Stopping Violence, Not Free Speech

May 20, 1994

To hear abortion opponents describe it, legislation protecting access to women's reproductive health clinics will outlaw peaceful protests protected by the Constitution. But the history of abuse heaped on these clinics is anything but peaceful.

For years now, many clinics that offer abortions -- along with contraceptives, cancer screening, prenatal care, fertility treatment or other reproductive health services -- have operated virtually under siege. By one count, clinics and their staffs have been the targets of more than 1,000 acts of violence in the past 10 years.

In addition to protesters who hover outside to dissuade people from using the clinics, these sites have sustained millions of dollars of damage. Bombings, arson, acid attacks that leave putrid smells and render furniture and supplies unusable -- the list of crimes is shockingly long. Staff members of clinics have been harassed by death threats, stalkers and other means of intimidation. The hostility culminated in the murder of Dr. David Gunn last year outside a clinic in Pensacola, Fla.

This history of violence needs to be taken into account in assessing the reaction to passage of legislation making it a federal crime to attack or blockade abortion clinics, staff members or clients. This newspaper has never doubted the sincerity of many of the people who publicly demonstrate their abhorrence of abortion. But neither do we doubt that elements of the anti-abortion movement have carried out a sustained campaign against these clinics that has frequently spilled over into criminal violence and intimidation.

Still, some would argue that the nation does not need a federal law to address this problem, that existing criminal statutes are adequate. On that point the record speaks for itself. Across the country, state and local law enforcement agencies have lacked either the resources or the will to stop this campaign of terror. Some local law enforcement agencies have even said they need federal help.

Moreover, the bill is carefully drawn to protect free speech and to guard against dampening citizens' rights to peaceful protest. Those rights do have limits. No one would argue that faith healers, for instance, have a right to drive around hospitals all night honking their horns to protest the practice of scientific medicine.

We repeat: Despite what its opponents say, this bill is aimed at stopping violence, not peaceful demonstrators. Abortion opponents have every right to make their convictions known. But in this country, they do not have the right to force those beliefs on others.

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