WICHITA, Kan. – Operation Rescue, one of the nation's highest-profile groups in the anti-abortion movement, has told its supporters it is facing a "major financial crisis" and is very close to shutting down unless emergency help arrives soon.
The group's president, Troy Newman, blamed the economic downturn for its money woes in a desperate plea e-mailed Monday night to donors. But the Wichita-based organization has also been under attack from both fringe anti-abortion militants and abortion rights supporters since the May 31 shooting death of Dr. George Tiller.
"We're now so broke (as the saying goes), we can't even pay attention," Newman wrote.
Newman told The Associated Press in an interview after the mailing that the group has only four paid employees left, compared to nine a year ago. The group typically has an annual budget of $600,000, but donations this year have been down 30 to 40 percent. Newman, who earns $60,000 annually, said he hasn't been paid in two months.
"You put a need in front of people and say, 'Here is where we are at,'" Newman said. "I have always seen people respond faithfully."
Scott Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., faces charges of murder and aggravated assault in the slaying of Tiller as the Wichita abortion provider ushered at a Sunday morning church service.
Tiller's killing has also been a public relations nightmare for the group — despite its public condemnation of the slaying — since the name and phone number of the group's senior policy adviser was found in Roeder's car when he was arrested. A television crew zoomed in on the scrawled note inside the car in images that made their way to the Internet.
"You see, this summer has been brutal for Operation Rescue," Newman wrote. "Not only did George Tiller's death throw everybody in the pro-life movement for a loop (and especially us), but the economic crisis our nation is suffering has brought our financial support to nearly a halt."
Newman told AP that the decline in the group's donations actually began last year, and he insisted there was no correlation between the drop and Tiller's shooting.
The Internal Revenue Service revoked Operation Rescue's tax-exempt status in 2006 for prohibited political activity during the 2004 election. That means donations to the group are no longer deductible on taxes. Newman has said the IRS revocation did not affect donations.
Meanwhile, other groups in the abortion fray have not noticed a similar decline in contributions.
Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, said Tuesday that she has not noticed such a drop. Summer is traditionally a slow time, but the group's membership drive went "rather well" this summer, she said.
"Most of the people that give us money are pretty dedicated, educated on this issue and certainly didn't feel anything we did had anything to do with Dr. Tiller's murder," Culp said.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, said that since Tiller's shooting her abortion rights group has had tens of thousands of dollars in new donations from people who were outraged by it.
Saporta also was not surprised by the financial backlash against Operation Rescue.
"They have publicly denounced his murder, yet they move their headquarters to Wichita and spend years harassing and trying to put him out of business," Saporta said. "And people involved with Operation Rescue had also been in communication with Scott Roeder so their hands aren't necessarily 100 percent clean in this scenario."
Abortion rights supporters contend some of Operation Rescue's activities contribute to the atmosphere that encourage people like Roeder to take the law into their hands.
Operation Rescue has been the target of death threats since Tiller's shooting.
Newman, who has publicly derided Roeder as a "lunatic," has also been criticized by fringe elements in the anti-abortion movement. Roeder sent Newman a July 21 letter accusing him of "cowardice" in condemning the shooting while seeking to protect himself.
The name Operation Rescue became synonymous with the anti-abortion movement after the original group orchestrated the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests in Wichita that sparked mass demonstrations and arrests. Today, its protests in that same city typically draw no more than a couple dozen protesters.
Its tactics have instead focused in recent years on legal challenges in courts and medical boards as well as lobbying efforts. But it retained its ability to stir controversy by blacklisting businesses that provide services to abortion clinics and protesting in the neighborhoods of clinic workers.
Newman said his group has had 50,000 donors in the past 10 years, and has 150,000 people listed in its database. Roeder has claimed he contributed to the group.
Operation Rescue's fundraising letter hinted at a secret project it hoped to launch in the next 30 days that would be a "new phase in the pro-life fight." But while the group's fundraising efforts are often tied to some new anti-abortion activity, its latest letter had an unprecedented tone of desperation.
"Seriously. We struggle to pay every bill," Newman wrote supporters. "I had to borrow money just to send you this letter, in hopes that you will come to our rescue so that we can continue to rescue babies."