by Jennifer Gonnerman
IN THE POSH BALLROOM OF CINCINNATI’S OMNI Netherland Plaza hotel, a 69-year-old man with a white, wicker cowboy hat and tanned, leathery skin announces that he is a “human poster” for God. To prove this, he thrusts out his fists. Tattooed in blue across the back of his hands is his legal name: Pro-Life Anderson. A Nevada native who changed his name in 1987, he takes out his wallet to show an array of identification proving that Pro-Life is indeed his first name. Anderson, who has been arrested 11 times for picketing abortion clinics, says, “They can take away my signs, but they can’t cut off my hands.”
Anderson is just one of the nearly 2,000 activists who flocked in April to the Fifteenth World Conference on Love, Life and the Family, a four-day event packed with workshops, speeches, and prayer vigils. Sponsored by Human Life International (HLI), an anti-choice organization that promotes conservative Roman Catholicism, the conference attracted pro-life activists of all stripes.
Elderly women in nun’s habits mingle with denim-clad college students. Young women wearing pearls, pastels, and wedding rings sit beside grizzled veterans who boast of their lengthy arrest records. Virtually everyone is white and most are American, though almost 60 hail from foreign countries, including New Zealand, Guatemala, and England. Participants pick from a list of 75 workshops, ranging from one that shows a video of severed fetus parts – =”The Black Plague of Abortion” – to another that preaches premarital abstinence – “Chastity: The Pearl of Virtues.” In a vast exhibit hall, vendors peddle multicolored rosary beads, plastic fetus necklaces, and a paperback book by Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry titled How Does a Nice Guy Like Me Keep Getting Thrown in Jail?
But this conference is no mere pep rally for pro-lifers. And HLI is not just another obscure group of anti-abortion crusaders. With 84 branches in 56 countries, HLI is rapidly becoming a major force in the abortion wars. It is now one of the largest international anti-abortion networks, and it operates the world’s biggest clearinghouse of pro-life propaganda. Tax records show that in 1993 the organization raised almost $4 million from donations.
Human Life International was founded in 1981 by Father Paul Marx, a Roman Catholic priest. Today, the Virginiabased group ships anti-abortion posters, buttons, videos, cassette tapes, newsletters, and pamphlets to grassroots activists around the globe. Its annual conferences train activists in everything from the most effective way to picket a clinic to how to advance their cause on the Internet.
Remarkably, the organization has accomplished all of this while avoiding the type of public controversy that has engulfed other anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue. This is because the group does not lobby Congress and is not involved in the national abortion debate that pits Democrats against Republicans. HLI also escapes the scrutiny of progressives in the United States because – unlike groups that organize weekly pickets or push pro-life legislation – its influence is less visible and more difficult to quantify. The source of the organization’s power lies in its ability to wage a world-wide stealth campaign.
Rhetoric of Violence One of HLI’s most fervent members is Francis Muroki. A slight man with an earnest manner, Muroki is a freelance journalist who produces his own pro-life magazine in Kenya. At the Cincinnati convention, Muroki is one of the few black attenders. And at the event’s press conference, he excitedly explains why he traveled here all the way from his home in Nairobi.
“Planned Parenthood is doing all sorts of evil things – indiscriminately distributing contraception to kids, supporting abortion programs,” Muroki claims. To fight back, he has teamed up with HLI. After meeting HLI’s leaders at the 1994 United Nations conference on population control, Muroki says his “spirits were ignited.” Now when he travels to rural areas 200 miles outside Nairobi, Muroki takes along the pamphlets and videos sent to him by his new, Americanbased ally. One of his most effective teaching tools is The Silent Scream – the gory anti-abortion movie made by former abortion doctor Bernard Nathanson. Muroki says his talks at churches and schools are “well received.”
Another HLI success story is Babette Francis, an Indianborn microbiologist, mother of eight, and one of Australia’s best-known anti-abortion activists. (Her additional work bashing feminism has earned her the sobriquet “the Phyllis Schlafly of Australia.”) At the conference in Cincinnati, she staffs a table promoting her own 3,000-member anti-abortion group, Endeavour Forum. She is a frequent speaker at HLI conferences and her presence is yet another indicator of the group’s international influence.
Short and dressed in baby-blue silk, Francis urges the crowd: “Elect a pro-life president. That’s the best thing you can do for the world.” Coming out of the mouth of a foreign activist, Francis’s words have additional strength. Meanwhile, back in Australia, she uses the techniques she learned at HLI conferences to picket the homes of Melbourne’s most prominent abortion doctors.
At the Cincinnati convention, Francis could have picked up some picketing pointers from Jim Sedlak, the founder of Stop Planned Parenthood (STOPP). Tall, pudgy, and lumbering, Sedlak dispenses advice in a booming voice. Several people in an audience of almost 100 furiously scribble notes. “If you really want to make ’em mad, have a carriage with a baby doll in it on the sidewalk,” Sedlak says. “Have a recording of a baby crying and turn it up loudly.” After Sedlak stops speaking, a middle-age woman rushes to him for advice about what to chant during her weekly pickets. Sedlak’s suggestions: “Babies Killed Here” or “The PiU Kills.”
During many of the weekend’s workshops, the line between peaceful clinic protests and violence is blurred by speakers like Joe Scheidler. He is one of the nation’s most militant anti-abortion activists and currently the subject of a federal racketeering suit charging him with blockading Chicago abortion clinics. At the convention, Scheidler hawked his book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, which includes a chapter titled “Warn the Garbage Man, ‘You’re Hauling Corpses.'” An advisor to HLI, Scheidler is heavyset with a neatly trimmed beard and a determined glint in his eye. At the Cincinnati conference, he incites the crowd with proclamations like “We have a war on our hands and we have to fight.”
This kind of violent rhetoric has gotten Human Life International into trouble in the past. After the arrest of John Salvi for fatally shooting two women at a Brookline, Massachusetts, abortion clinic in 1994, police discovered in his apartment gory pictures of fetuses that came from HLI. The group’s leaders insist, however, that their inflammatory rhetoric – and their widely distributed propaganda – does not encourage violence. And so they have not stopped using it.
Charges of Extremism Dressed in typical politician attire – a navy suit and dark red tie – Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, looks out over the lunchtime crowd of 400 on the conference’s second day. Everyone is standing and applauding as Smith, their strongest ally in the U.S. House of Representatives and the event’s keynote speaker, is introduced.
Smith has been in Congress since 1980 and chairs the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. But despite his highly public position, his stance on abortion fits in comfortably with those of the rest of the weekend’s speakers. “Legalized abortion has led to a kiddie Holocaust,” Smith declares. He eagerly credits Joe Scheidler with saving “many a life with his sidewalk counseling.” And Smith apparently advocates extreme self-sacrifice on behalf of the anti-abortion cause. “What are you willing to lose?” he shouts at the crowd. “How many of us have resisted to the point of shedding blood? I know I haven’t.”
Smith’s presence at the conference lends a sense of legitimacy to an organization that has long faced charges of extremism. Fr. Marx, the group’s whitehaired founder, appeared perfectly harmless as he ambled about the conference with the help of a cane. Fr. Marx, however, has publicly accused Jewish and Muslim doctors of leading the “abortion industry,” resulting in charges that his group is anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic.
In Confessions of a Prolife Missionary, Fr. Marx wrote: “Note how many Jews led the infamous 1971 abortion-planning meeting in Los Angeles…note the large I number of abortionists (consult the Yellow Pages) and pro-abortion medical professors who are Jewish.” In addition to reviving the age-old myth of Jews killing Christian babies, Fr. Marx also targets Muslims. In his 1994 book My 21 Days in Russia and Ukraine, Fr. Marx wrote: “In Croatia, it’s the Moslems and Serbian doctors who do most of the abortions. It’s genocide, willed and committed.”
Provocative statements like these make it apparent that, while using a hard-line stance on abortion to lure supporters, HLI’s true intention is to proselytize for a Christian theocracy. Fr. Marx has reportedly said that “the West is dying out because of abortion and contraception.” And at last year’s conference in Montreal, he announced: “I am convinced that Europe is going to be taken over by Muslims. Every time I say (his, people say we’re racists. I’m not.”
HLI sought to deflect charges of extremism at the Cincinnati conference. There were position papers spelling out its views about Jews and Muslims. And at a press conference, there was a prominent placard titled “HLI and the Jewish People” with endorsements from 44 well-known, politically conservative Jews, including Midge Decter, the author and neocon activist. Asked about his writings, Fr. Marx still defends them. “I’m a sociologist,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “All the things I say are facts, based on research.”
HLI makes no efforts to hide its extreme views on women and gays. At workshops with names like “Preparing for a Lasting Marriage,” speakers exhort women to abandon the career path, have multiple children, and help their husbands function as heads of the household. Meanwhile, conference speakers save most of their ridicule and scorn for homosexuals. At HLI’s 1995 conference, speaker Paul Cameron, head of the Family Research Institute in Colorado, called for branding HIV-positive people with an “A” on their foreheads. “Gay is a sham identity,” Joseph Nicolosi, a Califorriia-based psychologist who specializes in straightening out homosexuals, told this year’s conference-goers. “The gay person is a fictitious personality. We’re all heterosexual.”
Pro-choice Protest In 1995, when HLI held its annual conference in Montreal, its presence provoked public outrage. Three thousand prochoice and gay activists took to the streets to protest the group. At the time, several newspapers ran stories outlining the organization’s extremist ideas. Six years earlier, HLI had incurred the wrath of pro-choice Canadians when it mailed grisly photos to Parliament members of forceps squeezing bloody fetus heads. Enraged that this American group was yet again exporting its ideologies across the border, Canadian protesters armed themselves with bottles, tomatoes, smoke bombs, and eggs. Then they flooded the streets.
In marked contrast, the opposition to this year’s conference was fairly tepid. Seventy protesters – mostly young women – marched and chanted for a few hours on the sidewalk in front of the conference site. A handful of pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, denounced HLI’s extremist views in a single, full-page newspaper ad. Compared with Montreal, the pro-choice reaction was tame. It was, however, more of an angry response than greeted the group’s previous American conventions.
For more than a decade, HLI has managed to slip beneath the media’s radar, training activists and shipping thousands of pieces of pro-life propaganda without provoking much buzz in either the alternative or mainstream American press. This is partly because the group is not involved in the national abortion debate and therefore does not fit easily into the media’s coverage of abortion.
Planned Parenthood has long tracked HLI’s activists. Prior to last year’s conference, Planned Parenthood armed Canadian pro-choice activists with extensive research and helped them mobilize. But by the time of the Cincinnati conference, Planned Parenthood had disbanded its opposition-research unit. No other pro-choice group stepped in. While Catholics for Free Choice have also tracked HLI, the anti-abortion group has yet to draw the public wrath of most pro-choice organizations. This may be because in recent years the battleground has shifted to Washington, D.C., and the state capitals. Now the pro-choice movement is focused on fighting legislative attempts to curtail abortion access rather than battling at the grassroots level.
This absence of widespread outcry has permitted HLI to expand at a rapid pace without being forced to fight timeconsuming public-relations battles. The group recently moved more than 50 employees into its brand-new, $3.9million world headquarters located on a sprawling 81.9acre site in Front Royale, Virginia.
Back at the Cincinnati convention, a dozen people cluster around a television monitor and watch clips of the local news shows broadcast the previous day. On screen, freshfaced anchors report on HLI’s conference and on Planned Parenthood’s protest. Earlier, Father Matthew Habiger, the group’s president, advised attenders to “be on your best behavior” and not go outside during the demonstration. But the conference-goers had already seen enough protests to know what had transpired. Mocking the pro-choice demonstrators, a middle-age man jokingly chants: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay. HLI, go away.” Everyone laughs.
H.LI.’S TOKEN FEMINIST? JUDITH REISMAN has come long way since, under the name Judith Bat-Ada, she contributed to the groundbreaking anthology Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. In an interview published there in 1980, she described her research on “the whole media sexploitation movement” and her content analysis of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. Reisman, who later conducted more such research for the Department of Justice, claims she helped convict Hustler’s “Chester the Molester” cartoonist of child sex abuse in 1990. Today she is a passionate supporter of Human Life International. At the antiabortion group’s recent conference in Cincinnati, Reisman was a featured speaker.
Talking fast and slapping transparencies on an overhead projector, Reisman delivers a speech to a crowd of nearly 40 conference attenders. In a loud, raspy voice, she shouts: “We have turned over Western civilization to a perverted nut case!” The target of Reisman’s wrath is sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Reisman has been railing against Kinsey since 1981, charging that his findings on child sexuality were based on data obtained from a convicted pedophile and are therefore not to be trusted.
In certain feminist circles, this is not news. Andrea Dworkin’s 1981 Pornography also reported serious flaws in Kinsey’s methodology, citing as a source Kinsey’s own disciple and coresearcher, Wardell B. Pomeroy. In his 1972 biography of Kinsey, Pomeroy ascribes much of their chapter on child sexuality to a 17-hour interview with a 63-yearold man who, wrote Pomeroy, “had homosexual relations with 600 preadolescent males, heterosexual relations with 200 preadolescent females, intercourse with countless adults, with animals of many species.”
BUT IT IS REISMAN’S high-pitched antiKinsey crusade that recently attracted national attention. The Washington, D.C.based Family Research Council produced a half-hour film about her work, and Representative Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill calling for congressional hearings into Kinsey’s research. The coauthor of the 1990 Kinsey, Sex and Fraud, Reisman hopes that by debunking Kinsey’s findings about child sexuality, she can undermine the nation’s sex-education programs, which she insists are promoting homosexuality and teenage promiscuity.
In a recent interview, Reisman told OTI, “The whole point of sex education is to be accurate. We don’t go to [Nazi doctor Joseph] Mengele in Germany and ask him how the victims of his experiment enjoyed being tortured.” Thanks to her boisterous and bustling manner, Reisman’s lectures are a big draw at HLI conferences. And her presence is a boost for HLI.
As one of the only Jewish speakers on the program in both Montreal and Cincinnati, Reisman helps the group rebut the perception that it is anti-Semitic. Asked if she has any qualms about affiliating with HLI, she brushes off the question and then snaps: “I don’t see what that has to do with Kinsey.” Asked if she still considers herself a feminist, Reisman says, “I think I certainly am.