STOKING FIRE: Clinic Violence Needs to Be Controlled

When President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, the prochoice community assumed that the years of violent assaults and harassment were finally over. After all, the Act prohibits “the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.” What’s more, it gives the Department of Justice authority to bring criminal charges against violators, with potentially hefty financial penalties and jail time for those convicted, and empowers DOJ, state Attorney Generals, individuals, and health centers to bring civil complaints against anyone who breaches the law.

Seventeen years later, however, only 64 lawsuits—39 of them criminal—have been filed and 92 defendants have been charged. In total, FACE has led to just 86 convictions.

Meanwhile, clinics across the U.S. continue to be menaced. “Our protesters have learned to come as close as they can without stepping over the line to a FACE violation,” says Jen Boulanger, Executive Director of the Allentown Women’s Center.  Sadly, Boulanger’s experience is all too common and protesters have further sidestepped the law by developing tactics that fall outside FACE’s purview. One of the most insidious—and effective—is the boycott. Indeed, businesses and suppliers throughout the 50 states have been threatened with blacklisting unless they sever ties with providers. Just last month, for example, an Enterprise Rent-a-Car franchise in Redwood City, California was warned that if they didn’t revoke an agreement to rent nine parking spaces to a nearby clinic, the entire national chain would be boycotted.

Yep, they’re a wily lot, the antis.  Still, the question remains: Has the Obama administration done all it can to prosecute those who’ve run rough-shod over FACE, or has it backpedaled on the issue?

Much has been made of the fact that since Obama took office, DOJ has brought charges against seven individuals for violating the Act—a nearly 360-degree turnaround from the Bush years.  Among them: Richard Retta, an elderly Maryland man who has been a constant presence at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC for a decade.  According to the complaint, Retta routinely interfered with patients entering the facility.  In one incident, he got so close to a woman that he broke her shoe. DOJ seeks to bar Retta from coming within 20 feet of PPMW’s entrance and physically obstructing patients, staff, and escorts. The agency is also requesting $15,000 in fines.

Others charged include Angel Dillard, author of a threatening letter to Dr. Mila Means of Wichita, Kansas, and Kenneth and Joann Scott, charged with blocking the driveway and physically obstructing vehicles at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. David Hamilton, a regular protester at EWM Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, was charged after he grabbed and pushed a volunteer escort who was attempting to assist a Center patron.

“During the last two years DOJ has been very responsive about enforcing FACE,” says Sharon Levin, Vice President and General Counsel of the National Abortion Federation. “Their job is to uphold laws that are on the books. When a report comes in regarding a possible FACE violation, DOJ’s responsibility is to investigate to see if the action broke any regulations. The Bush administration didn’t take this responsibility seriously; the Obama administration takes it extremely seriously.”

Although Levin is heartened by the Obama Administration’s diligence in responding to complaints, others in the prochoice community are less enthusiastic. Debra Sweet, Executive Director of World Can’t Wait, argues that “the Obama DOJ has been only slightly more interested in prosecuting FACE violations than they have been in prosecuting the Bush torture lawyers. Seven cases, out of the thousands of anti-abortion protesters who actively harass patients and staff is, frankly, pathetic,” she begins. “A week before Scott Roeder killed Dr. George Tiller, he was twice observed—they have it on tape—vandalizing Aid for Women, a Kansas City clinic. Both instances were reported to the FBI yet the reports were ignored. Clinic escorts around the country say that antiabortion protesters are allowed great freedom, including physically touching and threatening patients as well as lying to them.”

What’s needed, Sweet continues, goes beyond FACE to expand protections for clinicians, patients, and health center property—from noise and signage restrictions, to forcing the police to uphold local, state, and federal laws.  In addition, better cooperation between law enforcers would go a long way in countering the browbeating that has become the stock-and-trade of the anti-abortion movement.

Jen Boulanger agrees. “We also need federal buffer zones of at least 20 feet and controls on terroristic speech,” she says. “I respect the right to free speech but a boundary is crossed when protesters intimidate patients and staff. Speech is not covered by FACE but words have a huge impact. Recently, a protester told us, ‘Don’t go inside. The air is poisoned.’ We didn’t know if the antis had done something to our HVAC, or if the statement was meant to scare us.”

Did she report the incident to DOJ? “Of course,” she laughs. “I send weekly reports to the local DOJ office about the constant presence of trespassers, harassers, and bullies. We report everything.” At the same time, Boulanger says that she has learned not to rely on law enforcement.  “DOJ has expressed genuine concern for our situation,” she says. “Still, as far as we know, none of our protesters have been charged with anything.”

This means that, for now, Allentown’s protesters—like protesters in hotspots including Orlando, the Bronx, and Charlotte--will likely continue to flout the law.  Since DOJ staff can’t comment on pending investigations, whether this will eventually change remains an open question.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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