Court Decision, Drug Duo Impact Abortion Rights

by Bernadette DeVito, NOW Intern

With the national debut of an abortion inducing drug duo and a favorable ruling in NOW's anti-racketeering case against violent abortion foes, reproductive rights advocates hope for a reduction in anti-abortion terrorism.

 "Every breakthrough that allows women to make reproductive decisions privately is a breakthrough for women's rights," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "The more private the decision is, the fewer women will be exposed to violence at a clinic. And our anti-racketeering case seems to be having an impact even before we go to trial."

 According to the study authored by Dr. Richard Hausknecht in the New England Journal of Medicine, a combination of two widely available drugs offers a safe and effective medical alternative to surgical abortion in pregnancies of up to nine weeks. The drugs methotrexate and misoprostol are already used to treat cancer and ulcers, respectively, and thus may legally be prescribed at doctors' discretion.

However, until the drug combination is approved specifically for use in abortions, health insurance programs may not cover the treatment and providing doctors may be concerned about malpractice suits. In addition, the drug combination doesn't eliminate the need for RU-486 which, in pill form (taken in conjunction with a synthetic prostaglandin), is considered easier to take than the two combination drugs, which are provided in shots or suppositories.

 Nor does the availability of the two drugs and the hope of RU-486 eliminate the need for surgical abortions. Though both of the drug approaches are 96 percent effective, neither works in all cases and neither can be used after the early stages of pregnancy.

Operation Rescue is calling the new two-drug treatment "chemical warfare against children." Founder Randall Terry threatened doctors who offer the treatment that "when abortion is made illegal again, you will be hunted down and tried for genocide."

"Any time our movement for reproductive freedom takes a huge step forward, the extremists try to blast us two steps back," said NOW President Patricia Ireland.

The same day the two-drug abortion approach was announced in Boston, a clinic that provides abortion services in St. Petersburg, Fla., was burned to the ground. An arson fire eight days earlier had damaged part of the All Women's Health Clinic. Local authorities claimed the attacks were unexpected, though the clinic had been the site of blockades and regularly drew sizeable protests.

 A more immediate threat than Randall Terry's was averted in mid-August, when Robert E. Cook vowed, in his "revolution to protect the unborn," to take the life of at least one doctor who performed abortions. When authorities apprehended Cook -- before he could carry out his threats -- they uncovered a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition belonging to Cook, including three handguns and an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle.

 Authorities were tipped off about Cook's plans by the head of Wisconsin Right to Life soon after he donated $160 cash, according to the Chicago Tribune. It is possible she was motivated by the fear of being charged with conspiracy under the legal precedent set in the NOW v. Scheidler case, said Fay Clayton, the Chicago-based lead counsel for NOW Foundation in the lawsuit.

 Fear is exactly what anti-abortion extremists should be feeling after a pivotal Sept. 22 ruling in the Scheidler case. The ruling, which lifts the stay of discovery in place for nearly four years, represents "the most significant development we've had in a long while," according to NOW President Patricia Ireland. It enables NOW to investigate recent conspiratory activities of defendants such as Scheidler, who, according to Clayton, actively participated in an August meeting of the American Coalition of Life Activists.

Clayton says this new coalition is a violent fringe group that seems to be supplementing the most violent aspects of the Pro Life Action Network named in NOW's lawsuit. Many of its members have signed on to the "justifiable homicide" petitions originally circulated by Paul Hill, who was convicted of murdering Dr. Bayard Britton and Jim Barrett of Pensacola, Fla.

The trial judge in the case issued what Clayton calls a "highly favorable," 85-page opinion in July that ruled in favor of NOW on almost all issues. Although the defendants took steps to appeal the July decision, District Judge Coar's Sept. 22 ruling set aside all current appeals, declaring, "I'm not going to delay discovery one more day."

A favorable decision by the court of appeals this fall could send the case to trial early in the new year. The Scheidler case originated with a 1986 clinic invasion. A January 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld NOW's right to use federal anti-racketeering laws against anti-abortion terrorists who are engaged in an "enterprise" to commit acts of murder, arson, extortion, and other violations of federal law.

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