Abortion clinic bill becomes law and immediately is challenged

May 27, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A broad new federal ban on the use of force or threats to stop abortions ran immediately into constitutional challenges in two courts yesterday just after President Clinton's signature made it a law.

Although the law to protect abortion clinics, their patients and staffs took effect immediately, abortion foes asked judges here and in Alexandria, Va., to prohibit the government from enforcing it.

The challengers contended that the law will curb their free speech rights, and stop them from expressing their religious opposition to abortion -- even by such peaceful gestures as praying and urging women entering clinics not to have an abortion.

The challengers asked for a hearing in the Alexandria case a week from today. That case is expected to move more rapidly than the one filed in a federal court here, since the Alexandria court is known for what lawyers and staff call its "rocket docket." Delays are seldom tolerated.

Even if the Justice Department does get temporary clearance to enforce the new criminal law, it is expected to be tied up in court battles for several months, and perhaps longer. Both sides expect the constitutional dispute to go eventually to the Supreme Court. In a few weeks, the court may give some guidance on the scope of clinic protesters' free speech rights, in a pending case from Melbourne, Fla.

Mr. Clinton, surrounded at a White House ceremony at midday yesterday by abortion rights leaders and congressional sponsors of the new law, including Maryland Republican Rep. Constance Morella, used the occasion to urge Americans to talk out their differences on abortion and to stop violence around clinics.

"There is so much . . . we could be doing together to defuse the intense anger and animosity and to listen to one another," the president said.

Among those in the audience were the two children of the late Dr. David Gunn, who was murdered by an abortion foe outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic 14 months ago -- an incident that added pressure on Congress to pass the new law.

The law, the strongest action ever taken by Congress to protect women seeking abortions and clinic staff members, provides criminal penalties of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If someone is killed in an abortion protest, the sentence can be life in prison. The law also allows clinics to sue for unlimited civil damages when they or their patients or staff members have been harmed, threatened or intimidated.

Those who drafted the law in Congress, and abortion rights groups, have argued that the measure was written carefully to reach only violent actions. Mr. Clinton stressed that point in signing it, saying that it would serve only "to eliminate violence and coercion."

The president argued: "It is not a strike against the First Amendment."

That point, however, was disputed directly in the legal claims made in the two new lawsuits.

In the case in U.S. District Court here, papers filed by Atlanta lawyer Jay Alan Sekulow said that abortion foes fear the law could lead to prosecution and heavy punishment for such protest activities as staging sit-ins, passing out pictures of aborted fetuses, preaching, picketing and "sidewalk counseling" of patients on the way to get abortions.

Suing in that case were Randall A. Terry of Harpersville, N.Y., who heads Operation Rescue, one of the nation's most militant anti-abortion groups, along with five other individuals who said they have been active in trying to stop women from having abortions.

In the case in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Washington lawyer Marion Edwyn Harrison said in court papers that the new law will criminalize "activities substantially identical in form and substance to the civil rights 'freedom rides' and 'sit-ins' of the 1960s, and to the nonviolent protest tactics" of Gandhi, the hero of India's national independence.

The only difference, that lawsuit claimed, is that the activities now being turned into crimes are those carried out by "persons who oppose abortion." That lawsuit was filed by the American Life League, an anti-abortion group based in Stafford, Va., by a Stafford Catholic priest and three other Virginia opponents of abortion.

Both lawsuits were aimed directly at Attorney General Janet Reno, who lobbied Congress hard for the new measure and who has vowed strong enforcement of it by her aides in the Justice Department.

Ms. Reno said at yesterday's bill-signing ceremony that the killing of Dr. Gunn last year in Florida "focused for me and focused the attention of the nation on the problem of violent attacks against abortion providers, vandalism at abortion clinics, and the efforts by some to prevent women from exercising their constitutional right to choose to have an abortion."

Vice President Al Gore praised the bill as a "freedom of access" measure.

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