Randy Alcorn was arrested seven times before he spent a night in jail.
“I was in a holding cell with a guy in for attempted murder, at least one gang member, auto theft, and a few guys who looked like psychopaths,” the pastor and author wrote in 1989.
Alcorn was in for two days, punishment for standing in front of abortion clinic doors. The civil disobedience strategy was borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr. and named “rescuing” by Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue in 1986. (Motto: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.”)
The evangelical pro-life movement was only a decade or two old, operating with an energy born of righteous anger. Most protesters stood in front of clinic doorways, though others laid in front of clinic employees’ cars as they arrived, and at least one man chained himself to a heavy metal garbage can. From 1977 to 1989, more than 24,000 pro-life protesters were arrested at abortion clinics.
The high number of arrests continued into the ’90s, then dropped off abruptly: In 1993, there were 1,236 arrests. In 1994, 217. In 1995, 54. By 2000, there were none.
“There were two serious obstacles that shut down sit-ins or diminished their effectiveness, and pushed protesters in a different direction,” Americans United for Life (AUL) attorney Clarke Forsythe told TGC. One was the media coverage, which “did not favor” the demonstrators. The other was the threat of legal prosecution, which culminated in the passage of the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Both were meant to chill the protest wing of the pro-life movement, and in some ways, seemed to succeed. The number of arsons (from 96 in the 1990s to 14 in the 2000s), invasions (117 to 25), and bombings (15 to 1) all dropped.
But the opposition also helped the pro-life movement adjust. Along with advocating for the baby, pro-life advocates leaned into helping the mother.
Over the past 30 years, Care Net and Heartbeat International and others have opened so many pregnancy centers that they outnumber abortion providers three to one. Organizations like AUL and National Right to Life have been working—often with increased focus on assisting women—to curtail abortion through state restrictions. And those who stand outside abortion clinics are more likely to pray quietly, allow women to pass, and be trained—at least a little—in how to counsel women wondering if they should continue an unplanned pregnancy.
“I don’t look back with regret at all or think I wouldn’t do it over,” said Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior, who was arrested five times for her early clinic protests. “Some things mitigate or make that different now, but still—it was the right thing to do. We were not only preventing abortions, but we were also raising consciousness about abortion.”
Her students still stand in front of abortion clinics. In fact, they have a lot more company than she did.
In 2015, the number of protesters reported by abortion clinics rose dramatically from where it had hovered since the mid-’90s (usually between 5,000 to 10,000 a year), to more than 20,000. The next year, it was more than 60,000. The next year, 78,000.
Last summer, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) said the number of protesters reported by abortion clinics exceeded 99,000 in 2018—the most, by far, ever seen in the United States.
So what happened? Why so many, and why now?
Waking Up the Conscience
Evangelicals were late to the pro-life protests, mainly to avoid the Catholics already there.
“I don’t think there would be a pro-life movement in America without the Catholic Church,” said Forsythe, an evangelical who joined AUL in 1985. Even before Roe v. Wade, the pope reaffirmed a ban on abortion, and Catholic bishops formed National Right to Life.
But Protestant suspicions of the church in Rome are Reformation-deep. “The mistrust between Catholics and Protestants has become almost as profound as that between the West and communism,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in Essays in Applied Christianity in 1959.
In the 1960s, the two began finding common ground in defending religion against secular socialism in Europe, aided by the friendliness of Pope John XXIII and the softening of Catholic language about Martin Luther (from “psychopath” to “tragic individual”).
Abortion, too, was an area both were worried about.
“This [Roe v. Wade] decision runs counter not merely to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people,” read an editorial in Christianity Today—later revealed to have been written by Harold O. J. Brown—in 1973. Soon after, L’Abri founder Francis Schaeffer argued against abortion in the book and film series How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (in 1976 and 1977), with Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), and in A Christian Manifesto (1981).
“Each era faces its own unique blend of problems,” Schaeffer and co-author C. Everett Koop wrote in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? “Our time is no exception. Those who regard individuals as expendable raw material—to be molded, exploited, and then discarded—do battle on many fronts with those who see each person as unique and special, worthwhile, and irreplaceable.”
Schaeffer’s work was enormously popular, and Protestant pastors across the country played his reel-to-reel filmstrips for their congregations. One of them was Alcorn, who’d co-planted Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon, in 1977.
Seeing Schaeffer and Koop “together talking about the humanity of the unborn and a culture’s responsibility to advocate for those who could not speak up for themselves just really hit me,” Alcorn told TGC. “Seeing Schaeffer’s face and hearing his words for the unborn—that flipped a switch in my mind.”
Good Shepherd began supporting a local crisis-pregnancy center—the first in Portland—and Alcorn joined their board. He and his wife, Nanci, took a pregnant teenager into their home, helping her through the pregnancy and the decision to give the child up for adoption.
Meanwhile, the national pro-life movement was beginning to coalesce. Some of the push was political—abortion was one of the four foundational issues of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority—and some was technological advancement. As ultrasounds grew more sophisticated and commonplace throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the “clump of cells” looked more and more human. The 1984 documentary The Silent Scream, which showed and narrated an abortion, “helped shift the public focus from the horror stories of women who had suffered back-alley abortions to the horror movie of a fetus undergoing one,” Time magazine observed.
“Ultrasound and intrauterine photography have opened a window on the womb that will be Exhibit A at the judgment seat of God,” wrote John Piper, who showed the film at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1989. “There is no more excuse. ‘If you say, behold we did not know this, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?’ (Prov. 24:12).”
Prior watched The Silent Scream during a Sunday evening service at her small independent Bible church in New York.
“I remember being completely amazed,” she said. “I didn’t know what abortion was or what they did to the baby or the women’s body. My first thought was, Wow—I’d like to help women not have to make that choice. Who would want to do that?”
A lot of Christians were wondering the same thing.
Rescuing the Unborn
In 1986, Randall Terry started Operation Rescue, which organized large groups of protesters to physically block access to abortion centers. Local protesters picked up on the “rescuing” language.
“We would get up early, pile into buses, and sit in front of an abortion clinic so that nobody could get in or open the door without stepping on us,” Piper wrote. “Eventually, we’d be accused of trespassing, and they would tell us to leave. But we wouldn’t, because we believed that we were there trying to rescue children from being aborted. So the police would come haul us down, tell us not to do it anymore, and let us go. That happened maybe half a dozen times, and one of those times we were sentenced to a night or two in jail.”
From 1977 to 1989, police made more than 24,000 arrests in 385 blockades. The first time Prior was arrested, she went limp as instructed.
“The police carried us out,” she said. She and 80 others were loaded into a school bus, taken to the police station, and processed. It took all day and into the night.
“It was very dramatic,” Prior said. She had a whole wardrobe of cold-weather gear—handwarmers and boots—so she could keep protesting throughout the winter in Buffalo, New York. She ended up being arrested five times.
Alcorn’s first rescue was in January 1989. “I was certainly uneasy in terms of not knowing what to expect, and not wanting to ‘do it wrong,’” he said. He was there four hours before the police came.
“In theory, I was expecting to be arrested, but it was my first time and definitely was a paradigm shift to have police officers agitated with me,” he said. The cuffs were tight, hurting his wrists and stretching his shoulders backward. “Let’s just say nothing I was taught in Bible college and seminary prepared me for it.”
Of the nine protests Alcorn attended that year, he was arrested seven times.
“We’d have 50 people sitting in front of the door,” said Ron Norquist, who rescued alongside Alcorn after seeing Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? video. “We would not resist arrest, but we wouldn’t comply. The police would have to drag us away.”
He dreaded the protests, but he showed up every month anyway. He had to: “Before rescues, there was the idea of the humanity of the unborn,” he said. “The one thing the rescues did was solidify the fact—these are actual human beings being led to slaughter. Proverbs 24:11 says to rescue them.”
Norquist, who was an insurance agent, “didn’t really know what Jesus would do, because he didn’t have that situation. But I thought there was enough in Scripture that we should at least do something nonviolent with our own body, like you would if they were taking 2-year-olds in there.”
At the beginning, the arrests were just a slap on the wrist. Prior called them “annoying.”
But it didn’t take long for that to escalate.
They Looked Like ‘Lunatics’
The news coverage didn’t help the pro-life cause.
“400 Are Arrested in Atlanta Abortion Protests,” The New York Times reported in 1988. “Anti-Abortion Protesters Blockade Clinic in Va.,” The Washington Post said a few weeks later. “Huge Protest at Abortion Clinic Turns Violent,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1990.
“At least 242 people were arrested Saturday after militant abortion protesters descended on a Los Angeles women’s clinic during a violence-marred, seven-hour siege that capped a week of abortion rights protests in Southern California,” the Times said. “The demonstration, organized by the national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, failed to shut down the Mid-Wilshire clinic. As hundreds of abortion rights activists cheered them on, police cleared a path to the entrance and security guards escorted staff and patients inside.”
For many abortion protesters, the negativity of the media coverage came as a surprise. After all, the nonviolent protests were borrowed from the civil-rights movement, which the national news media supported.
“How the media broadcasted the civil-rights movement versus the abortion protests had a significant impact on how the public saw it,” Forsythe said. “They were generally positive about the civil rights sit-ins and disparaged the pro-life sit-ins.”
The bias was clear enough to be documented by the Los Angeles Times. “Two major media studies have shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights,” it reported. “Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably. . . . Commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2-to-1 on the op-ed pages.”
It was true that a few abortion opponents did turn violent—though rarely in conjunction with a public protest. Lone actors killed seven abortion providers or supporters in the 1990s. Clinics also reported 15 bombs, 96 cases of arson, and 100 acid attacks.
More often, though, participants didn’t even recognize the coverage of the events they attended. “The media portrayed us as screaming,” Norquist’s wife, Kathy, said. “Certainly that wasn’t what was happening.”
“They said we were pulling women’s hair,” Alcorn said. “That had never happened, and if it had, I would’ve told that person to leave and not to come back.”
What was happening? As Falwell and others threw their weight into politics, abortion was becoming a Republican rallying point. But newsrooms were heading in the opposite direction: In 1992, about 60 percent of staffers at prominent media organizations said they leaned left politically, compared with 33 percent in 1982–1983. Their stories followed; more than a third of journalists said media coverage helped Bill Clinton win the 1992 election, compared with 3 percent who said it helped George Bush.
“I was so naïve,” Prior said. She was working on her PhD in the left-leaning English department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “I thought, Yeah, people will disagree with me on abortion, but they’ll think it’s cool that I’m protesting—like in the ’60s.”
That wasn’t how it went. “I got invited to a couple of parties and told people about being pro-life. It was the most awkward thing. I just had no idea how hostile they were to the pro-life position.”
“The news was terrible,” said Mike Reid, who was executive director of Portland Pregnancy Resource Centers in the 1990s. “The [protesters] were portrayed to look like lunatics, and the news was so consistent with that portrayal. That created so much more ardent support for abortion. The protests definitely galvanized both sides.”
It didn’t take long for the law to weigh in.
At first, when protesters got arrested, they were charged with crimes such as trespassing and released after a few hours. (Piper used his time to try to change the mind of the prison nurse.)
Then things got a little trickier. In 1990, the Lovejoy Surgicenter in Portland sued 27 protesters—including Alcorn and Norquist. Eight were arrested and held until they promised not to return to the clinic. Several, including Norquist—who had a wife and three children—wouldn’t promise and spent several months in jail.
Over in Pennsylvania, Michael Schmiedicke did much the same thing. The 24-year-old was given a two- to four-year prison sentence after chaining himself to a vehicle parked in front of an abortion clinic—and then telling the judge he wouldn’t stop trying to disrupt abortions. When offered clemency if he’d keep away from clinics, he said he couldn’t and stayed in jail.
The opposition also helped the pro-life movement adjust. Along with advocating for the baby, pro-life advocates leaned into helping the mother.
Legal punishments grew harsher. In Pittsburgh, Mark Nelson was sentenced to a minimum of four to 12 months in prison, even though he was a first-time, nonviolent offender. In Houston, pro-life groups were ordered to pay more than $1 million to Planned Parenthood. And in Portland, a jury handed down the $8.2 million punitive punishment against Alcorn, Norquist, and 25 others.
Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, prohibiting protesters from actions such as blocking entrances, trespassing on facility property, or stopping cars from entering the parking lot. First-time convictions of nonviolent protesters could be up to $10,000 and six months in prison. A second conviction could cost $25,000 and 18 months in a cell.
With the twin weights of negative media coverage and heavier court punishments, the pro-life rescues began to slow. But the movement did not.
Maturing of the Movement
Two years after Harold O. J. Brown penned his Christianity Today editorial lamenting Roe v. Wade, he founded the Christian Action Council, which would open its first pregnancy center in 1980 and change its name to Care Net in 1995. Today, more than 1,100 affiliates offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, supplies such as diapers and bottles, and abortion recovery groups. Heartbeat International, founded in 1971, has more than 2,700 affiliated pregnancy centers around the world serving 1.5 million clients a year. (At last count, there were 808 abortion clinics in the United States.)
The growth is evidence of both natural development and also an attempt to correct a perception problem.
“Back then it seemed like a woman was made almost an enemy by considering going to an abortion clinic,” said Reid, who served as president of Care Net before becoming executive director of Hope Pregnancy Clinic.
It wasn’t the message the rescuers were trying to send. “A very large number of us, including myself, started pro-life work out of our concern for the mothers every bit as much as the babies,” Alcorn said. “We never for a moment ceased to help women.”
Over time, Reid has seen organizations such as National Right to Life use softer language, and clinic campaigns such as 40 Days for Life require training for leaders and a signed peace statement from participants. “Today the motivation to save the life of a baby is much more understanding that the woman is a victim too,” he said.
“We are prayerful, peaceful, and lawful,” 40 Days for Life attorney and board chair Matt Britton said. “We’ve never had an arrest or an act of violence perpetrated by us.”
The organization was started in 2004 to protest the Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, with a vigil of prayer and fasting during Lent. They kept going for nine years, praying outside the building every hour it was open, until it closed down in 2013.
“It was just a local initiative,” Britton said. “Over the years, thousands of people were out there praying. And people in other cities said, ‘How are you doing that?’”
By 2010, 40 Days for Life was helping churches train volunteers to fast and pray outside clinics in about 300 vigils around the world. By 2015, more than 500 churches were signed up. By 2019, more than 800. About two-thirds of the vigils took place in the United States.
If you’re a numbers person, perhaps you’re already doing the math. Over the past five years, just through 40 Days of Life, the pro-life presence outside abortion clinics has ratcheted up dramatically.
In the 2000s, the number of protesters reported by abortion clinics hovered around 10,000 a year. In the early 2010s, that number dropped to about 5,000 a year.
And then, in 2015, the number spiked to almost 22,000. The jump was huge, but easy to explain. From July to September, nine secret videos of Planned Parenthood executives selling unborn-baby body parts were released. Thousands, including John Piper, showed up outside clinics to protest.
In fact, pro-life organizers reported 65,000 on one August weekend alone—nearly triple the NAF’s number for the entire year.
But even though no videos were released the next year, the number of protesters continued to climb. In 2016, the NAF count nearly tripled to more than 61,000. The next year, there were more than 78,000. In 2018, more than 99,000.
If anything, these numbers are low. At the 40 Days for Life vigils alone, Britton said, “there are hundreds of thousands of participants each year.”
There are lots of reasons for the rapid growth. One is Abby Johnson, whose story was told in Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line. The book was followed by a movie, which grossed $19 million in domestic sales in 2019. “This fall, we got 30 percent more campaigns than we’ve ever had before,” Britton said.
Another reason is the momentum created by social media, he said.
“FIRST BABY SAVED!!” tweeted 40 Days for Life on September 26, the first day of the fall vigil. A few days later, “Less than a week into the vigil, we already know of 26 babies saved!” At Pro-Life Action Ministries, “Baby Saved on Christmas Eve brings our total 2019 Babies Saved to 77!”
“We’ve seen 200 abortion workers quit during a 40 Days for Life Campaign,” Britton said. And more than 100 abortion centers closed. And 16,000 lives saved. That news—celebrated faster and more broadly than ever before—encourages and emboldens others to show up.
Pro-life success is building on itself. But there’s another major factor dumping fuel on this fire.
“Anti-choice individuals and groups have been emboldened by the rhetoric of President Trump, Vice President Pence, and other elected officials,” NAF interim president and CEO Katherine Ragsdale said in a press release. “We are seeing this play out in more instances of activities meant to intimidate abortion providers and disrupt patient services.”
Rolling to Racing
After failing to overturn Roe v. Wade in 1992, pro-lifers took to the states. From 2011 to 2017, 32 states passed 394 new abortion restrictions, and the number of state legislatures with pro-life majorities grew from about six to about 25, Forsythe said.
Where state legislatures were chipping away, Trump came in with a chainsaw. His first Monday in the White House, he revoked U.S. support for any organizations operating in foreign countries that perform or advocate for abortions.
He followed it up by nominating two conservative Supreme Court justices (and another 157 lower court judges), signing a law to allow states to defund Planned Parenthood (15 states have taken advantage of it), and creating an office to help medical professionals who don’t want to participate in abortions. He was the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the March for Life, appointed Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest to the Department of Health and Human Services, and told the United Nations General Assembly that “every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God.”
We’ve seen 200 abortion workers quit during a 40 Days for Life Campaign.
As a result, pro-life momentum has moved past rolling to racing. Last year, states passed at least 58 additional restrictions. The New York Times is publishing articles called “How the Divided Left Is Losing the Battle on Abortion” and “‘This Is a Wave’: Inside the Network of Anti-Abortion Activists Winning Across the Country.” And abortion clinics are reporting unprecedented numbers of protesters.
“This is a wave that is rolling across our country in the pro-life states,” Susan B. Anthony List state policy director Sue Swayze Liebel told The New York Times. “Everybody just put the pedal down, let’s all go, everybody rushing to the finish line.”
It’s hard to say what’s working—the pro-life legislation, the presence of protesters, the availability of pregnancy centers, the improving ultrasound technology, the destigmatizing of single motherhood, or increased access to birth control—but something is. In 2017, abortions dropped to the lowest rate since Roe v. Wade.
“That blows my mind every single time I think of it,” Americans United for Life president Catherine Glenn Foster said. “We are making incredible progress.”
It would be unfair to say the early rescuers invented the pro-life movement. But they were a significant way American Christians sorted out their views on abortion, said Andy Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, lots of evangelicals didn’t have clear views on this. It was a transition, and part of that was, ‘How do we protest this? How do we oppose it?’”
“I think God used it,” Reid said.
Piper’s willingness to go to jail over abortion meant “I had to reconsider all my priorities at that point, and I haven’t been the same since,” Boyce College theology professor Denny Burk wrote. “I was astonished that this man that I admired so much thought enough of the issue to get his own skin in the game.”
Everyone has a story of a mind changed or a baby saved by the rescues. But God even used the punishments.
While in jail, Norquist started a Bible study; he’s still friends with one of the men he met inside. Schmiedicke worked with fellow inmates in the prison chapel.
After losing the lawsuit, Alcorn’s wages were set to be garnished until he could pay back his share of the $8.2 million judgment. So he resigned from his church, started Eternal Perspective Ministries, and restricted his pay to minimum wage. (Legally, only income more than minimum wage can be taken to pay legal obligations). Since he’s a prolific writer, with more than 50 titles, that meant millions in book royalties were given to ministries such as orphan care, disaster relief, and Bible translation.
“He supported every pro-life thing that was working,” said Reid, whose pregnancy center received substantial gifts from Alcorn. Last summer, Alcorn announced that he’s now given away more than $8.2 million—more than the entire original judgment against the group of Portland rescuers.
“God is sovereign over all the apparent uncertainties and negative twists in your life and mine,” Alcorn wrote. “He is never taken by surprise, never perplexed, never faced with circumstances out of his control. In this situation, God’s hands weren’t tied by the vengeance of child-killers. He didn’t merely ‘make the best of a bad situation.’ He took a bad situation and used it for his highest good.”