WASHINGTON — A House Judiciary subcommittee opened hearings on abortion clinic attacks Wednesday, with the chairman of the panel urging prosecution of abortion protesters.
"Reproductive freedoms are constitutionally protected, yet the Justice Department has not intervened here," said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the panel on civil and constitutional rights.
He said that the department in the past has 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."
Speaking for the civil rights division of the Justice Department, John Wilson said the department has determined that there are no federal civil rights statutes that need to be invoked at this time and matters are best left to local law enforcement.
The House panel heard testimony from abortion patients and clinic administrators who said that women's health centers are disrupted daily by bomb threats, vandalism, telephoned death threats and shouting anti-abortionists.
One witness, Katherine Taylor of Portland, Ore., said that she and her mother were surrounded and vilified by a dozen protesters last January as she entered a clinic for an abortion she said was necessary to protect her health.
"They started yelling things at me like, 'Two lives go in and one comes out,' " she recalled. "Each sign they were holding had the word 'murder' written on it. One sign had some old pictures of dead babies in the garbage can . . . .
"While we were in the clinic, I could still hear one woman outside yelling, 'Auschwitz,' continuously," she said. "Whatever their reasons are, I do not believe it is right for them to be out in front of the clinics."
Bombings Called Justified
But Joseph M. Scheidler, director of the Pro-Life Action League, told the panel that vigorous protests outside abortion clinics and even bombings are justified because "of what takes place inside the abortion chambers."
"No one has been killed in the attacks on abortion facilities," Scheidler said. "But thousands of human lives are destroyed inside these buildings every day."
Most leading anti-abortion organizations, including the National Right to Life Committee, have publicly condemned the bombing of abortion clinics but encourage picketing outside the facilities.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said the fight over abortion often develops into a confrontation between a woman's legal right to have an abortion and the protesters' First Amendment right to freedom of speech.