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Terrorists and the Issue of Abortion : What Will the Bombers Achieve?

January 06, 1985|WILLIAM SCHNEIDER | William Schneider, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, is The Times' political analyst

WASHINGTON — Christmas Day saw three anti-abortion bombings in Florida, at a clinic and in two gynecologists' offices. Ten minutes after midnight on New Year's Eve, a bomb went off in a Washington abortion clinic.

Since May, 1982, there have been 30 instances of anti-abortion arson and bombings across the United States. Three incidents took place in 1982, two in 1983, 24 in 1984 and one already in 1985. So far there have been no deaths or injuries; the bombings usually occur at night, when the premises are deserted.

Nine individuals have been arrested in connection with 12 incidents. The investigation at the federal level is being handled by the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting the investigation but has declined to take charge, on the grounds that, according to an FBI spokesman, "We have no evidence of any organized conspiratorial enterprise."

People who call themselves "the Army of God" have claimed responsibility for many of the incidents. One imprisoned member of the Army of God circulated a Christmas letter inviting supporters to use the group's name in their anti-abortion activities. He claimed that the group was responsible for "229 pickets and other activities against death chambers across the nation." The day of the Washington bombing, a man claiming to be from the Army of God telephoned a local newspaper to say that the group was responsible for the attack. He offered encouragement to "our brother in Florida" and warned that "the next bombing will be in Ohio."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms believes that there are only three members of the Army of God and that all are now in jail. The director of the FBI refuses to describe the bombings as acts of terrorism because they do not signify an "attack on government." Last week President Reagan condemned the bombings "in the strongest possible terms" and committed more federal resources, but not the FBI, to the investigation. As the executive director of the National Abortion Federation put it, "We suspect that if we were talking about a chain of supermarkets that had been bombed to the extent of 29 in one year, we would see an FBI investigation."

Why have some anti-abortion activists decided to turn to violence? Violence usually signifies hopelessness. People turn to extremism when it becomes clear that legitimate protest is not bringing results.

Their frustration stems from the fact that no real progress has been made toward recriminalizing abortion, even though the Republican Party is committed to that position and has been in control of the White House and Senate for the last four years. What can anti-abortion activists hope to accomplish through violence? Won't they simply alienate the American public, including many people who are otherwise sympathetic?

The immediate effect of these activities is to frighten women away from abortion clinics and to make it difficult for such clinics to operate. One doctor whose office was bombed in Florida indicated that no one would rent to him because of the insurance risk and that he would have to stop performing abortions at his office.

The larger effect is to keep the issue on the national agenda. Whatever revulsion the public may feel toward the bombings, they do make the point that the issue is not settled. And it is in the Administration's interest to keep the issue from being settled.

Most Americans do not agree with President Reagan's position on abortion. In fact, according to a Times poll, a majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention last year were personally opposed to a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion, even though their party platform called for just such a measure. Still, the Republican delegates approved the platform and President Reagan carried a solid majority of the popular vote.

Polls on the subject of abortion have been remarkably stable for the past 10 years. A substantial majority of the public opposes an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution. However, a substantial majority also opposes the "pro-choice" idea that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion for any reason. Since 1975, Gallup polls have shown 21%-25% of Americans endorsing the view that "abortions should be legal under any circumstances." A slightly smaller proportion, 16%-22%, feel that abortions should be "illegal in all circumstances." A majority of 52%-58% has said consistently that abortions should be legal "under only certain circumstances."

What circumstances?

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