06/20/2006 06:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Storming the Gates of Hell, From Louisiana to Mississippi

The abortion bans recently enacted in South Dakota and Louisiana seem to have taken a lot of people by surprise. A bill emerges suddenly from some statehouse packed with ornery right-wingers, some mediocre governor signs it, and progressives spend the morning after wondering what the hell happened, or simply dismiss the state as a distant redoubt of fundamentalism. Analysis of the long-term strategy that made it possible for such draconian bills to become law is hard to come by. And without an understanding of the origins and history of this kind of legislation, it is difficult to map out a way to stifle it. Meanwhile, more and more states seem poised to pass bans of their own.

As I wrote last year year for The Nation in my piece, "Good Cop, Bad Cop," anti-abortion forces planted their seeds in Louisiana in 1992 when the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue declared its intention to shut down Baton Rouge's lone abortion clinic. Announcing a "Summer of Purpose," Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry ushered hundreds of protesters to the gates of Baton Rouge's Delta Women's Clinic, where they taunted young women entering the clinic, imitating the voices of babies as they screamed, "Mom, don't murder me!" They eventually attempted to storm the clinic gates and shut it down by force. Their efforts were repelled only by a massive show of force by the Baton Rouge police and scores of clinic escorts who linked arms, forming a human chain to stop the protesters' advance.

Among the protesters was Tony Perkins, a young cop moonlighting as a reporter for Woody Vision, a right-wing local TV network run by Republican state senator Woody Jenkins. After being suspended by the Baton Rouge PD for his role in the Summer of Purpose -- while "reporting" on the protest for Woody Vision, he failed to warn his superiors on the police force of Operation Rescue's plan to storm the clinic -- Perkins promptly embarked on a political career. His golden boy looks and mild-mannered style made him the perfect stealth candidate. With Operation Rescue's newly minted activist network assisting his campaign, Perkins secured a seat in the Louisiana House.

Perkins distinguished himself in the statehouse by introducing a constant stream of bills imposing absurd builiding code restrictions on the Delta Women's Clinic. He even showed video on the House floor depicting allegedly unsanitary conditions in the clinic in an attempt to close the clinic on the basis of health code violations. Perkins' clever tactics inspired Republican legislators in Mississippi seeking to shut down their state's only abortion clinic. As the Frontline documentary, "The Last Abortion Clinic" showed, anti-abortion figures in Mississippi state government are trying to regulate the Jackson Women's Clinic to death.

Perkins is now president of America's largest and most influential Christian right lobbying firm/think tank, the Family Research Council. Though he is best known for organizing the heavily promoted "Justice Sunday" rallies for George W. Bush's judicial picks, Perkins wields enormous influence at the state level. Through an extensive network of pastors that Perkins briefs each week and through the Louisiana Family Forum, a state-level affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Perkins and his allies flexed their muscle to generate a symbolic ban on abortion in the Bayou.

The trajectory of Perkins' career demonstrates the long-term implications of the violent Summer of Purpose. The violent anti-abortion protests of the 1990's were more than mere outbursts of fundamentalist rage; they marked the deliberate execution of a strategy outlined in theologian Francis Schaeffer's bestselling 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto, in which Schaeffer urged Christians to employ anti-abortion civil disobedience as a means of challenging the legitimacy of secular government. Without Randall Terry's deployment of Schaeffer's strategy during the Summer of Purpose (Terry has openly acknowledged Schaeffer's influence on him), it is possible that neither Perkins' political ascendency or Louisiana's recent abortion ban would have been achieved.

Now, the anti-abortion movement's militant wing has turned its sights on Mississippi. From July 15-22, a group directed by Terry's longtime associate, Flip Benham, called Operation Save America will converge on the Jackson Women's Clinic to revive the violent glory of Operation Rescue. This is the language Benham uses to describe a campaign he has dubbed "The Gentle Revolution": "Join the church of Jesus Christ allows her wonderful theology to come out of churchhouse and become biography in the streets. We're going to storm the gates of Hell and we're going to pray that God pushes abortion into a grave... And then the laws of our land will reflect the battle that was won in the streets."

Benham's strategy (merely an extension of Schaeffer's strategy) is implicit in his rhetoric. While many of Save America's volunteers have been led to believe they could forcibly shut down Jackson Women's Clinic -- "the gates of Hell" -- Benham knows his best hope lies in fomenting a spectacle outrageous enough to spur sympathetic state lawmakers to go for broke. The law "won in the streets" would come in the form of a bill similar to that recently passed in Louisiana. If such a bill lands on Republican Gov. Haley Barbour's desk, which could happen as soon as next January, he will undoubtedly sign it.

Because abortion bans like Louisiana's are invariably the product of long-term grassroots campaigns, it is important to counter them with a proactive response. The Christian right has selected the Jackson Women's Clinic as the next battleground in its war on reproductive rights. Whether by volunteering as a clinic escort, supporting the clinic financially or drawing attention the inevitably violent and theologically contradictory tactics of the demonstrators who will gather outside it this July, pro-choice forces can not afford to cede an inch.

(This is cross-posted at Talk2Action, a group blog devoted entirely to discussion of the Christian right from a left perspective.)