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Clinton Approves Bill Limiting Protests at Abortion Clinics

By Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post

President Clinton Thursday signed legislation that bars antiabortion demonstrators from blocking access to clinics or threatening patients, decrying "the extremism and the vigilante conduct which gave rise to this law."

Two antiabortion groups immediately filed suit to overturn the law, arguing that it interfered with their constitutional rights of free speech and religious freedom.

Clinton signed the law, the "Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act," at a White House ceremony attended by the children of David Gunn, the Florida physician who was murdered by an antiabortion protestor last year.

"We simply cannot - we must not - continue to allow the attacks, the incidents of arson, the campaigns of intimidation upon law-abiding citizens that (have) given rise to this law," Clinton said, citing the murder of Gunn and the shooting of another doctor outside his clinic in Wichita, Kan., last summer.

"No person seeking medical care, no physician providing that care should have to endure harassments or threats or obstruction or intimidation or even murder from vigilantes who take the law into their own hands because they think they know what the law ought to be," Clinton said.

The law, which has been a priority for the abortion rights movement, makes it a crime to block access to clinics, damage their property or injure or intimidate paitents and staff. Approved by the Senate 69 to 30 this month, following a 241 to 174 House vote, it calls for jail terms and stiff fines.

It was enacted after the Supreme Court ruled last year that an 1871 civil rights law could not be used to halt antiabortion protests and a Justice Department review concluded existing statutes were inadequate to deal with the growing problem. Abortion rights supporters say there have been 3,000 incidents of violence, vandalism and harassment at abortion clinics since 1977.

Antiabortion activists argue that the law punishes them for legitimate civil disobedience and for expressing their religious views. The National Right to Life Committee accused the president of allowing abortion rights supporters to "crush peaceful protesters' free speech with federal lawsuits."

Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, the group that has blockaded clinics across the country, said the law "shows the ever growing anti-Christian persecution that is coming from our government."

But the American Civil Liberties Union called the law "a milestone in congressional protection for reproductive freedom" and said it protects "peaceful protest and free speech."

Clinton acknowledged "genuine and deeply felt differences on the subject of abortion" but said it was "time to turn away" from expressing those views through violence and "verbal extremism." Responding to critics of the legislation, he said, "This bill is designed to eliminate violence and coercion. It is not a strike against the First Amendment." The signing of the bill is the latest of several changes the Clinton administration has made on behalf of supporters of abortion rights, who spent the previous 12 years battling efforts by the Reagan and Bush administrations to limit abortion rights in Congress and the courts.

Since taking office, Clinton has lifted the moratorium on federal funding of research using fetal tissue, reversed the prohibition against abortions at military facilities, undone the "gag rule" prohibiting federally funded family planning clinics from providing information about abortion, and - just last week - lifted the ban on importation of RU-486, a drug that induces abortions.