The choice to abort basic freedom sends a chilling message

May 27, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Let's say you're an anti-abortion protester. You think abortion NTC is murder. And so, you believe you must do whatever you can to stop it.

As a pro-life advocate, however, you don't believe in violence.

In fact, you completely disavow the hard-core radical fringe of the movement, the kind of people who killed Dr. David Gunn and firebomb abortion clinics. You don't believe you can be pro-life and pro-violence at the same time.

But you'll do anything short of violence. Because your conscience won't allow you to do anything less.

So, as you try to stop people from going inside abortion clinics, you hold true to your beliefs in nonviolence. You practice civil disobedience, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

You sit in front of a doorway, and you shall not be moved.

It's against the law, of course, just like the civil rights sit-ins were. But you're prepared to be dragged away by police. You're willing to spend a few days in jail and pay a fine, if you must.

But now the cost has gone up.

Now, the president has signed into law a bill that makes it a federal crime to blockade an abortion clinic or related medical facilities.

Violent offenders can face up to $100,000 in fines and a year in prison for a first conviction. You wonder why they single out violent pro-life advocates. Aren't violent acts already illegal?

You hear the oft-quoted numbers -- that since 1977, there have been 36 bombings of clinics, 81 cases of arson, 131 death threats, 84 assaults, two kidnappings -- but you don't understand what they have to do with you.

The person accused of killing Dr. Gunn is in jail. Firebombers are in jail.

You never firebombed or threatened anyone. What you do is plead with women who are going inside for an abortion to reconsider. Some call that intimidation. You say it's an attempt to persuade a woman to do the right thing.

Some people call you a zealot. Maybe you are. Surely, it's not against the law to be a zealot in America.

But now nonviolent offenders, the people who participate in sit-ins blocking the entrance to a clinic and maybe even those who simply kneel and pray in front of the entrance, face a prison term of up to six months and a fine as high as $10,000 for a first conviction.

An additional conviction can bring 18 months and $25,000 in fines.

What do you do now?

The people who write the law say they're not after lawful protesters. The people who write the law say you can still picket and speak out. You wonder, though, about the risks. Who knows how the law will be enforced? Who can say exactly where picketing ends and blockading begins? Isn't this what they call a "chilling effect" on protest?

These days, you feel like you have little recourse other than protest.

The courts continue to rule against your cause. Most of the state legislatures have gone over to the pro-choice side. Bill Clinton has brought RU-486, the abortion pill, to this country.

You understand you hold a minority position. But you figure one of the great things about America is that the Constitution protects the right to hold unpopular positions.

Now you don't know. You wonder how Clinton, a former professor of constitutional law, doesn't see this law as a First-Amendment problem.

You wonder how the ACLU, the dogged defenders of the First Amendment, the same guys who defend the rights of Nazis to march, can support this law.

You wonder what would have happened if, 30 or 40 years ago, Congress had passed a law aimed specifically at civil rights protesters who sat-in at lunch counters. How many sit-ins would there have been with a six-month jail term as a result?

You wonder what would have happened if they'd passed such a law during the Vietnam era, singling out protesters who sat down in front of draft boards.

Actually, you don't wonder.

You know exactly what's going on. They say they want to stop the violence at abortion clinics. You know that's a phony issue. Existing laws handle that problem. What the people who back the law want is to stop you.

What they want is for you -- and the entire anti-abortion protest movement -- to just go away.

And if, in the process, the liberal establishment chooses to disregard and even endanger principles it once fought so hard to win, that's just the price we'll all have to pay.

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