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“One Can Sense a New Wave of Pro-life Activism Coming from College Campuses”: Anti-Abortion “Rescues” and Youth Activism in the 1990s Midwest

An anti-abortion activist smashes a pro-choice poster at a rally on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. An anti-abortion activist smashes a pro-choice poster at a rally on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The January 20, 1993 rally was in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison libraries and Kendra Johnson at the Daily Cardinal.

This piece is a response to our recent Call for Submissions on Roe v. Wade. For our submission guidelines, click here.

A decade after abortion was legalized in Roe v. Wade (1973), the anti-abortion movement was at a stalemate. Having failed to introduce a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the 1970s and disappointed by President Ronald Reagan’s lackluster efforts to outlaw abortion in the early 1980s, some members of the right-to-life cause sought more immediate ways to combat abortion. One alternative to the slower pace of political and legal strategies were anti-abortion “rescue missions”: protests that disrupted abortion clinics’ daily operations. These radical, direct-action tactics shaped the contours of the abortion debate from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, sparking tensions among both anti-abortion and pro-choice activists and draining abortion clinics of time, energy, and resources.

Among those inspired by the burgeoning rescue movement was Peter Heers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate and son of an Episcopalian priest, who founded Collegians Activated to Liberate Life (CALL) in January 1991. In agreement with other rescuers that the decades-old anti-abortion movement needed revitalizing, Heers capitalized on the vigor and enthusiasm of college students. Though not as large or influential as the infamous Operation Rescue (OR), CALL disrupted college towns across the Midwest by inspiring students to protest nearby abortion clinics throughout the 1990s. CALL effectively bridged the rescue and student movements by collaborating with youth groups and influential anti-abortion activists, including the American Life League’s Judie Brown and the Pro-Life Action League’s Joseph Scheidler. And although CALL’s activities waned by the end of the 1990s, its message to “get on the streets and take the activist route” to impede abortion access would inspire young people for years to come.[1]

CALL dabbled in different forms of anti-abortion organizing. These included scheduling fake appointments at abortion clinics to prevent others from using their services, establishing internship programs with the Christian Defense Coalition and the Joshua Project to encourage student engagement in national politics, and founding a maternity home for people facing crisis pregnancies in Bloomington, Indiana. Rescues remained CALL’s bread and butter, however. In protests from Nebraska to Ohio, CALL members locked themselves to railings, formed human chains, and refused to walk when escorted from clinic premises—a common tactic of noncooperation meant to mirror the helplessness of the unborn. Directly intervening to prevent pregnant people from accessing reproductive health services, rescues provided anti-abortion activists with an immediate sense of accomplishment, and their high drama piqued the interest of college students keen to channel their energy into a movement of historic importance.[2]

CALL was not simply an asset to the rescue movement because its members populated abortion clinic protests—Heers, for instance, was arrested dozens of times at OR events—but also because it appealed to a new rank of foot soldiers: college students. Right-to-life architects had come to understand the strategic importance of recruiting the next generation of anti-abortion activists. Speaking in 1992 in response to Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency, former OR member Reverend Patrick Mahoney lamented that “one of the failings of our movement has been that we’ve ignored collegians,” and was thus grateful to “join hands” with CALL.[3]

CALL emerged against a backdrop of increased efforts by anti-abortion activists to engage students in the right-to-life cause. From high school classrooms to college lecture halls, anti-abortion groups such as American Collegians for Life (now Students for Life) and Feminists for Life worked to increase their movement’s appeal throughout the 1990s. It was at Heers’s alma mater, UW-Madison, that CALL held its first “CALL Weekend” in October 1991. The event brought together 150 students from a dozen midwestern colleges, including public, private, religious, and secular institutions. Throughout the weekend, the students dabbled in direct action, campaigning outside the Wisconsin-Iowa football game, picketing a Lutheran church attended by a local abortion doctor, and planting wooden crosses in the center of campus, which were meant to represent fetal lives lost to abortion. CALL’s presence in this Wisconsin college town was not without contention—its members clashed with three hundred local pro-choice supporters, who allegedly threw condoms at them. Despite these tensions, CALL decided to host future “CALL Weekends” at other colleges.[4]

Following the Madison campaign, Heers, recognizing that the quick turnover of undergraduates often hampered student groups’ efforts, proposed that a core team postpone their studies to become full-time activists. Seven students heeded Heers’s call to action, pledging to delay their degrees for an academic year, live in communal housing, and travel across the Midwest to support other anti-abortion college groups.

“Activated by God” to join the anti-abortion movement, most of CALL’s team members were Catholic. As such, CALL’s efforts on Catholic campuses held special significance. In March 1993, CALL launched its first “Agape in Action Alternative Spring Break” project at the University of Notre Dame, asking students to skip sunny Florida in favor of picketing abortion clinics in South Bend, Indiana. University officials, in agreement that abortion was morally reprehensible, initially backed the project. However, they withdrew their support after CALL placed an advertisement in a Catholic newspaper alleging that Notre Dame had “abandoned its Catholic heritage” by allowing nearby abortion clinics to exist unchallenged and by awarding pro-choice senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan its Laetare Medal. The lack of university support forced the event off campus, resulting in fewer Notre Dame students participating. Celebrating the 130 people who did join the twelve-day event, CALL nonetheless proclaimed the project a success for having energized the local community and “saved” lives.[5]

One of the rescues that took place during the 1993 Alternative Spring Break was at South Bend’s Women’s Pavilion. During the rescue, debates concerning how to deal with CALL broke out between the local National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter and the more radical National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition of Detroit (NWROC). Whereas NWROC stood at the clinic entrance “taunting” CALL, St. Joseph Valley NOW’s Ellyn Stecker told the press she “wanted to separate” her group from such “confrontational tactics,” with NOW members instead working as clinic escorts.  Both styles of counter-protest, though, sometimes contributed to overcrowding outside abortion clinics and inadvertently blocked patient access. Referring to the large turnout of pro-choice activists at the Women’s Pavilion, CALL member Andrew Oberdorfer proclaimed “these people are doing the work for us.”[6]

Rescues not only divided pro-choice activists and put strain on clinics, but were also a point of contention among abortion foes because they often involved arrest or imprisonment and invited a slurry of negative press. Those not in the direct-action stream of the right-to-life movement, such as members of the National Right to Life Committee, were concerned that rescues would result in the anti-abortion movement falling out of favor with previously sympathetic policymakers and members of the public. Such fears were partly realized in the early 1990s when some anti-abortion activists carried out a series of violent, and oftentimes fatal, attacks on abortion clinics. Although most rescuers claimed to be nonviolent, modeling their activism on the civil disobedience campaigns of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., they often struggled to convince the public and lawmakers that violent extremists were working in isolation.

In response to such violence, the federal government passed the 1994 Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, making it a crime to physically prevent patients from accessing abortion clinics. CALL had already been struggling to justify its strategic focus on rescues, lamenting in 1993 that incremental legal crackdowns were limiting its ability to “maintain a staff exclusively devoted to direct action at the killing centers.” After 1994, CALL members therefore swapped their most disruptive tactics of chaining themselves to cement bricks, doors, and cars, for more “moderate” strategies, such as displaying visceral images of fetal tissue outside abortion clinics and on college campuses. But FACE neither spelled the demise of CALL nor stopped the violence of other rescuers, with attacks on abortion doctors and clinic personnel persisting into the twenty-first century. CALL continued to host “CALL Weekends” on midwestern campuses and even expanded to some southern colleges in 1997, which featured (toned-down) clinic protests. CALL also represented American collegiates at anti-abortion conferences in Dublin and Rome in the late 1990s, suggesting that it was limited, but ultimately undeterred, by FACE.[7]

At the intersection of conservative youth activism and extra-legal efforts to stop abortion, CALL effectively recruited students to the rescue movement. Although CALL became less active by the 2000s, its impact is clear in the work of organizations like Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, a youth group founded by former Operation Rescue leader Jeff White in 1998 that remains active. Walking a fine line between clinic trespassing and exercising the right to protest, Survivors is greatly influenced by CALL’s style of direct-action protest. In addition, CALL intern Bryan Kemp went on to found Rock for Life in the 1990s, a series of anti-abortion music concerts that played at the Warped Tour as recently as 2017. CALL thus set the stage for a new generation of anti-abortion activists who continue to deploy radical and creative tactics to this day.

Isobel Bloom is a Ph.D. history candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation is focusing on anti-abortion activism in the 1980s and 1990s United States.

For the “one can sense a new wave of pro-life activism” quotation, see “CALL Visits Midwestern Schools,” The Trumpet (Oct. 1997), p. 4, Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, Pamphlet collection, Wisconsin Historical Society Library, Madison.

[1] Kirsten Bowden and Risa Berg, “CALL Organizes Pro-life College Students,” The Badger Herald: The University of Wisconsin’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1969, Oct. 14, 1991, p. 1.

[2] CALL Action Packet (1997), 14, Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, Action packet, ca. 1997, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives; “Response to Clinton Inaugural Activities,” C-SPAN, Dec. 10, 1992; “Community-Based Activism to Restore Life,” The Trumpet (Feb. 1994), p. 2, Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, Pamphlet collection, Wisconsin Historical Society Library.

[3] Reverend Patrick Mahoney, “Response to Clinton Inaugural Activities,” C-SPAN, Dec. 10, 1992.

[4] Kirsten Bowden and Risa Berg, “CALL Organizes Pro-life College Students,” The Badger Herald: The University of Wisconsin’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1969, Oct. 14, 1991, p. 1; Pat Slattery, “College Pro-life Activists Stir Up Madison,” Our Sunday Visitor, Nov. 10, 1991, p. 4.

[5] The “activated by God” quotation is in CALL Action Packet (1997), p. 4, Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, Action packet, ca. 1997, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. Bob Olmstead, “Notre Dame Conference Gets Axed,” National Catholic Register, Feb. 28, 1993; “Notre Dame Rejects Gathering of Pro-life Students,” The Wanderer, March 4, 1993, pp. 1, 6; “Abortion Foes Protest, Pray at Notre Dame,” Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1993, p. 4; Chris Bowman and Kevin Boughal, “Malloy Meets with CALL Members,” South Bend Tribune, March 20, 1993, pp. A1–A2; “CALL Conference Inspires Pro-life Activism,” The Wanderer, April 22, 1993, pp. 1, 8.

[6] Ellyn Stecker quoted in Chris Bowman, “Protest Held at Home of Clinic Head,” South Bend Tribune, March 23, 1993, p. B2; Chris Bowman and Kathy Borlik, “150 Form Shield for Abortion Clinic,” South Bend Tribune, March 19, 1993, p. A1.

[7] “Summer Is No Time to Rest,” The Trumpet (September 1993), p. 5, Collegians Activated to Liberate Life, Pamphlet collection, Wisconsin Historical Society Library.

[8] On Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, see Robin Marty, “Meet the Farm Team of the Radical Anti-abortion Activist Movement,” Right Wing Watch, May 15, 2019. Laurie Goodstein, “Rockers Lead New Wave of Anti-abortion Fight,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 1998, p. A1; “Rock for Life Rebels against Culture of Death,” The Interim, Aug. 12, 1998.