Act Quickly on Abortion Protests

January 15, 1993

The Supreme Court says anti-abortionists can legally demonstrate, protest and even, apparently, coerce women trying enter clinics where abortions are performed without violating a 120-year-old civil rights law. The jurisprudence of the decision is no doubt correct, but the result is going to be unfortunate, at least temporarily.

The 1871 law was aimed at preventing organized private citizens from discriminating against any "class" of citizens protected by the Constitution. It was a response to the Ku Klux Klan. Many Southern states' law enforcement officials wouldn't or couldn't protect blacks from the Klan.

In an opinion for a six-justice majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that "women" may or may not be a protected class but "women seeking abortions" certainly are not. Therefore, it is up to state and local law enforcement to prevent anti-abortion demonstrators from crossing the line from protest to intimidation or assault -- unless and until Congress passes a new law specifically saying that some of the tactics employed by such organizations as Operation Rescue are a federal crime.

Operation Rescue is not exactly the Klan, but it is a threat to individual women and health-care professionals. It is also a threat to the good order of the communities it targets. Wichita, Kan., for one, learned that to its dismay in 1991. Thousands of anti-abortionists converged there and for days on end conducted massive, abusive protests. Even with the old Klan law invoked by a local federal judge, the impact on the community was expensive, disruptive and painful.

The 1871 law also stated that it could be triggered whenever local police were overwhelmed by organized private groups. We think on this point federal protection should be authorized, protected class or not. But the Supreme Court also rejected this notion. That means the next Wichita-type operation in a small city could be much worse than what we have seen so far. That is why Congress should quickly enact a new law. President-elect Clinton said during the campaign he favored such a law that he would certainly sign it.

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