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Context of '1991: Court Dismisses NOW Lawsuit against Anti-Abortion Advocates'

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Joseph Scheidler.Joseph Scheidler. [Source: Pro-Life Action League]Anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler forms a group variously known as the Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) and the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN). Scheidler was a ranking member of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the US’s largest anti-abortion organization, until 1978, when he was dismissed from the group for his advocacy of violence. (Kushner 2003, pp. 38)

Joseph Scheidler, the president of the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN—see 1980), and three PLAN members enter the Summit Women’s Health Clinic in Middletown, Delaware. Scheidler later says he is “casing the place,” according to court records. The day after the visit, protesters vandalize the clinic, seriously damaging equipment. (Clarkson 12/2002)

Members of the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN—see 1980 and 1986) enter a women’s health clinic, the Pensacola Ladies Center, in Pensacola, Florida. They attack the clinic administrator, throwing her down the stairs; attack and injure an official of the National Organization for Women (NOW); blockade the clinic; and wreck medical equipment. During the attack, PLAN president Joseph Scheidler stands outside, praising the attackers and publicly claiming credit for the incident. The clinic will close for several days for repairs. (National Organization for Women 9/2002) The Ladies Center was firebombed twice in 1984 by anti-abortion activists (see 1984). (Kushner 2003, pp. 38) One of the protesters who takes part in the blockade and assault is James Kopp, who in 1998 will murder an abortion provider (see October 23, 1998). (Clarkson 3/30/2001)

National Organization for Women logo.National Organization for Women logo. [Source: National Organization for Women]The National Organization for Women (NOW) files a lawsuit against Joseph Scheidler, Scheidler’s organization Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN—see 1980), and other anti-abortion organizations. NOW is joined in the suit by the Delaware Women’s Health Organization and the Pensacola Ladies Center (see March 26, 1986), and later the Summit Women’s Health Organization (see 1986). The lawsuit is part of a strategy devised by NOW president Eleanor Smeal to use federal antitrust laws to charge Scheidler and others with being part of a nationwide criminal conspiracy to close women’s health clinics through the use of violence and terror. The suit becomes known as NOW v. Scheidler. (National Organization for Women 9/2002; Clarkson 12/2002) The lawsuit seeks a nationwide injunction to stop the clinic invasions, and asks the courts to make those responsible for the attacks pay for the damage they caused. In 2002, the future president of NOW, Kim Gandy, will say of the lawsuit: “NOW decided we had to stop the violence. Scheidler and his gang were calling in blitzes—they would attack clinics without warning and hold staff and patients hostage. Clinics were being blockaded and invaded. If we did not act, we thought clinics would not be able to stay open.” NOW attorney Fay Clayton will say the case seeks “to ensure that the constitutional right [to abortion] recognized [in 1973] would exist not just in theory, but in reality.” According to a 2002 Ms. Magazine report, the case only targets anti-abortion protesters who engage in criminal acts such as criminal trespass, assault, and conspiracy to block access to clinics. It makes no effort to halt peaceful protests as protected by the First Amendment. The lawsuit claims that PLAN and others engaged in what the federal racketeering law prohibits: namely, a “pattern of racketeering activity,” including the use of fear, force, and violence, in order to prevent people from receiving and providing legal abortions. Clayton maintains that the actions met the legal definition of organized crime. (Clarkson 12/2002)

The National Organization for Women (NOW) expands its lawsuit against anti-abortion advocates (see June 1986), adding charges of extortion and violation of federal racketeering laws. NOW brings charges under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a law originally designed to address organized crime. (National Organization for Women 9/2002)

A court dismisses a lawsuit, NOW v. Scheidler, brought by the National Organization for Women against anti-abortion advocates (see June 1986). (National Organization for Women 9/2002) The lawsuit will be reinstated five years later (see September 22, 1995).

Dr. George Tiller, a women’s health doctor and abortion provider, is shot once in each arm outside the Women’s Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Kansas, by anti-abortion activist Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon. Shannon has a long history of violent attacks against abortion clinics on the West Coast, using both fire and acid to disrupt or close women’s health care clinics. (Washington Post 1998; Kushner 2003, pp. 39) Shannon is a member of the violent anti-abortion group Army of God (see 1982). After her arrest, she will tell authorities that her attempt to murder Tiller was a means of “enforcing God’s will.” Police will find a copy of the secret “Army of God Manual” (see Early 1980s) buried in her backyard. (Extremist Groups: Information for Students 1/1/2006) In 2009, Tiller will be murdered by another anti-abortion activist (see May 31, 2009).

Paul Hill, speaking to reporters after his conviction for murder.Paul Hill, speaking to reporters after his conviction for murder. [Source: Trosch (.org)]Dr. John Britton, a physician and abortion provider, and volunteer security escort Jim Barrett, a retired Air Force colonel, are shot to death outside the Ladies Center in Pensacola, Florida, by Paul Hill, a leader of the radical anti-abortion group American Coalition for Life Activists (ACLA—see July 1993). (Washington Post 1998; Kushner 2003, pp. 39; Fox News 9/3/2003) Eight years before, several officials at the same clinic were attacked by anti-abortion protesters (see March 26, 1986). Hill later says he was inspired by the 1993 murder of another Pensacola abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn (see March 10, 1993). He bought a new shotgun after the Gunn slaying, and practiced on a firing range. The morning of the murder, as Britton, Barrett, and Barrett’s wife June enter the clinic parking lot, Hill opens fire, shooting Barrett in the head and chest. He then reloads and shoots Britton and Barrett’s wife. Dr. Britton is fatally wounded in the head and chest, while Mrs. Barrett sustains wounds in her arm. Hill then puts the shotgun down to avoid being shot himself by police, and walks away from the scene. He is arrested within minutes, and tells officers, “I know one thing, no innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today.” (Fox News 9/3/2003) Hill will be executed for his crimes in 2003 (see September 3, 2003).

District Court Judge David Coar reverses earlier court decisions and reinstates a lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) against anti-abortion advocates (see June 1986). NOW president Patricia Ireland says, “We’re thrilled and anti-abortion terrorists ought to be shaking in their boots.” The ruling allows NOW to investigate defendants’ recent actions, including murders and attempted murders by anti-abortion activists (see August 19, 1993 and July 29, 1994). (National Organization for Women 9/22/1995; National Organization for Women 9/2002)

The Justice Department ends its two-year grand jury investigation into possible conspiracies behind abortion clinic violence (see 1986, March 26, 1986, June 1986, March 10, 1993, 1995 and After, and 1996). The jury finds no evidence of any national conspiracy to commit violence on the part of anti-abortion organizations. However, Nation reporter Bruce Shapiro will write in 2001 that the evidence unearthed by the FBI’s investigation in a 1998 abortion doctor murder (see October 23, 1998 and March 17-18, 2003) proves the existence of just such a conspiracy. (Nation 4/23/2001)

District Court Judge David Coar rules that NOW v. Scheidler, a lawsuit brought by the National Organization of Women (NOW) against anti-abortion advocates (see June 1986 and September 22, 1995), can be designated as a “class-action” lawsuit. Coar certifies NOW as the class representative of not only all NOW members but all women “whose rights to the services of women’s health centers in the United States at which abortions are performed have been or will be interfered with by defendants’ unlawful activities.” Coar later rules that if NOW proves its case, then defendant Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue organization (see 1986) will be held responsible for all acts of terrorism and violence perpetuated by the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN—see 1980 and 1986). Coar rejects the defendants’ argument that their “moral imperative” to stop abortion justifies their violent acts. (National Organization for Women 9/2002)

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue (see 1986) and a co-defendant in the NOW v. Scheidler class-action lawsuit (see June 1986, September 22, 1995, and March 29 - September 23, 1997), agrees to the issuance of a permanent injunction against him. Terry will face steep fines if he engages in future acts of violence or terrorism against women’s health clinics. (National Organization for Women 9/2002)

After 12 years of litigation, the National Organization for Women (NOW) wins its lawsuit against the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN, also known as the Pro-Life Action League, or PLAL—see 1980 and 1986) and other anti-abortion advocates (see June 1986, September 22, 1995, and March 29 - September 23, 1997). The jury hearing the case unanimously agrees that the defendants engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to deny women access to medical facilities. The jury determines that Operation Rescue (see 1986), PLAN, PLAN president Joseph Scheidler, and their co-defendants are racketeers under the RICO Act and should be held liable for triple damages for the harm their violent acts caused to women’s health clinics. (National Organization for Women 9/2002)

The US Supreme Court agrees to review NOW v. Scheidler (see June 1986, September 22, 1995, and March 29 - September 23, 1997) on the basis of two technical issues raised by the defendants. The Court refuses to hear the defendants’ challenge that the First Amendment was violated by earlier rulings or that speech is at issue. The Court will determine whether women victimized by the violence of the anti-abortion advocates in the lawsuit can be protected from future crimes by an injunction as opposed to merely recompensed for the losses caused by the actions (see July 16, 1999), and whether it was appropriate to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act against defendants who claim their actions were prompted by religious or moral motivations. (National Organization for Women 9/2002) The Court will overturn the decision on technical grounds (see February 28, 2006).

Anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler (see 1980, 1985, June 1986, April 20, 1998, October 2, 2001, and February 28, 2006) claims to have renounced the violent tactics that made him such a notorious figure of the anti-abortion, or pro-life, movement (see 1986 and March 26, 1986). Scheidler, 75, a former Benedictine monk and newspaper reporter who lives in Chicago, says he now favors peaceful marches on abortion clinics, the display of posters with graphic depictions of aborted fetuses, and what he calls “counseling” of women seeking abortions. “Obstruction—that’s over,” Scheidler says. “I was in some of those demonstrations, but I could see that was not going to be the real way. You’ve got to convert people away from abortion. You don’t just keep them out of the clinics. They just arrest you and you’re gone, and they go back in. I always hated it when the day was done, and they were all going back to the clinic and we were sitting in a [police] wagon.” He adds: “Nothing’s going to change in what we do. I haven’t stopped doing anything that I thought was effective. What will change is I think more people will come out.” (Golab 2/27/2003)

In an 8-0 decision, the US Supreme Court reverses the findings of earlier courts and finds for the defendants in the NOW v. Scheidler lawsuit (see June 1986, September 22, 1995, and March 29 - September 23, 1997). The Court, ruling on technical grounds (see April 22, 2002), determines that it was improper for the National Organization for Women (NOW) to use laws covering racketeering and organized crime against anti-abortion advocates who committed violence against women’s clinics. The Court also notes that Congress’s 1994 passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE—see May 1994) Act indicated that Congress did not view the law as pertaining to this area. (FindLaw 2/28/2006; Los Angeles Times 3/1/2006)


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