WASHINGTON — Abortion clinic operators testified today that they and their patients daily face threats and physical attacks by anti-abortion demonstrators, and House members demanded that the protesters be prosecuted under civil rights laws.
Women from clinics around the nation testified before a House judiciary subcommittee that local law enforcement is sometimes slow to help them fend off demonstrators who stage sit-ins, grab the arms of patients, block entrances and threaten the lives of patients and clinic employees.
"Reproductive freedoms are constitutionally protected, yet the Justice Department has not intervened here," said Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the panel on civil and constitutional rights.
He said the department in the past acted to "prosecute harassment of blacks exercising their rights to enter a restaurant," and that his committee is asking "why the same law is not being applied to violence against women exercising their rights to enter reproductive health centers."
Beverly Whipple, executive director of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Yakima, Wash., said her organization shut down a clinic in Everett, Wash., after three firebombings there but was unable to get police protection even if it was willing to pay.
She said that although the clinic received as many as 771 harassing telephone calls in one day, General Telephone Co. removed a trap to trace the calls because its spokesmen said "it didn't have the equipment to handle the volume of calls coming in."
Mary Banneker, administrator of the Northeast Women's Center in Philadelphia, testified that after her organization faced harassment by people who blocked entrances, swung signs at patients and grabbed their arms, it won a court order limiting the number of pickets to six, only to find that local law enforcement officials would not enforce it.
She said that when her group asked the Sheriff's Department why officers had stood by while more than 30 people picketed, "They told us, 'We felt it was not necessary to enforce the injunction.' "