Anti-abortion activists are sued in Wis.

July 19, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Anti-abortion activists in Wisconsin who drew the first federal criminal charges for trying to shut down an abortion clinic now face the first damages claim filed by a clinic under the new federal law designed to keep those facilities open and running.

A downtown Milwaukee clinic sued eight blockaders, including a 14-year-old girl, in federal court for arranging or taking part in efforts to bar pregnant women from getting into the facility for medical services. The clinic asked for $40,000 in damages to cover their losses, plus unspecified "punitive" damages to be set in an amount chosen by a jury.

Before the clinic could open June 4, those individuals and others linked themselves together at the entrances of the clinic, using concrete-filled drums, chains, welded pipes, handcuffs and two cars to form a maze of obstructions.

Six of those eight were the targets of the first Justice Department criminal charges, filed June 6. Those six have been linked to four organizations that have waged campaigns to close clinics.

The criminal charges, as well as the new civil lawsuit filed yesterday, were part of a flurry of legal activity that surrounds the new clinic-protection bill that President Clinton signed May 26. The new law is the strongest effort yet by the federal government to provide a legal shield for clinics.

The law has been challenged in eight constitutional cases across the country. So far, abortion clinics and other defenders of the law have won two of those cases as federal judges in Alexandria, Va., and San Diego have upheld the law.

In the civil lawsuit filed yesterday by the Milwaukee Women's Health Center, the clinic sought $5,000 from each person, plus punitive damages against the six individuals charged by the Justice Department. In addition, the clinic named two others, including the 14-year-old, and asked for the same damages from them.

Meanwhile, state and local officials in New York are considering using the new federal law as the basis for action against 21 activists for blocking the entrance to a Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., clinic late last month.

In another development in abortion law, a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Mich., ruled that states like Michigan that receive federal Medicare funds to provide health services for the poor must provide free abortions for poor women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

In Michigan, a law passed by a 1988 initiative among state voters banned any use of state funds for abortions unless that procedure was necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. But U.S. District Judge Benjamin F. Gibson struck down that law yesterday, saying that states are obliged to cover all the medical services for which federal Medicare funds are available.

Judge Gibson's ruling was the fifth in a string of victories for abortion rights groups as they have sought through court cases to assure abortion funds for poor women in cases of rape or incest. Other cases are awaiting rulings in several other states.

Under a bill passed by Congress last year, the long-standing ban on the use of federal Medicare funds for any abortions other than those needed to save the life of a pregnant woman was relaxed. Congress said that federal funds also could be used to end pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

The ruling came in a case filed by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and by Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

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