The Obama Justice Department has been taking a more aggressive approach against people who block access to abortion clinics, using a 1994 law to bring cases in greater numbers than its predecessor.
The numbers are most stark when it comes to civil lawsuits, which seek to create buffer zones around clinic entrances for people who have blocked access in the past. Under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, the Justice Department's civil rights division has filed eight civil cases since the start of the Obama administration. That's a big increase over the George W. Bush years, when one case was filed in eight years.
"There's been a substantial difference between this administration and the one immediately prior," says Ellen Gertzog, director of security for Planned Parenthood. "From where we sit, there's currently much greater willingness to carefully assess incidents when they occur and to proceed with legal action when appropriate."
Over the past two years, the Justice Department and FBI have been meeting with abortion-rights groups and medical providers all over the country to explain their work and talk about a federal task force designed to prevent violence against doctors and women seeking abortions.
The National Abortion Federation, which tracks violent incidents, says major violence is down since the 2009 murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. The man who killed Tiller has been convicted, and a federal grand jury is investigating the conduct of his alleged accomplices.
But Sharon Levin, a vice president at the National Abortion Federation, says there are still some signs of trouble, including two incidents this summer involving Molotov cocktails and the arrest of a man who told police he wanted to shoot two abortion doctors in Wisconsin.
Levin attributes the relatively low level of extreme violence to the Justice Department's more aggressive enforcement of the FACE Act.
"One of the dangers we have seen is that the people who commit the major violent acts often started with minor violent acts," Levin says, "and they were never arrested, so their activities escalated."
Troy Newman couldn't disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at abortion clinics across the country. He calls this Justice Department's approach to the FACE Act "a political tool to shut them up, shut them down and make them go away."
"This is a ridiculous overstepping of the federal government's bounds and with the intent of restricting our freedom, our liberties and our speech," says Newman, who says he was sued under the same law by the Justice Department when Bill Clinton was president.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa says the department takes "seriously our responsibility to enforce FACE fully and fairly and in a manner that does not infringe on any First Amendment rights.
"The department has stepped up civil rights enforcement across the board, and will continue to vigorously enforce all the laws under its jurisdiction, including the FACE Act."
But, Newman says, he follows a simple rule: "My rights and your rights end at where our nose begins. So in other words, I can swing my arms wildly on the street but as soon as I hit you in the nose, that's a violation."
A small-scale version of this conflict is on display nearly every day between protesters and escorts at abortion clinics.
A few blocks from the White House, outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington, D.C., Dick Retta has reported for duty in a blue windbreaker, khaki pants belted high and brown shoes with thick soles. He's carrying rosary beads and a packet of brochures filled with information about the dangers of abortion.
"Please don't let them take your child's life. You don't have to. We can and will help you. Don't let them take your child's life. Let us help you," Retta says to a woman entering the clinic.
That front door shuts in his face. But Retta says he's not deterred by that, or by a civil lawsuit the Justice Department filed against him in July. Authorities claim Retta violated the FACE Act by blocking a patient early this year — following her for 35 feet and standing in front of the door.
Retta disputes the allegations.
"We don't block women from coming in. That's not our policy," he says. "I teach it. I teach what I'm doing ... and I say one thing: Never block the women from going in. Never."
Retta, who has seven children and 11 grandkids, says he is moved by his Catholic faith to do what he calls sidewalk counseling. Retta says he has gotten pushed around outside the clinic, too. He says he was standing by the gate and a woman sprayed him with pepper spray in July, putting him "out of commission" for a while.
The volunteers who escort women into the clinic sometimes tussle with Retta as well. When he complains that the 20-something women pushed him, one responds: "Well, you're putting yourself, you're putting yourself next to the patients."
Retta says showing up at the clinic, which he does about two days a week, "just seems to be a thing I have to do."
"I have First Amendment rights to offer women information," he says. "I have a right to talk to the women."
A judge has yet to rule in Retta's case.
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