Police, pro-choice groups on alert as national abortion protest group arrives

Bibles in hand, a few hundred anti-abortion activists are slated to drop into town starting Saturday for a week of protests and demonstrations, including a steady presence outside the only two area health clinics where abortions are performed.

The group, Operation Save America, also has scheduled an open-casket funeral for an aborted fetus with a procession around Jackson Square on Tuesday morning, a local organizer said Friday.

New Orleans Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office officials said they are planning to keep a close watch on the protests, with officers and deputies posted outside the Uptown and Metairie clinics where the group will deploy activists to broadcast the Gospel-inspired message of opposition to abortion it promotes in a different city each year.

“A handful of deputies” will be stationed around the Causeway Medical Clinic near Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie, said Col. John Fortunato, a JPSO spokesman.

“Anytime we have demonstrations and things like this, we always want to make sure we deploy some people there both in uniform and plainclothes. Just for the visibility aspect. We don’t anticipate having any problems,” Fortunato said. “It’s just a precaution, and we want to make sure we’re out there and the citizens know we’re out there to protect the community.”

New Orleans officials declined to say how many officers will be stationed outside the Women’s Health Care Center on Gen. Pershing Street, the only clinic in the city where abortions are performed.

But NOPD spokesman Benjamin Hammond said the force will have extra vans and barricades on hand in case the protests grow unruly.

Second District Cmdr. Paul Noel said the police presence around the scheduled protests will include plainclothes intelligence officers, cops wearing body cams and some officers on horseback.

“If we need more resources, we can bring them in gradually to deal with this,” Noel said.

A city spokesman said the clinic also has applied for an additional off-duty officer to work a detail there on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

News outlets in the last two cities where Operation Save America has held its annual event did not report any major trouble, although police officials in Rochester, New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, did not return calls for details.

The North Carolina-based group’s national leader, the Rev. Flip Benham, boasts on its website that he “leads by example, having spent time in jail for the cause of Christ in Wichita, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Lynchburg (Virginia) and Washington, D.C.”

Also on the site is a photo of a joyous Benham in 1995 in a swimming pool where he had just baptized Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 that said states could not ban abortions. McCorvey’s subsequent religious and political conversion has been touted by pro-life crusaders as a major symbolic victory.

Neither Benham, 66, nor the Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, a key leader in the same group, could be reached for comment Friday. But a local organizer, Pastor Dale Sochia, of King Jesus Ministries in Boutte, downplayed concerns over the group’s descent on New Orleans.

“I would say all of these people go to (protest at) the clinics that are in the general area of the towns they live in,” Sochia said. “They’re just moms and dads, sisters and brothers, grandmas and grandpas, children.”

At least some will be holding up signs with pictures of aborted fetuses. Sochia said he is expecting 250 to 300 people to show up, though not all of them will be deployed to one spot.

While some will be stationed at the two clinics, the group will meet at Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner each night, beginning Saturday, to plan events for the following day, he said.

Pastors among the group will hold a repentance service at the church Sunday, he said, and the fetal funeral procession around Jackson Square will start from St. Louis Cathedral at 10 a.m. Tuesday. In the casket will be “a real aborted baby,” Sochia said.

He wouldn’t say where it was obtained.

“I didn’t get it. It’s probably one that has been preserved. Until America sees what abortion is, it’ll never end,” he said, adding that he didn’t anticipate an arrest-filled week.

“It doesn’t do me any good if I’m sitting in a booking station and I can’t be out on the street,” he said. “I’m there to bring hope to these women that there’s another choice, that they do not have to do this, that we have help for them. That little voice we’re wanting to be is a voice for the baby.”

While Sochia credits God for choosing New Orleans as the site for this year’s protests, other pro-choice groups point to Planned Parenthood’s controversial plan for a 7,000-square-foot health clinic on South Claiborne Avenue.

The project has galvanized the abortion debate in New Orleans because it could add a new option for local women at a time when court decisions and new state laws are serving to further constrict access to abortion and contraception.

In its recent ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly found that closely held corporations are protected by the right of free religious expression from an Affordable Care Act mandate to help pay for employees’ birth control.

And abortion-rights groups fear that a state law Gov. Bobby Jindal signed last month, requiring abortion providers to have active admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, could eliminate several clinics that provide abortions in the state.

The requirement could lead to the closure of abortion clinics in New Orleans, Metairie and Baton Rouge. Only two others, in Shreveport and Bossier City, likely would not be impacted.

Jessie Nieblas, a board member of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, which offers financial help for women who can’t afford the cost of an abortion, said the clinics and other advocates have been meeting with police and federal agencies in an effort to ensure the safety of patients and providers during the protests.

She described Operation Save America as a radical organization.

“Their methods are very extreme” and include blockading clinics and intimidating providers, Nieblas said.

“They rely on harassment, intimidation and scare tactics,” she said.

She said trained clinic escorts and legal monitors will be on hand to keep close tabs on the protesters.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.