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Activist Pleads for Abortion Protection : Rights: Safety of clinics needs to be ensured, a Costa Mesa church congregation is told.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

America’s senior abortion rights activist, William Baird, pleaded Sunday for tolerance in the increasingly violent reaction nationwide to the right to abortion.

“I want the antiabortion people to tolerate the right of Americans to make their own moral decisions,” said Baird, speaking at a Costa Mesa church just two days after an abortion doctor and his security escort were shotgunned to death in Florida. “Why can’t we say to the Catholics and the fundamentalist Christians, if you think (abortion) is wrong, then don’t you have it.”

But Baird, 62, a tireless abortion rights advocate who opened the country’s first birth control and abortion counseling clinic in New York in 1963, also sharply criticized the federal government and police for not adequately protecting abortion clinics nationwide.

The man arrested as a suspect in the shootings, Paul Hill, had threatened to kill abortion doctors and told a radio audience last year that killing Baird would be “justifiable homicide,” he said.

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“This need not have happened. The man was a walking time bomb,” Baird told the congregation of about 75 at the Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church service.

The FBI needs to treat antiabortion activists as terrorists, Baird said later, adding that unless clinics are fully protected, there is a risk of reaction to the violence.

“Two hundred clinics have been firebombed . . . and the right to life group is not determined to be a terrorist group,” Baird said. “Tell me this is not a conspiracy. Where are the chemicals coming from? Who is training these people?”

Baird’s fervent and often graphic discussion of the crude methods of abortion--prior to legalization--and the violence in the abortion debate brought groans from the gathering, who applauded him at the end of his talk.

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“It’s distressing,” said George Shackelford of Irvine. “I have to say it seems like some things have gotten better, but this firebombing stuff definitely seems like terrorism to me.”

Judy Semler of Huntington Beach said Baird’s message “makes me feel guilty I haven’t done more . . . I cringe that people are getting killed.”

Baird acknowledged that he is also a potential target. Throughout the years, he has been arrested eight times in five states and was the principal litigant in reproductive freedom cases three times before the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of the most important decisions came in 1972 when the court, by a 6-1 vote, overthrew a Massachusetts state law that outlawed selling birth control to single people. That case, Baird vs. Eisenstadt, overturned his 1967 arrest for handing out contraceptives to Boston University students.

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In an interview, Baird said he lives with the knowledge that “I’m a target. When I walk out of here I have no way of knowing if somebody is waiting for me. But I must do what has to be done. . . . The message I try to convey is simple. Every woman has the right to determine her own morality. Every woman has the right to medical care, regardless if her husband says no, regardless if her children say no.”

After 31 years of abortion rights activism, Baird said he believes some progress has been made, particularly in the courts. For example, birth control used to be against the law, he said.

But the Florida killings show again the depths of the anger against abortion and reproductive rights, he said.

“We’ve had progress. Everything I fought for then was a crime, now it’s legal,” Baird said. “But we are now so polarized that one side honestly believes that God is on their side. . . . If these forces are pro-life, why don’t they condemn the death penalty?”

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Daniella Walsh of Orange called Baird’s talk “really right on.”

“My reproductive days are probably over, but I have two daughters,” said Walsh, 43. “It’s their business and their business alone. Their freedoms have to be preserved.”


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