Violence shadows abortion milestone

January 22, 1995|By New York Times News Service

BOSTON -- With the 22nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision falling three weeks after two people were shot to death at suburban abortion clinics, advocates of abortion rights were preparing to mark the occasion with warnings that increased violence is threatening women's access to abortion.

At the same time, they said that they were worried that the new Republican Congress, with more abortion opponents, might try to reverse gains made in the courts over the last two decades.

"What is most noticeable about this anniversary is that it follows on the heels of an anti-choice election victory," said Ann Lewis, the new vice president for public policy for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which has organized a "convocation for peace" today in New York City -- with chapters elsewhere, including Baltimore, having comparable events -- to mark the anniversary of the decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

She added: "From 1982 to 1992 there was a steady increase of pro-choice votes in Congress every year. This year we went backward."

Opponents' march

Abortion opponents, who will hold their annual march in Washington tomorrow, were cautiously optimistic about the political realignment in Washington.

"It was a good election for the pro-life movement," said David O'Steen, the executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. Still, he added, the movement has to contend with a president who is committed to a woman's right to abortion.

Mr. O'Steen, along with other leaders of abortion opponents, played down the recent violence and said their movement was not to blame. "Our position is extremely clear," Mr. O'Steen said. "We unequivocally oppose violence."

The Rev. Flip Benham, the director of Operation Rescue National, a militant group that protests outside abortion clinics, said, "There are great attempts by the abortion industry to paint us all as wild-eyed lunatics bent on destroying their business."

"It's safe outside the mills," he added. "One is safer in an abortion mill than he is working at a 7-Eleven, or working at the local post office and being shot by a disgruntled employee."

John C. Salvi III, a 22-year-old student hairdresser from Hampton Beach, N.H., is in a jail outside Boston on charges that he killed two workers at abortion clinics in Brookline and wounded seven others Dec. 30.

While law-enforcement authorities said they found graphic anti-abortion materials in Mr. Salvi's apartment after the shootings, anti-abortion groups have disavowed him.

Last July, Paul J. Hill, an anti-abortion crusader and former minister, opened fire outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla., killing Dr. John B. Britton, and a volunteer escort, James H. Barrett, who lived in Maryland before retiring to Florida. In November, Hill, 40, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Clinic violence report

Last week, the Feminist Majority Foundation made public the findings of the organization's survey on violence against abortion providers. In 1994, 52 percent of the clinics surveyed experienced one or more types of violence, including death threats, stalkings, bombings and arsons, the foundation said.

In the wake of the Brookline murders, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and some other religious leaders asked anti-abortion protesters to stop demonstrating outside clinics.

But Mr. Benham said that Operation Rescue had no intention of scaling back. "We pray that more people will come out this year," he said. "I think the cardinal has made a cardinal error. When we are out on the streets, we are winning the battle."

Those who support a woman's right to abortion said the increase in violence, along with increased regulations on clinic providers, had contributed to a decrease in the number of doctors willing to perform abortions.

"It's a very difficult picture out there for women -- politically, medically and in terms of safety," said Kate Michelman, the president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Access 'in jeopardy'

"Access to abortion is in very serious jeopardy. Twenty-two years after the court handed down a landmark decision, we find ourselves really going backward rather than forward. Access to abortion is in very serious jeopardy."

The Rev. Robert Schenck, pastor of the National Community Church on Capitol Hill, said he had invited a number of congressmen who oppose abortion to hear his sermon today.

"I think we're going to have even more people come out this year because there's a reinvigoration of the pro-life movement with the ideological shift in Washington," he said. "The Clinton administration has sent a chilly message to the pro-life movement that we are not welcome. Now, with the new Congress, I have sensed an immediate change in the atmosphere here. We're far more welcome."

Republican focus

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