Abortion: The Legal Battleground is Changing

January 30, 1994|By LYLE DENNISTON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Florida -- a place where the right to abortion is strong and secure -- is nevertheless emerging as this year's most significant legal battleground in that bitter conflict. That is both a coincidence and an irony, but its importance lies in the symbolic and real meaning it has for the nation as a whole.

What is happening to the law of abortion in Florida is true for America: A shift is occurring, away from the fight over abortion rights as a constitutional question toward a more complex controversy over what can or cannot occur, legally, outside the clinics when abortion foes jam the sidewalks and try to close down operations.

Attempts to end abortions not by law but by direct action against clinics have continued for years, in varying patterns: There have been peaceful protests, sometimes with nothing more threatening than a silent prayer vigil; there has been active disruption, as with blockades or bomb threats; at times there has been open violence, now including one murder of an abortion doctor and the wounding of another by gunfire.

Florida this year provides opportunities for the nation to learn how the law will deal with this other end of the abortion controversy, with the disputes that are acted out outside the clinics. By coincidence, the legal tests in Florida this year will focus both on the most violent act of protest, and on the least.

As these controversies play out in the Sunshine State, they may have influence on Congress as it ponders whether there ought to be a new clinic protection law that would shield abortion facilities all across America.

To a considerable degree, the Supreme Court has eased the way for the legal center on abortion to shift from inside the clinics to outside. The justices' 1992 ruling, erasing in a Pennsylvania case what seemed to be the last real chance for overturning the basic constitutional right to abortion under the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, has made the right itself seem at least temporarily more secure.

Another factor, however, is that abortion foes have had better lawyers, capable of thinking up more inventive legal defense tactics. The aim has been simple: to make the anti-abortion movement look like a recent version of the civil rights movement, pursuing a noble cause with civil disobedience.

Whatever the cause, the shift is developing, and Florida is its new focus. Why should that state have become the arena where the sidewalk crusades against abortion should be most notably tested legally? That is an irony of a sort, because the right to get an abortion would seem to be more secure, legally, in Florida than nearly everywhere else in the nation, and yet the exercise of that right there seems at times to be under almost constant siege.

In Florida, abortion is now a guaranteed right under the state constitution -- no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court might say under federal law, and no matter how much some Florida politicians might want to curb it (and many do).

But this is the state where abortion foes years ago began to perfect the hard-line technique of clinic blockades or invasions as workable alternatives to bombing a clinic or trying to burn it down. It is the only state in which an abortion doctor has been murdered, simply because he did abortions.

Curiously, one of those very first blockades, and the doctor's murder, occurred at the very same clinic, years apart: the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic.

The early blockade at that same facility was one of the specific provocations leading clinics and the National Organization for Women to file a historic lawsuit (decided just Monday by the Supreme Court, in the clinics' favor) that turned into a nationwide attack on blockaders. By a unanimous vote, the court ruled that clinics could use the tough federal anti-racketeering law, with its triple-damages remedy, as a weapon against those who seek to put clinics out of business.

Florida also is the state where a continuing wave of blockades at the Aware Woman Center for Choice in Melbourne, halfway down the peninsula on the Atlantic, forms the backdrop for the Supreme Court's next case on abortion. That will bring the court's first attempt to define when challengers at clinic doors are to get protection under the "free speech" clause of the First Amendment -- and when they won't.

Violence outside a clinic will draw the nation's attention to Pensacola Feb. 14, when a murder trial is set to begin before a jury in Judge John Parnham's Escambia County Circuit Court. The defendant is Michael Frederick Griffin, a 32-year-old Pensacola machinery operator, charged with first-degree murder.

On a Sunday in March, Mr. Griffin, an anti-abortion activist, went to services at the Whitfield Assembly of God Church outside of Pensacola, and offered a prayer. He was quoted later as having asked fellow worshipers to agree with him that Dr. David Gunn, 47, who performed abortions at Women's Medical Services, "would give his life to Jesus Christ."

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