Ms. Magazine
 

Terror in the Name of the Lord

by Frederick Clarkson

"WELCOME PRO-LIFE ACTIVISTS-HAVE A BLAST," read the marquee outside a little motel in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1985. Members of the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN) were in a festive mood following dozens of arsons and bombings of abortion clinics around the United States. Some wore firecrackers on their conference name badges. A letter from imprisoned clinic arsonist Curt Beseda was read. This small but seminal meeting in many ways epitomized the brazen yet banal nature of organized antiabortion extremism-a rah-rah atmosphere, like some perverse parody of a pep rally, in which threats of future violence were cloaked as free speech, and past criminal acts were celebrated as valid tools for intimidating fellow citizens. A fringe culture was coalescing.

Then, in 1986, the Summit Women's Health Clinic in Delaware was invaded by PLAN director Joseph Scheidler and three other PLAN members. Scheidler, according to court records, said he was "casing the place." The next day, protestors entered the clinic and seriously damaged equipment.

Throughout the country, similar attacks occurred. Fed up with the assaults, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and National Women's Health Organization clinics in Delaware and Milwaukee filed suit against Scheidler and the others. The women's organizations sought a nationwide injunction to stop the clinic invasions and also asked the courts to make those responsible for the attacks pay for the damage they caused. Using laws created as tools against organized crime, NOW and the two clinics set out to prove a nationwide conspiracy of violence and terror against women's health care clinics.

Kim Gandy, the current president of NOW, explains: "NOW decided we had to stop the violence. Scheidler and his gang were calling in blitzes-they would attack clinics without warning and hold staff and patients hostage. Clinics were being blockaded and invaded. If we did not act, we thought clinics would not be able to stay open."

NOW v. Scheidler is a class-action suit, filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The suit seeks court injunctions that would bar antiabortion extremists from engaging in organized criminal acts against patients and clinics. It also seeks fines and reimbursement for damage done. Lead attorney for NOW Fay Clayton says the case sought "to ensure that the constitutional right [to abortion] recognized [in 1973] would exist not just in theory, but in reality."

The case is aimed only at antiabortion protestors who engage in criminal acts, such as criminal trespass, assault, and conspiracy to block access to clinics. It doesn't go after those whose activities are clearly protected by the First Amendment, including prayer, leafleting, shouting and name-calling. NOW and the clinics claim that PLAN and others engaged in what the federal racketeering law prohibits: namely, a "pattern of racketeering activity," including the use of fear, force, and violence, in order to prevent people from receiving and providing legal abortions. Scheidler, in a 1984 letter, bragged that he helped organize a "pro-life Mafia." Clayton maintains that the actions met the legal definition of organized crime, and the courts, so far, have agreed.

In March, 1993, antiabortion zealot Michael Griffin murdered Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida. Outraged by the killing and by claims from federal authorities that they were powerless to do anything to stop the violence, abortion rights groups mobilized to change the laws. Led by the Feminist Majority, the National Abortion Federation, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and Planned Parenthood, groups lobbied, fought, and campaigned to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) the following year. Among other things, FACE makes it illegal to use force or the threat of force to interfere with clinics.

Antiabortion extremists, including many who would become leaders of the then newly-formed American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA), argued that the murder of Dr. Gunn was "justifiable." A wave of four murders and seven attempted murders of doctors and clinic personnel came in the next two years. No group was held responsible for the attacks, although individuals were prosecuted. In 1995, ACLA launched a campaign it called the "Deadly Dozen" that featured Old West-style "unwanted" posters of 13 leading abortion providers. Some of the posters included the providers' home and work addresses. The targeted physicians said they were acutely aware that similar posters-not attributed to ACLA-had preceded the murders of three of their colleagues. The providers said they viewed the posters as a hit list, and the FBI contacted those on the list and offered protection; the abortion providers donned bulletproof vests and took other security precautions.

In 1996, four doctors and two abortion-provider organizations sued under the civil section of FACE, in what became Planned Parenthood v ACLA. The case sought an injunction to stop the published threats against doctors and also sought monetary damages.

One of those named in the suit was the Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, Maryland, a founder of the ACLA. Bray, who is pastor of a church he cofounded, is the author of A Time to Kill: A Study Concerning the Use of Force and Abortion. The book maintains that there is a "biblical mandate" for the use of "deadly, godly, force to protect the unborn." Bray served four years in federal prison in the 1980s for his role in the arson attacks and bombings of seven abortion clinics.

ACLA leaders gave some of the "Deadly Dozen" data to Neal Horsley, of Carrollton, Georgia, who posted the material on his "Nuremberg Files" Web site. The Web site named doctors and abortion rights supporters and called for them to be tried for "crimes against humanity." When an abortion provider was murdered. The name appeared on the site with a line through it. Horsley used gray tape for the names of abortion providers or staff who had been wounded. The entire Web site was designed to look as if it were dripping in blood.

After Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot through the kitchen window of his home in October 1998, his name was placed on Horsley's Web site with a line through it. In the April, 2001 HBO documentary, Soldiers in the Army of God, Horsley spoke of the Slepian murder: "See, I told you. There's another one. How many more is it going to take before we finally realize that legalized abortion in fact will destroy the United States of America? What do you expect people to do who literally understand that these people are making a living killing babies? Well, the evidence is at hand. There are people out there who will go and blow their brains out." The Army of God's Web site was used for threats to abortion providers, attributed to "soldier" Clayton Waagner in 2001. Waagner was at that time a fugitive, having escaped the Illinois prison where he was being held on firearms and theft charges. Waagner is now serving 30 years in prison, and is the lead suspect in the mailing of 500-plus anthrax hoax letters to clinics.

In Planned Parenthood v. ACLA, a federal jury in Portland, Oregon in 1999 ordered ACLA to pay abortion providers $109 million in damages. Judge Robert Jones declared that the posters were "a blatant and illegal communication of true threats to kill, assault, or do bodily harm" and issued an injunction against further publication of the "deadly Dozen" data by the defendants. But in 2001, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court verdict on First Amendment grounds.

In May 2002, however, a larger panel of the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed the jury's verdict and reinstated the injunction but ordered a reevaluation of the $109 million awarded to the abortion providers. "There is substantial evidence," Judge Pamela Rymer wrote for the majority, "that the posters were prepared and disseminated to intimidate doctors from providing abortions. Holding [ACLA members] accountable for this conduct," she concluded, "does not impinge on legitimate protest or advocacy." The Ninth Circuit majority emphasized the dramatic recent history of antiabortion violence, including the murders of doctors that had been preceded by "unWANTED" posters. ACLA went beyond merely vilifying or ostracizing doctors, the opinion stated, to intentionally instilling fear, which is terrorism.

Maria Vullo, attorney for those fighting ACLA, says the case doesn't harm freedom of speech. The law, she says, recognizes harmful speech in areas including racial discrimination, plagiarism, and copyright infringement-and juries decide such issues all the time. "When you cross over the line into threatening violence," she says, "it's not free speech."

NOW v. Scheidler went to trial in Chicago in 1998-12 years from the time the case was filed. After a dramatic, seven-week trial, a federal jury unanimously held Scheidler and his fellow defendants liable for 121 acts of extortion, force, and violence. In 2000, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago unanimously upheld the verdict.

"The decision was an enormous victory for the clinics and abortion rights," says Susan Hill, the head of the two abortion clinics involved in the suit. "The jury and the court said that invading clinics, destroying buildings, and threatening to carry out these assaults is extortion. Of course, with any other business, that would be obvious."

It's been 16 years since the NOW v. Scheidler case began. During this winter session, the Supreme Court is slated to consider two questions raised in the suit. One is whether the PIAN activists deprived the clinics of their ability to offer services and took away the right of patients to obtain medical services. The other question is whether private organizations such as NOW and the clinics can use the federal racketeering law to get injunctions to stop alleged organized criminal activity. Although the Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. ACLA, observers believe it will.

NOW attorney Fay Clayton says it would be "terrible" for the public if organizations lost the right to obtain injunctions under RICO. "Injunctions," she says, "are one of the most critical tools for righting a wrong, fighting crime, and preventing violations." It would be an equally serious blow to the public, she says, for the Supreme Court to rule that it's not extortion to disrupt the work of abortion clinics and stop individuals from obtaining medical services.

If it rules against the clinics and patients, says Clayton, the Supreme Court will "take away an enormously important tool for fighting any kind of domestic terrorism. Anyone who uses force or violence, like the KKK or skinheads, would be immune. Even the Department of Justice has urged the court not to do this."

Kim Gandy, president of NOW, predicts that if there are losses in the Supreme Court, it will "embolden antiabortion forces." In the past, she says, the Supreme Court took away the ability of clinics to rely on protections of the civil rights laws. When that happened, Gandy says, "violence around the clinics increased. We cannot have that happen again."

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009