WASHINGTON — THE Supreme Court's decision last week allowing judges to establish buffer zones around abortion clinics represents the latest blow to the clinic-blockade movement.
But it is likely only to reinforce, rather than establish, a trend that has developed over the last eight months: a marked decline in clinic blockades, arrests at clinics, and violent acts aimed at clinics and staff.
In the first four months of 1994, there were 16 blockades nationwide and 108 arrests, compared with 66 blockades and 1,236 arrests for all of 1993, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which represents clinics. And for the same period this year, there were 24 acts of vandalism at clinics and four cases of clinic doctors or staff being stalked, compared with 113 acts of vandalism and 188 cases of stalking for 1993.
Under the Bush administration, ``there was a climate of permissiveness and generosity on the part of police and courts around harassing activity,'' says Sylvia Stengle, executive director of NAF. Under the pro-abortion-rights Clinton administration, she says, there's been a ``complete sea change'' in the way the Justice Department pursues cases.
Full brunt of law
In addition, the Supreme Court ruled this year that prosecutors need not demonstrate a financial motive in applying federal racketeering laws to the leaders of the blockade movement. And Congress enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act this year, making it a federal offense to block entrance to an abortion clinic.
Now, with the ruling last Thursday that judges may keep anti-abortion activists away from clinic entrances without violating their right to free speech, the court has given a green light for a proliferation of such buffer zones at clinics around the country.
This ruling and the FACE Act will have a chilling effect on anti-abortion activists whose forms of activism include handing out pamphlets and talking to women entering clinics, picketing, and sit-ins, say spokespeople for the blockade movement.
``The battle is not going to be on the streets for a while,'' says Bob Jewett, director of the Washington, D.C. branch of Operation Rescue, the best-known blockade group. ``In 1988, the price of [action] was two or three days in jail. Now, it's 18 months in jail and a $25,000 fine.... Those who can't go to jail will stay home.''
But Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for Operation Rescue National, says the days of big clinic blockades with mass arrests - the kind that immobilized the city of Wichita three years ago - were over anyway. The action in Wichita worked, she says, because police were unprepared. Now, police and abortion rights activists have elaborate defense strategies.
Yet Operation Rescue is still operating. In May, the group organized against a new Planned Parenthood clinic in Waco, Texas. From July 6-9, Operation Rescue is targeting clinics in Little Rock, Ark. Six protesters from another group, Missionaries to the Preborn, have provided the first case for prosecution under FACE. They are awaiting trial in August for blocking the entrance of a Milwaukee clinic with two station wagons.
Well-known blockade groups such as Operation Rescue and Rescue America disavow violence, and ascribe the drop in violence against clinics to their public calls against such actions. But abortion rights leaders argue that clinic blockades create an atmosphere that encourages violence, even if blockade leaders themselves are not inciting violence.
The Rev. Pat Mahoney, a former spokesman for Operation Rescue and now director of the Christian Defense Coalition, sees an opportunity in last week's Supreme Court ruling. He acknowledges that many in the anti-abortion movement, especially ministers and priests, have disagreed with the tactic of clinic blockades and sit-ins.
Now, Mr. Mahoney plans on calling on anti-abortion clergy to bring their Bibles and come pray inside the buffer zone outside a clinic. ``I bet that message will be more warmly received than, say, a rescue,'' Mahoney says.
Some key members of Congress have stated that FACE is not intended to be used against people who are just praying. But Mahoney wants to test the law. He's sending 10,000 letters to activists in an effort, he says, to rebuild relations with the Christian community.