St. Petersburg -- Writing in a recently published book, a former insider of the anti-abortion movement says that some respected conservative Christians have tacitly condoned the violence practiced by radicals during the past decade.
Jerry Reiter makes his claims in Live From the Gates of Hell, An Insider's Look at the Anti-Abortion Underground. He worked as a media coordinator for Operation Rescue. But, disillusioned, he later infiltrated militant anti-abortion groups as an FBI informer.
He writes, "One of the things that surprised me about the Christian Coalition was that even though it publicly denounced the illegal tactics of groups like Operation Rescue, when the big national anti-abortion protest came to Buffalo in 1992, Operation Rescue National housed its secret command and communication offices in the basement suite of offices that the Christian Coalition of New York had as its state headquarters."
He adds, "Soon after I entered the secret command post of Operation Rescue, I was given books on dozens of not-so-peaceful activities, including a book by Rev. Michael Bray advocating the bombing of abortion clinics."
Repeated calls to the Christian Coalition's national headquarters were not returned. He has been changed by his experience.
"What changed me first off was seeing people who use the Bible to justify all kinds of evil," said Reiter, who now calls himself a humanist and attends a Unitarian Universalist Church.
Today Reiter works as the communication director for the Council for Secular Humanism. He recently paid a visit to the Tampa Bay area to speak at the Winter Solstice meeting of the St. Petersburg Largo Area Secular Humanists. Reiter told the group that his book, published in early November, may be made into a made-for-television movie.
He no longer is against laws that allow abortions. "I want to see abortions reduced. Sex education, birth control and availability of health-care options is the way to go," he said. "Those people who oppose abortion are often those who oppose sex education, birth control and other health care options."
Reiter, 44, grew up in a devout Irish Catholic family in south Buffalo, N.Y. At 14, he became a born-again Christian and the following year joined the charismatic Catholic movement. He later enrolled in a seminary but dropped out after one semester. He joined a charismatic fundamentalist church after his wife, Susan, got a job teaching at a Christian school. Before his stint with Operation Rescue, Reiter was a journalist for an ABC affiliate in upstate New York. However, because of his connection to two pastors who were organizing a major abortion protest in his hometown, his news director refused to assign any stories to him until the demonstrations were over.
Learning of Reiter's predicament, one of the ministers arranged for the job at Operation Rescue. It was this inside view that began Reiter's disillusionment and eventually led to his role as an FBI informant. Reiter, the father of two adult sons, one of whom is studying to be a minister, said he decided to become an informer to save lives.
"I didn't just go in there to get a story. I went in there because I knew that lives were on the line. . . . I realized that these people were very serious about doing harm to people," he said.
Reiter said he had received a tip that "something big" was being organized by militant anti-abortion groups and would occur after the trial of Michael Griffin, who shot Dr. David Gunn, 47, in 1993 as he arrived to perform abortions at Pensacola Medical Services. Convicted in 1994, he is serving a life sentence.
During Griffin's trial, Reiter had lunch with Paul Hill, a former minister. Over sandwiches and iced tea, Reiter received confirmation of the tip. According to Reiter, Hill's words at lunch had been, "What you're gonna see next now, brother, is an IRA-type reign of terror. There's too much pressure on all of us, too many people watching us to do anything major under direct orders from the national level, so what you're gonna see is individuals or small groups of people takin' action in their own hands to do what the leaders want to see done, but since there won't be any direct orders given, no one can prove conspiracy."
Hill is now on death row for the 1994 shooting of Dr. John Bayard Britton and volunteer James Barrett as they sat in a pickup outside the Ladies Center, a Pensacola women's clinic. Reiter said his information helped law enforcement officials foil a plot to harm abortion providers and feminist leaders during an outdoor vigil in Pensacola planned for the anniversary of Dr. Gunn's shooting. "If I hadn't done something at the time, it's likely they would have been successful and hundreds could have been killed," Reiter said in a recent interview. Let's face it, the man about whom I'm talking (Paul Hill) is now on death row." He felt compelled to record his experience, Reiter said. "It's a hell of a great story. I had the most unique background. I was able to see the most radical, most dangerous people in the country as they were formulating their plans," he said.
Reiter said his revelations have led him to fear for his life and those around him. "I get e-mails from people that were in the groups I was involved in and they just don't understand why I've changed," he said. "I've had people make implied threats. I've had people argue with me in person, in phone calls." A former legislative candidate and town party chairman for the Republican Party, Reiter is now a staunch Democrat. He thinks the election of George W. Bush could instigate more anti-abortion violence.
"Having President-elect Bush coming into power will raise expectations by those who consider themselves pro-life activists," he said. "And if they feel frustrated by his actions, we may actually see a rise of violence again against health-care providers and those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, that doesn't end the matter. It goes back to all 50 states to decide. Then we will see the most horrible commotion we've ever seen."
Furthermore, he added, "The mainstream anti-abortion movement has shrunk dramatically and now you just see more hard-core people. It's not a calm situation. The days of the little old ladies with the rosaries have been replaced with this radical, vitriolic group. . . . The people around Paul Hill, once he is executed, they are planning to rise up and take action. They are planning to give us unprecedented violence."