Abortion battles to come

Anna Quindlen

January 18, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

IN September someone pushed a syringe around the edge of a door at the building that houses the Northland Family Planning clinic and sprayed the vestibule with acid. The clinic was one of 14 in Michigan so targeted.

On Christmas Eve, members of a Lutheran church in Omaha received postcards picturing a dismembered fetus.

The mass mailing to 250 homes came after a worship service had been disrupted and scriptural graffiti painted in red on a church wall, all because one church member is a doctor who performs abortions.

Next week two events of great moment will take place in Washington, D.C. Bill Clinton will become president.

And the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade will be commemorated by those who are opposed to abortion and those who fight to keep it legal.

But do not be fooled by this timely convergence of the inauguration of a president who supports a woman's right to choose and the anniversary of the decision that recognized that right.

Last week's Supreme Court decision stripping abortion clinics of federal civil rights protection shows how very far we have to go.

The acid attack, the postal onslaught and many incidents like them tell the real story.

After Mr. Clinton's election, some felt the abortion debate was moving toward resolution. The gag rule would be overturned, the abortion pill would be considered on its merits, and the man in the Oval Office would sign the Freedom of Choice Act.

All those changes, if they come, will be long overdue. But we have yet to address -- or even fully recognize -- the problems of everyday procedure.

Those will be the battles of the next decade.

Doctors who perform abortions are besieged by groups like Missionaries to the Pre-Born, which sent the mailing out to the Omaha congregation. Their homes are picketed and their families and patients har- assed.

It's no wonder that some of them drop out of this particular practice area.

Others are aging out. The 20th anniversary of Roe means that those doctors deeply dedicated to providing abortion services, those who remember the bad old days, are two decades older than when they began. When The clinics have aged, too. Their administrators have been through blockades and arsons, and some are weary.

they retire, there are few young doctors to replace them.

The clinics have aged, too. Their administrators have been through blockades and arsons, and some are weary.

Renee Chelian, who oversees three of Michigan's 30 clinics, can still smell the butyric acid someone sprayed inside the building in which her Northland clinic rents space, ruining carpets and paneling and leaving behind noxious fumes.

Her staff opened the windows and put in a full day, convinced that to leave would mean bowing to the opposition. But everyone else was evacuated from the building. "The land lords are not happy," Ms. Chelian said.

In one of the other Michigan locations, in a fine bit of irony, an obstetrician had to close his practice for a week because he was afraid inhaling the acid might harm his pregnant patients.

"Protecting the right to abortion and protecting the provision of services are two different things," says Ms. Chelian. One we have fought for relentlessly; the other we have mostly ignored. That has been shortsighted, like lobbying for food for all without noticing the supermarkets closing.

Qualified nurses and physicians' assistants should be permitted to perform uncomplicated early abortions to take up the slack from doctors. And those who believe that Clinton's election means this issue is somehow settled should realize they are mistaken. The truth is that things may get worse, particularly in light of the 5-to-4 high court decision.

For years there have been predictions that the overturn of Roe, if it ever came, would galvanize supporters of legal abortion; we forgot that the election of a pro-choice president could get opponents just as fired up.

For a man like the one who can be heard on the Northeast Indiana Rescue Line, passing on the rumor that the radical Lambs of Christ may be heading for Fort Wayne and adding "Things could get interesting" as though this were a playoff game, a Freedom of Choice Act will only up the ante.

It is good to have a president who believes that a woman must decide this intimate issue for herself. But it does not mark the end of the abortion war, simply the beginning of another kind of battle.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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