Frustration is cited for abortion violence Wichita shooting is second of year

August 21, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

The second shooting of an abortion doctor this year suggests a growing extremism in an anti-abortion movement that feels increasingly frustrated by the political process, some leaders on both sides of the issue said yesterday.

Rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected by the White House and shunned by many state legislatures, some abortion opponents feel so frustrated by political obstacles that more violence is likely, they say.

While major anti-abortion groups reject illegal activity, violent episodes continue.

"If it indicates anything, it indicates that these pro-lifers feel they're not being heard," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, an anti-abortion activist, of Thursday's shooting in Wichita, Kan. "Unfortunately, in this society you fire a gun and you get attention."

She was one of many abortion opponents who yesterday strongly condemned anti-abortion violence.

Just days after an Alabama priest called killing abortion doctors a "justifiable homicide," Dr. George Tiller was shot and wounded Thursday near his Wichita clinic. Rachelle Renae "Shelley" Shannon, 37, of Grants Pass, Ore., was jailed on suspicion of attempted murder.

In March, Dr. David Gunn was killed outside a clinic in Florida by an anti-abortion protester, the first shooting ever in the 20-year showdown over abortion.

The political climate has changed over the last several months, shifting in favor of abortion rights. But any abortion-rights activists who believed that the issue was settled were naive, people in both camps said.

"They are getting more desperate," said Marcy Wilder, political director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "And so more of them are resorting to extreme violence."

Working in the system

Many anti-abortion groups -- including the National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life and Feminists for Life -- denounced the shooting, saying they are devoted to defending all life. They add that they will continue to work for change within legal channels.

"We represent the vast majority of the pro-life Americans," said Michele Arocha, of National Right to Life. "All of us have declared resoundingly that we reject violence."

But, she added, "I think every social movement has some people in it who are not constructive to the cause."

"Even illegal sit-ins are against our policies," said Roger Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life. "Any illegal activity we stay far away from. We've decided to work within the system."

But the system is increasingly difficult for opponents to negotiate.

The Supreme Court has refused to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a right to abortion. And President Clinton has loosened federal restrictions on abortion. Several states, including Maryland, have passed laws that keep protesters away from clinic doors. And similar federal legislation is now in Congress.

Those actions in favor of abortion rights have pushed some abortion opponents to view illegal acts as their only means of protest, according to some in the movement.

Kip Gannett, a Bowie resident and Operation Rescue leader, protests that even sidewalk blockades increasingly lead to arrests and heavy fines. He has been fined $15,000, a sum he has yet to pay, for his role in clinic demonstrations in Washington over the last few years.

"You get to the point where you feel politically you're really out of the game," Mr. Gannett said.

And while he believes in "non-violent direct action," courts are imposing such heavy fines that many abortion opponents feel even peaceful disobedience is no longer an option, Mr. Gannett said.

"My own feeling is that [the shooting of doctors] is owing to the fact that the more peaceful methods are being foreclosed to a large extent by the pro-abortion side."

Pushed to violence

Michael Bray, a Bowie minister who spent four years in federal prison for a clinic bombing, also believes that the courts have treated abortion protesters unfairly -- and pushed some to violence.

"The middle of the road has been to go down and blockade and then submit to authorities and go to court," Mr. Bray said. "That's been a way to love your neighbor while respecting authority. When that right's taken away, by heavy fines and extra punishment, then I would suspect that people who want to rescue move to other means."

Mr. Bray numbers himself among the abortion opponents -- a small proportion of the movement, he adds -- who do not oppose the shooting of abortion doctors, whom he compares to Nazi war criminals.

"They're butchers," he said. "They're serial killers. Is it right to intervene and stop a killer of innocent children with lethal force? I'd say yes. I have no ethical problem with that.

"A person who believes that we have a real murder going on on the one hand feels compelled to intervene," he said.

Even though other abortion opponents say violence hurts the movement, Mr. Bray said the "bloody images" at least provoke thought. "The issue is thrown back in the public's face."

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