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Violence taken seriously now

Published Oct. 8, 2005


Jeanne Clark gathered family members together two months ago and did an unusual thing for someone in good health: She made plans for her own death.

"I told them what I wanted at my funeral if something should happen to me, and told them what to do with my belongings," said Clark, 45.

Working on the front lines for abortion rights for 19 years, Clark said she wasn't afraid for her life until recently.

On July 29, abortion Dr. J Bayard Britton and his escort, James Barrett, were shot to death outside a Pensacola clinic. Barrett's wife, June, was wounded. That brought the toll at clinics in the past 19 months to three dead, two wounded.

So after the family meeting, Clark found herself sweating under a bullet-proof vest in the 98-degree heat of Gulfport, Miss. She was there to protect an abortion clinic and to escort patients to their appointments.

This time, something was different. Joining her were U.S. marshals and police officers.

"Finally," she sighed.

Since the violent fringe of the anti-abortion movement began bombing clinics in 1977, doctors, clinic workers and supporters have been asking for protection.

They've wanted new laws and law enforcement. And they've been demanding an investigation into what they believe is a conspiracy to kill doctors and shut down clinics with violence.

Yet it wasn't until Britton's death that the government called out the troops, placing marshals at clinics where aggressive anti-abortion protest has escalated. A federal investigation of the recent shootings has begun, as well.

"The reaction has been slow, mostly because (federal officials) are very nervous about First Amendment rights and about going after a group that cloaks itself in religion," said Ann Glazier, director of clinic defense for Planned Parenthood Federation. "This group has been quick to say, "They're going after us because they don't like our religious beliefs and that scares law enforcement.' "

Politics played a role as well.

In the 1980s, two anti-abortion presidents were in office _ Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The Moral Majority had pull in Washington and no one had been murdered.

"Those administrations weren't as focused on the violence as on keeping a right-wing voting contingent," said National Organization of Women President Patricia Ireland. "They did not take the violence seriously."

Now, even those fighting against abortion are concerned.

"I can understand their thinking, absolutely," Rai Rojas, president of Florida Right to Life said of clinic workers. "They're getting shot, hurt and killed. But if they were honest with themselves, they'd not lump us all together. We abhor violence. There's only a small group of people advocating violence, but they're getting all the attention."

While abortion rights groups were winning most of the court and political battles to keep abortion legal, they were also having to learn how to protect themselves. They began their own intelligence networks, planned security at clinics and even infiltrated the other side.

Women and men with NOW, Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority, among others, got on mailing lists, went to anti-abortion rallies and monitored anti-abortion hot lines.

"Even my pets are on their mailing lists," said Loretta Kane, clinic defense expert with NOW.

At NOW offices in Washington, D.C., a wall serves as "The Rogues Gallery," pictures of protesters the group thinks are dangerous. They want clinic workers around the country to become familiar with the faces.

Necessity forced them to take such actions, Ireland said.

"It can be pretty scary," Ireland said. "We're not law enforcement and we're not trained for this. We shouldn't have to be linking arms and protecting our clinics ourselves. It should be local, state and federal authorities doing this."

Finally, federal agencies did act.

After Britton and Barrett were murdered, the Justice Department opened an investigation and began a task force, using information that had been gathered through the years by abortion rights groups.

The day after the murder, all 56 FBI field offices received a confidential Teletype, alerting them to numerous militant abortion foes around the country, all of whom had signed a declaration that killing abortion doctors was justifiable homicide.

According to the Teletype, investigators were to use surveillance and interviews, but to limit the use of intrusive undercover tactics like wiretapping and searches.

Whether investigators can prove a nationwide conspiracy of violence remains to be seen. There must be evidence of overt, coordinated action by individuals working in concert _ proof that has eluded past investigations of bombings and arsons.

"We have not found any national conspiracy in our investigations so far, just regional conspiracies of people who cross the line because of their deep-seated hatred of abortion," said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spokesman Tom Hill. "We've found no connection from one state to another in the past. But I can't comment on what the task force is going to find now."

Abortion rights supporters are heartened by court-ordered buffer zones at some clinics and the first prosecution under the new Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits anyone from using force, threats or physical obstruction to injure, intimidate or interfere with a person obtaining or providing an abortion.

Paul Hill, who was charged with Dr. Britton's murder, was convicted earlier this month of violating FACE and could get a life sentence. In addition, Hill will go to trial next week on charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder, where he faces a possible death sentence.

Many anti-abortion activists say the FACE law and other such limitations on protest will tie their hands and incite some people who may be prone to violence.

"People tend to get frustrated when you take away their right to peaceful protest," said Rescue America regional leader John Burt of Pensacola. "If I'm one of these people who believes in justifiable homicide against doctors _ and I'm not _ I'd be getting really frustrated and feel that something's got to be done."

Burt staged the protest during which Dr. David Gunn was murdered, and the defense accused him of inciting Michael Griffin, who was convicted of the crime. But Burt was not linked to that case, and Griffin was convicted of first-degree murder last March and sent to prison for life.

Moderates in the anti-abortion movement fear that clinic violence will cause a backlash against their cause.

Right to Life's Rojas said his group used legal, political means to win stricter abortion regulations, including parental consent laws in some states.

"As a result, thousands of children have been saved from abortion," he said. "How many lives did Paul Hill save by killing? Maybe a few that day. There is no room for violence in the movement."

Dallas Blanchard, an educator who has written two books about anti-abortion violence, thinks he knows how to stop it. A few more successful prosecutions under the FACE bill will get the message across that it won't be tolerated, said the University of West Florida sociology professor.

"I see the continued escalation of violence and continued demand for increased federal action which can stop it," he said. "The only way to stop it is to put them in jail for life _ swift, sure punishment is the best deterrent."