Operation Rescue

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Operation Rescue

ALTERNATE NAME: Operation Save America

LEADERS: Randall Terry; Philip (Flip) Benham




Operation Rescue was among the best known and most aggressive anti-abortion groups in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. The group's members were frequently arrested for protesting outside women's clinics and were suspected of inciting violence against the doctors who worked there. Following a series of lawsuits and new legislation restricting their tactics, the organization became less visible during the 1990s. The original group exists today in the form of several autonomous offshoots, which continue to fight against abortion using a variety of tactics.


Operation Rescue was one of a series of groups formed during the 1970s and 1980s for the purpose of ending abortion in the United States. In the years following the 1972 Supreme Court decision (now known simply as Roe vs. Wade), abortion quickly became one of the most emotionally charged and highly polarized issues on the American political landscape. Both supporters and opponents of abortion rights lobbied vigorously, often heatedly, for their respective positions. Supporters of abortion rights cited individual freedoms, arguing that the Constitution provides an implicit right to individual privacy, which precludes the government from interfering in an individual's reproductive choices. They also took the position that an unborn child is not yet a human being and hence is not afforded the protection of constitutional rights. Finally, supporters of abortion rights claimed that legalized abortion is a more equitable arrangement, since it guarantees this right to poor women who might not otherwise have access to it.

Opponents of abortion rights based their position primarily on ethical and moral grounds. In broad terms, abortion opponents cited a belief in the sanctity of all human life, arguing that human life is inherently valuable. They also took the position that human life begins at the moment of conception, making a developing child as fully human as its mother. Further, they saw abortion as a cheapening of human worth, potentially leading to practices such as euthanasia and assisted suicide, which they opposed on similar grounds.

In the years following the court ruling, abortion opponents employed a variety of tactics. In addition to educational campaigns, political efforts were also launched, leading to the passage of state laws tightening limitations on abortions. The pro-life, or right-to-life, movement actually originated in the 1960s and simply gained strength following Roe vs. Wade. To many within this movement, abortion was not a simple, amoral medical procedure, but rather the willful destruction of a human life, or murder. For this reason, the steady increase in the number of abortions during the 1970s created frustration and anger within this camp. While many tactics were used in the fight, nonviolence remained the norm during the 1970s.

Around 1980, a young activist named Randall Terry, along with his wife Cindy, joined the anti-abortion movement. Terry publicly proclaimed himself to be a Christian in 1976, and he and Cindy soon joined a local anti-abortion group. This group, like most others at the time, focused most of its efforts on the facilities where abortions were being performed, as well as the women who went there for services.

In a typical action, group members would gather near a clinic before it opened. As employees arrive, the protesters harass them, calling them names and urging them to leave their jobs. After the employees were inside, attention turned to women who were arriving for abortions and other medical treatment. Group members typically tried to convince women not to enter the clinic; in some cases, they displayed large photos of fetuses or physically tried to block the clinic entrance. In general, the intent was to make the trip to the clinic so intimidating that potential clients would leave, rather than carrying out the planned abortion.

Despite these and other efforts, abortion numbers continued to climb. In 1972, the first year of legalized abortion, 585,000 procedures were performed in the United States. By 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control, that number had more than doubled to 1,297,000, and it continued to climb until its eventual peak in 1990. Activists within the antiabortion movement were well aware of these figures, and some concluded that the non-violent approach was failing to achieve its objectives.

In 1986, Randall Terry launched Operation Rescue, a nominally Christian organization committed to ending abortion in the United States. Operation Rescue would soon distinguish itself from most existing anti-abortion groups with its willingness to employ violence in pursuit of its objectives. While the majority of Christian groups oppose violence, anti-abortion violence is justified by some extremist groups as an attempt to prevent murder, much as a father might kill an intruder in his home in order to protect his family. This rationale of "rescuing" unborn children would form the basis of Operation Rescue's actions for the following decade.

Operation Rescue's first "rescue" was staged in 1986 at a Binghamton, New York, clinic. Randall Terry and seven followers barricaded themselves inside the clinic to protest the practice of abortion there. Following their arrest, they were jailed for several days. The group also continued its sidewalk work outside other clinics, though the tactics gradually became more extreme and threatening. Combined with numerous massive protests around the country, these "rescues" increased the group's influence within the anti-abortion movement.



Following a 1976 conversion experience, Randall Terry made plans to become a Pentecostal missionary. Instead, he and his wife Cindy remained in the United States, where they first became involved in anti-abortion efforts around 1980. In 1983, the Terrys began picketing a women's services clinic in Binghamton, New York. Their tactics were aggressive, but largely non-violent, including such acts as physically blocking the entrance, displaying photos of fetuses, and harassing clinic workers.

In 1986, Terry launched Operation Rescue, a militant group dedicated to ending abortion in America. Despite his first arrest that year, Terry continued his work with Operation Rescue, leading the group's first "rescue mission" in 1986 and numerous others in later years. In 1992, he was sentenced to a year in jail for violating a restraining order against approaching abortion clinics.

In 1995, the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed suit against Operation Rescue and Randall Terry under federal antiracketeering laws. Terry reached a settlement, but immediately filed for bankruptcy to avoid payment of the judgment. He later began fundraising efforts to secure a new home in Florida. In 1998, Terry ran for Congress but was soundly defeated. In 2003, the parents of brain-damaged Florida resident Terri Schiavo asked him to coordinate their fight to keep the woman alive. Following her eventual death in 2005, Terry conducted the family's private memorial service.


Like Randall Terry, Flip Benham turned to Christianity in 1976. Following his conversion, he returned to school and earned his Master of Divinity degree, founding and leading the Garland Free Methodist Church from 1980–1992. In 1988, he launched Operation Rescue Dallas/Fort Worth, and four years later, he left his pulpit to become the local group's full-time director.

In 1994, Benham assumed the position of National Director for Operation Rescue. In the years that followed, he traveled the country, protesting and being arrested in numerous cities; photos of several of his arrests decorated his office wall. As of 2005, Benham's group is devoid of assets, due largely to numerous lawsuits. Benham is supported by income from speaking and writing articles, and from personal donations.

As the public face of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry led protests and often served jail time with his followers (as of 2005, he claims to have been arrested forty times). As Operation Rescue expanded, Terry gradually stretched the group's objectives beyond ending abortion, eventually leading his followers to oppose homosexuals and others he perceived as anti-Christian. In 1993, he was quoted in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, News-Sentinel: "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good … Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty; we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."

Randall Terry left the Operation Rescue in 1994. His website claims that, during his tenure (1987–1994), the group's civil disobedience and rescues resulted in 70,000 arrests, more than ten times the number of arrests during the civil rights protests of 1958–1968. Many of the group's protests were now met by equally aggressive counter-protestors and workers trained to help women into clinics. President Clinton also signed the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, which imposed fines and jail terms for many of the tactics used by Operation Rescue and similar groups, severely limiting their options.

Following Terry's departure, the group's leadership was assumed by Philip "Flip" Benham, a former saloon owner turned Methodist pastor. Benham had been serving as head of Operation Rescue's Dallas chapter before taking over as director of the national organization. Benham inherited an organization facing major decisions. While the group had successfully used what they called "sidewalk counseling" throughout its history, the 1994 access law sharply limited this tactic. And whereas group members had previously been able to protest at clinics and risk only a small fine or a night in jail, the new law's penalties specified stiff penalties for violations, making protests far more costly for Operation Rescue members.

Organizationally, the group faced an identity crisis. Randall Terry and his associates had originally intended Operation Rescue to be a cause, rather than an organization. For this reason, the name Operation Rescue had never been copyrighted, and anti-abortion groups throughout the country had started to use it. While this practice lent credibility to the local organizations and raised the profile of the national group, it also meant that each was blamed for the actions of the other. In some cases, local leaders found themselves attempting to excuse offensive statements by national leaders, while in other cases, the national organization was forced to distance itself from extremist actions at the local level. While the abortion battle continued to rage, Flip Benham inherited a movement that appeared to be past its prime.

The year 1995 brought a public relations coup for Operation Rescue. While working in Dallas, Flip Benham met and became friends with Norma McCorvey, the young pregnant woman referred to as "Jane Roe" in the landmark Supreme Court case. Some time later, Benham baptized McCorvey, who later announced her new anti-abortion position. Throughout the following years, Operation Rescue continued a full slate of activities, including ongoing protests at abortion clinics. In 1998, Benham was indicted for trespassing and served six months in jail; he and several associates had allegedly refused to leave a Lynchburg, Virginia, high school where they were distributing anti-abortion literature.

Also in 1995, the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed suit to procure a nation-wide injunction against the Pro-Life Action League, Operation Rescue, and their leaders, including former leader Randall Terry. The suit was unusual because it attempted to prosecute abortion rights leaders under federal racketeering laws. These laws, which were originally passed to fight organized crime, allow the leaders of a criminal organization to be prosecuted for the actions of group members. NOW eventually won the case and the verdict was upheld on appeal. Terry reached an out-of-court settlement with NOW and filed for bankruptcy to protect his assets. The following year, Flip Benham formally changed the organization's name to Operation Save America; the national organization continues to use both the old and new names, while numerous local groups retain the Operation Rescue moniker.

In 2003, James E. Kopp, one of Randall Terry's most ardent followers, was charged with the 1998 killing of a Buffalo, New York, physician. In an unusual trial, the prosecution and defense jointly submitted a thirty-five-page list of agreed-on facts, including an admission of guilt by Kopp. Attorneys then argued the case briefly before the judge, with Kopp's counsel stating that Kopp only meant to injure the doctor in order to end his work. Kopp had hidden outside the doctor's home and shot him through a kitchen window.

Following the shooting, Kopp fled the country and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list before his apprehension in France in 2001. The judge in the case found Kopp guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to twenty-five years to life in prison, the maximum allowed.

In 2005, a highly publicized event reunited many of the players in the Operation Rescue saga. While the world looked on, a heated battle took place as relatives of Terri Schiavo, in a coma for years, battled over her future. Following a protracted legal process, Schiavo's husband was granted the right to end her life support, while her parents pressed for it to continue. In response, Operation Rescue West, headed by Troy Newman, promised to risk arrest in order to feed Mrs. Schiavo. Randall Terry, who had been working with Schiavo's parents on the case since 2003, also appeared in Florida to support the parents' efforts. Flip Benham was sentenced to ten days in a Florida jail when he and others tried to take water to Mrs. Schiavo; the judge in the case labeled Benham a habitual offender. Later that year, Randall Terry announced his plan to run for the Florida State Senate.


The philosophy behind the work of Operation Rescue and similar anti-abortion groups is based on several key principles. Abortion opponents believe that murder is morally indefensible and that the unjustified killing of another human being should be prohibited and punished by law.

Anti-abortion activists also believe that human life begins at the moment of conception, a perspective that makes a fertilized egg, an eight-month-old fetus, and a forty-five-year-old adult equally valuable and equally worthy of protection. For this reason, most anti-abortion groups believe that any abortion, regardless of the time or circumstance, is equivalent to murder. By extension, they also believe that the doctors and other personnel that perform the procedure are guilty of a criminal act.

As professed followers of Christianity, most anti-abortion activists believe that human law frequently conflicts with divine law, and in such cases, they are compelled to abide by divine teaching, even at the risk of criminal penalties. The nature of the response to this conflict is what sets Operation Rescue and other violent groups apart from more mainstream Christians. While a majority of Christians oppose abortion on demand, they differ widely in their enactment of this belief. Only a tiny fraction find moral justification for using violence against doctors and women who are involved in the practice of abortion.


Roe vs. Wade decision legalizes abortion in the United States; 585,000 procedures are performed during the first year.
Randall Terry launches Operation Rescue in Binghamton, New York. In the following decade, the group's activities lead to more than 70,000 arrests.
Randall Terry proclaims in a widely publicized speech that "hate is good."
President Clinton signs the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, increasing legal penalties for blocking clinic entrances.
Randall Terry leaves Operation Rescue; Flip Benham assumes the role of National Director.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) files federal racketeering charges against Operation Rescue and other antiabortion organizations, as well as Randall Terry. Terry settles with the group, which eventually wins the suit.
James E. Kopp, one of Terry's associates, murders a doctor. He is sentenced to twenty-five years to life. Kopp admits the shooting, but claims he only intended to injure the man.
Benham changes the group's name to Operation Save America. The original name, Operation Rescue, continues to be used by his and other groups.
Randall Terry, Operation Rescue, and Operation Save America converge on Florida to oppose the court decision removing Terri Schiavo from life support.

Operation Rescue was created, at least in part, in response to the perception that existing anti-abortion groups were not aggressive enough. In response, Operation Rescue employed a full gamut of techniques, ranging from local prayer vigils to massive rallies to political action. While numerous anti-abortion groups were active during the 1980s, Operation Rescue was the most successful in rallying large numbers of demonstrators.

From 1986–1991, Operation Rescue rose to the forefront of the movement. Its members, led by Randall Terry and others, staged sit-ins and blockades at hundreds of abortion clinics throughout the United States. During these events, members taunted workers, attempted to block entrances, and harassed women entering the clinics. In response to police orders to disperse, members often fell limp to the ground and had to be carried away one by one.

During the summer of 1988, Operation Rescue launched a series of anti-abortion protests in Atlanta. Calling the event the "Siege of Atlanta," group members converged on the city's abortion clinics, where Terry was arrested on the first day of the protest. More than 100 other group members were also arrested in Atlanta; many followed Terry's instructions in refusing to provide their real names to the police.

In 1989, the group organized a massive protest in Los Angeles. Naming the event a "Holy Week of Rescue," activists managed to shut down a local clinic for several days. Numerous protestors were arrested and attempted to base their court case on the "necessity defense," which states that human law can be broken when a higher good is involved. The judge in the case refused to allow the defense.

In 1991, the group organized a massive antiabortion event in Wichita, Kansas called "Summer of Mercy." Lasting more than six weeks, the campaign shut down local abortion clinics for the duration of the event. More than 2,700 protesters were arrested as a result, and the campaign culminated in a massive stadium rally with than 30,000 in attendance.

Operation Rescue's earliest efforts attracted support from mainstream Christian leaders. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, spoke at the concluding rally during the Summer of Mercy campaign. Well-known evangelist Jerry Falwell also threw his support behind the group, donating $10,000 and holding a press conference in support of the group and its tactics during a 1987 protest.

Operation Rescue, like most similar groups, was not openly violent, nor did it openly promote violence. However, the strident language and confrontational tactics endorsed by Terry and others clearly held the potential to encourage violence among the movement's more extreme members. In truth, many of the group's techniques, including physically blocking entrances, falling down in front of car doors to block them, and forcing police to carry their limp bodies away, were profoundly physical in nature. By painting the battle against abortion as a sort of holy war and personally leading them to protests and jail, Terry appears to have justified extreme measures in the minds of his followers. In 1992, Terry arranged for a dead fetus to be delivered to Bill Clinton, who was attending the Democratic National Convention as he prepared to accept the party's nomination for President. Terry was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five months in prison for the stunt.

One of Terry's more extreme followers was James E. Kopp. From the earliest days of Operation Rescue, Kopp was a close confidante of Terry's. In 1998, Kopp stalked a Buffalo, New York, abortion doctor to his home, shooting the man through a window as he stood in his kitchen. Kopp fled the country and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list. He was arrested in France and extradited to the United States, where he was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison.

The 1998 killing brought to an end a string of similar shootings dating back to 1994. Each of these attacks occurred in late October or early November, and all were carried out in northern New York state and Canada. In each case, an abortion provider was shot through a window or glass door at his home, prompting Canadian authorities to offer more than $300,000 in rewards. Kopp was not charged with the other attacks, despite the similarities.


Operation Rescue has enjoyed long-standing support from numerous religious organizations. However, some supporters have grown increasingly critical of Operation Rescue's tactics. The group claims that its display of graphic materials depicting abortion and pornography is essential to its mission. Critics assert the material is inappropriate for public viewing, especially among children and teens. Many anti-abortion supporters claim that Operation Rescue's increasing extremism has pushed the group out of the mainstream, non-violent anti-abortion movement.

One of Operation Rescue's key tactics, holding demonstrations in close proximity to health care facilities that provide abortion services, has come under repeated fire. Planned Parenthood claims that some anti-abortion protestors violate legal protest boundaries by harassing patients and trespassing on clinic property. In 2001, the National Organization of Women (NOW) successfully brought charges in the Court of Appeals against Operation Rescue under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The court found that Operation Rescue used extortion, violence, and intimidation to harass women seeking abortions and abortion providers.


Operation Rescue was in the vanguard of the early anti-abortion movement. Because of its willingness to employ tactics deemed too aggressive by other groups, it attracted a large following. The group's members were frequently arrested for their actions, which included marches at abortion clinics and staging public rallies. The group's tactics appear to have moderated somewhat following the departure of its founder. The group's heirs today remain active in the fight against abortion, though as a more fragmented, less visible movement.



Baird, Robert M., and Stuart E. Rosenbau, eds. The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice. Amhurst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.

Solinger, Rick (ed). Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950–2000. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Web sites

Abortion facts.com. "U.S. Statistics." 〈http://www.abortionfacts.com/statistics/us_stats_abortion.asp〉 (accessed Octo 16, 2005).

Media Matters for America.org. "Who is Randall Terry?" 〈http://mediamatters.org/items/200503220001〉 (accessed October 16, 2005).

Religious Tolerance.org. "How Christians View Non-Christian Religions." 〈http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_othe2.htm〉 (accessed October 16, 2005).