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Abortion Clinics Face Echo of Deadly Gunshots

March 12, 1993

Undated (AP) _ Uneven waves of anxiety spread among abortion-rights advocates Thursday, a day after the shooting death of a doctor outside his clinic. What before had been a threat for the first time was reality.

One of their longtime foes crossed the line from passionate protest to fatal violence.

″I would guess that everyone who provides abortions is on notice today,″ said Patty Brous, executive director at Planned Parenthood in Kansas City, Mo.

″It is the ultimate horror. ... You can’t predict who is going to do a crazy act like this and therefore you really have to be on guard.″

Such tension is not new to Brous, whose clinic was fire-bombed in December 1989. The staff had already learned to be vigilant, she said, ″(but) beginning today, we will have an armed guard.″

Many - if not most - abortion clinic staffers around the country have faced intimidation. Some have been blockaded by protesters, the targets of taunts and verbal threats. Others have confronted activists chained to chairs, hate mail or the foul-smelling fumes of butyric acid, a chemical sometimes sprayed at their doors.

With the election of President Clinton, anti-abortion activists are without a friend in the White House for the first time in a decade. Some abortion providers fear the movement could be intensifying in response.

″I’m starting to think that there may be some backlash in terms of extremists taking matters into their own hands,″ said Lisa, who has declined to use her last name since a chemical attack was made last fall against the clinic she runs in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The National Abortion Federation, which represents 200 clinics, estimates the reported incidence of harassment more than doubled in 1991-92. At scattered rallies and news conferences Thursday, activists appealed for a swift, strong response to the trend.

In Washington, several national groups urged an FBI investigation of ″anti-choice violence″ and called on Congress to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance Act, which would make blocking clinics a federal crime.

″The government needs to ensure that vigilantes, terrorists and religious extremists do not take away our basic right to choose,″ said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Though alarmed by the death of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Fla., activists were careful not to push the panic button - and potentially gratify or encourage partisans like Michael F. Griffin, who calmly surrendered and was charged with murder.

″Intimidation, fear, changing my way of doing things, changing the principles or procedures, is out of the question. I feel postitive about that,″ said Dr. David Booker of Hampden County Gynecologists in western Massachusetts.

″I don’t see how I can go about doing my best job and do the best for my patients if I have to fear that what I do is going to threaten my life,″ he said. ″I guess it’s a matter of principle.″

Still, acknowledged or not, the threat of deadly violence hung over clinics Thursday. Groups such as Operation Rescue and Rescue America, the Houston- based group that staged the Pensacola demonstration that turned deadly, did not condone the fatal shooting. But their denunciations were less than fervent.

″While Gunn’s death is unfortunate, it’s also true that quite a number of babies’ lives will be saved,″ Don Treshman, national director of Rescue America, told The New York Times.

″While we grieve for him and for his widow and for his children, we must also grieve for the thousands of children that he has murdered,″ Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, said in an interview with CBS.

No one was calling for violence. But it was present, here and there, in threats like that made by an anonymous caller who told the administrator of North Dakota’s only abortion clinic ″this is the day.″

The risk that a zealot might act on impulse or carry out a calculated plan always existed. But now a frightening threshold has been crossed.

Routine death threats such as those made against Marilyn Buckham, director of a Buffalo, N.Y., clinic targeted by Operation Rescue, have taken on a chilling new reality.

″You kind of think it’s never going to happen,″ she said. ″But it has happened, and it can happen again.″

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