Senator Kennedy and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act

Last night, Senator Ted Kennedy passed away at the age of 77, after 47 years of serving his country in the United States Senate.

As we currently still face the threat of harrassment and violence at women’s health clinics from the likes of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue, let’s remember the work of Senator Kennedy to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made it a federal crime to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive health care services.

While we are nowhere near where we should be in terms of protecting women and employees of these clinics, lets all be grateful for the work of Sen. Kennedy to at least bring their safety one step further in America.

Here is the text of Sen. Kennedy’s speech on the Senate floor in 1993:

Mr. President, this legislation will protect women, doctors and other health care providers from the tactics of violence and intimidation that are often used by antiabortion activists.

In the past 15 years, more than 1,000 acts of violence against abortion providers have been documented in the United States. Over 100 clinics have been bombed or burned to the ground. Hundreds more have been vandalized.

A recent survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation of clinics around the country showed that during the first 7 months of this year, fully half of the participating clinics had been the targets of arson, bomb threats, chemical attacks, invasions and blockades, and other abuses.

It is not only the clinics that are being attacked. Doctors, nurses, and patients have all become targets. At least two doctors have been shot by antiabortion extremists.

Dr. David Gunn was murdered last March when he was shot at point-blank range outside a clinic in Pensacola, FL. At a Wichita clinic in August, Dr. George Tiller was shot and wounded in both arms.

In December 1991,

a man in a ski mask opened fire with a sawed-off shotgun at an abortion clinic in Springfield, MO, and two clinic workers were seriously wounded.

And the worst is by no means over.

The Pensacola News Journal reported last week that Operation Rescue has announced plans to shut down two Pensacola clinics this month, using unspecified field activities that will undoubtedly include these tactics.

Attacks on clinics are not isolated incidents. Health care providers are living in fear for their lives. Many have received explicit threats against themselves and their families. One doctor in Texas received a letter in his mailbox at home that said, `Now you will die by my gun in your head * * *. Get ready [you’re] dead.’

A doctor in Rhode Island, who testified before the Labor Committee, was notified that a catastrophic health and dismemberment insurance policy was taken out for his wife.

Many physicians have found their faces, names, and addresses on `Wanted’ posters. They take these threats seriously–especially after Dr. Gunn’s murder, because he, too, had been targeted on wanted posters.

In addition to the violence and threats of violence,

clinic blockades and invasions are disrupting the delivery of health care services throughout the country. Since 1977, over 30,000 arrests have been made in connection with clinic blockades and related disruptions.

Typically, in these incidents, dozens of persons–and sometimes hundreds, or even thousands–join together to barricade clinic entrances and exits. Often, they push their way into the clinics, then chain themselves to the furniture and equipment.

A widely used recent tactic is to inject toxic chemicals into the facility in the middle of the night. Acid to make staff and patients ill is sprayed into the clinic, where it seeps into carpets and furniture. The clinic is forced to shut down for days or weeks while it undergoes an expensive cleanup.

These are not peaceful protests. These attacks are more akin to assaults. The city manager of Falls Church, VA called them military assaults in testimony before the Labor Committee describing attacks on a clinic in his jurisdiction. Patients and staff were held hostage for hours while the police tried to restore order, and a police officer was injured in the melee.

The consequences of this kind of conduct are unacceptable. The constitution guarantees the right of a woman to end a pregnancy, but the violence and blockades are designed to make it impossible for women to exercise that right.

Already, 83 percent of the counties in this country have no abortion provider. As clinics are burned down and the doctors are intimidated, it becomes harder and harder for women to obtain a safe and legal abortion.

The violence and blockades hurt others too. Many of the targeted clinics offer a wide range of health services. When these clinics are bombed, burned, blockaded or invaded, all of their patients suffer.

The Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula, MT, was totally destroyed by arson last March. The clinic offered abortions, but it also provided prenatal care and delivery, childhood immunizations, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and contraceptive services. Many patients traveled over a hundred miles to obtain health care from the clinic. Now, that community has lost access to these needed services.

The perpetrators of this conduct believe that abortion is wrong, and they are entitled to their view. But no matter how strongly they feel, assaulting doctors and blockading and bombing clinics should not be tolerated.

This legislation is designed to prevent this reprehensible conduct and to ensure that it will be punished when it occurs.

It establishes a new Federal criminal offense prohibiting force, threat of force, physical obstruction, or destruction of property intended to interfere with access to pregnancy or abortion-related services. It also establishes the right to bring Federal civil suits to enjoin such conduct and to obtain damages to compensate the victims.

The language of the bill is drawn in part from Federal civil rights laws that prohibit force or threat of force to interfere with the exercise of other fundamental Federal rights–such as the right to vote, or to obtain Federal benefits, or to obtain housing without regard to race. Examples are found at 18 U.S.C. 245(b), and 42 U.S.C. 3631. Both of these laws were enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The penalties in this bill are consistent with the penalties set forth in those laws: up to 1 year of imprisonment for the first offense; up to 3 years for subsequent offenses; up to 10 years if bodily injury results; and up to life in prison if death results.

The U.S. Criminal Code also provides for a range of maximum fines for Federal crimes, depending on the applicable maximum prison term, and such fines will be available here as well.

This measure prohibits four specific categories of conduct:

(1) It prohibits the use of force, including shooting or assaulting providers or patients.

(2) It prohibits the threat of force.

This provision applies in the case of serious, credible threats of bodily harm, such as the explicit death threats that many doctors have received.

(3) It prohibits physical obstruction of the facilities.

This is carefully defined in the legislation to mean making the entrance or exit impassable, or making passage unreasonably difficult or hazardous.

(4) It prohibits the damage or destruction of property. This includes arson, firebombing, chemical attacks, and other serious vandalism.

The legislation does not restrict activities protected by the first amendment. Those who are picketing peacefully outside clinics, praying or singing, or engaging in sidewalk counseling and similar activities that do not block the entrances have nothing to fear from this law. Those activities are protected by the Constitution, and this legislation does not restrict them.

The violent conduct that this legislation does prohibit is not even arguably protected by the first amendment, even if it is intended to express a point of view. As the Supreme Court said last June in its unanimous opinion in the hate crimes case Wisconsin versus Mitchell:

[A] physical assault is not by any stretch of the imagination expressive conduct protected by the first amendment * * *. Violence or other types of potentially expressive activities that produce special harms distinct from their communicative impact * * * are entitled to no constitutional protection.

[Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 113 S. Ct. 2194 (June 11, 1993).]

The same is true of physical obstruction of access to a public or private building–it is entitled to no constitutional protection. [Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 555 (1965).]

In short, this legislation will not penalize a point of view. It will not penalize conduct expressing that point of view in nonviolent, nonobstructive ways.

The only conduct it prohibits is violent or obstructive conduct that is far outside any constitutional protection.

That is why the measure has been unequivocally endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union and many others who have reviewed its constitutional implications.

Some may wonder why we need a Federal law, since such activities are normally a matter for State and local authorities. State and local laws against trespass, vandalism, assault and homicide, cover a large part of the conduct this legislation would address.

But in a number of incidents around the country, local officials, apparently opponents of abortion rights themselves, have been unwilling to enforce the laws. A sheriff in Texas has stated unequivocally that he will not enforce the law against those seeking to stop abortions. A police chief in Minnesota was arrested for participating in a clinic invasion himself.

A Federal law is also needed because we are confronted with a nationwide pattern of conduct by persons and organizations who operate across State lines in a manner that often makes it difficult or impossible for local authorities to respond effectively. Antiabortion activities of the most extreme kind have been reported in every part of the United States. When the organizers and their recruits move from one clinic to another in different jurisdictions, Federal investigative and law enforcement resources are essential.

Local authorities are often overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of clinic attackers. The Falls Church, VA, official who testified to the Labor Committee told us that his town had only 30 uniformed officers to arrest over 200 clinic attackers. It took hours for the police to clear the clinic. The lone city prosecutor handling the charges was swamped, and ultimately the trial had to be held in the community gym, because it was the only place large enough.

Clearly, these cases should be Federal cases.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bray versus Alexandria Health Clinic last January, in circumstances like this the clinic operators, staff or patients could apply to Federal court for an injunction, which could then be enforced by U.S. marshals.

For example, in the campaign against several clinics in Wichita in the summer of 1991, it was the Federal marshals who were able to restore order. But in Bray, the Court held that the civil rights law under which such injunctions had been issued does not apply to antiabortion blockades. That decision created an unfortunate gap in the Federal laws that this legislation will close.

Attorney General Reno, with her background in local law enforcement and her special sensitivity to the appropriate roles of Federal and local authorities, wholeheartedly concurs in the need for Federal help here. In fact, she testified that enactment of this legislation is one of the Justice Department’s top priorities.

Some have asked why the bill singles out abortion-related violence and blockades. The answer is that this legislation singles out for new Federal penalties and remedies exactly the conduct that calls for a Federal response–no more, no less. Antiabortion violence and blockades that have been occurring across the Nation as part of a coordinated, systematic campaign to intimidate abortion providers and patients, and State and local authorities have been unable to control it.

Nothing remotely comparable is happening that would justify a Federal law against violent demonstrations in other contexts. There is no record of any organized, nationwide pattern of violence or blockades by labor unions or any other group, let alone a pattern of conduct that local authorities have been unable to handle.

When a need for Federal legislation is shown, Congress should act.

Last year we passed by voice vote a law prohibiting violence against animal research facilities. No one objected on the ground that it singled out animal research opponents unfairly.

Finally, S. 636 evenhandedly addresses the possibility of abuses by both sides of the abortion controversy. It provides exactly the same protection for pro-life counseling centers, staff, and clients that it provides for abortion clinics and their staff or clients. It does so by applying its prohibitions to conduct aimed at interfering with pregnancy or abortion-related services, and defining that term to include services relating to pregnancy or the termination of a pregnancy.

If abortion rights activists were to vandalize a pro-life counseling center, or use force against a counselor who works there, they would be subject to the same criminal and civil liability as pro-life activists who attack abortion clinics or use force against a doctor who works there.

This provision was added to S. 636 in the Labor Committee to respond to the desire for equal treatment of both sides. The even-handedness principle is further refined in the modified substitute I offer today. At the request of Senator Wofford, we have changed the name of the services covered from `abortion-related’ to `pregnancy or abortion-related,’ to make it even clearer that pro-life pregnancy counseling is included in its protections.

In addition, as a further modification after discussions with Senators Durenberger and Kassebaum, the bill ensures that demonstrators–whichever side of the abortion debate they are on–do not obtain any right under this law to bring a civil suit.

Only patients and clinic personnel will have that right.

As reported by the Labor Committee, S. 636 permitted any person aggrieved by the prohibited conduct to sue for damages or injunctive relief. That could have been read to permit suits against clinic attackers to be brought not only by a patient or doctor or clinic owner, but also by a pro-choice demonstrator or clinic defender. Pro-life demonstrators outside the same clinic would not have had a similar right to such relief.

As modified, the bill restores the evenhandedness principle. It permits suits only by persons involved in providing or obtaining services in the facility. If demonstrators outside a clinic engage in pushing, shoving, or other forceful conduct against each other, neither side can sue under this law.

This measure, in short, provides fair, evenhanded treatment for all concerned. It is urgently needed. It is not enough for Congress to condemn the violence.

We must act before more doctors are killed, or more clinics are blockaded or burned to the ground.

Law enforcement officials at all levels of government agree, including Attorney General Reno,

who testified in strong support of this legislation. The consensus includes the State attorneys general, who adopted a unanimous resolution urging Congress to pass this law. It includes local officials throughout the country who need this Federal help.

All of the leading women’s rights groups and groups concerned with women’s reproductive health regard this measure as a top priority.

Health care providers, too, have joined in calling for passage of this legislation. The American Medical Association has endorsed it, and so has the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Their view is clear–no doctor should be forced to go to work in a bulletproof vest.

In addition, the respected British medical journal, the Lancet, in an editorial in its October 16, 1993 issue, addressed this issue in American medicine and stated, `Congress should act soon to end this terrorism.’

The Senate should act, and act now. This measure has bipartisan support from Senators who are pro-choice and Senators who are pro-choice and Senators who are pro-life. We may not agree on the issue of abortion, but we do agree that the use of violence by either side to advance its views is wrong.

I urge the Senate to pass this legislation.


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2 Responses to Senator Kennedy and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act

  1. oldlady says:

    I remember very well when John Kennedy was killed and when Robert Kennedy was killed. We’ve learned that our idols did indeed have feet of clay, but what both these men fought for and achieved in their brief lives gave inspiration to millions of people in this country and all over the world.

    Teddy Kennedy is truly the last of a certain era of hope that many of us old ladies remember with great passion and grief.

  2. Pingback: Ted Kennedy, Health & Stimulus « Feminist Looking Glass

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