WHEN SHE AWOKE THE MORNING OF Aug. 28, Karen Thomas Stewart thought she couldn't feel much worse. Just six days earlier, the 30-year-old Des Moines clothing store clerk had suffered a miscarriage. Now more than anything, she wanted to forget the agony. "I was hurting. I needed to heal," she says, sobbing. "I was terrified. I thought I could have died. I was bleeding so much I felt I might."

Then the mail came. In among the bills and circulars Stewart found a two-page letter from Operation Rescue, the controversial antiabortion group best known for blockading clinics. The letter informed her, among other things, that "the guilt of having killed one's own child may only be relieved by God's grace..." and that "God's curses for the shedding of innocent blood include barrenness and disease, as well as economic and family hardships and even death." As she read the letter, Stewart was both repelled and enraged. "It brought my miscarriage up all over again," says Karen, who shares a two-bedroom cottage with husband Forest, 32, a high school music teacher. "It made me sick."

Stewart received the letter because when she began to cramp and bleed, she had sought the advice and treatment of gynecologist Herbert Remer at his Windsor Heights, Iowa, office. "I went to Dr. Remer to save my pregnancy," she says. But because Remer is the only private doctor who provides a full range of obstetric and gynecological care, including abortions, in his central Iowa practice, his patients have been targeted by Operation Rescue, which takes down license-plate numbers, obtains addresses from the Iowa Department of Transportation and mails out haranguing letters intended to provoke agonies of guilt. By its own estimate the organization sends up to 30 letters a week to owners of vehicles parked outside Remer's office and the office of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa in Des Moines.

Operation Rescue officials see their letter-writing campaign as another weapon in a moral battle. "We send these letters out because it's right," explains David Shedlock, communications director for Operation Rescue, Iowa. "It's information the abortionist is not going to provide his customers." They offer no apology for the fact that in the case of Karen Stewart and no doubt many others, these letters show great insensitivity. Despite the fact that she was visiting the doctor to save her unborn child, "Karen Stewart is not an innocent bystander," insists Shedlock. "As far as I'm concerned, we care more about unborn babies than she does."

"Anyone has the right lo feel very strongly about whatever they want," says a still-angry Forest Stewart. "But when they start resorting to bullying, stalking and harassment, then they're either criminals or terrorists." Indeed, Shedlock was convicted of trespass on Oct. 6 for an incident this past February at the Des Moines Planned Parenthood office in which he and six others entered the clinic, locked themselves together and refused to leave. Shedlock faces up to 60 days in jail.

The Stewarts, who were married in March, still hope to have a child someday. But for the moment they wan I nothing more than to move beyond the pain of the miscarriage and its unexpected aftermath. "I just want my privacy, the ability lo go lo my gynecologist without somebody yelling at me when I get out of the car," says Karen. "I want the harassment stopped."

MARILYN ACHIRON
PHOEBE WALL HOWARD in Des Moines

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  • Phoebe Wall Howard.