Monday, October 16, 2023

DOJ targets antiabortion protestors who interfere with clinics

In February, the Justice Department announced a federal indictment in a case that could send abortion protesters to prison, reported the Washington Post.

They were charged under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that Attorney General Merrick Garland has called a key tool in the Biden administration’s efforts to protect reproductive rights in the face of tightening legal restrictions for women seeking abortions.

Some conservative groups, Republican lawmakers and defense attorneys have rebuked Garland, accusing the department of going too far in aggressively pursuing members of antiabortion groups who have not necessarily been dangerous. They say authorities are ignoring similar threats and vandalism at Catholic churches and reproductive health centers that counsel women against abortion.

But federal authorities and abortion rights groups said harassment, stalking and intimidation at abortion clinics have escalated since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade — the court’s 1973 decision recognizing the federal right to an abortion. That behavior, they argue, has made the Justice Department’s push for federal charges that come with harsh prison penalties more urgent.

Even as he and his aides have touted the prosecutions as a response to the Dobbs decision, Garland has defended the agency’s approach, saying the Justice Department and FBI are investigating disruptive acts on both sides.

“We prosecute without respect to ideology,” he said at a Senate hearing in the spring, “but we do focus on the most violent acts, the most dangerous actors and the cases most likely to lead to danger to most Americans.”

Federal authorities are prosecuting several allegations of extremely dangerous behavior at abortion clinics that go well beyond being disruptive. Among the examples are cases involving charges that a man threatened to burn down an Ohio abortion clinic last year, that a man set fire to an Illinois clinic in January and that three men conspired to firebomb a California clinic in March.

The indictments do not link the men in those cases to organized antiabortion groups. The defendant in the Illinois case, Tyler W. Massengill, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in August to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.45 million in restitution to the clinic.

Since President Biden took office in 2021, the Justice Department has brought 2o criminal prosecutions and one civil case under the FACE Act against a total of 46 defendants, according to federal officials, with all but one of the cases involving charges for disruptions at abortion clinics. That one exception is a criminal case against four abortion rights activists accused of spray-painting threatening messages last year at three Florida reproductive health centers that counsel patients against abortion.

Decrying what they view as an imbalance, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation in September to repeal the law. Roy accused the Justice Department of having “brazenly weaponized the FACE Act against normal, everyday Americans across the political spectrum, simply because they are pro-life.”

“I certainly believe the undercurrent to all of this was a pushback on Dobbs,” said Bradley Friedman, an attorney for Chester Gallagher, 74, one of eight people charged in the Michigan case involving the antiabortion protesters who refused to move. “All this is, is criminal trespass. If the owner of a business does not want someone on their property, they can ask them to leave.”

Prosecutors said the protesters in Michigan blocked a patient, an employee and the clinic’s owner from accessing the building. Two of the eight defendants are facing an additional count of allegedly obstructing another Michigan abortion facility in April 2021.

Obstructions at clinics across the United States rose from 45 in 2021 to 287 last year, while stalking incidents rose from eight to 81, according to the National Abortion Federation’s annual survey. There were also increases in bomb threats, burglaries and assaults.

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