When anti-abortionists go too far

March 15, 1993

After a protester shot and killed the clinic physician at a Pensacola, Fla., clinic where abortions are performed, the protest organizer, John Burt, said, "There's talk of making protesting abortion clinics a felony. If you start talking about that, people are just going to find other ways of dealing with it." In context, that sounded very much like a warning of more fatal assaults.

The law he probably had in mind was a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives sponsored by Rep. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Rep. Constance Morella, a Republican from Montgomery County, that would make it against the law to "physically obstruct, hinder or impede" those trying to obtain "reproductive health services." Protesters who went that far could go to jail for as much as three years and be fined.

The bill would also allow women seeking abortions and the staff and owners of a clinic to sue in federal court for triple damages and get injunctions against further action.

Such a law would greatly augment the law-enforcement effort to keep anti-abortion extremists from inflicting harm on law-abiding people. It would convince some protesters to be careful of the company they keep. There are many legitimate ways to make one's anti-abortion views known without resorting to violence and intimidation.

The Schumer-Morella bill specifies that it does not outlaw "any expressive conduct protected by the first article of amendment to the Constitution." Unfortunately that probably includes even such statements as one made by the leader of the national group that organized the Pensacola protest: He said the killing of the physician meant many babies' lives would be saved. Some (( fevered minds will interpret such a statement as advocacy of murder.

There are other ways to deal with most such extremists. One of the best is for all reasonable people and organizations that are as strongly law-abiding as they are anti-abortion to ostracize the zealots, to isolate them and thus expose them for the radical fringe they are. This, along with vigorous law enforcement at all levels, will eventually reduce the extremists to impotence.

As for Mr. Burt's prediction that if they can't "protest" in their preferred manner (which really means blockading clinics, threatening women, destroying property) they will resort to even worse, that sounds like the sort of prediction Ku Klux Klansmen might have made when anti-Klan laws were written in the last century. Faithful enforcement of those laws, when it finally came, plus an aroused public opinion against Klan violence, led to its collapse.

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