An anti-abortion group disguised itself earlier this year as a abortion-rights organization called "Project Choice" in order to survey doctors who perform abortions.
The survey, conducted in January and published in February, has infuriated abortion-rights advocates more for the deceptive way it was conducted than for the results it gathered.
The ruse is the work of Life Dynamics of Lewisville, Texas, the group's leader revealed this week.
"We are, in fact, Project Choice," said Life Dynamics president Mark Crutcher in a telephone interview. "Project Choice was created just for the purpose of doing this study. We knew the pro-aborts would not talk to a pro-life group. So we had to create this ruse in order to get the inside story."
Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers in Alexandria, Va., said the tactic was "really sick."
"It's sleazy," Mr. Fitzsimmons charged. "Who would even think of this? This is like stuff from a spy novel. It's going to make people feel like they've been violated. They just really get off on this cloak-and-dagger stuff. I'm sure they're enjoying themselves and yukking it up."
Mr. Crutcher claimed that 30 percent of the 961 doctors polled had mailed back responses. Some of the survey results, according to Mr. Crutcher:
* 69 percent of the abortion providers responding say they are not respected in the medical community.
L * 65 percent feel ostracized because they perform abortions.
* Nearly 60 percent say their prestige as a physician is damaged by being identified as an abortion provider.
* 38 percent express moral misgivings about the abortion procedure.
* 87 percent have been victims of anti-abortion harassment or violence.
Abortion-rights activists said they did not know what to make of the figures. Some said they were not necessarily disputing the survey results, but added that they had no way of knowing whether the numbers were accurate because Mr. Crutcher and other members of Life Dynamics were the only ones who had seen the responses.
"I'm sure people did send it in," said Barbara Radford, executive director of the National Abortion Federation in Washington.
Mr. Crutcher is proud of the work his group, based near Dallas, has done.
"We've infiltrated the pro-abortion side, and I can tell you that they admit that this is the first time anybody's done this. As a matter of fact, they're catching a lot of heat over it."
Mr. Crutcher said the survey contained 41 questions. The names and addresses of the doctors contacted were purchased from a professional mailing list company, he said, and represent every geographical region in the country.
Mr. Crutcher, who said he is also a political consultant, does not feel guilty.
"Not one little bit," he said. "I mean, we're talking about baby killers here. Let's be realistic.
"This is a war. Make no mistake about it. We can't come into this thing and expect to play by a bunch of rules that we think should exist; we've got to play by the rules that do exist. And the rules that do exist say that if these people knew we were pro-life, they wouldn't talk to us."
Mr. Fitzsimmons, of the abortion providers coalition, said he uncovered the deception after receiving a booklet from Life Dynamics and noticing that it was based in the same town as Project Choice.
He called Project Choice and told the woman who answered the phone that some of his members had concerns about her group.
"She had some great lines," he said. "She was a terrific actress. She made it sound like she was pro-choice. She had it all down perfectly."
Mr. Crutcher said he decided to let the secret out because the survey had served its purpose.
"And we thought this thing would have more credibility if we just came out and said, 'Yes this is what we did,' rather than being found out."
Mr. Fitzsimmons said he was meeting with a U.S. Justice Department official yesterday afternoon to discuss whether the deception constituted mail fraud. Attorney General Janet Reno has said that it is a top priority of the department to curtail activities that interfere with access to abortion.
"I'm sure this is something they can use," Mr. Fitzsimmons said.
A fraud inspector with the U.S. Postal Service, however, said the situation was not clear-cut.
"That would be a real gray area," said Adam Thomas of the U.S. Postal Service branch in Dallas. "This does not fit into anybody's criteria, because a question like this is so unusual."