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Longtime Spokane abortion protestor Teresa Van Camp didn’t think she’d live to see court overturn Roe

Van Camp  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Van Camp (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Teresa Van Camp fought to end legal abortion for some 30 years, picketing and being jailed first in Spokane and later in cities around the country. She hoped for an end to the Roe v. Wade decision but doubted it would happen in her lifetime.

“I thought of seeing victory on the horizon but not actually living to see it,” Van Camp, arguably Spokane’s most well-known abortion protester, said Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its landmark 1973 ruling on a 6-3 vote. “I thanked the Lord this morning that I lived to see this day.”

Like many in the movement, she had long hoped for a change in the nation’s abortion laws but didn’t expect it to come from the court. For decades, she thought it would take a Right to Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That was before the court changed with what she called “the Trump-McConnell justices.”

In 1985, Van Camp, then Teresa Lindley, was a 37-year-old licensed practical nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center when she went to see the anti-abortion movie “Silent Scream” being shown by Dr. Al Derby, a Spokane obstetrician and gynecologist. Along with his wife, Marlyn Derby, Al Derby was active in the Spokane community opposed to abortion.

The controversial 1984 movie produced by the National Right to Life Committee shows an ultrasound of an abortion taking place.

Supporters say it shows the pain an unborn baby feels in an abortion, but critics say the fuzzy video images are manipulative, and a fetus at that stage of development can’t experience pain or “scream.”

Van Camp said she hadn’t really thought much about abortion before that, and “I was stunned at how ignorant I had been.”

At the showing of the movie, she also met Grace Gerl, a member of Share, a small group that had begun weekly protests at the Sixth Avenue Medical Building. They began going to the building when they had time, trying to talk women out of having abortions, offering to take them for a free ultrasound and help if they kept the baby.

“Grace and I were just moms with babies and children growing up,” she said.

Share called the activities counseling. Occupants of the building, which included a wide range of medical services, called it harassment. When some of the doctors obtained a court order restricting protesters to the sidewalk or across the street from the entrance, she and Gerl refused to obey. Superior Court Judge Willard Zellmer, who issued the injunction, warned them they’d be jailed, and they still refused.

After several weeks, Zellmer ordered them jailed, saying they could leave when they promised to obey the injunction. They stayed in jail 12 days as the anti-abortion forces around the country took notice and some began coming to Spokane.

Jail was an eye-opening experience, Van Camp said, that included widespread profanity, meals being shoved under the bars and sitting at a metal table next to a toilet.

Eventually, they agreed to obey the injunction, posted bond and were let out. They moved their protest to Deaconess Medical Center, which allows abortions to be performed in its facilities, while others from Spokane and around the country continued protests at the Sixth Avenue Medical Building. Some of them were cited for contempt and fined.

Van Camp met some of the national leaders of the anti-abortion movement, including Beverly La Haye, the leader of Concerned Women for America, and Jay Sekulow, who would later become a legal adviser to President Donald Trump.

“We were always astounded” at the attention they received, Van Camp said.

She also began demonstrating around the country, participating in protests and sit-ins – sometimes getting arrested or fined.

“Our goals were pure. Our tactics were pretty stupid sometimes,” she said Friday, recalling how at one sit-in her leg had been linked with a metal bicycle lock to the neck of a Catholic priest sitting next to her. If she moved her leg to ease the pain there, it hurt his neck.

Her activity came with a personal cost to her family, too. She fell in love with attorney Russell Van Camp, a longtime abortion opponent who was representing them pro bono. They began having an affair that broke up both of their marriages. They both eventually divorced and got married.

“I have no excuses. What I did to my poor (first) husband Ron was inexcusable,” she said. “We’re all human beings. We make choices, sometimes ruled by emotions alone. You turn to the Lord and ask forgiveness.”

She and other local protesters became active in Republican politics. Marlyn Derby ran multiple times for Congress against then-Rep. Tom Foley. They held some precinct caucuses in their home, and Russell Van Camp went to the Republican National Convention as a delegate for the Rev. Pat Robertson.

“The Republicans were the ones protecting life,” she said, although she added for most of that time “the presidents and Congress didn’t do much.”

She continued protesting, including regular picketing at the Spokane Planned Parenthood offices, until about 10 years ago, when Russell’s health began to fail and she took care of him until he died in 2018. Now 74, she still attends protests from time to time, including a few visits to the Church at Planned Parenthood sessions, and she “enjoyed that immensely.”

Van Camp said she considers Friday’s decision a “major step,” but not the final one. Abortion remains legal in Washington state and some others.

“Now the responsibility is going back to each woman and each state, where the responsibility should be,” she said.

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