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Capture Closes Violent Chapter in Abortion Debate

Eric Robert Rudolph was the last major suspect sought in attacks on clinics and providers. Meanwhile, the battle over the issue heats up.

June 01, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The arrest of Eric Robert Rudolph on Saturday is being called a significant victory in a long campaign against violence directed at abortion clinics in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was the last major figure sought by federal authorities in connection with an attack on abortion providers, and his capture comes amid a long and significant decline in the number of bombings and burnings of abortion clinics.

But his arrest also coincides with the start of an intense new period in the battle over abortion, with opponents of the procedure achieving new success in enacting curbs on the practice and readying to take advantage of support in the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Rudolph was arrested before dawn Saturday in Murphy, N.C., after eluding authorities in a five-year manhunt. Though he is most notorious as the suspect in the bombing in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, he also is accused of blasts at a gay nightclub in Atlanta and at clinics that offered abortion services, one near Atlanta and another in Birmingham, Ala.

The latter attack, in 1998, was the first to kill a clinic employee -- Robert Sanderson, an off-duty policeman who provided security for the facility. The nail-packed explosive, disguised as a potted plant, also left a nurse at the clinic, Emily Lyons, severely injured.

One of the lead investigators in the case said Saturday that Rudolph's arrest is a significant victory in a long law enforcement effort against the bombing and arson strikes on clinics in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"The number of attacks on clinics are down. They're smaller. Not as destructive," said James Cavanaugh, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Rudolph's arrest, he said, "may further dampen others' willingness to do it."

Rudolph's arrest is the latest in a series of legal victories for authorities against abortion-related violence. Last month, James Kopp was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for his 1998 sniper slaying of Dr. Barnett Slepian, 52, an obstetrician-gynecologist who performed abortions in Buffalo, N.Y.

Cavanaugh said the bureau has investigated 182 attacks on clinics since 1982. Although the number of bombings and arsons approached 20 a year in the early 1990s, there have been only one or two such incidents in each of the last four years, according to statistics kept by the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based professional association of abortion providers.

Authorities attribute the downturn to more aggressive law enforcement as well as to a 1994 law, signed by President Bill Clinton, that afforded new protections to clinics, including barring groups from obstructing entrances.

Abortion-rights advocates say other forms of harassment have increased. Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said there was a post-Sept. 11 spike in threatening letters laced with powder meant to look like anthrax.

Another tactic, she said, involves groups that photograph women who go to abortion clinics and then post those pictures on antiabortion Web sites.

"There has been a decline in the more extreme acts of violence and terrorism at clinics," Michelman said. "But what remain are constant acts of intimidation and harassment."

Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, a leading antiabortion group, condemned violent attacks on clinics and stressed that Rudolph "had no ties to the pro-life cause." He said there were antiabortion protesters in front of the Birmingham clinic the morning of the bombing.

Newman said the diminished number of violent attacks stems in part from antiabortion movement victories.

Under the Bush administration, the antiabortion cause has gained momentum. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Operation Rescue and other groups had been wrongly charged under federal antiracketeering laws, a tool authorities had used for years to curb such groups' activities.

This week, the House is expected begin debate on a measure banning certain late-term abortion procedures. The Senate recently approved a similar measure, and President Bush has indicated that he will sign such a law.

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