Bill targets violence at abortion clinics Measure easily passes Senate

November 17, 1993|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- A bill outlawing blockades and violence at abortion clinics has passed the Senate and could be in place in time for an expected round of Christmas protests.

The legislation, approved last night 69-30, would make it a violation of federal law to use force against or to intimidate women from seeking abortions or medical workers from providing abortions.

The Senate today planned to take up more crime legislation as it inched toward final passage of a $22 billion anti-crime bill. First on the agenda was a vote on a ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons. Approval was expected.

"We must act before more doctors are killed and more clinics are burned to the ground," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., sponsor of the bill, urged his colleagues.

But the mostly Republican opponents said the bill is an unconstitutional violation of the rights of free speech and assembly and asserted that it would make felons of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi.

"This bill will suppress non-violent political demonstrations," Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said.

But while the Senate is closely divided on abortion generally, the legislation attracted support from some abortion opponents reacting to a wave of violence, particularly the murder of Dr. David Gunn outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla., in March.

"There is no question that my position on abortion is pro-life," said Sen. Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., "but there is no justification for the kind of senseless killing that took place in Pensacola."

The House is expected to approve similar legislation tomorrow, and some supporters said they hoped it could be sent to President Clinton, who supports it, before the holiday recess next week.

The bill allows the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies to get involved in preventing or prosecuting crimes that violate state laws and that normally fall under the jurisdiction of local police. But Kennedy said local law enforcement is often overwhelmed by large-scale protests run by groups like Operation Rescue, and sometimes is disinclined to step in for political reasons.

The Supreme Court ruled last January that a post-Civil War era civil rights law could no longer be applied to protect abortion clinics, making new legislation a priority for supporters of abortion rights.

But abortion-rights backers have not been able to garner sufficient support for their top legislative priority -- legislation to reinforce the constitutional right to an abortion by federal law.

Supporters of the bill approved yesterday picked up votes on the floor of the Senate by agreeing to reduce its penalties to a maximum of six months in jail and a $10,000 fine for a first offense and up to 18 months and $25,000 for repeated offenses.

In addition, the bill allows the attorney general as well as doctors and patients who are targets of unlawful protests to obtain injunctions in federal court and to seek punitive damages from those who break the law.

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