Why There Are Way More Pro-Life Protesters Than You Think

Why There Are Way More Pro-Life Protesters Than You Think by   for The Gospel Coalition

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.

Randy Alcorn (back row, second from right) at a 1989 rescue / Courtesy of Kathy Norquist

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.

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