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The Pro-life Movement And The Courts

Even before the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, pro-life groups were picketing and protesting at family planning clinics that perform abortions. Such groups had formed in response to an abortion reform movement that by 1970 had succeeded in liberalizing abortion laws in many states. From the start, most anti-abortion demonstrators modeled their protests on those of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The anti-abortion movement was led by such people as Joan Andrews, a pacifist and HUMAN RIGHTS advocate who became a hero for the movement after she spent two-and-a-half years in a Florida jail for attempting to disengage a suction machine used in abortions. The movement advocated the nonviolent approach to civil disobedience pioneered by Mohandas K. Gandhi and MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. By 1975, two years after Roe, Catholic groups had begun to conduct sit-ins at family planning clinics where abortions were performed. With time, evangelical Protestant groups joined the movement, and by the mid-1990s, they accounted for a majority of anti-abortion activists.

Pro-life groups have come to call their activities direct actions or rescues, believing that they are saving unborn children from murder, and their tactics have grown increasingly complex. Typical stratagems include bringing in dozens or hundreds of volunteers and blocking clinic entrances with their bodies, often chaining themselves to doors; shouting slogans, sometimes with bullhorns; attempting to intercept women leaving or entering the building and plying them with anti-abortion literature; displaying graphic pictures of fetuses; and trailing clinic employees to and from work while shouting such things as "Baby killer!" Besides demonstrating, anti-abortion groups have sponsored pregnancy crisis centers, where they counsel pregnant women, with the intention of persuading them to carry their pregnancies to term. By the mid-1980s, activists had created national organizations and networks that promoted civil disobedience to stop the practice of abortion. The most well known of these is Operation Rescue, which was started in the 1980s by Randall Terry, an evangelical Christian.

The aggressive strategies of the anti-abortion movement prompted legal responses from women's and abortion rights organizations, resulting in a number of cases that have reached the Supreme Court. In several different rulings, the Court has attempted to clarify what is and is not allowed in anti-abortion demonstrations. In making these decisions, the Court has been careful to balance the rights of the demonstrators—particularly their right to free speech—with the rights of women seeking to use family planning clinic services. In 1988, for example, in Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 108 S. Ct. 2495, 101 L. Ed. 2d 420, the Court upheld a Brookfield, Wisconsin, city ordinance prohibiting pickets "focused on, and taking place in front of, a particular residence." The ordinance had been created in response to anti-abortion demonstrations targeting the private home of an obstetrician who performed abortions, a tactic assumed by the protesters after picketing at the physician's clinic had not stopped its operation. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the Court's opinion, "There is simply no right to force speech into the home of an unwilling listener."

A later Supreme Court decision gave abortion clinics further protection: it supported the constitutionality of a court injunction prohibiting protesters from going within 36 feet of a clinic that had been a regular target of protests. In July 1994, in Madsen v. Women's Health Center, 512 U.S. 753, 114 S. Ct. 2516, 129 L. Ed. 2d 593, the High Court ruled 6–3 to let stand the 36-foot exclusion zone for the Melbourne, Florida, abortion clinic. However, the Court did strike down other provisions of the injunction, such as a 300-foot exclusion zone and restrictions on carrying banners and pictures. The ruling was considered a major defeat for the anti-abortion movement. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a sharp dissent in which he claimed that the Supreme Court's position on abortion had claimed "its latest, greatest and most surprising victim: the First Amendment."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: "But for" Rule to Additional InstructionsAbortion - History, Three Sides To The Abortion Debate, Roe V. Wade And Doe V. Bolton