The Bridgehead: History of the Rescue Movement Parts 1-4

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(First published May 23, 2015)

These are interviews that Jonathon Van Maren conducted with veterans of the Rescue Movement of the 1980s and 90s.

You might know him as the Communications Director for the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform. He hosts Bridgehead radio, a local radio program.

I know this is a lot of audio to post-- over two hours' worth-- but pro-lifers really need to learn their history.


In the 1980s, Randall Terry popularized the phrase "if abortion is murder, act like it!" The idea behind Rescue was to put bodies between the mothers and the abortionists. There was a fervour, and many people wanted to sacrifice and do something to stop the slaughter, something with tangible and immediate results. So they would kneel in front of abortion clinics, and sometimes that would shut down clinics for the day.

This went on for a period of about 1988-1994. The reason this movement petered out was that the cost of these criminal sanctions became too high, and the constant cycle of being arrested led to burn-out.

Bill Clinton signed the FACE act, which imposed stiff penalties on people who blocked abortion clinics, and in BC there was an injunction that led to heavy civil penalties. People's homes could be sold to pay for court costs. The pro-lifers who engaged in these actions tended to be family people who could not afford the penalties. One interviewee noted that left-wingers often don't have families, so they can pay the price of civil disobedience. There was also a sense in the interview with John Hof that pro-lifers paid a heavier price than other activists who broke the law.

Another important reason that was cited as to why the Rescue movement fizzled is that many activists had great expectations of Rescue. The expectation was that if they just blocked the clinics, they could end abortion. When that expectation was not fulfilled, some became disillusioned.

It came up in one of the interviews is that there's a lot of superficial pro-life activism going on, such as going to pro-life dances, as opposed to "hard-core" activism such as showing images of victims in the street. It was suggested that while it's great to get people's foot in the door, superficial activism wasn't going to cut it.

I am of the opinion that the pro-life movement can't rely on any one tactic. We need everything and everyone. We also need a culture. We need those pro-life dances. We need hokey little days like cupcakes for life. No, it doesn't show what abortion really, is, but sometimes people need to be reached through a means other than graphic images, and the soft sell does the job. What we lack in Canada is diversity, complexity and sophistication. If one group wants to do hashtag activism, sure why not. It doesn't preclude the need for people to see victim imagery. It's all good, it's all needed.

The interviewer asked his guests why they thought the Rescue movement fizzled. The first person perspective is very interesting, but I think the end of the movement needs to be contextualized. By the mid nineties, there was a certain fed-up-ness with the abortion debate (I'm proceeding from memory). It was a caustic, heated, no-win sort of debate, that, in the minds of the people, never led anywhere, so the general public just wanted to drop it. I think this exhaustion from the abortion debate led to the discrediting of the Rescue movements. Rescuers were framed as extremist whackjobs in the media, and some of the footage of those rescues was not exactly edifying. There was mention in the interviews of church groups not wanting to be associated with Rescue. Rescue, and anti-abortion terrorists, were the public face of the pro-life movement, and many, even among sympathetic Christians, didn't want to be associated with it.

This is also another part of pro-life history. It's not a glorious part, but we all have to learn why things turned out the way they did, even if it paints us in a bad light. Otherwise we risk repeating the same mistakes.

One idea that I did agree with is that we underestimate the degree of commitment from pro-lifers and we don't ask them to sacrifice enough. I agree to a certain extent. I have often said that there will be no victory without matyrdom. If we never ask anyone to do anything hard, we won't win. It's really that basic.