Lately there has been a lot of talk about how to handle acts of violence aimed at abortion providers and their clinics. Among several proposed solutions there has been a great deal of focus on clinic access legislation. Nationally we have such a law, called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, better known as the FACE Act.
The FACE Act has been used against pro-lifers on every conceivable level. Last year it was used to prosecute the hosts of a Web site called the Nuremberg Files, with the contention that the information gathered on the Web site incited visitors to target abortion providers with violence. The Web site was shut down in the United States, but is still available through other countries. FACE punishments usually involve heavy fines.
Despite the power wielded by anti-lifers using this law, many states are proposing their own clinic access laws. They claim that a state law will fill in gaps left by FACE and further stiffen the penalties to deter violent offenders.
One such proposal had been put forth in New York by Assemblywoman Susan John, D-Rochester. John's clinic access bill is riddled with generalities that leave many possibilities open for prosecution of peaceful demonstrators. For instance, the bill would make it a crime to “intimidate” those entering an abortion clinic. John has stated that she feels the purpose of protests is “clearly to intimidate and to harass.” In fact, peaceful and legitimate protesters could be treated as criminals under this bill. Clinic workers could claim that people praying outside their clinic are intimidating to patients and themselves. The offending pray-ers could then be heavily fined or even jailed.
John's bill is an example of knee-jerk reactions to violence today. There is no need for such legislation. In New York, for example, current laws of the penal code address the type of conduct this new legislation is ostensibly trying to stop. Criminal law already prohibits acts of harassment, vandalism, arson and murder — no matter where these acts take place. Also, FACE Act already provides stiff penalties for those who obstruct access to facilities
Some of the newly proposed laws target actions that are intended to intimidate a person from obtaining or providing reproductive health services only. For instance, none of these access bills apply to a union member picketing a clinic over a labor issue. New York State Right to Life Committee lobbyist, Lori Hougens, rightfully points out that “only pro-lifers are targeted in this viewpoint-based legislation, which penalizes people for why they act, rather than how they act.”
Is the free expression of the pro-life view the real target of FACE?
These thought-crime bills can do nothing to stop violence. After all, a criminal who is not deterred by the penal code which already covers acts of terrorism, actual threats and violence against any citizen, is not going to be further deterred by clinic access laws.
These bills tend to intimidate pro-lifers and to curtail legitimate protests in front of abortion centers. Access bills threaten law-abiding citizens, who would peacefully and prayerfully gather outside abortion clinics in legitimate protest against the abortions taking place there. Those supporting the bill, knowingly or unknowingly, are slowly squelching all licit, public, pro-life activity, especially demonstrations outside clinics.
The anti-life forces are using the recent isolated incidents of violence to drum up support for legislation that otherwise would not stand a snowball's chance in Hades of being passed. They even title the bills to insinuate that their purpose is to curb violence at clinics — like our New York example called “Reproductive Health Care Services Access and Anti-Violence Act of 1999.” (Now there's a mouthful!)
The problem with tying these bills to the anti-violence theme is that even life-friendly legislators can get caught on the wrong side. Assemblyman John Dinga in New York voted to support the clinic access bill, stating it was important that he make a stand against violence. He was of course way off base and terribly misinformed when he supported this bill. Unfortunately, many may mistakenly support such bills, thinking the same way.
Some support these bills unwittingly. Others support them for political reasons. After all, someone may naturally think that a bill termed “anti-violence act” would be accomplishing what it purports to do. Sick of all the violent acts against abortionists and clinics, pro-life legislators cannot be blamed for wanting to distance themselves from the bloodshed — a legitimate feeling and a correct goal. These individuals mean well, but they are not accurately informed about the redundancies in these bills.
There are others who would support such legislation as a sort of feel-good-and-look-good political measure even though they realize they are supporting dangerous legislation. They may be bowing to pressure from anti-life organizations.
This is, of course, hypocritical since they understand that the proposed access bill can do nothing to curb violence or deter criminal action and that it can infringe the free speech rights of law-abiding citizens. Perhaps in their own minds they justify their position as necessary for making a politically correct public statement.
Violence has to be denounced, but not by feel-good legislation that harms the free speech rights of citizens who want to gather and peacefully protest. All acts of violence against abortion clinics and abortionists must be denounced. Mainstream right-to-life organizations have been doing just that at the top of their lungs in press releases and statements that are ignored by the media. After New York abortionist Barnett Slepian was killed, for example, the media printed every kind of denouncement from Planned Parenthood and other anti-lifers, but only printed statements by fringe pro-life groups. Meanwhile, with no success, well-known groups, such as National Right to Life and Human Life International, sent daily press releases rejecting all violence in the pro-life effort and made continual phone calls trying to have their views printed.
The general public needs to take news articles and what they see on TV with a grain of salt. Just ask those who have actually been to Washington for the annual March for Life. They know well the media bias that gives ridiculous and minuscule coverage to this enormous event.
All that pro-life organizations can do is to continue to try to get out the word that they are nonviolent. As individuals in the fight we can do our share by writing letters and by calling legislators whenever we see a threat to our First Amendment rights.
As for the clinic access legislation, the public should beware. These new laws have nothing to do with stopping violence and everything to do with stopping legitimate civil protest. We can hope that, if these bills pass, they will be shot down by the courts as contrary to the Constitution of the United States.
Carla Coon is editor of LifeWorks for the New York State Right to Life Committee.