Clamping Down on Clinic Violence

November 16, 1993

There is an important distinction between the freedom to express a deeply held belief and intimidation and violence that impinges on the rights of others. When it comes to women's health clinics where abortions are performed, that line is routinely crossed. This week, Congress has the opportunity to uphold law and order by approving legislation to protect clinics and women seeking their services from abortion opponents who frequently turn to violence to make their point.

Since 1977, there have been more than 1,000 reported acts of violence directed at facilities that provide abortion and at the people who work there. The violence culminated this past March in the murder of Dr. David Gunn by an abortion protester outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. The wounding in August of another doctor in Wichita, Kans., by a frustrated abortion opponent further increased the pressure for action against anti-abortion violence.

Opponents stop more than abortions when they target these facilities. Pap smears, pre-natal care, well-baby visits, contraceptive counseling -- this kind of ordinary but essential health care is routinely interrupted by politically motivated violence. Many women rely on these clinics as their only source of health care.

Even so, supporters of federal legislation to clamp down on these crimes anticipated a tough fight in Congress. But after Dr. Gunn's murder, Congress showed new interest in quelling the violence. Now legislation in both the House and Senate would make it a federal crime to use force, a threat of force or physical obstruction to prevent a woman from getting an abortion or to damage a medical facility that provides abortion-related services, while protecting abortion opponents' right to protest peacefully. The Senate bill faces a vote today; the House will vote on a similar measure on Thursday. President Clinton has indicated he will quickly sign it into law.

Much has changed in the abortion debate in the past year. A pro-choice president has taken office, overturning restrictions on abortion counseling and vowing support for measures like the clinic access bill. Abortion opponents cite these and other reversals as reasons for the dramatic increase in violent incidents against clinics, which more than tripled between 1990 and 1992.

A movement that seeks to protect life undermines its own message when extremists acting in its name take life or threaten to do so. The challenge facing abortion opponents is to win hearts and minds, not to batter people into submitting to their beliefs.

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