By Bethany Kohoutek
August 8, 2008
Twenty years after anti-abortion protests made history at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Colorado has become a battleground for reproductive rights, and the next generation of activists is targeting Denver to commemorate the occasion.
In the election year of 1988, Michael Dukakis was the Democrats’ nominee to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Dukakis’ chief message was economic: Reaganomics had left Middle America behind. But in Atlanta that summer, the Democratic National Convention had forced a different agenda for city officials: Hundreds of anti-abortion protestors had landed in the sweltering Southern city, and their plans for Atlanta extended beyond the convention. For the next six weeks, they repeatedly targeted abortion-providing clinics throughout the city, eventually resulting in more than 1,600 pro-lifers making their way through Georgia‘s court system. It was the maiden voyage of what would become the most well-known anti-abortion effort in U.S. history.
Two decades later, the Democratic National Convention comes to Denver at a significant moment in the battle over reproductive choices in Colorado, and anti-abortion protestors have used the twenty-year milestone as a clarion call to the pro-life faithful. Colorado has emerged as a battleground for the future of abortion rights, and both sides of the debate agree the stakes are high.
Amendment 48, a pro-life ballot initiative that is historic in its potential impact, will be presented to Colorado voters in November. Meanwhile, a new brand of anti-abortion street protesting has cropped up around Denver. Both efforts have drawn out-of-state attention and resources from national right-to-life groups, and both are spearheaded by believers under 30 years old. Believers like 21-year-old Kristi Burton.
Burton is the founder of Colorado for Equal Rights, the group behind Amendment 48, or the “personhood amendment,” as its supporters call it. She says God gave her the idea after she spoke with friends who regretted their abortions.
“Our intent is to lay the foundation to protect every person,” she says, “no matter how small.”
To Burton, “small” could mean microscopic. If approved by voters in November, Amendment 48 would alter Colorado‘s constitution to grant legal rights to a human embryo. This is the first time voters anywhere will be asked to define the point at which life, or personhood, begins. Pro-life groups in Montana working on an almost identical measure failed to get the signatures necessary to land it on the ballot there.
Burton‘s is a good face for a movement to have. Home-schooled in rural Peyton, Burton is pretty and petite, with sparkling eyes and blond hair that frames her face. When she talks to reporters, she’s animated; her hands and her whole body move to emphasize a point. This energy is no doubt a driving force behind the campaign that so far has the support of more than 500 Colorado churches and is $150,000 toward its fund-raising goal of $3 million.
“Garnering grassroots support for the amendment has been much easier than I expected,” Burton says. “So many people have seemed to come out of nowhere to work on this and support it because they have a passion to see every person protected.”
But the buildup around Amendment 48 has also exposed a major shift in philosophy among abortion foes.
“This is a change in Colorado anti-choice tactics, and it would represent a national change in priorities for the anti-choice movement,” says Crystal Clinkenbeard, spokeswoman for the No on Amendment 48 campaign, which encompasses more than 30 progressive organizations, including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights), and others.
Clinkenbeard calls Amendment 48 a concerted and coordinated departure from the “chip-away” approach favored by pro-life groups over the past two decades, designed to “chip away” at Roe v. Wade by passing laws requiring parental notification (which Colorado has), 24-hour waiting periods, and mandatory ultrasounds (which Colorado does not have). The majority of such bills have been defeated in their respective state legislatures.
Progressive groups fear Amendment 48 unveils a far more extreme face of anti-abortion ideology. By defining an embryo as a person with rights, Amendment 48 circumvents these incremental efforts. Opponents believe its passage will wreak legal havoc upon everything from emergency birth control for rape victims to in vitro fertilization.
“You could trigger government investigations anytime a woman has a miscarriage, because the state would have the right to find out what happened to that fertilized egg,” Clinkenbeard says.
She points to the fact that certain moderate pro-life groups have been hesitant thus far to support Amendment 48. The Colorado Catholic Conference, for example, has not endorsed it.
“Righteousness is rarely popular,” argues Leslie Hanks, the vice president of Colorado Right to Life and a 20-year veteran of the anti-abortion movement. The change in focus, she says, comes after years of failed strategy and ineffective legislation. A new guard of inspired young Christians, along with a renewed drive in the movement, has changed that.
Hanks counts Kristi Burton among her personal heroes and says pro-life efforts in Colorado are stronger now than ever.
“Getting the personhood amendment on the ballot was our highest priority this year,” she says.
Conversely, defeating it ranks high for opponents. And they don’t want to merely defeat it; they want to defeat it by a landslide. Because they know as well as Burton and Hanks that social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, have the power to deliver conservatives to the polls, especially during a presidential election year.
It wasn’t until after the 1988 Democratic National Convention that presidential nominee Michael Dukakis faced growing numbers of protesters heckling him about his stance on social issues.
Several days after he left Atlanta, a group of about 100 anti-abortion protesters interrupted Dukakis on his way to Sunday mass. They gathered outside the church, chanting: “Hey Mike, what do you say? How many babies killed today?”
At a January 2008 rally in New Hampshire, a small contingent of anti-abortion protesters interrupted current presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama during a speech. Again, they chanted. This time: “Abortion is an Obama-nation.”
For the DNC in Denver, protestors have announced plans to encircle the convention grounds in prayer and engage in other traditional forms of civil disobedience. For months, local pro-choice organizations and their counterparts at the national levels have been developing strategies for how best to mitigate the expected convention chaos.
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, in particular, has had practice. Colorado Right to Life and other religious groups regularly pray, chant, and picket as close to Planned Parenthood clinics as the law will allow (100 feet, according to Colorado statute). But during the recent construction of its brand-new health center and administrative headquarters in the Stapleton neighborhood of Denver, Planned Parenthood became the target of some of the most vehement and visible protests in Colorado to date.
A group called the Collaborators Project, led by 25-year-old Will Duffy of Lakewood, set up camp almost daily outside the chain-link-fenced construction site. But even that activity wasn’t considered out of the ordinary. It was the group’s extension of its consternation to those actually building the facility that seemed to write a new chapter in the pro-life playbook.
Duffy declared it his personal mission to make a “national example” of the Weitz Corporation, which was the lead contractor for the $6.3 million Stapleton center. His Collaborators Project spent weekends and holidays, including Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, and the Fourth of July, on the sidewalks and streets outside the homes of Weitz’s corporate executives. Collaborators Project volunteers toted bullhorns, video cameras, and graphic signs. A “truth truck” (borrowed from a national anti-abortion group) plastered with pictures of aborted fetuses and the words “Weitz Co. takes blood money to build abortion mills” patrolled the executives’ suburban neighborhoods. Duffy publicized the names, phone numbers and addresses of company officials via Web postings and YouTube videos.
Like Burton‘s personhood amendment, the Collaborators Project has proven extremely controversial, even among pro-lifers. In fact, it was Colorado Senate Republicans who introduced legislation to restrict protests at private residences, in direct response to Collaborators Project actions.
“Home protests are looked at very negatively, and of course they would be. Who wants to be protested at their home?” Duffy allows. “But you really need to go for the jugular when you’re trying to stop something as great as abortion in this country.”
Throughout the process, Planned Parenthood has maintained its long-standing policy of nonengagement with detractors, says Leslie Durgin, senior vice president for community development for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM). “Having said that, we were still surprised by some of the tactics, because every week it felt like it was something new and different,” she says. While residential protests are routine on the abortion-protest circuit, “it was much more intense here.”
Even before Will Duffy came onto the scene, the Stapleton building was designed with security cameras, an extra-long driveway, tall gates, and lush landscaping, amounting to “enormously increased privacy for clients, for doctors, for volunteers, and for staff,” Durgin says.
Both PPRM and Weitz hired extra security to keep workers safe during the construction process. And Weitz steadfastly refused to back out of the project, despite threats of satellite protests of its offices and even its other clients around the country.
“I have nothing but praise for Weitz,” Durgin says. “The targeted attempts at contractors and their neighbors’ homes to force them off the job failed totally.”
Although the PPRM headquarters opened in early July, ahead of schedule and below budget, Duffy still claims victory. He says new chapters of the Collaborators Project are springing up in other states, including Oregon, where anti-abortion pressure caused one contractor to pull out of a construction bid for Planned Parenthood in Portland.
“The motto I live by is do right and risk the consequences,” Duffy says. “And I think it’s very effective.”
Flip Benham has widely praised Will Duffy and the Collaborators Project. As early as January, Benham’s group, Operation Save America/Operation Rescue (OSA/OR), was making plans to include Weitz and its Denver-area clients in its protest plans for the 2008 DNC. Benham succeeded Randall Terry as OSA/OR’s national leader. It was Terry who christened and led the pro-life “siege of Atlanta” in 1988 under the banner of Operation Rescue. Terry left the organization in the late 1990s.
Benham was in Atlanta with other Christians in 1988, but he didn’t take part in the anti-choice protests. But it was a pivotal moment for him.
“I promised the Lord that if I could do anything I would,” he says.
Unlike the scattered low-key picketing Atlanta clinics had experienced in the past, that summer Operation Rescue showcased an entirely new level of zeal. And a willingness to break the law. By the hundreds, Operation Rescue crusaders, singing “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” physically blocked doors to clinics, forcing police to drag them away. They used heavy-duty padlocks to link themselves together and to the handrails outside the clinics. Some group members were spotted carrying an aborted fetus they claimed they had found, according to newspaper reports. Many who were arrested wore two sets of clothing, despite the intense heat, in an attempt to foil identification efforts by law enforcement.
Benham says OSA/OR is committed to peaceful demonstration during the 2008 DNC, but he does not rule out civil disobedience as an effective tool for the advancement of pro-life principles. He has been arrested dozens of times. He arrives in the Centennial State this summer a few short weeks after traveling to Atlanta with other anti-abortion protestors to commemorate the protests of 1988.
“Listen, God has given the platform to the state of Colorado…. God himself is orchestrating this, and he is raising up people that are far different, and they will not be controlled by anyone but the Lord himself.”
After Operation Rescue’s “siege” ended in the fall of 1988, police Sergeant Carl Pyrdum attended the trials of more than 300 anti-abortion protesters. Most had been charged with unlawful assembly, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, and providing false names, according to reports from the time.
“I had people sitting behind me in the courtroom doing everything from chanting to praying for Satan to destroy me or God to strike me,” he says. “Before the jury would come into the court, they would sit there and whisper it: ‘Sergeant Pyrdum, you are Satan’s instrument. You know God will avenge you.'”
Pyrdum describes himself and his boss, Major Kenneth Burnette, as “devout Christian men.” Although reporters asked them constantly, they never revealed their personal views on abortion.
“Neither he nor I were looking at this from anything other than the legal and constitutional perspective,” Pyrdum says.
A story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, dated August 19, 1988—a month into the Atlanta protests—hints at the emotional strain exacted by the activists. Burnette was monitoring an anti-abortion press conference on the steps of Atlanta City Hall. After repeated taunting from Randall Terry, Burnette turned to Terry and said, “I’m in charge of the police precinct where all of these demonstrations have taken place, and I must tell you that I have seen something less than the love that the Lord Jesus would be pleased with.”
Several years later, Pyrdum was summoned to Chicago, where he testified at a federal RICO trial that the National Organization for Women had brought against Randall Terry — a trial that preceded Terry’s fall from grace within the movement. Terry settled out of court with NOW in 1998, but was sentenced to five months in prison for attempting to send Bill Clinton an aborted fetus during the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Sgt. Pyrdum has since retired. Two decades later, one of the things he seems most proud of looking back at the summer of 1988 is that no Atlanta clinics were permanently shuttered, and closures due to protesting rarely lasted more than an hour.
Emilie Ailts, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, is disheartened that progressive groups will devote valuable time and resources this fall to fighting Amendment 48. And by the fact that clinics throughout the country are still being targeted by protesters insistent upon closing them down.
To Ailts, the real threats facing Colorado are larger than abortion; they’re critical issues like comprehensive health care, sex education, and access to birth control. That’s why you won’t see most mainstream pro-choice groups waging counter-protests or engaging in shouting matches during the DNC this year, she says.
“Our work is so much more important than that. Our work impacts women every single day of their lives.”
At 56 years old, Ailts has been involved in the women’s movement and the battle for reproductive rights most of her life.
“Here we are, 40 years later, fighting the same fight,” she says. “That is astounding to me.”
Bethany Kohoutek is a freelance writer for 5280.com