Congress, Administration Move To Keep Abortion Clinics Open
Murder of a Florida physician leads lawmakers to consider tough laws protecting clinics, but anti-abortion groups say bills would `gag' them
WASHINGTON — THE Clinton administration and congressional Democrats have begun working hand in hand on legislation that would curb clinic blockades by anti-abortion protesters.
The impetus for the push to protect abortion clinics was the murder on March 10 of Dr. David Gunn near a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic. Michael Griffin, an apparently deranged anti-abortion demonstrator, has pleaded not guilty to the murder and is awaiting trial.
Randall Terry, leader of Operation Rescue, a radical anti-abortion group based in Binghamton, N.Y., acknowledged that the murder of Dr. Gunn "is not good for public relations."
Following the killing and attempts by activists to close down some abortion clinics, Attorney General Janet Reno said Tuesday that new legislation is needed to protect women entering clinics. The Supreme Court ruled last January that federal judges cannot use an old anti-Ku Klux Klan law to stop protesters who try to block women's access to abortion clinics.
"I have asked our staff to work with congressional staff to do everything possible to develop legislation that addresses these issues in the most effective manner possible," Ms. Reno told reporters. "Passage of this legislation is a priority, it is important and we're going to work with Congress to secure passage of it."
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime to attack medical personnel or clinic property. It also allows the attorney general to bring civil suits to obtain injunctions against such conduct.
Several other measures have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York has a bill pending that would take away federal block grants from cities that don't enforce local trespassing laws.
Reps. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland and Charles Schumer (D) of New York have introduced a Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act that would carry stiff penalties for blocking clinics - 10 to 20 years in prison. The Morella-Schumer bill is scheduled to be voted on by a House Judiciary subcommittee today.
Heather Howard, an aide to Representative Lowey, says the access legislation was crafted with consultation from the American Civil Liberties Union and will not limit First Amendment rights. "We're not saying you can't protest, we're saying you can't harass," she said.
But anti-abortion activists have adamantly protested the proposed laws on the grounds that they would interfere with legitimate demonstrations against abortion. They also argue that the violent acts of an individual like Mr. Griffin are not representative of the anti-abortion movement as a whole.
"The clinic access bill is a sham," says Olivia Gans of the National Right to Life Committtee. "The murderer could have walked up to Dr. Gunn any place, any time, and the bill would not have prevented the murder. Any effort on the part of Congress to gag pro-lifers will be unacceptable. The bill is not a middle ground."
Despite the moves under way in Congress, radical anti-abortion groups have vowed not to alter their confrontational tactics. In fact, Operation Rescue is currently training 22 anti-abortion leaders from across the country in Melbourne, Fla., on tactics to discourage abortions. The "impact training camp" is "half classroom, half in the streets," according to an Operation Rescue staff member.
Students are taught such tactics as tracking down women who have visited abortion clinics by "running" their license plate numbers through a state department of motor vehicles. If the woman is considering an abortion, she is asked to think again. "If the person has had an abortion, we send them information about medical injuries," says Keith Tucci, executive director of Operation Rescue.
Ron Fitzsimmons, director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, says the training has emboldened anti-abortion extremists in Florida to step up the use of violence.
"Since the impact training, a doctor's office in Venice has been torched to the ground, a doctor was blocked in his driveway, a Daytona clinic was invaded and people were videotaped, and David [Gunn] was shot in Pensacola. I don't think it's a coincidence," he says.
Last year, there were more than 200 acts of violence against clinics, according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. These included arson, bombing, assault, death threats, kidnapping, and 48 incidents of noxious chemical attacks, the group says.
These tactics are effective in convincing some providers to leave abortion behind. As a result, there is a nationwide shortage of abortionists that has reached a crisis point in some areas, Mr. Fitzsimmons says.
The most notable act of violence recently has been the murder of Gunn, the Florida physician. Abortion-rights activists blame their opponents for creating a climate that allowed the killing to take place. Dr. Warren Hern, director of an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo., says anti-abortion groups are giving "psychological permission for someone to go out and kill someone."
Mainstream anti-abortion groups have unequivocally condemned the killing and other acts of violence linked to anti-abortion protests.
"It is false and offensive to suggest, as some pro-abortion groups have done, that speaking in favor of the right to life somehow causes violence," says Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
But some extreme anti-abortion groups have reacted more equivocally to Gunn's murder. Donald Treshman, executive director of Rescue America, started a legal defense fund for Griffin, the alleged murder.
While saying he did not condone Griffin's action, Mr. Treshman said in an interview last week, "The casualties have always been on one side up until now."