Morella bill seeks to halt blockades at abortion clinics

February 04, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Blockading abortion clinics -- a tactic frequently used by abortion foes in the last decade -- would become a federal crime under a bill proposed yesterday by Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella.

If passed, the bill would overturn the effect of the Supreme Court decision last month banning the use of a Reconstruction-era civil rights law to protect abortion facilities.

Without the federal statute, clinics must now rely on a patchwork of state and local codes to stay open in the face of blockades, rather than the more effective federal protection. The Supreme Court ruled Jan. 13 that the federal law, known as the Klu Klux Klan Act, did not apply to demonstrations at abortion centers.

The new bill sponsored by Mrs. Morella, a Republican from Montgomery County, and Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York would make it a federal crime to block clinics and would impose a prison sentence of up to three years for repeat offenders. In addition, women seeking abortions and clinic operators could sue for triple damages under the law.

"We cannot talk about freedom of choice if we cannot guarantee freedom of access," Mrs. Morella said. "To forcibly prevent a woman from obtaining birth control information, needed medical services, or an abortion is anathema in a free society."

The authors of the bill said their measure would not violate the right of free speech on the part of demonstrators.

"It allows people the right to gather," Mrs. Morella said. "It allows people the right to picket; it allows people the right to verbally protest; but it does not allow them to intentionally and physically block access to a clinic."

The bill's chance of passing both the House and Senate is uncertain, though President Clinton would be expected to sign it if it reached his desk.

The bill's chief target is Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that has blockaded hundreds of clinics since it was founded in 1986.

In the past several years, blockades at clinics in Wichita, Kan., and Buffalo, N.Y., attracted thousands of demonstrators and garnered nationwide attention. Last month's Supreme Court decision grew out of a protest staged by the group in Alexandria, Va.

The Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, a spokesman for Operation Rescue, said a new federal law would have little effect on his group. "There were 1,200 arrests in Wichita after a federal injunction, and that didn't stop us. Operation Rescue will continue to rescue in spite of any federal legislation or any personal sacrifice or cost."

He said the bill was an attempt to single out and persecute Operation Rescue. "To think that someone would face federal charges for sitting on a sidewalk is preposterous. Why don't they try to stop crime in East L.A. or Washington, D.C.?"

Mrs. Morella, who acknowledged that the bill is aimed at Operation Rescue, has been talked about as a possible challenger to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat, next year. The bill could help raise her profile among voters, especially Democratic women, who are among the strongest backers of abortion rights.

Mrs. Morella had appeared to be out of step with her party during the 1980s, as it veered to the right on social issues such as abortion. But now some party leaders are trying to soften the Republican stance on abortion as they look toward 1996 and the chance to regain power.

"This bill is consistent with Republican principles," she said yesterday. "Individual liberty, the right to privacy. I hope my presence will say to other Republicans that there is room for all beliefs and that we do hold in common obeying the law."

But she denied that the bill was an attempt to position herself for a possible Senate campaign.

"I'm happy where I am now," she said. "I'm not planning on running for Senate, only for re-election."

On the other hand, she said, if Mr. Sarbanes were to step down, "I would look at it pretty closely."

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