Anti-Abortion Protesters Face Tough New Obstacle

ANTI-ABORTION groups are gearing up to fight a bill soon to be signed by President Clinton that heightens the penalty for blocking access to abortion clinics. The bill, approved 69 to 30 by the Senate last Thursday (it was passed by the House earlier), would make it a federal crime to hinder access to a clinic by force or intimidation, or to threaten or attack clinic workers, doctors, or patients.

Some abortion foes who practice civil disobedience argue that the bill unfairly singles out abortion protesters for unusually harsh punishment.

One group, the American Life League, based in Stafford, Va., will seek both preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing the law from taking effect as soon as President Clinton signs it. He is expected to do so within the next week.

``The law has several problems,'' says Marion Harrison, a lawyer for the American Life League. ``It abridges First Amendment freedom of speech. It's overly broad and vague.... It also is a violation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act [by limiting] what you're allowed to do as a manifestation of your religious beliefs.''

Actions prohibited by the bill, such as ``intimidation'' of and ``interference with'' patients, doctors, and clinic workers are subjective concepts that depend on the viewpoint of offended people, Mr. Harrison says.

He voices frustration that, because the law is a criminal statute, no regulations will be issued by the government to clarify what is meant. However, judges can interpret the law.

Some nonviolent sit-ins that now earn participants a night in jail and a $100 fine would, under the legislation, carry penalties of up to six months in prison and a $10,000 fine for first-time offenders. Violent repeat offenders could get up to $250,000 in fines and three years in prison.

ABORTION-RIGHTS supporters stress that the bill explicitly allows activities that are protected by the First Amendment, such as picketing. But courts have traditionally not protected civil disobedience as free speech.

The impetus for the bill is the rise in violence, with 1,600 acts of violence against clinics in the past year. Two doctors were shot, one fatally. This has driven abortion doctors out of the business and made abortion less accessible, pro-choice groups assert.

But abortion opponents say that headline-making bombings and shootings were already illegal and that stiffening the punishment for peaceful protest could push more pro-lifers to commit acts of violence.

``John F. Kennedy said that if peaceful revolution is impossible, violent revolution is inevitable,'' says Wendy Wright of Operation Rescue, an organization that blockades clinics. ``But we won't resort to violence.''

Ms. Wright says Operation Rescue will still go ahead with ``life-saving activities'' planned for this week at Planned Parenthood's new clinic in Waco, Texas.

Not all abortion opponents are fighting the bill, including some usually anti-abortion members of Congress who voted for it. The nation's largest pro-life organization, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), opposed the bill but not as strenuously as other pro-life groups. NRLC has long been at odds over tactics with groups like Operation Rescue and Rescue America.

Final passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act marks the latest of several victories for the abortion-rights movement this year. In January, the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute abortion opponents deemed to be conspiring against abortion providers.

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