Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Randall Terry's tired act

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 06, 2009

On Capitol Hill yesterday a band of pro-life activists invaded the offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tore up copies of the health-care reform bill, and generally made a commotion until they were arrested for disorderly conduct. What did they accomplish?

Did they slow down progress toward the enactment of the health-care reform bill? No.

Did they make it more likely that a pro-life amendment will be added to the bill? No.

Did they persuade anyone that the pro-life cause is righteous? Unlikely.

Did they rouse anger against pro-life activists? Anger that will make it more difficult for others to achieve pro-life legislative victories by more moderate means? Certainly.

The disruptive band was led by Randall Terry, who earned national prominence two decades ago by leading tens of thousands of pro-life activists to risk arrest outside abortion clinics in Operation Rescue actions. Having later parted ways with Operation Rescue, and staged a few unsuccessful campaigns for elective office, Randall Terry has now returned to his original stock in trade: getting arrested.

In the past year Terry and his allies have been arrested for pamphleteering illegally at a Catholic cathedral; arrested for disrupting a town meeting; arrested at Notre Dame for protesting President Obama's appearance; and now arrested on Capitol Hill at Nancy Pelosi's office. In every case there has been ample evidence that Terry anticipated and indeed welcomed the arrests. In every case the incidents brought plenty of publicity, while drawing attention away from other pro-lifers who used less confrontational tactics. In no case did the arrests bring about any clear advance for the pro-life cause.

There was a time when I wholeheartedly endorsed Randall Terry's approach. I was an enthusiastic participant in Operation Rescue activities, serving as public spokesman for the group in the Boston area. I wrote a book about the movement, in which I gave Randall Terry very favorable treatment. At the time I believed-- I still do believe-- that we were morally and legally justified in our peaceful blockades of abortion clinics.

But there was a reason for risking arrest outside the abortion clinics. By blocking the doors, we prevented the abortionists from doing their bloody work-- or at a minimum, gained extra time for sidewalk counselors to speak with women contemplating abortions. We risked arrest because we thought, by doing so, we could save lives-- not just in an abstract sense, but in a very concrete way, by preventing the abortions that we scheduled for that morning. And it worked. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of young Americans approaching adulthood today, who might never have drawn breath if their mothers had not been turned away from the doors of an abortion clinic and given time to reconsider their plans. Operation Rescue saved lives, and if the cost was a weekend in jail, the participants were ready to pay that price.

Now what goal is served by disrupting business at Speaker Pelosi's office? What justification can there be for an action that is, by any normal standards, both illegal and uncivil? What was accomplished?

Civil disobedience is a legitimate option for a conscientious citizen. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2242) teaches that it might even be a moral obligation, when laws are "contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel." It is not difficult to make the case that laws allowing abortion call for acts of civil disobedience. But laws protecting a politican's office from disruption are not inherently unjust, and violations of those laws do nothing to save the lives of unborn children.

The only thing accomplished by the raid on Pelosi's office was to draw attention-- and unfavorable attention at that. Apparently Randall Terry enjoys the publicity, and will continue using the tactic as long as it produces that result. Which is why the rest of us should stop paying attention.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Kevin S - Nov. 11, 2009 1:04 PM ET USA

    Bravo, Phil. There is room in the pro-life cause for many and various approaches, appealing to many and various audiences. But it is hard to see how Terry's current activities are effective in any way.

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Nov. 08, 2009 10:02 PM ET USA

    Honestly, simply praying outside an abortion clinic in the evening rouses ire against pro-life activists! Been there, and witnessed that! If, as you suggest, we should stop paying attention to Mr. Terry, why did you afford him any of your own?

  • Posted by: FredC - Nov. 08, 2009 10:54 AM ET USA

    At the beginning of this article, you (Phil) makes assertions as to the impact of Terry's actions. Do you have any data to support your asserted impact?

  • Posted by: Philopus - Nov. 06, 2009 9:23 PM ET USA

    Randall who?!!

  • Posted by: - Nov. 06, 2009 4:10 PM ET USA

    Whose angry? I'm glad someone is willing to get arrested over tax dollars going to murder babies, srs, the sick and disabled. Didn't Jesus cleanse the temple--leading to his arrest? Last yr my aunt was on purposeneglected nearly to death in a CATHOLIC home. When released from hospital forced by home onto Catholic Hospice, whose staff said if she was on Hospice she wasn't supposed to WANT to eat. She was Medicaid.