Freedom to Protest, Provided We Like You

June 03, 1994|By STEPHEN ZUNES

SEATTLE — Seattle. -- As an advocate of abortion rights, I have long been angered and frustrated by groups like Operation Rescue that seek to physically hinder those women forced to make the painful personal decision to terminate their pregnancies. But I do not celebrate passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance bill and many of the other tactics by my fellow supporters of reproductive freedom.

I have committed acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in opposition to racism, militarism and environmental desecration. I appreciate the moral and political commitment of those willing to engage in blockades, sit-ins and other pacific actions for principles they believe. Indeed, even though the leadership of the anti-abortion movement is overwhelmingly right-wing, many of those arrested outside abortion clinics are committed pacifists who have been arrested with me for other causes.

Thus I take issue with the recently passed law that appears to link conscientious nonviolent protests to the violence, harassment and terrorism of some extremists in the anti- abortion movement. This is as unfair as it was to lump the entire anti-Vietnam War movement with its most violent and radical elements.

It is troubling that Congress has devised a law targeted at a movement with a particular political goal. Laws already exist that forbid trespassing, disorderly conduct and, most especially, murder. Would supporters of this legislation support a bill protecting nuclear power plants from peaceful protests?

Even more dangerous has been the government's use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- RICO -- against anti-abortion protesters. A statute designed to fight organized crime now is deployed against a political movement. Groups ranging from Act-Up to Greenpeace may next be accused of racketeering for planning to disrupt activities which they oppose.

Abortion-rights activists are equally intolerant of political figures who oppose them. Pennsylvania's Gov. Robert Casey, a popular liberal Democrat, was denied the right to appear before the 1992 Democratic convention solely because he supported placing some restrictions on abortion. Instead, they gave the forum to a pro-choice Republican operative in his opponent's campaign.

When Governor Casey attempted to address a forum in New York sponsored by the liberal Village Voice, abortion-rights hecklers prevented him from speaking. Throughout the country, anti-abortion groups -- even those who identify with the left, like Feminists for Life and the Seamless Garment Network -- have had their billboards defaced, meetings disrupted, tables overturned and other acts of harassment and intimidation by abortion-rights advocates.

Some years ago, I was on the staff of a national disarmament group. Our policy was to welcome participation by any group that supported our goals -- even communist groups that supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Jewish groups that supported the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When an anti-abortion peace group, Pro-Lifers for Survival, tried to become a member, however, it was forced to withdraw its application.

My parents, pro-life liberals, have their car covered with bumper stickers advocating causes ranging from saving whales to ending nuclear power to promoting disarmament to supporting Palestinian statehood. It is only their anti-abortion stickers that get routinely torn off.

Those of us who wish to defend women's right to abortion will be far more effective if we are able to acknowledge the deep-felt moral concerns of our opponents. We must try to convince the anti-abortion movement that state interference in such a private decision is dangerous. Indeed, we must be able to communicate the important reality that in a world where there are so few alternatives available for women, abortion must remain a legal option.

The use of draconian legislation and the denial of free-speech rights in order to silence those who disagree with us is both morally wrong and ultimately self-defeating.

Stephen Zunes teaches politics and government at the University of Puget Sound.

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