Roe Protests Coming At Flammable Moment

Killings at abortion clinics in Boston have polarized a hot issue

IN just a week and a half, partisans in the abortion debate will focus their energies on an anniversary that is both reviled and celebrated: the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Women's clinics, still reeling from the Dec. 30 killings at two Boston-area facilities, will brace themselves for the worst. Some anti-abortion activists will hold prayer vigils and protest at clinics. Others will come to Washington for what they call the annual pro-life march. Abortion-rights advocates will link arms, literally and rhetorically, in defense of clinics and of women's reproductive rights.

But the open question leading up to Jan. 22 and beyond is, will it happen again? Will an extremist abortion opponent act on his or her convictions by pulling a trigger?

As growing numbers of abortion foes espouse support for the ``justifiable homicide'' of workers and doctors in abortion clinics, more-moderate anti-abortion leaders in the abortion debate are grappling with how best to reverse the trend toward violence.

Attention has focused on the divergent messages of two prominent Catholic archbishops. Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston has called for a moratorium on prayer vigils and protests at clinics around Boston, while John Cardinal O'Connor of New York says that in his region, a moratorium won't be called unless abortions are also stopped.

Cardinal O'Connor added, though, that if he were in Cardinal Law's position, he might have made the same call. Catholic officials say this does not represent a schism in the church. ``Local bishops can do what they want'' in these so-called ``prudential judgments,'' says Helen Alvare, spokeswoman on anti-abortion activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

``The purpose of protests is to teach,'' and that can't happen in a tense atmosphere, says Ms. Alvare. She also raises the possibility of attacks on pro-lifers if they were to pray or protest at Boston clinics now. Some anti-abortion activists have been injured at protests, but the more-dramatic violence has targeted abortion-rights supporters.

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for Free Choice, says Law's position - which has also been adopted by bishops in New Hampshire and Rhode Island - has brought out ambivalence among American Catholic leaders over tactics in the abortion struggle. ``If the politicos at the bishops' conference thought it was a good idea, they would have endorsed it,'' she says.

``The church has backed itself into a corner with its absolutist position [on abortion],'' she adds. ``Anything moving away from that could raise questions about the church's position.''

Still, says theologian Michael Novak, the church draws the line at killing to save babies. ``In defense of the unborn, you can't send mixed signals,'' he says.

What's unclear is whether church leaders agree with the view commonly held by abortion-rights supporters that clinic protests create a dynamic that encourages violence. On Monday, an ecumenical grouping of pro-choice religious organizations, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, called on Catholic bishops to support Law's position and to join in a dialogue of religious leaders to search for ways to stop violence at clinics.

A reply from the bishops was not immediately forthcoming, and it is clear the Catholic Church and the coalition would have a hard time finding common ground. In their pastoral message on violence issued in November, the bishops repeatedly stated that abortion is one of the violent ways in which Americans choose to deal with difficult problems. On Sunday, Cardinal O'Connor said he would agree to a moratorium on clinic protests ``on condition that a moratorium be called on abortions.''

In Boston, pro-choice leaders say it's too soon to tell if Law's statement has curtailed protests at clinics. Catholics represent only a portion of those who conduct vigils. Among clinic protesters, it's unclear how many follow the edicts of organized religion or anti-abortion groups. Some so-called ``rescue groups,'' which seek to shut down clinics by blocking their entrances, have sent mixed signals, deploring killings but warning of more to come.

For anti-abortion activists who value an image of moderation, the killings at clinics poses a special public-relations problem.

The media are paying disproportionate attention to the ``violent few'' and ignoring the millions of Americans who call themselves pro-life and who don't advocate violence, says Michelle Arocha Allen, spokeswoman for the mainstream National Right to Life Committee.

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