Abortion clinics lean on local law as protests loom Reno backing bill for federal crime

July 09, 1993|By Aaron Epstein | Aaron Epstein,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- As demonstrators prepare to block access to abortions in seven states this weekend, operators of abortion clinics can't expect much help from Washington.

The Supreme Court has curbed the federal role in policing the protests, and a national legislative remedy awaits action in Congress.

As a result, when the Operation Rescue protests begin today, clinic operators will have to rely primarily on varying -- and frequently less effective -- state laws to protect them against the blockades, which have turned ugly in recent years.

Dozens of clinics have been set ablaze or bombed. Protesters have trampled police lines and harassed, stalked and assaulted abortion providers. The violence reached a peak four months ago when Dr. David Gunn was fatally shot by a protester at a clinic in Pensacola, Fla.

In the past, abortion clinics and their allies were able to use a potent federal weapon, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, to get

federal court orders authorizing U.S. marshals to keep the clinics open.

Thousands of demonstrators from Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups have been arrested for defying those orders in seven states and the metropolitan Washington area since 1988.

But in January, the Supreme Court sharply limited the federal role. It said the 1871 law, passed to combat racial conspiracies against newly freed black slaves, could not be stretched to protect women seeking abortions except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances.

The Justice Department thinks the law could still be used if there were proof that demonstrators interfered with interstate travel or so overwhelmed local police that women were deprived of "equal protection of the laws."

Other than that, "we have been unable to identify any other federal law that would be generally applicable to private interference with a woman's right to choose" an abortion, Attorney General Janet Reno concluded after reading an internal Justice Department study.

Ms. Reno is backing a bill to make it a federal crime to use force or "physical obstruction" to prevent a woman from getting an abortion or to damage a medical facility that provides "abortion-related services."

Violators could be fined or sentenced to prison for up to 10 years for causing injury; they could receive a life sentence if someone died. The legislation would also permit the attorney general to seek injunctions and file civil suits against violators.

Opponents of the proposed law argue that it would hamper free expression and fail to protect anti-abortion protesters against attacks by supporters of abortion rights.

"If violence connected with abortion is to end, both sides must be treated equally," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.

The measure has broad bipartisan support -- even two longtime abortion opponents, Sens. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., and Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., back it -- and will be put to a Senate JTC vote soon. The House Judiciary Committee is considering similar legislation.

The anti-abortion protesters of Operation Rescue have targeted central Florida; Cleveland; Dallas; Jackson, Miss.; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; and San Jose, Calif., for a round of picketing, counseling and blockades starting today.

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