Lawmakers Target Anti-Abortion Tactic : Legislation: New laws aim to curb picketing at the homes of doctors who provide abortions and at clinics. But activists say the restrictions will do little to silence their protests.
The bitter fight over abortion has spawned a flurry of activity in legislative bodies in California and across the country to restrict picketing by anti-abortion protesters.
Cities from Davis to Poway have passed ordinances curbing picketing at the homes of doctors who provide abortions, while others have adopted “bubble” ordinances to keep protesters at least eight feet away from women entering the clinics.
The move toward these laws is largely in response to a new tactic called “No Place to Hide,” employed by activists from Operation Rescue, whose blockades or “rescues” at abortion clinics have provoked numerous clashes with police and counterdemonstrators. The effort involves picketing the homes of doctors who perform abortions
San Diego attorney Cynthia Thornton, a board member of the Womancare Clinic--which has been picketed, stink-bombed and blockaded--said the new residential strategy of Operation Rescue has backfired, offending the public and creating support for legislation protecting clinics and homes from close-range picketing.
“Imagine people yelling obscenities at you as you leave your house, yelling at your children that their parents are murderers, asking spouses ‘How could you be married to a murderer?’ ” Thornton said.
Officials of the National Abortion Rights Action League said the killing of Dr. David Gunn, shot to death in March during an anti-abortion demonstration outside a clinic in Florida, has given added urgency to the drive for protective legislation.
But officials of Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups say the laws violate the 1st Amendment and will have little impact because activists will find new ways to spread their message that abortion is the killing of unborn children.
“It’s a double standard of justice,” said Jeannette Dreisbach of Palm Springs, a longtime anti-abortion activist. “The Democrat left would never consider passing similar laws to block any kind of protest by Greenpeace or the whale watchers or the more militant environmentalists or anti-nuclear protesters.
“We (the anti-abortion movement) are being singled out. It’s a hate campaign.”
The cities of Poway, Huntington Beach, Tustin, Santa Ana, San Jose, Davis, Burbank, Glendale and Palos Verdes Estates have passed ordinances restricting residential picketing. So has the county of Los Angeles.
Pending in Sacramento are a bill by Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) that would impose restrictions on residential picketing statewide and a measure by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) that would allow anyone kept from entering an abortion clinic to sue for damages.
Colorado recently became the first state to have a statewide bubble law. But a clinic protection bill failed in the Florida Legislature, although supporters plan a second attempt. The New York City Council is mulling ways to protect clinics and the women who use them.
A “freedom of access” bill before Congress would make it a federal crime to block the entrance to an abortion clinic.
“The fight in the ‘90s is going to be over access,” Thornton said.
Faced with a U.S. Supreme Court that does not look ready to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, the anti-abortion movement has shifted from a courthouse to a supply side strategy: to prevail by severely reducing the number of doctors willing to perform abortions. The strategy depends on public disclosure and scorn.
Operation Rescue takes Ephesians 5:11 as its marching orders: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
“Abortion is a heinous act,” said Sue Finn, spokeswoman for Operation Rescue of California. “Nobody likes people to know they do it. There is definitely a shame factor involved.”
Raucous demonstrations in Denver and Boulder led Colorado Gov. Roy Romer three weeks ago to sign the bubble ordinance, which took effect immediately.
State Rep. Diana DeGette, who sponsored the ordinance, said she is haunted by the specter of Gunn’s murder; the doctor was shot in the back, allegedly by an anti-abortion activist. The eight-foot buffer area specified in the Colorado law is taken from studies that say it represents the psychological “comfort zone” for most people.
“While an eight-foot buffer won’t stop a bullet, I hope it will prevent tensions from getting to the point of a shooting,” DeGette said.
DeGette added that Colorado’s bubble ordinance, like similar ordinances in cities, is limited to health clinics. She sees little chance that similar laws might be passed to restrict protesters on other issues.
Not everyone is so sure.
When the San Diego City Council considered its bubble ordinance in March, Councilman George Stevens, who supports keeping abortion legal and accessible, said he feared that restricting the rights of anti-abortion protesters today could lead to restricting the rights of other protesters tomorrow.
A veteran of the civil rights movement, Stevens was the only council member to vote against the ordinance.
“I support free speech, dissent and confrontation when necessary to bring about positive changes,” Stevens said. “I cannot in good conscious support the elimination of these tools, which I and so many others in America have used . . . to address the injustices that were imposed on African-Americans and other people of color.”
Similar objections to the Calderon bill were expressed in Sacramento by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Teamsters Union.
Facing possible defeat of his bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Calderon dropped the bubble provision but left the residential restrictions. The latter, he said, are modeled after a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an ordinance passed in Brookfield, Wis.
His bill, SB 1248, is set to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee within the next few weeks. The measure would make a first offense punishable by a jail sentence of up to 30 days.
The conflict over residential picketing is being played out in Solana Beach, an tupscale suburb north of San Diego.
For four days over two months, two dozen anti-abortion demonstrators picketed outside the hillside home of Dr. Karl Seligman, who worked for the La Mesa office of Family Planning Associates, the state’s largest chain of abortion clinics, owned by Dr. Edward Allred.
“Know Your Neighbor” flyers were handed out, and the press was invited to cover the event.
The flyers compared abortion to the Holocaust and urged Seligman’s neighbors to “ask him to stop killing babies and injuring women through abortion.”
Seligman, whose lawn has a sign from a private security firm threatening an “armed response” for intruders, responded by letter to Operation Rescue:
“I consider your group and its tactics to be vigilante, working outside of the laws of the United States of America. Accordingly, if you or your organization continue to harass me, as you have threatened, I will have no recourse except to bring a civil suit against you, your organization and each and every member who participates.”
In the letter, Seligman announced that he is no longer employed by Family Planning Associates. Operation Rescue trumpeted this as a victory for its “No Place to Hide” campaign, although Seligman told reporters that at age 61 he had merely decided to retire and that his decision was not prompted by the picketing.
This week, the Solana Beach City Council voted to ask the city attorney to draft an ordinance restricting residential picketing.
The typical residential restriction ordinance says that although an individual house cannot be singled out by protesters, picketing of a neighborhood is still protected by the 1st Amendment. For that reason, the Denver City Council, which has a bubble ordinance, backed off the residential restriction idea.
“All you’re doing is spreading the demonstrations into the entire neighborhood,” DeGette said.
On that point, Operation Rescue agrees with DeGette. Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League and chief tactician of much of the campaign against physicians who perform abortions, said he is at work on a manual telling his troops how to circumvent residential restrictions.
Operation Rescue will soon begin “No Place to Hide: Phase II,” targeting the homes of obstetricians and gynecologists who perform abortions as part of their overall practices.
Later phases, Operation Rescue spokeswoman Finn said, may include picketing at medical schools and at the homes of people employed by companies that remove the fetal remains.
“Basically, these laws will require us to spread out our pickets, spread out our educational efforts, even though that is not their goal,” Finn said. “To be honest, we have so many state laws, city ordinances, county ordinances and injunctions saying you can’t trespass, you can’t do this, that we barely try to fight them.
“They won’t stop us.”