John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe says the question for pro-lifers is:
‘Are you fighting abortion with your strong right arm or with your broken heart?’

Interview by Sue Careless
The Interim

Editor: John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, director of Pro-Life Century in Laytonsville, Maryland, has been called the fahter of the rescue movement, and is widely regarded as an authority on the principle of non-violence. A leading speaker at the recent National Pro-Life Conference in Toronto, he was interviewed by Sue Careless for The Interim on Nov. 25, 1999. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

What conditions would have to exist in a society before violence would be an acceptable means to promote the pro-life cause?

In the 20th century we have seen massive expansions of warfare and massive expansions of non-violence… With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 the nature of warfare changed in this century. And the whole idea of a campaign harnessing the power of God revealed through martyrdom, has also changed. In our time Ghandi and then [Martin Luther] King and then people in Solidarity in Poland and people in the Philippines, there have been a large number of campaigns designed to achieve everything that has ever been achieved by war. If the Soviet Union can be toppled by non-violence, why [look] for something else? Non-violence has proved itself as an overwhelming power.

So even when all the democratic means have been exhausted, violence should not be employed?

Right. Also, Jesus lived in a society that was occupied by a hostile power that did not respect God. What he chose to do was to make common cause with the victims, to suffer and die for them, and His death and resurrection broke the power of death. We don’t face more violence than He faced.

You seem to be equating non-violence and martyrdom. Do you think engaging in non-violence is going to cause martyrdom?

I think it will. There have been approximately one and a half to two billion children killed by surgical abortion around the world in the last generation; so to confront violence of that scope and turn it around will require a great deal of bloodshed among adults. The question is, will it be a war or a campaign of non-violence in which people will lay down their lives for children? There will be blood among adults before it’s over.

How will that take place in North America, especially if a person like Linda Gibbons is acting in a totally non-violent way?

Boyfriends who are dragging their pregnant girlfriends in [to abortion clinics] are going to get angry and run somebody over. When a boyfriend gets angry at a Linda Gibbons or the people with her and runs them over, he will get a three month suspended sentence. I expect police to maintain some order. It won’t be the government executing people.

Do you want to resurrect the rescue movement, blocking the doorways to abortion clinics?

Yes. Adults need to share the vulnerability of women and children. Taking the place of the child for as long as possible, is central to the success of the pro-life movement.

Editor: The history of the rescue movement in Canada is very different from that of the U.S. The Interim sees no sign as yet that the rescue movement will become active again in this country. Mr. Cavanaugh-O’Keefe’s thoughts on the question are relevant to Canadian pro-lifers, however, since they indicate how important it is to nurture a pure and peaceful motive in any area of pro-life activism.

You will appear to be opposed to the women, not giving them a choice. I look at Linda Gibbons and she will let the women pass through. She will say, “Can I help you?” or “Please don’t do it” in a very kind way, but she doesn’t actually physically block them. Are you suggesting that the pro-life movement needs to go back to blocking? And if it does so, can it still keep the moral high ground?

Yes, I am. When people were blocking doors fifteen years ago in small groups what they were doing was clearer than 10 years ago when there were large numbers. The question is whether you are blocking access to the abortion clinic with your strong right arm or with your broken heart? If someone is willing to step on your face as they walk by, can they get in? The answer should be yes. But to step in, they should have to step on your face.

You [would] have to be very careful that those people doing the blocking have that “suffering servant” image and that they don’t become angry and strike back, which would be deadly for the cause.

Pro-life leaders made tremendous mistakes in training people for rescues in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They taught that by our strong right arm we could stop abortion – which is total nonsense. People committed to that idea have drifted away or turned to violence.

Obviously we lose the moral high ground we’ve had in the past if we tolerate any kind of violence. But on pragmatic grounds, as well, we should not tolerate violence?

Right. Campaigns of non-violence can fail. Look at the Intifada in Palestine. They began talking of “children of the stone.” The leaders of the campaign of non-violence were very proud of children who confronted tanks, like David facing Goliath, with only rocks they would throw. The Palestinians saw in their children tremendous courage standing up against overwhelming force. What the Israelis saw was people throwing rocks and then getting guns. The Palestinian campaign was not clear and pure and did, in fact, become more and more violent. A campaign of non-violence has to be non-violent.

An editorial in the National Post supported the right to picket but in very small numbers, say three pickets in a bubble-zone or at a strike at a company. So there is still a moral presence there, still something touching the conscience of the woman or the clinic worker walking in, but they would not physically stop them. Would that not be a better way than blocking access? ….

That would be wonderful. But in order to kill a child, you have to bring together three things: the weapon, the executioner, and the victims, the women and children. A pro-lifer who wants to [intercede] can be between any two or with any one in that triangle. So in dealing with the bubble-zone, a pro-lifer approaches a woman who is on her way in [to a clinic]. That means you enter the bubble-zone and you get arrested, but that is a wonderful and glorious thing to do. In the Canadian situation, that’s the best approach rather than trying to get yourself at the doorway between them.

Just to clarify, a journalist [covering a protest] should not be at risk of being arrested.


But a nonviolent demonstrator takes that risk, a demonstrator knows there is a risk of arrest, even in a non-violent situation. Do you teach them, “You could be arrested. Are you willing to take that risk?”


How do we distance ourselves from [someone] promoting violence?

And there are two groups: the nut cases on the fringes that we don’t know and couldn’t locate yet whom the media say they are one of us. And then there are the people who have been one of us, who have spoken at our conferences, yet have changed their philosophy and are a big embarrassment.

Everybody recognizes that John Salvi was an unhappy person. He shot several people in Brookline, Massachusetts about five years ago. He committed suicide. Nobody thought he spoke for the pro-life movement.

Jim Kopp is very different. He was respected across the movement. He was an articulate, thoughtful guy. It is a matter of overwhelming urgency to get Jim to explain what he knows. I don’t know if Jim shot anybody but he has to explain what he knows. Until he explains, it’s perfectly reasonable for a reasonable person to infer that he did it or helped the person who did it or knows quite clearly what happened. Jim Kopp is on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list. He had been deeply involved in Operation Rescue.

Editor: James Kopp is a suspect in the 1998 murder of Buffalo, N.Y. abortionist Barnett Slepian, and is wanted in connection with the shooting of four other abortionists in the last several years. Since the 1998 murder, police have been unable to locate him.

Did you know him personally?

Not well, but I did know him and enjoyed him tremendously. It’s not my intention to distance myself from him. What I want to do is draw close to him and argue fiercely with him and prevail. I can’t argue with his views if I don’t know what they are. He’s operating in the dark. I want him out of the dark answering questions and arguing. If the argument is in the open, non-violent people can prevail ….

In Poland and the Philippines, the people leading campaigns of non-violence put most of their effort into confronting Communism or the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos; but a huge portion of their work – almost half – went into controlling their own people, [some of whom] were inclined to violence.

[What should we do about a pro-lifer] who has no social skills, or who does really damaging or dangerous things? How do you draw in the people who have great integrity?

I’m proud of the fact that we do attract nuts. Nuts come to us because they sense that among us they will be accepted and loved as children of God. The question is, how much responsibility do we give them? How much leadership are we prepared to exert? To lead a disciplined campaign of non-violence you have to be very assertive about the rules you’re laying down for other free people. If we’re bringing people out we have to take responsibility for what happens. And things will go wrong, but [leaders must] put the tools in place to control violence. One is to have people who are clearly identified as pro-life marshals who are watching that their own people all stay in line. I once lost it at a clinic, and a [pro-life] marshal from Baltimore grabbed me and held me in a headlock and she said, “You tell the cop right now you’re sorry!”

What about Joan Andrews Bell, in terms of statements she’s made, someone who was a genuine heroine but who is now shifting philosophically and making statements which are not promoting non-violence the way you are. Or Life Advocate? How do we distance ourselves from them?

Editor: Life Advocate is a U.S. publication which has printed articles by abortion opponenets who refuse to condemn violence against abortionists. Joan Andrews Bell is a famous U.S. activist who has sacrificed her freedom on a number of occasions for the sake of her peaceful witness against abortion. While attending the Human Life International conference in Toronto in April 1999, she indicated to the Toronto Sun that, under certain circumstances and subject to any future clarifications of Roman Catholic doctrine on the matter, she might consider the shooting of an abortionist to be “justifiable homicide.” The comment raised grave concerns among many Canadian pro-lifers, who viewed it as incompatible with genuine pro-life principles.

It’s not possible or necessary to try to censor Life Advocate. Whatever arguments they put forward should be denounced forcefully and unequivocally. A person who tolerates violence makes a campaign of non-violence very difficult or impossible. In the foreseeable future, children will be protected, if at all, by a campaign of non-violence. A few people who exercise what they call “justifiable violence” or who even advocate it, are making it very difficult to build a campaign of non-violence, and children pay the price.

Although I have a great deal of affection for people at Life AdvocateI do think that things they have said and written and done are in part responsible for difficulties in the rescue movement – and that means dead children. There are many people who work at Planned Parenthood who are sincere when they say they are personally opposed to abortion but they do this and that; and yet people at Life Advocate are exactly in the same position, sincere in their opposition to abortion, but when you look at what they have done, they are responsible for dead children.

There are people like Joan Andrews who insist that pro-lifers have to stay together and defend each other regardless of differences of philosophy. That is not possible. Joan and others must confront and denounce and stop violence in our midst. Violence is not the same as non-violence. Any ambiguity whatsoever about physical attacks on abortionists makes it impossible to bring people in who can trust us to lead them in a campaign of non-violence.

What about taking photos of licence plates of [abortion] doctors or photographing their homes …? When does [this sort of tactic] really go too far? When is it really setting it up for the sniper?

I’m torn there. There’s an abortionist … in Maryland. I’ve picketed his home. But before I did that I went to tell him exactly what I was doing. I’ve told him each time. First time I wrote to him to say we’re coming out to picket. I sent a copy of the letter to the police. When he got the letter he called the police immediately and said he’d gotten a death threat. Well, they already had this so-called death threat. It didn’t look like a death threat to them.

I told [him], I want you to know what we we’re going to do …. If you want to come out and talk to us, we’re ready to listen. If you want to come out and debate, fine. But I do think it’s bad for you to be killing children in an abortion clinic and then going home and telling your neighbours that you work as a physician in an embassy. That kind of schizophrenia is bad for society – you should stop killing children – and it’s bad for you too. I’m going to make it impossible for you to move forward in hypocrisy.

[The abortionist] wasn’t delighted to have us come, but he knows who I am. We’ve talked face to face. He used to send me Christmas cards. He wants me in jail and he’s gotten me in jail before. I want him in jail and I did get him in jail once. He knows who I am and if he has questions about what’s happening, he can call me.

You see then no problem with home picketing [under certain conditions]? Is that how you closed down 400 clinics?

I should clarify. That was mostly in Asia by political work. In the summer of 1986 two of us did some work on a loan that the World Bank was preparing for Bangladesh. The loan included funds to build 400 maternal-child health clinics which would provide menstrual regulation – that is, abortion at 12 weeks. We lobbied the Reagan Administration and at the World Bank.

The loan went through but the U.S. voted against it. Because the U.S. voted against it they added a side page (not formally part of the agreement) saying none of the clinics would proceed with menstrual regulation. I helped close five clinics in North America and 400 in Bangladesh. And they’re still closed. Telling the story accurately now really matters because we can still successfully do tremendous things fighting population control.

How did you close the five clinics in the U.S.?

[At one place] we had a small sit-in with three people on Good Friday. The people in the business condominium around the clinic put tremendous pressure on [the abortionist]. He was not supposed to be doing surgical procedures there and they got him closed down.

The others were similar. One was a sit-in with only three people at an abortion clinic in a mall. The mall dug in. The churches around the mall started publicizing what was going on and launched a boycott of the mall. And the mall pushed the clinic out.

You were a leader in the rescue movement from 1976 to 1986. Will you do it again?

I will do it again but not for a while. Right now I’m at home with my [six] kids. My youngest is seven. I admire people my own age who have been able to juggle family responsibilities and go to jail. In the peace movement, Philip Berrigan and his wife took turns going to jail. I’m not sure my wife and I could do that. I think I’m supposed to be at home with my kids.

Whoever does it, however they do it, I think there is an overwhelming need for adults to take responsibility for children and women in their midst, and try to take their places and share the responsibility and to do it out of fidelity to God who came and stood with us, who links His arms with us. Jesus Christ taught us to turn to God the Father. Jesus Christ says, “Forgive us our sins.” He was sinless but He said to the Father, “Forgive us our sins.” That’s an amazing thing. We have to link arms metaphorically with women and children and abortionists.

You’ve personally got to know some of these people through the Common Ground Movement because you’ve sat down and had coffee?

Yes. There is a struggling effort to bring people together from the two sides to simply carry on a civil discussion.

Neither side can demonize the other because they’ve actually met.

Right. You can’t demonize when you know each other. Mostly what we’ve done is tell each other our stories. “Why are you involved?” “Why do you do this?” “What makes you tick?”

Are you talking with abortionists and clinic workers or pro-choice leaders?

Anybody. I met with one woman who was the administrator at an abortion clinic in the midwest. Her story was one of overwhelming abuse by a lot of the men in her life. She was really committed to seeing that women were able to defend themselves from men and saw abortion as a piece of that. I don’t condone abortion in any way but I understand where she’s coming from.

Did you sense she heard your story?

Yes, very much so. She’s a good friend. One thing I’ve sensed coming out of the Common Ground Movement is that pro-lifers and pro-choicers should be able to oppose forced abortion in China today, if not together, at least simultaneously.

Did that happen, did you work as co-belligerents?

Yes. I got out in front of the Chinese embassy with someone who was deeply involved in the abortion industry. We only did it once and only for half an hour. I had a sign that said, “Pro-lifers oppose forced abortion in China” and she had a sign that said, “Pro-choicers oppose forced abortion in China.” People would come around the corner and see me and start to give me the finger and then see her and their mouths would drop open. [Or they would] shake their fist at her and then see me. That was in downtown Washington about four years ago. It was a small affair but, ah my, it was fun!

That’s wonderful. Some barriers come down. So when [your pro-abortion dialogue partner] goes to speak somewhere and someone starts damning you, she’s hopefully got to say something [in your defence]. It has got to change the dynamics.

As a result of Common Ground work there has been some steady traffic of people changing their views. The traffic is all in one direction. Now that is a difficult thing to deal with because in the Common Ground Movement we make a commitment