ACLU's Role in Stopping Clinic Violence

Document Date: April 11, 2001

On March 10, 1993, the nation was stunned by the murder of Dr. David Gunn, the first physician shot to death for providing abortions. The violence has persisted and even escalated. To date, seven men and women have been killed because they were involved in the provision of abortion services. Shootings and bombings have claimed the lives of physicians and others involved in abortion care in Pensacola, Florida; Brookline, Massachusetts; Birmingham, Alabama; and Amherst, New York. Other physicians and staff have been seriously injured.

Ever since clinics began to provide the safe and legal abortions made possible by Roe v. Wade in 1973, they have been targets for harassment by anti-choice organizations and individuals. The onslaught has been characterized by steadily escalating violence, with the worst sieges occurring in 1984, 1992-94, and 1997-98. Between 1977 and the end of February 2001, more than 4,200 bombings, arsons, blockades, episodes of vandalism, stalkings, assaults, and other acts of violence took place at clinics throughout the country. Stymied in their efforts to make abortion illegal again, some anti-choice extremists resorted to murder as the ultimate weapon in the “war” they claim to be waging. The violence is exacerbating the already critical shortage of physicians willing to provide abortions and otherwise compromising the right of women to obtain abortion care.

As the nation’s principal defender of the Constitution, the ACLU is committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose. We deplore the orchestrated campaign of violence and threats designed to intimidate doctors, health care workers, and women who try to exercise their constitutional right to reproductive freedom. The violence directed against abortion providers today is analogous to white supremacists’ attacks on African-Americans and civil rights advocates in the 1960’s South, aimed at preventing blacks from exercising their right to vote.

Anti-choice activists, like those espousing any cause, are properly protected by the First Amendment when they speak, march, demonstrate, pray, display images, or associate with others in these activities. Their expression may be harsh, unsettling, and offensive and still be protected by the First Amendment.

But protesters may not physically obstruct others from exercising their rights, threaten doctors’ lives in an effort to scare them away from abortion practice, nor break the bounds of peaceful expression and assembly. The First Amendment does not protect people when they turn to shooting doctors, kidnapping clinic staff, destroying medical equipment, planting bombs, setting fire to clinics, threatening violence, or blockading clinic entrances. The Constitution does not — and never has — provided immunity to vigilantes.

    The ACLU is actively engaged in efforts to protect abortion providers and patients from such illegal conduct. Our activities include the following, among others:

    • In Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists, doctors and clinics sued organizations and individuals who have endorsed the use of violence against abortion providers, asking the court to hold them liable for threatening the safety of doctors and clinic workers by listing their names, addresses, and other identifying information on WANTED posters and websites. The ACLU submitted many friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, articulating standards for assessing when speech is unprotected as a “true threat.” After the jury returned a $100+ million verdict against the defendants and the trial court enjoined the threats, the ACLU filed a brief on appeal defending both the verdict and the injunction. The court of appeals reversed, however. The ACLU will consider continued participation as the case proceeds.
    • In Pro-Choice Network v. Schenck, the ACLU filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both the court of appeals and the Supreme Court defending the constitutionality of a court order that prohibited the defendants from protesting within 15 feet of clinic driveways and entrances in western New York. We argued that the injunction was necessary to ensure safe and unimpeded access to reproductive health services in the face of extensive evidence that the protesters had repeatedly obstructed, harassed, crowded, intimidated, and grabbed clinic patients and staff. The Supreme Court upheld the order creating protest-free zones.
    • The ACLU helped to draft the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), enacted in 1994 to prohibit the use of force, threats of force, physical obstruction, and property damage intended to interfere with those obtaining or providing reproductive health services. We subsequently defended the constitutionality of this important law in courts around the country.
    • ACLU affiliates work with law enforcement officials in states throughout the nation to ensure that mass anti-choice protests remain peaceful and that FACE is vigorously enforced to keep clinic doors open and accessible.

The high incidence of anti-choice violence has terrorized abortion providers and made access to abortion services increasingly difficult in the last decade. No health care worker should have to risk threats, assaults, and even murder for providing a legal medical procedure. No woman should have to risk being assaulted and abused for exercising her constitutional right to choose.

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