STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The fight over abortion rights continues in courtrooms and state houses all over this country. But a smaller-scale version of that conflict is on display almost every day between protesters and escorts at abortion clinics. And some of those tensions are on the rise, as the Obama administration takes a more aggressive legal approach against people who block access to clinics.
NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.
CARRIE JOHNSON: 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 pregnancy and fetuses.
Mr. DICK RETTA: Please don't let them take your child's life. You don't have to. We can and will help you, please. Don't let them take your child's life. Let us help you.
(Soundbite of door shutting)
JOHNSON: That was the clinic's front door, shutting right in Retta's face. But he says he's not deterred by that or by a civil lawsuit the Justice Department filed against him in July. Authorities claim Retta violated a law called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE. The law is supposed to protect women and their doctors by letting the government set up buffer zones against people who block patients from entering clinics. The clinic in D.C. says Retta blocked a patient this year, following her for 35 feet and standing in front of the door. Retta disagrees.
Mr. RETTA: We don't block women from coming in. That's not our policy. I teach it. I teach what I'm doing. I teach that and I say one thing: never block the women from going in. Never.
JOHNSON: Retta, who has seven children and 11 grandkids, says he's moved by his Catholic faith to do what he calls sidewalk counseling.
The Justice Department civil lawsuit against him is one of eight authorities have filed since the start of the Obama administration - a big increase over the George W. Bush years - when only one case was filed.
Ellen Gertzog is director of security for Planned Parenthood.
Ms. ELLEN GERTZOG (Director of security, Planned Parenthood): There's been a substantial difference between this administration and the one immediately prior. From where we sit, there's currently much greater willingness to carefully assess incidents as they occur and to proceed with legal action when appropriate.
Mr. TROY NEWMAN (President, Operation Rescue): This is a ridiculous overstepping of the federal government's bounds and - with the intent of restricting our freedom, our liberties, and our speech.
JOHNSON: That's Troy Newman. He leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at abortion clinics across the country. He describes the Justice Department's approach to the FACE act this way.
Mr. NEWMAN: It's really a political tool to shut them up, shut them down and make them go away.
JOHNSON: The National Abortion Federation, which tracks violent incidents, says major violence is down since the murder, two years ago, of abortion doctor George Tiller. The man who killed Tiller has been convicted. A federal grand jury is investigating his alleged accomplices.
But Sharon Levin of the Abortion Federation says there are still some signs of trouble. Two incidents this summer involving Molotov cocktails, and the arrest in Wisconsin of a man who told police he wanted to shoot abortion doctors. Levin attributes the relatively low level of violence to the Justice Department's more aggressive enforcement.
Ms. SHARON LEVIN (Vice President; General Council, Abortion Federation): One of the dangers we have seen is that the people who commit the major violent acts often started with minor violent acts. And they were never arrested. And so their activities escalated.
JOHNSON: Back at the Planned Parenthood in Washington D.C., what's escalating is the tension between Dick Retta and volunteer escorts who help women enter the clinic.
Mr. RETTA: I get pushed.
Unidentified Woman #1: Well, you're putting yourself...
Mr. RETTA: And you're not allowed...
Unidentified Woman #1: You're putting yourself next to the patients.
Mr. RETTA: She pushed me. You know that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #2: You're not supposed to be pushing either.
JOHNSON: Troy Newman of Operation Rescue says he relies on a simple rule to tell if he's crossing a line.
Mr. NEWMAN: My rights and your rights end at where our nose begins. OK, so in other words I could swing my arms wildly on the street, but as soon as I hit you in the nose, that's a violation.
JOHNSON: As for Retta, he's still waiting for a judge to decide whether he violated the law.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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