Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How anti-abortion protests in Pittsburgh spawned a movement

Operation Rescue's founder, Randall Terry, at a rally.

These days, many of the protesters you might see outside abortion clinics are there because of their religious beliefs.

“Life begins at conception, and I believe God recognizes that as well,” said Kathy Laslow. She’s been volunteering with an anti-abortion organization called Sidewalk Advocates for Life. She calls herself a sidewalk counselor, and spends time outside the Planned Parenthood in downtown Pittsburgh, passing out literature about alternatives to abortion.

She said her odds of actually changing women’s minds are pretty low, but her faith in God is what drives her work.   

Credit Lucy Perkins / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Kathy Laslow outside Planned Parenthood in downtown Pittsburgh

 Decades ago, Pittsburgh was home to religious anti-abortion protests of a much bigger sort, thanks in large part to an evangelical pastor in North Braddock.

 Pastor Keith Tucci started a small church called Word and Worship in North Braddock in 1982. In the beginning, the church only had a handful of members.

 “Our group was like six people,” Tucci said. “That’s what we had.”

 Tucci’s sermons focused a lot on what the Bible said about abortion. Soon, his words turned into action, and he led protests with members of his congregation outside clinics.

 “We were out on the streets of Pittsburgh, we just didn’t have media coverage,” he said.

 That would change. In May of 1987, Tucci crossed paths with an activist named Randall Terry. Terry was the leader of an anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue. The group got attention for clinic protests in other states.

 “[Terry] said you’ve gotta do something to send a message,” Tucci recalled. “And as a result, in the city of Pittsburgh, we had one of the largest [Operation] Rescue movements across the country. It broke loose, it just became a phenomenon.”

Credit Lucy Perkins / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
An old Pittsburgh Press article features Operation Rescue and Keith Tucci.

Tucci started an Operation Rescue chapter in Pittsburgh and over the next few years, Operation Rescue held rallies with protesters that numbered in the thousands.

“I think what made it so successful is that we reframed the [abortion] question,” said Tucci. “We made it about Jesus and the Bible and his intentions for mankind.”

Tucci says the tactics that Operation Rescue used were always peaceful.

But newspaper clippings from the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recount incidents of anti-abortion rights protesters coating the floors of a downtown clinic in tar, and blocking the doors to a clinic with a car.

“It was so overwhelming to everybody,” said Claire Keyes, former director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. Operation Rescue protested outside of her clinic.

She said protesters blocked the doors and made it impossible for anyone to get into or out of the building. Other tenants couldn’t get to their offices. Doctors couldn’t get into the clinic. Patients would wait at a nearby McDonald’s until police cleared the protesters.

“We would tell [patients] -- you will be seen,” Keyes said. “Because some of them would say, ‘Well, I’ll just go home and come back.’ And we’d say, ‘But it could be just like this the next time you come, and we promise you that once they’re cleared we will see every single patient.’”

Sometimes police arrested more than 100 protesters in a day. Protesters would refuse to give their names or move, and police had to carry them away from clinic doors. Tucci says he’s been arrested more than 15 times in Pittsburgh.

Keyes said the disruption eventually forced the clinic to move.

Other anti-abortion groups around the country noticed Pittsburgh and adopted similar tactics. Tucci himself went from the leader of a six-member congregation to his current life of traveling to churches throughout the country and around the world. He believed that part of the reason for Pittsburgh's high profile is that protest videos that were filmed here were seen around the country. They were made so other groups could learn effective protest tactics.

Keyes acknowledges that the strategies in Pittsburgh spread elsewhere. She says officials in other cities also looked to the city of Pittsburgh for advice about how to handle those protests.

“And then those cities looked back to Pittsburgh — like, 'OK, we want to learn from you. How did you deal with them? Who did you have to get into the process?'”

While all of this was going on in Pittsburgh, lawmakers in Harrisburg were busy too. They created some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country.

“The 1988-1989 Abortion Control Acts were a set of regulations that were designed specifically to get to the Supreme Court so that Pennsylvania would be the state that resulted in the overruling of Roe,” said Sue Frietsche at the Women’s Law Project.

That didn't happen. But after another landmark Supreme Court case, those laws would become another model for abortion foes around the country to follow.

This story is a part of a series looking at the history of abortion access and abortion legislation in Pennsylvania. Read the first story here and second one here.