Justice Dept. Tougher On Abortion Protesters 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 George W. Bush did. Some believe the stepped-up enforcement has put a damper on clinic violence.
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Justice Department Tougher On Abortion Protesters

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Justice Department Tougher On Abortion Protesters

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Justice Department Tougher On Abortion Protesters

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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.

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.

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: Ellen Gertzog is director of security for Planned Parenthood.

ELLEN GERTZOG: 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.

TROY NEWMAN: 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.

NEWMAN: It's really a political tool to shut them up, shut them down and make them go away.

JOHNSON: 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.

SHARON LEVIN: 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.

RETTA: Unidentified Woman #1: Well, you're putting yourself...

RETTA: Unidentified Woman #1: You're putting yourself next to the patients.

RETTA: Unidentified Woman #2: You're not supposed to be pushing either.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Troy Newman of Operation Rescue says he relies on a simple rule to tell if he's crossing a line.

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: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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