Senate bans use of force in abortion clinic protests

May 13, 1994|By Lyle Denniston Sun staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article | Lyle Denniston Sun staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate, completing the strongest action ever taken by Congress to protect women seeking abortions, passed and sent to President Clinton yesterday a bill to make it a federal crime to use force or threats to try to stop abortions.

For the first time, the law would assign the federal government a direct role in prosecuting clinic blockaders. It also would arm clinic operators with new legal weapons against violence or forceful obstruction by sidewalk protesters.

As soon as the president signs the bill, as he has promised to do promptly, the new law will face a federal court challenge over its constitutionality, the American Life League, an anti-abortion group, vowed yesterday. Operation Rescue, the nation's leading group in clinic blockades, indicated that it will continue its activities, risking prosecution under the law.

By a vote of 69-30, the Senate approved a compromise version of the bill yesterday that was spurred toward passage by the March 1993 murder of a clinic doctor in Pensacola, Fla., and the August 1993 wounding of a clinic doctor in Wichita, Kan. The bill is also a response to years of clinic firebombings, acid attacks and blockades.

Maryland's two Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, voted for the bill.

Maryland has had a law barring clinic blockades since 1989. Although picket lines and protest marches outside clinics continue, leaders on both sides of the issue agree that almost no clinics have been blockaded since judges began enforcing the law. The state law carries a fine of up to $1,000 and a prison term of up to 90 days.

Jayne Bray, a Bowie anti-abortion activist who has been arrested about a dozen times in other states, said the new federal law would not reduce protests.

"It just will change the tactics," she said, and drive some protesters to "covert activity," which she would not define.

"This law is stupid," said Mrs. Bray, whose husband, Michael, spent four years in federal prison for conspiracy in a string of abortion-clinic bombings in the 1980s.

Mrs. Bray herself won a major ruling from the Supreme Court last year. The ruling barred clinics from using a federal civil rights law as a shield. That decision led Congress to start working on the bill that was completed yesterday.

Yesterday's Senate approval of the bill followed House passage a week ago by a vote of 241-174. The Senate completed action in a listless 90-minute debate. Near the end, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., denounced the "vigilante extremism" around the clinics that she said reflects "the spread of hate crimes and random violence in our society."

Senate opponents attacked the measure as a crackdown on peaceful anti-abortion protesters who picket and pray.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who has led the opposition, said the measure is aimed mainly at peaceful protests and is clearly unconstitutional.

Leaders of women's rights groups swarmed through the Senate lobbies to press for final action. "Anti-abortion terrorists must now answer to federal law," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority.

She called for "a full-scale nationwide investigation of possible criminal conspiracies to close abortion clinics."

Anti-abortion organizations denounced the bill. Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for Operation Rescue, said her group would not be deterred. "Man's law may change, but God's law does not," she said.

The bill is likely to be the only major piece of abortion-related legislation to emerge from Congress this year. A proposal to write a federal abortion rights law to insulate those rights from any future change of mind by the Supreme Court is seen as practically a lost cause.

Although controversy over the bill focused on its likely impact on the sidewalk conflicts outside abortion clinics, the measure's scope is actually broader.

It protects any medical facility -- including a doctor's office -- that "provides reproductive health services," which includes all forms pregnancy treatment and birth control as well as abortion.

A change added at the urging of Republican senators also protects any "place of religious worship."

The bill makes it a crime to use force, or the threat of force, to block access to such facilities, or to harm or intimidate anyone entering or leaving such a facility. It also outlaws the damaging of those facilities.

Convictions can lead to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for a first violent crime under the law, and three years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for a later violent offense.

If an obstruction crime involves no violence, the maximum sentence could be only six months in jail and a fine of $10,000. TTC Second or later violations that are not violent could result in 18 months in prison and a $25,000 fine each. If someone is injured, the prison term can be as long as 10 years; and if someone is killed, a life sentence could result.

The Justice Department would prosecute crimes under the law. It also could sue for civil fines for violations. Clinics, hospitals or religious institutions also may sue for civil damages, with no limits on the amounts.

The coming court fight over the measure's constitutionality is expected to be shaped by how the Supreme Court rules this year on the free-speech rights of those who stage clinic protests.

Until now, most clinics have relied mainly on state law for protection against blockaders. The Supreme Court, however, cleared the way in January for clinics to use a federal anti-racketeering law to collect damages from blockaders.

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