Abortion clinic bill passed



WASHINGTON (AP)—The Senate voted Tuesday to arm the Justice Department with new powers to stop abortion clinic blockades and go after violent protesters. Senators rejected complaints they were stepping on peaceful demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.

The 69-30 vote followed a lengthy, emotional debate in which the Senate repeatedly turned back bids by anti-abortion lawmakers to soften the penalties and make other changes to the so-called clinic access bill.

Even strong abortion opponents backed the bill, arguing it was demanded by a growing wave of violence aimed at clinics, doctors and women. A Florida abortion doctor was shot to death earlier this year.

‘‘I am pro-life … but we cannot as a society allow acts of violence to promote any cause,’‘ said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

‘‘Violence is no response to the issue that divides us,’‘ added Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., another abortion foe backing the bill.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., an abortion rights advocate and the bill’s sponsor, said the incidents targeted in the bill ‘‘are not peaceful protests. These attacks are more akin to assaults.’‘

The House is scheduled to take up a similar bill later this week; Democrats in the two chambers hope to work out a compromise to send to President Clinton before Congress breaks for the year at Thanksgiving.

Critics said that the bill was an affront to free-speech rights and that it singled out anti-abortion demonstrators for punishment.

Other people who stage blockades, such as gay-rights activists or union workers, don’t have any special laws aimed against them, noted Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

‘‘This raises the right of abortion above the Constitution,’‘ Thurmond said.

‘‘Talk about double standards,’‘ added Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who complained that liberal causes are always treated differently by Congress. ‘‘Is this the most deliberative body in the world, or is it merely a politically correct outfit that’s more interested in the next election than the next generation?’‘ Helms said.

Attorney General Janet Reno has asked Congress to pass the legislation, saying it would give the Justice Department needed authority to seek court injunctions to stop blockades at abortion clinics.

The bill would create new federal crimes and punishments for use of force, threats and intimidation against women seeking and doctors providing abortions. There would also be new crimes for obstruction or destruction of a family planning clinic.

Distributing leaflets, carrying placards and ‘‘sidewalk counseling’‘ where protesters provide information would still be legal.

Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., complained the bill punished someone who used force the same as someone peacefully blocking an entrance—both as felonies punishable by up to three years for a repeat offense.

Smith compared abortion protests to the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s led by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

‘‘Heroes yesterday; felons today,’‘ Smith said. ‘‘What’s the difference? The difference is what you’re protesting against.’‘

Kennedy and other abortion rights advocates said it was an insult to have King’s name raised during the abortion clinic debate. Repeatedly trying to obstruct access to a clinic—and therefore interfere with a woman’s constitutional right to abortion—can’t be trivialized, Kennedy said.

Smith tried to change the bill so that people who blocked clinics in a nonviolent way would only face a misdemeanor charge and up to 60 days in jail for a repeat offense. Congress shouldn’t ‘‘put nuns in jail,’‘ Smith said.

But Kennedy cut him off by offering a substitute that kept such repeat offenses a felony, punishable by up to 18 months in jail. He noted courts had the discretion to give out lighter sentences. That passed 56-40.

The bill has stiffer penalties for use of force, punishable by up to 10 years if injury results and life in prison if a death occurs.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., lost, 62-36, when he tried to change the bill to make abortion rights advocates who wage violence against the other side subject to the same penalties. ‘‘Pro-life’‘ counseling clinics are already covered, Kennedy countered, and state laws will cover assaults leveled by protesters on either side that don’t have to do with a clinic’s access.

Women’s rights activists said the Senate’s strong vote was due in part to the power of Senate women, who tripled their numbers with the 1992 elections and now hold seven seats. The five Democrat women worked the floor all day.

‘‘It’s the first pro-active bill on protecting the right to choose in years,’‘ said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, who called it a refreshing change from playing defense on issues such as abortion funding.