The Circus Comes to Buffalo

Operation Rescue puts on a show in a slain abortion provider's hometown

If you didn't know better, you might think that the MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo was some sort of vaulted sports bar and Jesus a quarterback nearing the end zone. As the chants mount ("Je-sus! Je-sus! Je-sus!"), revelers spring from their seats, arms raised in excitement. Yet the large-screen TV by the altar shows not a ball game, but video images of fetuses. Meanwhile, photographers stumble over one another in the aisles to get the best shots of the ecstatic worshipers.

Such was the slightly surreal spirit as Operation Rescue's latest antiabortion extravaganza—and the press covering it—descended on this beleaguered western New York town last week. While Operation Save America—as the eight-day protest fest was called—churned ridiculously on, you could see a reporter interviewing a man dressed as the grim reaper. A prochoicer engaging in loud, circular debate with a prolifer—who was 10 years old. Or, inexplicably, a man dressed as Santa Claus, who occasionally flitted by protests, wearing a string of beer cans around his neck.

Six months ago, a sniper fired into the kitchen of Barnett Slepian, the only doctor in Buffalo's only abortion clinic. The murder once again brought the national spotlight to the antiabortion movement's small band of extremists. But even as news organizations followed Operation Rescue's national director, Flip Benham, as if he were a candidate for national office, the clearest message of this latest series of protests was that the group has spun further than ever from the mainstream.

In 1992, more than 1000 protesters showed for the Spring of Life, the first string of high-publicity demonstrations Operation Rescue staged in Buffalo, which Operation Save America is meant to commemorate. But this year, there were no more than 250 abortion opponents on hand, even though ringmasters Benham and Buffalo-based Bob Behn sent out some 60,000 invitations. And many figures central to earlier incarnations of Operation Rescue—including Buffalo agitators Paul Schenck and Karen Swallow Prior—have sat out this year's street theater festival.

Piddling and strange as the current crop of fringe-dwellers are, though, their connection to antiabortion terrorism—which they themselves have chosen to highlight by coming to Buffalo—cannot be ignored. James Charles Kopp, the fugitive wanted for questioning in the murder of Dr. Slepian, has been associated with Operation Rescue in the past, and it's not difficult to find Operation Save America participants who openly boast of being friends with Kopp. What's more, Behn announced the group's plans to come to Buffalo just eight days after the doctor's murder.

Operation Rescue insists its demonstrations were planned months before Slepian was killed, but the timing and location of this year's festival of zealots seems to offend most Buffalonians. "They came here to dance on his grave," says one churchgoer who described herself as "ambivalent" about the abortion issue.

Benham, who characterizes his movement as peaceful, puts it another way. Without disavowing the murder, he foists responsibility for the killing on the doctor himself. "The blood of Dr. Slepian is on the hands of Dr. Slepian," he told the press, most of whom wouldn't have been speaking to him had the doctor not been shot. "The same spirit of murder that allowed Bart Slepian to kill thousands of children here in Buffalo, New York, also took his life." Operation Rescuers also refuse accountability for the indecorous scheduling of their latest event. "God chose Buffalo," explains the Waco-based reverend, Rusty Thomas.

God presumably also told Operation Rescue to extend its campaign into every last sinful nook and cranny of our society. That means it denounces the public schools as Godless, both for not having prayer and for teaching sex education. It repeatedly condemns homosexuality. And it seems to oppose sex in general. "Jesus has come to free us from the bondage of sex," says Benham (meaning bondage in the figurative sense, one assumes). Contraception is also a no-no. "Birth control is the father of abortion," explains Steve Lefemme, an itinerant minister who says that he himself used to be a "fornicator" before he found God.

The diversification of Operation Rescue's activities may also have another explanation: With protesters now kept far from clinics, the group has been forced to find new venues to vent its rages. While Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin welcomed Operation Rescue into the city with open arms seven years ago, the current mayor, Anthony Masiello, has been clear about his commitment to protecting Slepian's former place of work, GYN Womenservices, which is also the city's only remaining abortion clinic. (In 1992, there were two clinics and two private offices providing abortions; now there is just one of each.) The 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act makes it a crime to interfere with access to such buildings. And a judge recently widened the standard 15-foot buffer zone outside Womenservices to 60 feet especially for the occasion.

That means that when "rescuers" go to the abortion clinic on this particular jaunt, they face a phalanx of no less than eight different types of law enforcement officers from the local police up through the feds, all of whom wear the nonexpression of Buckingham Palace guards. SWAT teams survey protesters from nearby rooftops. And FBI videographers record their every move as a helicopter flies overhead.

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