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Terry v. Newman

Kathleen Reeves

The dispute between Randall Terry and Troy Newman sheds light on the way that activism can satisfy a person’s hunger for attention and influence—how it can become a power trip.

Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue in 1986, and Troy Newman took over in 1998, moving the organization to Wichita in 2002 in order to bully Dr. Tiller, his employees, and his patients. Now, as the National Partnership for Women & Families reports via the LA Times, Terry and Newman are fighting over the right to use the name of the organization.

Terry left Operation Rescue after a legal settlement in 1998 with the National Organization for Women—a sort of permanent restraining order that keeps him away from abortion clinics. (Can we have more of these?) The LA Times story casts Terry as the snake oil salesman of the anti-abortion movement, a charismatic, one-time star who’s been flailing for the past ten years:

Over the last decade, Terry has been a radio talk show host, a Nashville recording artist and a student — returning to college in New York to study Islam in order to battle Islamist extremism.

He spearheaded an effort against the art photographer Jock Sturges, whose nude photos of adolescents he considers "child pornography." He fought against stem cell research and gay marriage and, in 2006, ran unsuccessfully for the Florida Senate. He also did stints as spokesman for the family of Terri Schiavo, the comatose Florida woman who was the subject of a galvanizing legal battle until she died in 2005.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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"You would never have heard of Terri Schiavo if it wasn’t for me," said Terry.

The Times also notes that Terry, who was a used-car salesman before he became a crusader for intolerance, recently moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C. to “reestablish himself as a national leader in the antiabortion fight.”

On the subject of his former boss, Troy Newman doesn’t mince words:

"Randall is articulate and convincing," Newman said from Wichita, Kan. "But so are used-car salesmen and cult leaders. He is not a true believer but a charlatan, and a manipulator. . . . He shows up at a national event, makes a flamboyant speech, gets everyone within earshot rattled and then passes the collection plate and moves on."

This looks like a rift that won’t be mended. The dispute sheds light on the way that activism can satisfy a person’s hunger for attention and influence—how it can become a power trip. Terry says, of Newman:

"Why would I let a newcomer with no scars and no history steal my name?"

Such grandiosity has made Terry a liability within the movement. While Newman has been distancing himself from Randall Terry for a while, he had a particular interest in doing so after Terry’s infamous comments in the wake of George Tiller’s murder.

But according to some in the pro-life community, Newman’s distance from Terry is not far enough.  

"Operation Rescue is largely a blast from the past, and fairly marginalized in the pro-life movement now," said Marvin Olasky, editor of the World, a generally conservative Christian magazine. "About 20 years ago, the Operation Rescue activities were probably creating more support for abortion overall, and as the pro-life movement recognized that, the emphasis became one of offering compassionate help to women in a crisis," said Olasky. "The group as a whole, and particularly Randy Terry, never made that leap."

Indeed, for all his criticism of Terry, Newman heads an organization that relies on sensationalism and extremism. On Operation Rescue’s homepage, a cycling graphic box includes a picture of a bloody "fetus" hand holding a dime, with the caption, "NOT ONE DIME! Stop tax-funded abortion."

Perhaps anti-choice groups are moving away from this visible, aggressive approach—the use of lurid photos and physical and verbal harassment of women and health care workers. But we should be just as wary of what succeeds it. “Compassionate help” is commendable, but in the anti-choice movement, it’s often been a wolf in sheep’s clothing: the same old aggression, intimidation, and falsehood, appearing gentler but just as pernicious.