NEARLY FOUR weeks ago, anti-abortion activists of Operation Rescue undertook a human blockade of three Wichita, Kan., clinics where abortions are performed.
The facilities also provide thousands of patients with the full range of gynecological procedures, including pregnancy testing, prenatal care and cancer screening. All these services are legal under state and federal law.
Members of Operation Rescue, however, deem abortion illicit under a "higher" law, whose precepts they attribute to God. As a result, they have blocked access to the Wichita clinics and physically assailed staff members and the women trying to enter. At times, demonstrators have even placed small children in front of patients' cars. While a recent poll found that such tactics are disapproved of by 78 percent of Sedgwick County residents, Operation Rescue has received rhetorical support from Wichita Mayor Bob Knight and Kansas Gov. Joan Finney. During the protest's early stages, Wichita police arrested demonstrators in a desultory fashion, then released them upon payment of a $25 fine.
Determined to jam a wedge into this revolving door, the clinics sought relief in federal court under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which forbids vigilante groups to obstruct others in the exercise of their lawful rights. U.S. District Judge Patrick F. Kelly granted an injunction against the blockade and ordered federal marshals to enforce it. He has since received so many death threats that he is under 24-hour guard.
"Don't worry about being excommunicated," an anonymous caller warned Kelly, a Roman Catholic. "You are dead."
Rather than backing Kelly, the Department of Justice filed an unusual friend of the court brief supporting Operation Rescue's appeal. The judge, it argues, exceeded his authority because the 1871 law was intended to protect only people of color and not women. Perhaps it merely is coincidental, but a few days later, Atty Gen. Dick Thornburgh resigned to seek election as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, where anti-abortion sentiment is strong.
Meanwhile, President Bush -- a former Planned Parenthood supporter whose moral opposition to abortion flowered along with the influence of the Republican Party's right wing -- has refused to say that the protesters ought to obey Kelly's lawful order. The president is "not judging this at all," he said.
Watching this dangerous drama unfold, I recalled a conversation I had not long ago with an old friend, who has campaigned for years to abolish the death penalty. "It happens," my friend said, "that I have a controversial issue -- capital punishment -- on which I am losing. But it is a relatively simple one compared to the abortion issue, which is morally and humanly genuinely complicated. If you and I really thought -- as I assume the people in Operation Rescue do -- that abortionists, in fact, were killing babies, what would we not do to stop them?
"And that is precisely the problem with the abortion issue. Let's say that at some future point the Supreme Court were to abolish the death penalty. There would be some quarreling over that, but it would die down relatively quickly and, essentially, the issue would be over. The problem with the abortion issue is that neither side can ever in good faith give in. There will never be acquiescence by both sides to any decision of any court. That's very distressing."
The notion that the controversy over abortion may be driving toward some sort of broad constitutional and social conflagration is not confined to the civil libertarian left. This week, for example, Cal Thomas, a former official of the Moral Majority, hailed events in Wichita as a battle in a "modern civil war." He also called Operation Rescue's leader, former car salesman Randall Terry, "a true hero."
There are problematic extremes at both ends of the abortion question. The rights to privacy and choice are no more absolute than those to freedom of speech and religion. However, the presumption that any decent society must make on their behalf can be overcome only with great difficulty.
By contrast, the anti-abortion movement's contradictions fester openly. For example, although the movement holds itself above this nation's laws, it has no such scruples about its politics. That is why it would forbid abortions and fine and imprison the doctors who perform them, while allowing the women involved to go free.
But if abortion is murder, why isn't the woman who procures one guilty of soliciting murder for hire? Why shouldn't she be exposed to the full penalties for conviction of that crime, including death? The answer is obvious -- and obviously political: If the anti-abortion movement were to advocate punishing women in that fashion, its next rally wouldn't fill a phone booth.
One of Operation Rescue's particular vanities is the constant comparison of its activities to those of the abolitionist and civil rights movements. But the analogies do not persuade. Slavery and legal segregation were evils whose consequences were plainly visible. Opposition to abortion turns on a moral assumption that can be attained only through faith -- the assumption concerning when life begins. That, of course, is why -- unlike the abolitionists and civil rights activists, who were of all colors and creeds -- Operation Rescue is a sectarian movement whose members are almost entirely white Roman Catholics or evangelical Christians.
If Operation Rescue has a historical antecedent, it is the overwhelmingly Protestant temperance movement, which goaded this country into the disaster of Prohibition.
In a pluralistic society, Operation Rescue's obviously sectarian character raises serious questions. Among them is what else the movement may intend. For example, its leaders -- like Randall Terry and the Catholic bishops -- oppose contraception on the same grounds as they do abortion. If they succeed in overturning Roe vs. Wade's conclusion that a woman's ability to choose an abortion is protected by her right to privacy, what will their next target be? Will it be Griswold vs. Conn., which held that a married couple's practice of contraception was a private and, therefore, protected decision?
Is that the direction of this modern civil war? If so, the battles to come will be grim indeed.
The writer is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.