LEADER: Donald Treshman
USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: United States
Rescue America, based in Baltimore, Maryland, was founded in the late 1980s by Don Treshman. The organization identifies itself as being antiabortion and willing to use violent tactics such as bombings, harassment, explicit imagery, intimidation of people entering abortion clinics, and assassinations of abortion providers and women's clinic workers in the group's work to make abortion illegal in the United States.
Rescue America, like Randall Terry's Operation Rescue, uses aggressive tactics during protests, in threatening abortion providers and in gaining media attention for their cause. Rescue America, like Operation Rescue, has been the plaintiff as well as the defendant in a number of court cases, including Madsen v. Women's Health Center, in which the Supreme Court upheld strict rules about "buffer zones" that protestors must not enter near abortion clinic entrances, and Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists, in which the Supreme Court found that the creation of abortion provider wanted posters and a web site called "The Nuremberg Files," with abortion providers' photos, home addresses, home phone numbers published on it, did not fall under protected free speech.
Openly advocating the murder of abortion providers, Rescue America is considered to be one of the most extreme and militant groups in the pro-life movement.
Between 1982 and 1996, more than $13 million in damage was caused by more than 150 incidents of bombings, arson, and shootings perpetrated by anti-abortion groups and individuals in the United States. In recent years, the terms anti-abortion and pro-life have taken on specific political meanings: pro-life activists are against abortion and use protests, letter-writing, legislative activism, and grassroots efforts to end legal abortion; anti-abortion activists use all of these tactics, but also condone—and at times promote—the use of violence and murder of abortion providers to accomplish the goal of making abortion illegal in the United States.
As violence at abortion and women's clinics began to rise in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of anti-abortion organizations issued what came to be known as the "defensive action statement." The statement was written just as the trial of Michael Griffin was beginning; Griffin was being tried for the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, a doctor who performed abortions. The statement reads:
We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We assert that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children. Therefore, he ought to be acquitted of the charges against him.
The document was signed by at least thirty-one individuals, including members from Life Enterprises, Advocates for Life Ministries, the American Coalition of Life Advocates, the founder of Life Advocate Magazine, and members of Rescue America. Michael Griffin himself was a Rescue America member. Don Treshman, the founder and leader of Rescue America, allegedly was responsible for organizing the protest in front of the abortion clinic on the day that Dr. Gunn was killed, and publicly helped to set up a trust fund for the murderer's family. Rescue America members had allegedly harassed Gunn and made death threats against him in the week preceding his death. In addition, wanted posters with Gunn's photo and home telephone number were handed out at anti-abortion gatherings.
On the issue of David Gunn's murder, Treshman stated that, "While Gunn's death is unfortunate, it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved."
In March 1993, Treshman went to London to give press interviews on the issue of abortion in the United States. Within a few days, the British government deported him, stating that his presence on British soil was "not conducive to the common good," and that he was being ejected from the country for his "previous involvement in actions leading to violence." Treshman left the country and was banned from entering the U.K. for five years. In August 1993, an immigration appeal tribunal noted that Treshman "avoided condemning [violence] in unequivocal terms, and what he said could lead those who supported his aims to conclude that violence was justified."
A second "defensive action statement" was issued in 1994 after Paul Hill, who signed the first statement, killed Dr. John Britton and his escort, James Herman, at a Pensacola, Florida, women's clinic. The second defensive action statement reiterated the first statement, offering support for what Rescue America called Hill's "justifiable homicide" of Britton and Herman.
In 1994, the case Madsen v. Women's Health Center found its way to the Supreme Court. The case originated in 1991 in the Florida courts. The lower court ordered that anti-abortion protestors could not picket or protest within thirty-six feet of any abortion clinic, make loud noises within earshot of the clinic, display images or use posters that could be seen from the clinic, approach suspected patients within a 300-foot diameter around the clinic, and protest within 300 feet of any clinic employee's home. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the injunction in full, and the defendants, Don Treshman among them, appealed the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In Madsen v. Women's Health Center, the Supreme Court upheld the thirty-six-foot "buffer zone" in front of the clinics' entrances, but permitted protestors to be within 300 feet of the clinic in non-entrance areas.
In the same year, a Texas court awarded $1.01 million in damages to a number of women's clinics named in the court case Operation Rescue-National a/k/a Operation Rescue, Rescue America, Dallas Rescue, Rev. Phillip L. "Flip" Benham, Bob Jewitt, Don Treshman, and Rev. Keith Tucci, Petitioners v. Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas, Inc., AAA Concerned Women's Center, Inc., Aaron's Family Planning Clinic of Houston, Inc., A-Z Women's Health Services, P.A., Downtown Women's Center a/k/a Downtown Women's Clinic, Et Al., Respondents. The court decided against Rescue America, Don Treshman, and co-defendant Keith Tucci of Operation Rescue, and Operation Rescue itself on charges of conspiracy to blockade abortion clinics.
In 1998, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the award of $1.01 million, but ruled that some of the clinics must modify their buffer zones and that two abortion counselors must be permitted to approach patients—unless the patients ask to be left alone.
Overall, Rescue America is not as well known as Operation Rescue outside of the pro-life/anti-abortion movement. However, its use of the court system to attempt to bring systemic change and its willingness to use violence to end legal abortion sets it apart from some of the more mainstream pro-life groups.
Leader Donald Treshman has also been linked to Human Life International, an extreme-right Catholic organization that calls itself pro-life.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
Rescue America, like Operation Rescue, uses highly confrontational tactics to promote its anti-abortion agenda. Starting in the mid 1980s, pro-life protestors began employing 1960s-style protest techniques in the abortion debate. Chaining themselves to structures, protesting with graphic images and slogans on signs, calling people with telemarketing messages, developing grassroots religious campaigns in churches, and leafleting areas near their sites of protest, these radicalized groups used direct contact to prevent patients from entering abortion clinics and attempted to persuade abortion providers to stop offering their services as well.
Their explicit promotion of violent tactics, bombings, and homicide as a viable tool in fighting against legal abortion forced Rescue America, as well as other anti-abortion groups, to splinter off from mainstream pro-life organizations such as the American Life League, Democrats for Life, the Pro-Life Action League, and others. By 1993, the division was clear: Rescue America set itself apart as an open promoter of violence against abortion clinics and abortion providers.
Shortly after Dr. David Gunn's murder in 1993, Daniel Ware, and a Rescue America member and friend of Paul Hill (later convicted and executed for the murders of Dr. John Britton and an escort, James Herman), was arrested in Pensacola, Florida, for possessing a large number of weapons, as well as more than 400 rounds of ammunition. He had vowed to "terminate" abortion providers gathered in Pensacola for a memorial service for Dr. David Gunn, who had been murdered by fellow Rescue America member, Michael Griffin. Ware stated publicly that he wanted "to take out as many child-killers in a Beirut-style massacre," and was tried but found innocent by the court.
Don Treshman used bold statements to gain press coverage for the anti-abortion issue. After David Gunn's death, Treshman issued a statement saying, "While we think Gunn's death is unfortunate, the fact is that a number of mothers would have been put at risk today and over a dozen babies would have died at his hands. Pro-lifers are asked to pray that he had a chance to ask for God's forgiveness for his part in the abortion holocaust before his demise." Treshman also stated, in an article in Boston Globe, when asked about the murders of abortion providers: "[T]here are 30 million dead babies and only five people on the other side, so it's really nothing to get excited about."
Treshman has stated that a civil war may be necessary in the fight to end legal abortion. He defends the actions of Rescue America by claiming that the murder of one abortion provider prevents abortion of many fetuses, which in the group's view, is legalized murder. Their use of the concept of "justifiable homicide" and civil war analogies follows this train of thought.
With the 1994 and 1998 court cases involving Donald Treshman and Rescue America, the group's goal was to bring attention to their cause and to potentially build a series of lower court cases that would lead to the eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that defined the constitutional right to privacy and used that right to prevent the individual states from making abortion illegal. All pro-life and anti-abortion groups seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. Various Supreme Court cases throughout the late 1980s and 1990s have, in the opinion of pro-choice activists, "chipped away" at abortion rights; most pro-life and anti-abortion groups consider these cases to be small victories.
Don Treshman, the founder and leader of Rescue America, has also worked as a spokesman for Human Life International, a far-right Catholic pro-life organization, and has been linked to the American Coalition of Life Activists and Operation Rescue, both militant anti-abortion groups that advocate and use violence.
- Murder of Dr. David Gunn.
- Treshman deported from Britain.
- Paul Hill murders Dr. John Britton and his escort, James Herman, at a Pensacola, Florida, women's clinic.
- Paul Hill executed by the State of Florida for murders of Britton and Herman.
The use of court cases as a tool for slowly eroding Roe v. Wade was part of a larger effort on the part of all pro-life organizations, and Rescue America's involvement in Madsen v. Women's Health Center was a crucial part of this strategy.
Another case that made its way to the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists, named Donald Treshman and Rescue America directly as a defendant. The court case involved a group of physicians who sued various pro-life groups and individuals for creating wanted posters of doctors who performed abortions. The wanted posters included personal information about abortion providers, offered rewards to individuals who helped to persuade doctors to stop performing abortions, and for helping to close clinics. Members of the groups listed also created a web site called "The Nuremburg Files," which listed personal information about more than 200 abortion providers, including home addresses, telephone numbers, and personal details. The physicians who sued claimed that the web site and posters constituted "harassment, intimidation and threats of violence in order to cause violent acts and to drive plaintiffs out of business." On the "The Nuremburg Files" web site, murdered abortion providers were depicted with a line through their face, while those wounded were shaded gray.
Don Treshman, Rescue America, and the other groups and individuals claimed that the posters and the web site were protected speech under the First Amendment; according to the defendants, the posters did not directly advocate violence; none of the writings told people to harm any single person, nor did they make explicit threats to the doctors.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the posters and web site did not constitute protected speech; "The Nuremburg Files" was ordered to remain offline. Many of the defendants filed for personal bankruptcy, a common tactic among anti-abortion protestors who faced the payment of damages to plaintiffs.
"Justifiable Homicide": The Signers
Shortly before the trial of Michael Griffin for the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, former Rev. Paul Hill and thirty-three others signed what has become known as the "defensive action statement."
The statement (text below) has become well known in the movement as one of the definitive lists of those who have seen murder of abortion doctors as "justifiable homicide."
Some of the signers, whose names were compiled by the Feminist Majority Foundation, have since withdrawn their names, and some have changed locations.
"We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We assert that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children. Therefore, he ought to be acquitted of the charges against him."
∗ Paul J. Hill, prisoner, Pensacola, Fla. (∗ OTHER NAMES REDACTED.∗)
Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, 1998
Rescue America members used other dramatic measures to gain attention for their cause. On May 27, 1998, Treshman appeared wearing a trash bag, pretending to be a discarded fetus, in a protest at a luncheon featuring then-Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. Security forces removed him from the event, which garnered some publicity for Treshman and Rescue America. Treshman has also been sighted following abortion providers, screaming at them and videotaping their reactions to his screaming and his questions. Members used dramatic images on posters, web site, and pamphlets as well.
While pro-choice organizations categorically condemn Rescue America's actions and even use them as an example of the extreme radicalism of the anti-abortion movement, mainstream pro-life organizations also strongly criticize Rescue America's tactics. In 1999, the American Life League, a Catholic organization that identifies itself as pro-life, created a document called the "Pro-life Proclamation Against Violence." In the document, which was signed by more than 120 pro-life organizations across the United States, the signers promise not to use violence as a means to ending abortion in the United States. High-profile organizations such as Operation Rescue, Rescue America, and the American Coalition of Life Activists refused to sign the document.
The most recent information available on Rescue America indicates that it is still based in Baltimore, but it has not received much media coverage over the past five years. While not defunct, it is far less active than in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
Paul Hill was executed on September 3, 2003, in a Florida prison by lethal injection. He was the first person executed in the United States for anti-abortion violence.
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