This story first appeared in the September 19, 1985 edition of WW.
At 10:16 p.m. on the night of Saturday August 17, a person living near the Lovejoy Surgicenter heard a loud noise and rushed to the window of his house. The neighbor saw flames jumping over the east wall of the clinic and called the fire department. Before the firefighters arrived, another neighbor had extinguished the fire with a small extinguisher. The firefighters mopped up, but they quickly understood the cause of the fire: arson. Someone had tried to burn down Lovejoy, a day surgery clinic and Oregon’s largest abortion provider.
The fire did little physical damage; in a report to the fire department, the clinic cited damage to part of its wall and a shrub, and valued the loss at just $350. And since the incident happened after hours, day hospital operations were not interrupted. “It was a weak attempt,” says Allene Klass, president of Lovejoy.
But the arson introduced a new and troubling element to Portland’s already simmering abortion dispute. “It really woke people up,” insists Klass, who initially covered up the incident but provided details last week to Willamette Week.
The attempted arson – firefighters were still looking for those responsible but would not comment on their progress at press time – is the latest in a string of physical attacks on abortion-related facilities in the metro area. dating back to mid-July.
Since then, the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center on Southeast Foster Road has seen its phone lines cut (blocking most incoming calls for five hours), its electricity impaired (causing a power outage for 30 minutes), and its windows shattered. Meanwhile, the Planned Parenthood Association, Inc., whose Southeast 50th Avenue office does not perform abortions, had its front doors smashed. All incidents occurred during the closure of these facilities. “The reality is that we are under siege,” says Joan Binninger, director of education at Planned Parenthood. “We may as well deal with it.”
Portland, however, is not the only city that has seen a recent increase in attacks on clinics, day surgery centers and hospitals that perform abortions. During the first five months of 1985, the Washington. The DC-based National Abortion Federation, a pro-choice health care professional group, reported seven cases of bombings, arson attacks and attempted arson attacks on abortion centers in California, in Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. In 1894, the group recorded a total of 24 attacks or attempted attacks on clinics, a number equal to those recorded in the previous seven years. The rise in violence, which observers attribute to the growing frustration of the pro-life movement over its failure to convince courts and elected officials to roll back abortion rights, has pushed back the fight against abortion in the media. Among a number of recent stories was a cover story in the Sunday New York Times Review about a forest grove. Ore., doctor who performs abortions.
In Portland, recent incidents of vandalism, which have been investigated by police but remain unsolved, have occurred against a backdrop of growing pro-life activism. “Clients are increasingly physically restrained from entering our facility or verbally abused upon entering,” said one of the feminist clinic’s security guards, who did not wish to be named. “The protesters are trying to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”
In Lovejoy, protesters look set to succeed – and they’re threatening to turn Portland’s upscale northwest neighborhood into a battleground. In what police say has become an almost routine Saturday event, Lovejoy Surgicenter supporters and pro-life protesters exchange insults outside the center. Last Saturday, for example, a core group of frequent protesters started the demonstration at dawn, shouting slogans across the street and reading the Bible. Under a Surgicenter window that abuts a sidewalk, a pro-life group sang hymns.
Although protesters say they themselves are victims of harassment, a police officer describes “some of the tactics used” by protesters at weekly rallies as “questionable”. “nine or 10” of its tenants call the police each week to complain about the noise, and although the police are careful to respect free speech rights, arrests are sometimes made. At 9:30 a.m. last Saturday, for example, two patrol cars had arrived and a Klass, who has been active in the pro-choice movement for more than a decade, “the harassment is escalating like I never thought it would. he would.”
In addition to street clashes at Lovejoy and the feminist clinic, some abortion opponents, loosely organized around a group called Advocates for Life, plan to support “street council” efforts against abortion by opening a counseling center one block from Lovejoy Surgicenter. Name of planned center: Lovejoy Problem Pregnancy Center. Andrew Burnett, founder of Advocates for Life and a member of the planned centre’s steering committee, insists the office’s aim will not be ‘specifically to disrupt Lovejoy [Surgicenler].” He says the decision to seek a location near the medical facility – and use a similar name – was “a logical decision”.
Pro-choice advocates link the recent spate of harassment and vandalism to a July 13 visit to Portland by Chicago-based abortion opponent Joseph Scheidler. Scheidler recently published a book detailing many ways to shut down day surgery centers or clinics that perform abortions, and he travels the country advising local pro-life groups, such as Advocates for Life, on tactics and strategy. Scheidler particularly favors the megaphone, which he calls “a useful pro-life tool.”
Pro-choice activists also believe the national prominence of staunchly pro-choice Bob Packwood – the US senator from Oregon is the target of a nationwide bid by pro-life groups to unseat him – has fueled recent protests. And while they are reluctant to blame pro-life protesters for the recent vandalism, they argue that the increasingly disruptive tactics used by protesters – last month, for example, a man was arrested outside Lovejoy for using a megaphone during a protest – encouraged the vandals.
Portland pro-life activists disavow the violence – and insist they are not taking part in the recent vandalism – but some are showing sympathy for the vandals. Burnett, who says the 8-month-old Advocates for Life has 600 supporters on his mailing list, opposes “destruction of property” and believes vandalism does him more harm than good. But he admits: “I’m not all upset when [an abortion clinic] is set on fire. »
Another prominent anti-abortion group, Oregon Right-to-Life, recently split from the national organization Right-to-Life, which officially “condemns” violence against abortion providers. After six months of internal debate, the board of directors of the state group voted at the end of July simply to “oppose” the acts of violence, but not to condemn those who commit them. According to Vicky Maurseth, president of the outdated body, “This is one of the toughest issues our board has ever faced.”
Although generally contained between them, confrontations between pro-choice and pro-life supporters are beginning to attract non-combatants. People living near the Lovejoy Surgicenter complain of being woken up at dawn on Saturday mornings, and staff at the facility say the din of protesters can get so loud it’s nearly impossible to just take blood pressure of a patient.
City Councilman Mike Lindberg is concerned enough about these side effects that on September 9, a member of his staff asked the city attorney’s office to draft a draft ordinance that would form a quiet zone around medical facilities. of the city, including those who perform abortions. “If we write a prescription, it should be as closely tailored as possible,” notes Steve Lowenstein, Lindberg’s executive assistant. According to the National Abortion Federation, Dallas recently passed a similar ordinance, and San Diego has one under consideration.
Local attorneys agree such a measure would likely be constitutional, but see it running into problems if its language is too broad. “It can be done,” observes Ken Armstrong, a Portland attorney who specializes in civil rights issues,” but it must be written carefully to eliminate objections to free speech.
Even if an ordinance passes the constitutional test, it can do little to limit noise around abortion facilities — or harassment. A feminist clinic official hopes that if an ordinance passes, it will create a buffer zone around the facility, say 50 feet from the entrance, which would allow clients to avoid a face-to-face encounter with opponents. But Burnett, while conceding an order could be drafted within free speech guidelines, says Advocates for Life supporters would oppose it nonetheless. Said Burnett, “We would be breaking the order anyway.”