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Clinic Activists Mount A High-Tech Defense


In an office building somewhere in Philadelphia, Bill Green is holed up in a room with a map of the city and a telephone.

Like a wartime general, Mr. Green is plotting enemy movements and receiving information from field contacts armed with cellular phones. Spies phone in strategies. When he leaves the building, Green takes along his cellular phone and pager.

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The "enemy" is Operation Rescue, a clinic-blockade group that has targeted this city this week in a 10-day, seven-city campaign. Green is a clinic-defense coordinator for abortion-rights groups and clinics that have rallied forces against OR.

In 1991, OR laid siege to Wichita, Kan., for seven weeks, straining police with 2,700 arrests and leaving pro-choice forces scrambling. This time, police and clinic defenders were ready.

"They want to get media attention by being arrested, so we're doing the best we can through nonviolent means to deny them that opportunity and to make sure patients can still get in," says Katherine Spillar, coordinator of clinic defense for the Feminist Majority Foundation, speaking from Los Angeles.

Nationwide, more than 4,000 people have been trained in "clinic defense" for OR's "Cities of Refuge" campaign, Ms. Spillar says. In Dallas, abortion-rights activists have decided against a clinic-defense strategy, saying they will leave it to police to clear away illegal clinic blockaders. But in Philadelphia alone, more than 1,000 people have been trained, Green says.

During the two-hour course, trainers teach nonviolent tactics, such as creation of a "human wall" that keeps anti-abortionists away from clinic entrances. Defenders chant and sing to drown out OR demonstrators and boost clinic workers' spirits.

Here, the defenders' roles were identifiable by their "uniforms": white painters' caps for the rank and file; yellow pinnies for escorts, some carrying walkie-talkies; green pinnies for site coordinators, some also with walkie-talkies or cellular phones.

Women coming for clinic appointments can read the labels on the pinnies and pass protected behind the "human wall" without getting near an OR person. Some were met away from the clinic by defenders and given a pinny to wear as a disguise.

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The Philadelphia coalition has set up a hot line for doctors to report threatening activity from abortion foes. In some cities, doctors and their families have received threatening phone calls and been harassed at home by picketers. Some wear bulletproof vests, especially following the March murder of Dr. David Gunn.

Last Saturday, in front of the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center here, some pro-choice demonstrators adopted a more "in your face" approach to clinic defense, at one point crossing the street and shouting anti-abortionists off the sidewalk while they maintained a calm demeanor. Elsewhere, pro-choicers surrounded a small passive group of anti-abortionists, including a young woman with a baby, and taunted them. Police arrived and escorted the anti-abortionists away.

"That's what they do to defenseless women," Jackie Brinkley, spokeswoman for the nearby Planned Parenthood clinic, said unapologetically. "They surround her and call her a murderer."

Sol Blecker, a Planned Parenthood volunteer who also witnessed the scene, said the confrontation created an "unfortunate image" for the pro-choice side, but he added that clinic defense was essential. "I have a deep-seated resentment against people who want to impose their religious beliefs on others," he said.

OR spokeswoman Wendy Wright disputes that the abortion-rights side uses only nonviolent techniques, citing injuries OR rescuers have received. Clinic-defense leaders use the same argument OR uses when charged with violence: that organizers of clinic defense cannot be held responsible for actions of every person who shows up at demonstrations.

Members of a militant clinic-defense group, the Detroit-based National Women's Rights Organizing Committee, have been in Philadelphia. But the clinic-defense coalition has distanced itself from them. Spillar calls NWROC activists "very young" but understands their anger. "We can't even get a clinic-access bill through Congress," she says.

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