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Antiabortion activists in Florida try new tactics while rejecting violence

A woman adds to a memorial outside the Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kan., where an abortion doctor worked before being killed. A man has been arrested in his slaying. Story, 5A

Associated Press

A woman adds to a memorial outside the Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kan., where an abortion doctor worked before being killed. A man has been arrested in his slaying. Story, 5A

Over 20 years, tactics have changed, tough laws have discouraged confrontations, and the Right to Life movement has condemned murders of abortion doctors. No one pours acid into mail slots at clinics, as Miami protesters did in 1998. It's been that long since a Birmingham clinic was bombed.

Tactically, Right to Life reinvented itself. It rejected violence, honed sharper political strategies, broadened its message to include other hot-button issues like stem-cell research. And it began to win some battles.

But violence remains a possibility conceded by both sides of the long abortion battle.

Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida, is always mindful of the lone-nut factor. Protesters carry signs, play guitars and try to flag down drivers outside clinics in Sarasota and Bradenton when women come for abortions on Fridays. It's usually peaceful, but clinic workers have orders to head straight into the buildings. Zdravecky worries that a "terrorist" could be hiding among the sign wavers.

The protesters are kept from blocking doorways under a federal law passed in 1994 called the Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The law was passed after the 1993 shooting of Dr. George Tiller at an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan. The doctor was wounded in both arms. Since then violent protests at abortion clinics have fallen sharply.

But the law hasn't erased its possibility. It was Tiller, 67, who was murdered Sunday while standing in the foyer of his church in Wichita.

"The terrorists are still there," Zdravecky says.

• • •

If there are antiabortion terrorists out there, they don't represent what Right to Life believes in, says Carol Tharp, organizer of a new chapter in Hillsborough County.

She mourns the loss of any human life, she says, including Tiller's. "We don't rejoice when one is taken."

On Tharp's long agenda for her new group are plans to try to block embryonic stem cell research funding, to continue to lobby for a bill to require ultrasound scans before abortions, and to seek new end-of-life protections in cases like Terri Schiavo's. One of her members visits Christian high schools with 261 baby shoes, the daily average number of abortions in Florida. Tharp has no plans to protest at clinics. Individual followers, she says, may still protest at clinics, but Right to Life has found that victories come easier in politics.

One of the telling lessons of the past decade was passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003.

In that campaign, Right to Life succeeded in shifting the national conversation from protests at clinics to what Congress called "a gruesome and inhumane procedure."

Up to that point, the image battle was won by abortion rights advocates, says Terry Kemple, a longtime Florida abortion foe who heads the Community Issues Council at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. The prevailing image was antiabortion protesters chained to the doors of women's clinics. The "partial-birth" abortion debate shifted the image to graphic photos of aborted late-term fetuses.

"That strategy has been more successful," Kemple says, "than duking it out on the streets."

For both sides since Sunday, the image is once again a man with a gun.

Antiabortion activists in Florida try new tactics while rejecting violence 06/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 2:39pm]
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