Opponents of abortion are at a crossroads. The overwhelming majority are what they say they are: pro-life. They abhor killing of any kind. They don't condone, and most of them condemn, the murders of abortion workers and other acts of violence against clinics and their staffs. However, the two murders in Brookline, Mass., last Friday and the related shooting incident in Norfolk, Va., the next day have drastically altered the dispute over abortion in this country.
Two trends have become evident in the anti-abortion movement during the two years since Dr. David Gunn was slain outside his Pensacola, Fla., clinic during a demonstration. The rhetoric from a small but vocal group of anti-abortion zealots has escalated into open incitement to violence, including murder. And an even smaller -- but, perhaps, growing -- number of fanatics are putting those words into action. This is a situation no civilized society can tolerate.
There is no simple answer to the continuing violence at abortion clinics. Congress and the courts have said repeatedly that abortions are legal under specified conditions. We support these rights. Those who disagree have a right to say so and to express their opinion with peaceful picketing. They are rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, which this newspaper cherishes.
But the line between peaceful demonstration and violent denial of free passage into a legal establishment has increasingly become blurred -- to the point where Congress felt it necessary to guarantee federal police protection for harassed clinics. Now the line between physically blocking free passage and incitement to assassination is being erased by a small but dangerous minority.
Dangerous to all of us: abortion workers, the responsible opponents of abortion and this nation's commitment to settling political and social confrontations peacefully. More police protection -- federal as well as local -- is clearly necessary at abortion clinics. The repulsive sight of a demonstrator outside a Brookline clinic the day after the murders there, carrying a sign reading "Remember Dr. Gunn," is all the evidence necessary. So are some of the bloodthirsty comments by fringe anti-abortion leaders, and ambiguous ones from others, after the tragedy.
Still, adequate police protection for the hundreds of abortion clinics in the country for an indefinite period is a diversion of resources the public should not have to bear. Responsible leaders of the anti-abortion movement must join the rest of the nation in stifling the hate-mongers. Fanatics should not be allowed to picture themselves as martyrs, as they will if only abortion-rights advocates and the general public act to suppress their venom. Violence and incitement to violence have no place in American political discourse. They must be stopped, totally, by all of us.