Pro-life protesters and pickets are being urged not to stop their activities in front of abortion clinics because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting buffer zones around such facilities and despite local advocates' being caught up in the legal fray.
On June 28, two days before the Supreme Court's decision, 21 persons were arrested and jailed for blocking access to the Women's Medical Pavilion in Dobbs Ferry where abortion protests have been held regularly for the past six years.
On July 1, State Attorney General Oliver Koppell filed a complaint in federal court against these individuals for violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) which President Clinton signed into law May 24.
"Let's not automatically waive our rights to counsel and picket before these rights are taken away clinic by clinic," said Christopher Slattery, program director of Manhattan's Legal Center for Defense of Life. "Each clinic or city would need to seek its own injunction in a federal or state court to apply to each facility."
On the date of the high court's decision, June 30, eight of those arrested were sentenced to nine days in jail for disorderly conduct. The remaining protesters, including Father Norman Weslin of the Lambs of Christ, a non-violent antiabortion group, were sentenced to 45 days for contempt of court for violating a protection order obtained by the clinic. These protesters had been arrested earlier this year at the clinic and the order stipulated that they stay away from it for a year.
Father Frank A. Pavone, who is national director or Priests for Life, called for increased pro-life activities in an effort to spread the truth. Noting that last Wednesday's Supreme Court decision was "both an attack on the babies' right to life and the mothers' right to truth," Father Pavone said, "The attempts to silence the pro-life message within a certain distance of the killing center illustrates the fact that abortion providers are threatened by truth."
In the action in federal court, the members of the Lambs of Christ will have to appear in court Friday, July 18, and show cause why they should not be fined as much as $75,000 for violation of former State Attorney General Robert Abrams' court order not to block the Dobbs Ferry clinic. They will also have to pay attorney fees and court costs.
Koppell also filed a separate complaint under the FACE law which asks for "injunctive relief, damages and civil penalties" against the Lambs, a local Operation Rescue group called LIFE, Father Weslin and other individuals including several "Jane and John Does."
In the court papers, they are charged with preventing 13 women from entering the clinic and "depriving the pavilion of business and costs and a monetary loss of $11,000." Slattery told CNY that pro-life organizations that wish to picket or counsel outside abortion centers should not assume that "buffer zones of 36 feet are automatically in force because of the ruling." An injunction must first be obtained by each such center, he said.
He maintained that the court's action "is a devastating decision for the long-term future of sidewalk counseling." However, he could see a silver lining in that the decision preserves the right of counselors to approach abortion-bound women, the right to picket with signs of their choice and the right to pass the homes of abortionists and their staff.
Joseph M. Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, said that his group's sidewalk counselors would be out as usual. "If women were guaranteed full information before they make a decision about abortion, we might not have to be out in front of the clinics," he said. "But they are denied this information and we have no choice but to provide them with the opportunity to know the facts."
Father Pavone said Pope John Paul 11 at World Youth Day at Denver last August urged the spread of "truth about life into the streets and public places." "Priests for Life calls on all pro-lifers to come out into the streets in greater numbers than ever, both at the killing centers and at every street corner to proclaim the truth about abortion," he said.
The organization has prepared a manual on the purposes and methods of pro-life street activities. Information: 888-PFL-3448.