Three abortion-rights groups were releasing an annual report on clinic violence here Thursday when a staffer rushed into the room with a note: A clinic in Atlanta had just been bombed.
It was a stunning interruption, but underscored the groups’ point. Clinic violence may be down in the United States, but it remains a dangerous reality.
“Unfortunately, we aren’t surprised when these things occur,” said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. “Although we saw a slight decrease in 1996, the violence against abortion providers remains unacceptably high.”
The survey found that no one connected with abortion clinics was murdered in 1996. Nearly 30 percent of clinics reported anti-abortion violence last year, compared to 39 percent in 1995 and 52 percent in 1994. That violence included death threats, stalkings, bombings and bomb threats, arsons and arson threats, and blockades.
When gunfire, home picketing and vandalism were added, the number of clinics that experienced some form of violence or harassment in 1996 was nearly 46 percent, according to the survey. The forms were completed by 312 clinics in 45 states.
The drop in violence reflected vigilance by abortion rights advocates, increased security measures at clinics, improvements in law enforcement and a new federal law making it a crime to block access to abortion clinics, the studies concluded.
In a statement after the two bombs went off in Atlanta, injuring six people, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said, “Today’s bombs … prove that while statistics on clinic violence show an overall decline, some in the antichoice movement still believe their views grant them a license to bomb, murder and assault their opponents.”
“I can’t tell you how depressed I am,” Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said with a sigh. “If only we could just get this country to classify this as domestic terrorism. Then, people would treat it more seriously.”
Clinics around the country are bracing for next week’s 24th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case recognizing a woman’s right to an abortion.
Smeal said she fears that the Atlanta bombing may be tied to the upcoming inauguration of President Clinton, who supports abortion rights.
“When extremists become more desperate, feeling like they have no political power, they turn to violence,” Smeal said.
The survey revealed especially severe violence in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
The survey also showed that while some forms of violence - death threats and stalking - continued a decline begun in 1995, bombings, chemical attacks and arson threats were up.
The percentage of clinics that lost staff as a result of anti-abortion violence declined substantially - only 3.9 percent of the clinics reported staff resignations related to violence in 1996, compared to the 9 percent level in 1995.
The abortion-rights activists said that enforcement of the new federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, improved in 1996. That law was passed in 1994 after more than a decade of violent anti-abortion confrontations at clinics. The new law requires prison terms and heavy fines for those convicted of blocking clinics or using force or threats against patients or employees.
Smeal said clinics report that violations of the law are being treated seriously. She also said the one-third of clinics with buffer zones - a 10- to 30-foot protected area around clinics - had greater decreases in violence than those without buffer-zone protection.