Activist is under a cloud but back in the spotlight

'80s anti-abortion leader returns to the public eye on stem-cell research

Baltimore Sun/August 2, 2001
By Susan Baer

Washington -- The caustic words - the talk of a "culture of death" and "crimes against humanity" - were familiar. So was the face - the impassioned blue eyes, wire-rimmed glasses and thick, gold-flecked hair.

But where anti-abortion figure Randall Terry once stirred tens of thousands, attracting huge activist crowds to demonstrations outside clinics, waving grisly photos of aborted fetuses and happily going to prison in the name of the unborn, yesterday he stood virtually alone.

Protesting against embryonic stem-cell research, the militant founder of Operation Rescue marched in front of the White House with his new wife, his daughter, his puppy - and, most notably, without the Christian anti-abortion movement he helped mobilize.

As Terry again attempts to claim the spotlight, seizing upon one of the most volatile issues of the day to re-enter the fray, many of his former allies now see him as a sinner, an "errant prophet" who squandered his credibility as a moral leader by leaving his wife of 19 years and marrying a former aide 16 years his junior.

"No doubt, Randy is trying to make a comeback," says the Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Save America, the successor to Terry's Operation Rescue. "But character matters to God. He violated his covenant with the Lord, with his wife and with his church. He has no moral authority upon which to stand. He is disqualified."

Terry, 42, dismisses the harsh judgments of his friends-turned-critics. "Thankfully, God is more merciful than some of my former colleagues," he says, munching a McDonald's double cheeseburger during his drive from a protest in Norfolk, Va., yesterday morning to Washington.

"If you're a sinner, you can't work for righteousness? It's silly. All of us are sinners. Christ redeems individual lives and uses them for good," he says.

Terry acknowledges that, after a "sabbatical" in which he recorded country and gospel albums in Nashville, Tenn., and returned to his pre-activist profession of selling used cars, he has found an issue he feels compelled to speak about.

"I see it as a duty," he says. But others see it as "Randall Terry's second coming-out party," as the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, head of the anti-abortion Christian Defense Coalition, said yesterday.

In the past three weeks, Terry says, he has done interviews about embryonic stem-cell research on 300 radio stations, and yesterday, he stopped in Richmond for a live interview on CNN.

He also planned protests in nine cities across the country, including Baltimore, to coincide with his demonstrations yesterday in Virginia, at the site of a fertility clinic that creates embryos specifically for stem-cell research, and across from the White House.

"I don't look at it as an entree [to the public stage], but it certainly has given me a forum to speak," he says of the stem-cell issue that President Bush is grappling with. "God gave me the privilege of leading people and speaking to the nation. He's never taken that privilege away."

But even former allies who believe Terry has a right to speak out, such as Mahoney, say he should stay on the sidelines because of "the cloud hanging over him."

"There is 100 percent agreement in the pro-life community that Randall not be at the lead on any issue that impacts our movement," says Mahoney, who founded the Christian Defense Coalition with Terry in 1990. "Our movement is rooted in biblical ethics and morals. He has too much baggage. The issue becomes him."

These same evangelicals and conservatives who now see Terry as damaged goods still extol his talent as a passionate speaker and provocateur and praise his value to the anti-abortion movement.

"He had an invaluable part in bringing attention to the fact that abortion is murder, and really helped spark the pro-life movement," says Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America.

Terry's mantra in the late 1980s was: "If you think abortion is murder, then act like it is." His words encouraged tens of thousands of abortion foes to storm clinics and literally place themselves between women seeking abortions and the clinic doors, even if it meant arrest and in some cases, violence. "He gave hope to people like me," says Wright. "He gave us something to actually do besides write a letter to our congressman."

Throughout the 1990s, from his home in upstate New York, Terry, a father of three, remained a celebrity of sorts as host of a radio talk show and ready voice of opposition on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

But in the past few years, his life seemed to unravel. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998. Lawsuits filed against him by clinics forced him into bankruptcy. And he left both his wife and his church, a small Pentecostal Protestant congregation, which disapproved of his divorce plans.

Terry's pastor of 15 years wrote an open letter of "censure" to him, mentioning Terry's plans to dissolve his marriage, his failure to repent and a "pattern of repeated sinful relationships and conversations with both single and married women."

After Benham posted the letter on the Operation Save America Web site, with his own statement that Terry was "in desperate need right now of hearing and receiving the rebuke of our Lord into his life," Terry lost his radio show and most of his following.

When his divorce became final in January, Terry started dating a 26-year-old woman who had worked on his congressional campaign. The two were married in June.

Terry won't discuss his own feelings about his divorce, saying they are "issues of the heart" that are personal.

He says he and his new wife are living on a "shoestring budget." They packed tuna sandwiches for the ride from their home in rural Windsor, N.Y., to Norfolk and stayed overnight with friends. "It's time to rebuild," he says. "I accept that."

The question remains, will his former allies? The Rev. Peter West, a Catholic priest from Windsor who traveled with the couple this week, said he didn't know much about Terry's personal life, nor did he care.

"I know what he's doing here is good," said West as he marched in front of the White House with Terry, proclaiming that Jesus Christ was once a human embryo. "I leave it to God to judge his personal life."

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