Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Episode 2: The Largest Civil Disobedience Movement in U.S. History

By Catholic Culture Podcast ( bio - articles - email ) | May 08, 2018 | In The Catholic Culture Podcast

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Operation Rescue is the largest civil disobedience movement in American history. It even dwarfs the civil rights movement, with over fifty thousand people having been arrested between 1988 and 1992 for nonviolently blockading abortion clinics. Yet most people, even most Catholics, don’t know the story. On the rare occasions when it has been covered by the media, it has been falsely and laughably portrayed as violent and extremist.

Today’s episode is something of an oral history of Operation Rescue, told by Bill Cotter, head of OR Boston, who spent 19 months in prison for his involvement with the protests. You’ll also hear from’s own Phil Lawler, who provided the public face of OR Boston while Bill was in jail, and also wrote a book about the movement in 1992.


Phil Lawler’s book, Operation Rescue: A Challenge to the Nation’s Conscience

Operation Rescue Boston

Operation Rescue national website

Footage of police brutality against Rescuers during the “Summer of Mercy”, in which tens of thousands of pro-lifers flocked to Wichita and thousands were arrested

Footage of L.A. police breaking a Rescuer’s arm with nunchucks


Bill Cotter interview

3:00 Description of a rescue

6:49 Tactics to delay police from dragging people away

10:13 Factors that kept Operation Rescue from continuing to operate as a mass movement blockading abortion clinics after its heyday in the late 80s and early 90s: court injunctions, most people unwilling to go to jail for longer than a weekend

12:07 Most of the people involved were not activist types and the rescues were not demonstrations. They had a specific concrete goal: on that day, at that time, in that place, to prevent babies from being killed

14:31 According to Phil Lawler’s book Operation Rescue, in between 1988 and 1992 over 50,000 Rescuers had been arrested—about six times as many arrests as during the entire civil rights movement! So why don’t more people know about OR? (Need I have asked?)

17:00 Lack of support and even hostility from some Catholic clergy today towards pro-life movement

18:19 Police brutality against Rescuers in West Hartford, CT and elsewhere

22:22 Bill spent 19 months in jail

27:15 Mixed response to OR in Boston

29:19 The genesis of OR; the early days; getting more and more attention

34:06 Bill’s participation in Rescues outside Boston; Rescues accompanying St. JPII’s visit to the US in 1987; the Summer of Mercy in Wichita

37:39 What is OR doing today?

39:54 Is it true that the young people are becoming more pro-life?

42:05 Learning about Operation Rescue is a challenge to our complacency and desensitization to the continued toleration of abortion. Why shouldn’t I be in jail right now?

47:51 Importance of prayer

49:28 How people can learn more and get involved with OR

50:31 Current signs of hope for the pro-life movement; eschatological hope

Phil Lawler interview

55:12 How Phil got involved with Operation Rescue

56:35 His first impression of OR people

57:52 Phil was the public face of OR Boston while Bill Cotter was in jail

58:47 Being arrested

59:55 Phil’s interactions with the media on behalf of OR, personal experience of media bias

1:02:00 How the archdiocese of Boston treated OR

1:04:07 The media and others routinely accused OR of violence; Ted Kennedy made a speech saying OR had “a policy of firebombing and even murder”(!!!)

1:04:59 The optimism of the pro-life movement at this time

1:07:52 The draconian penalties judges imposed on the protesters

1:10:24 Why do so few Catholics know about OR?

1:11:02 Couldn’t the Rescuers have called the bluff on these long prison sentences and brought the whole thing to a standstill? Phil gives his own personal answer

1:13:27 Joan Andrews, the Dorothy Day of the modern pro-life movement; today’s Red Rose Rescues

1:15:20 This week’s excerpt: Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

Theme music: “Franciscan Eyes”, written and performed by Thomas Mirus. Download the Catholic Culture Podcast soundtrack.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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