Friday, June 12, 2009

When "pro-life" means pro-death


(Formerly "Swampcracker." He or she will be going by this name from now on. -- MJWS)

The title of this post is borrowed from an article originally written in 1998 by Mary Lou Greenberg, who reports on assaults by pro-life extremists. She describes this bomb attack on the All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham Alabama that killed a security guard and severely injured a nurse:

As I held in my hand the sharp slivers of glass that were now the only remains of the shattered windows, my eye was drawn to a metal object in the debris. It was a nail, a small, sharp spike two inches long (…) Just as this anti-personnel bomb at the clinic was intended to rip apart bodies, so too was it meant to penetrate people's minds and emotions with a chilling message: If you provide abortions, if you work at clinics or go to them as clients, you will be a target!

This court case, Fargo Women's Health Organization v. Lambs of Christ, tells another aspect of the story. Established in 1981, the clinic offered routine gynecological services including first trimester abortions. For years, anti-abortion protestors held peaceful demonstrations in the vicinity of the clinic but conditions changed in 1991 when protestors stormed the clinic and occupied the building.

In the ensuing months, demonstrators jostled patients at the front door, struck and pushed escorts, confronted patients in the parking lot, vandalized cars, and blocked public roadway access. As a result, the clinic was effectively blockaded, preventing patients and staff from entering or leaving the building. Protestors called these blockades "rescues" and vowed to close the clinic outright.

Away from the clinic, the situation turned nastier when protestors followed staffers to their homes, to stores, even to the airport. For five months, protesters stalked a doctor at her home. Before dawn, "as many as 30 protesters" gathered on the front lawn, shouted, honked car horns, and blocked the driveway to prevent the doctor and her family from leaving. Protestors vandalized the doctor's property and picketed the school where her daughter attended. Other staffers were similarly harassed; a car full of protestors stalked the daughter of a clinic volunteer.

Similar incidents spawned more litigation. In another noteworthy case, Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, several abortion clinics sued in District Court. In hindering women as a class from seeking an abortion, they argued, anti-abortion protesters had violated their equal protection rights. Although a District Court ruled in favor of the clinics, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in a 5-to-4 decision that defied logic. Justice Scalia wrote:

Opposition to abortion cannot reasonably be presumed to reflect gender-based intent, because there are common and respectable reasons for opposing abortion other than a derogatory view of women.

In other words, a protestor's right to free speech trumps a woman's right to free and unfettered access to reproductive health services.

In Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo v. Williams, Joshua Wilson describes the "ideological dilemma" when two legal concepts come into conflict forcing both sides of the argument to decide which rights deserve priority over others. For pro-choice liberals, the strategy is to protect abortion rights by limiting disruptive demonstrations near reproductive health facilities. For pro-life conservatives, their strategy is the reverse: To obstruct access to abortions by expanding their traditionally narrow views regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Depending upon on the issue, it seems, civil liberties are in the eyes of the beholder.

On January 13, 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic. Two months later, on March 10, 1993 to be exact, Dr. David Gunn was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in Pensacola Florida:

David Gunn, 47, was shot three times in the back after he got out of his car at the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic, according to Pensacola police […]

Last summer in Montgomery, Ala., an old-fashioned "wanted" poster of Gunn was distributed at a rally for Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, AP said. The poster included a picture of Gunn, his home phone number and other identifying information.

Eight months later, on August 19, 1993, a pro-life extremist shot Dr. George Tiller in both arms. It was the first attempt on his life and the first of many threats throughout his career. Not only did Dr. Tiller survive the attack, he returned to the clinic the next day to administer to his patients.

In response to a pattern of arson, bombings, murder, and intimidation at abortion clinics, the U.S. Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) on May 26, 1994. More than a dozen states followed suit by imposing buffer zones around clinics and homes, prohibiting threats to personnel, banning telephone harassment, and imposing noise regulations. On March 17, 1997, Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo v. Williams reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, the Justices voted 6-3 to uphold the buffer zones.

Despite legislative initiatives to date to stop the violence, there have been:

-- 8 assassinations and over a dozen shootings;

-- 180 arson and 37 bomb attacks;

-- 100 butyric acid attacks including multiple attacks on the same clinic on the same day; and

-- 654 letters threatening anthrax attacks.

These are not the actions of a mere handful of lone extremists within the pro-life movement. These statistics imply the existence of a pervasive and organized network of accomplices working underground and nationwide. Scott Roeder, the man charged with the murder of Dr. George Tiller, agrees. From his jail cell last week, Roeder said: "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal."

Meanwhile, what about our vaunted rights of free speech and free assembly? Have these set us free when thousands of reproductive health professionals and their clients are forced to endure threats, intimidation, and humiliation every day?

Which is worse: The threat of international terrorism from abroad, or the threat of terrorism at home that can strike at any moment?

(Cross-posted from The Swash Zone.)

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