BY HELEN MEYERS
CHICAGO - On April 20 a federal grand jury in Chicago found that leading opponents of the right to choose abortion conspired to use violence or threats of violence to prevent women from using abortion clinics. Joseph Scheidler, a leader of the right-wing Pro-Life Action League, and the other defendants were convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. Randall Terry, the president of Operation Rescue, had been a defendant but earlier agreed to pay damages in a settlement.
The law was enacted by Congress in 1970, ostensibly aimed at organized crime. RICO allows convictions of individuals and organizations found guilty of a "pattern of racketeering." Even if a defendant did not commit a crime, he is liable if it can be proved he was a member of an enterprise and someone in the enterprise committed a crime.
This class action suit was filed by two clinics in Delaware and Wisconsin on behalf of 900 facilities that provide abortion services. The jury awarded $85,000 to the two abortion clinics that initiated the suit, based on the money they spent on security to combat the antichoice protests. U.S. district judge David Coar will hear arguments at a later hearing on whether he should issue a nationwide order banning antiabortion rights groups from activities such as blockading clinic entrances. He also can increase the damages awarded.
The case was originally filed in 1986. It was thrown out by a number of judges who agreed with the antichoice side and said the federal racketeering law required defendants to have a motive of economic gain. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1994 that the statute did not explicitly require economic gain as a motive, and the suit was sent back to Coar's court to proceed.
While some hailed the decision as a victory for abortion rights, many argue that it is a violation of First Amendment rights. In a April 21 article, the New York Times reports that G. Robert Blakely, the Notre Dame professor who drafted the RICO act, said that is was never intended to apply to political groups. He expressed concern that the statute could be used to chill dissent by a wide range of organizations, such as labor unions and gay rights advocates.
Fay Clayton, lead counsel for the National Organization for Women (NOW), which filed the class-action suit, commented after the verdict, "Women now will be able to use the clinics without facing the ugly thugs that try to block their way." Lowell Sachnoff, an attorney representing the clinics, called the decision, "a tremendous victory for women in our country."
Some rightist groups used the decision to paint themselves as the defenders of civil liberties. Scheidler, speaking to the press after the decision, said, "I'm going to talk all over the country. I imagine I'll be getting all kinds of invitations now that I am a racketeer. Racketeers for Life. I will make lemonade out of this. You watch me."
Rev. Robert Vanden Bosch, of Concerned Christian Americans, a conservative group said, "In many ways this is a limitation of free speech. If they can be prosecuted why can't union people be prosecuted for having picket lines?"
An April 21 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, entitled "A big chill from a law misapplied," stated: "The use of RICO in this context is egregious. It carries the risk of deterring not only illegal conduct but legal constitutional political protest."
Abortion rights supporters in the Illinois state legislature said the court ruling could help breathe life into a bill pending the in Illinois Senate that would make protesters civil and criminally liable if they block access to clinics.
"The court decision provides an even stronger legal foundation for giving the necessary tools to local law enforcement officials," declared Rep. Jeffrey Schoenberg, a lead sponsor of the bill that passed the House last year.
NOW's strategy in face of clinic blockades and bombings by opponents of a woman's right to choose is to rely on the courts, the government, and lobbying. NOW fought for the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law (FACE), which provides prison time and a fine for blocking clinic entrances.
Lawyers for the defendants said they would appeal.
Helen Meyers is a member of United Auto Workers Local
719 in LaGrange, Illinois.
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