By Lindsay Toler
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Dreste never wanted to be a hero, though, preferring the front-line work of the doers as opposed to the sideline strategizing of the leaders. But in 1988, after a philosophical split in the Pro-Life Action League, Dreste formed a new, more Protestant group called Whole Life Ministries, which in turn soon affiliated with the more radical national organization Operation Rescue. Headed by charismatic leader Randall Terry, Operation Rescue took the country by storm. Huge rescues were staged at clinics across the country and began garnering the praise of religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.
Dreste, like the movement itself, was changing, becoming more savvy, confronting the system on the streets, and Whole Life Ministries started making headlines. In June 1988, 50 members were arrested outside the Womenscare Clinic in St. Louis County. In July, 60 more were charged with mob action for their protest at the Hope Clinic. One month later, 22 more. A day after that, 23. Getting arrested was not just an unpleasant consequence, a price to pay for the protest, but became part of the strategy. And Dreste understood this well. "We had a whole group of attorneys that would take all these cases pro bono," Dreste says. "If the prosecutors wouldn't give us a break, the attorneys would say, 'Fine, we all want individual jury trials, which will cost thousands of dollars and tie up the system for months.' They'd usually say, 'Well, all right, it's only civil trespassing charges.' We did whatever we could to tie up the system."
By 1991, Operation Rescue was holding larger and larger protests, and Dreste attended as many as he could. That August, 2,500 people, including Dreste, were arrested for disorderly conduct in Wichita, Kan. The next year, in Washington, D.C., Dreste and 277 others were hauled in for crossing police lines to block clinic entrances. Back in St. Louis, Dreste continued organizing protests at places like Granite City, where the director of Hope Clinic, Sally Burgess, could only watch in horror.
"They used tactics like, when a patient was walking toward the clinic out on the sidewalk, they would get right in her face, and your tendency when somebody does that is to reach out and try to push them back," Burgess says. "At that point, the protesters would call the police and file assault charges (against the woman), so that the patient would be sitting there in this very busy clinic and be dragged out by the police. Any little harassment thing like that, they would do."
At the time, Dreste was still working as an auto mechanic, but the continual breaks he was taking for protests, jail time and trials were beginning to put a strain on his relationship with his boss. Some members of his family, too, were having a hard time accepting that they had a "criminal" in the family. Finally his church stepped in and asked him to become a full-time "missionary for the pre-born," and Dreste willingly accepted.
Things moved forward at a dizzying pace, and the parallel lines of religion and politics began to merge. Dreste organized more protests, traveled more to others across the country and then decided to run for the state Senate seat held by Wayne Goode (D-Normandy) on a pro-life Republican platform. He knew his chances of winning in the heavily Democratic district weren't the best, but because he believed Goode's stand against abortion wasn't strong enough, and because the incumbent senator rarely ran opposed, Dreste decided to give him a little competition, a little political jog around the block.
Meanwhile, violent incidents at clinics were reaching an all-time high, with 196 reported by the end of 1992, and disruptions, such as bomb threats and hate mail, rising to 3,379.
But then the political bottom dropped out when the Reagan-Bush era was plowed under in the November '92 elections and the staunchly pro-choice Bill Clinton was elected to office, the pro-choice Mel Carnahan was elected Missouri's governor, and Dreste, not surprisingly, lost his own race. The following May, the newly empowered abortion-rights side fired its first volley in what would soon escalate into out-and-out war: Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Entrances Act (FACE), making it a federal crime to engage in violent or disruptive behavior at abortion clinics.
It was a hammer to the head of the rescue movement, and while in jail for an earlier clinic protest, Dreste let loose and wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch questioning why his people were being thrown in jail while "militant homosexuals invade church services and spread AIDS-infected blood in legislative chambers, all the while being cheered on by the left for standing up for their causes."
Rendered impotent at the clinics by legislation, yet impassioned by the fiery rhetoric of the movement's leaders, extremists at the fringe began crawling out of the shadows, guns in hand. In March 1993, Dr. David Gunn, an abortion provider in Pensacola, Fla., was shot to death by Michael Griffin. It was the first murder of an abortion provider in the U.S., and it set the stage on which an increasingly militant pro-life movement would, from then on, act.