to have the baby despite friends’ advice to abort, she said — she was a single mother with a bumper sticker on her Chrysler Fifth Avenue that said “the heart beats at 24 days for an unborn child.”

One day in a parking lot near her home, Ms. Anderson said, a woman came up to her and said she had been on her way to get an abortion when she saw that simple statement and changed her mind. “There was a 2-year-old in the back seat,” Ms. Anderson said.


At her home in Memphis, Mich., other examples followed: of two girls from Ohio who left an abortion clinic and, she said, told Ms. Anderson that her presence had persuaded them had not gone through with it; of a young man who knocked on her door in the dead of night, after seeing anti-abortion signs in her window.

Then Ms. Anderson pulled out a black cassette recorder. Sitting on a red couch a few feet from two abortion posters, she replayed what she said was a voicemail message from several years ago. An older woman, sounding unsure and emotional, said she wanted to thank her because “you was at the clinic, and really helped my daughter.”

Ms. Anderson smiled. “I can’t tell you how many babies have been saved because of abortion protesters outside the abortion mills,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”


The Friend: Drawn to the Cause

Within months of becoming a born-again Christian, Dan Brewer says, he knew he had to make things right. When he saw James Pouillon on a corner in Owosso one day, he stopped his car, walked over and asked forgiveness for having accosted him.

“I put my head on his shoulder and cried,” he said.

It was the beginning of what would become an alliance. Ziad Munson interviewed abortion opponents for a book, “The Making of Pro-Life Activists,” and said most people entered the movement through social connections and only later developed an ideological commitment.


Mr. Brewer exemplifies the process. He did not have much passion for the cause early on, he said, but the resistance and support he experienced alongside Mr. Pouillon led him to more research and activism.

He said there was something rebellious, something American, about standing up against abortion. In the past, he had occasionally held signs with bible verses emphasizing love, but they did not lead to as many conversations.

Or conflicts — like the time a man drove up on the sidewalk, running over Mr. Brewer’s sign and forcing him to jump out of the way, he said.


“I don’t want to say the conflict is fun, because it isn’t,” said Mr. Brewer, 40, an easygoing state pool champion with an earring high in his left ear. “But the interaction is fun, to be able to talk to people who take the time to listen to what you have to say.”

A layoff last year from his job at a boat factory pushed him further. He joined Mr. Pouillon about three times a week, he said, partly for the camaraderie and partly — like other anti-abortion protesters — because he had come to see attention and opposition as proof of impact.

He just never thought it could turn deadly. Nor did his son Cameron.


Now 16, the second oldest of Mr. Brewer’s five children, including a foster child, Cameron was at school when the shooting happened at a nearby corner. He ran there, fearing for his father, instead finding a bloodied friend. “I got down next to him,” Cameron said. “I counted four bullet holes.”

The Brewers said they did not expect more violence. And like hundreds of others, they said they planned to keep Mr. Pouillon’s efforts alive. Mr. Brewer may not be there as often, because he is taking nursing classes, but Cameron said he was eager to fill the void.

“I thought it was cool that he did what he did,” he said. “Now that he’s dead, it makes you want to do it more.”

A version of this article appeared in print on
October 10, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition
Behind the Scenes (Oct. 9 Article)
The Coup (Intro)

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