In 1985, Protests and Vandalism Against Portland Abortion Clinics Were on the Rise

The incidents of vandalism, investigated by police but unsolved, occurred against a backdrop of growing pro-life militancy.

This story first ran in the Sept. 19, 1985, edition of WW.

At 10:16 on the night of Saturday, Aug. 17, someone living near the Lovejoy Surgicenter heard a loud pop and rushed to the window of his home. The neighbor saw flames leaping over the east wall of the clinic and called the fire department. Before fire fighters arrived, another neighbor had doused the blaze with a small extinguisher. The fire fighters mopped up, but they quickly realized the cause of the fire: arson. Someone had tried to burn down Lovejoy, a day-surgery clinic and the largest single provider of abortions in Oregon.

The fire did little physical damage; in a report to the fire department, the clinic cited damages to a part of its wall and a shrub, and valued the loss at just $350. And since the incident occurred after hours, the day-surgery facility’s operations were not interrupted. “It was a feeble attempt,” says Allene Klass, Lovejoy’s president.

But the arson effort introduced a new and unsettling element into Portland’s already simmering dispute over abortion. “It really woke people up,” insists Klass, who initially hushed up the incident but last week offered details to Willamette Week.

The attempted arson — fire officials were still searching for those responsible but wouldn’t comment on their progress at press time — is the latest in a series of physical attacks on abortion-related facilities in the metro area dating back to the middle of July.

Since that time, the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center on Southeast Foster Road has seen its phone lines cut (blocking most incoming calls for five hours), its electricity tampered with (causing a loss of power for 30 minutes), and its windows smashed. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Association, Inc., whose office on Southeast 50th Avenue performs no abortions, has had its front doors broken. All the incidents occurred when these facilities were closed. “The reality is that we’re under siege,” confesses Joan Binninger, education director at Planned Parenthood. “We may as well face up to it.”

Portland, however, isn’t the only city that has seen a recent rise in attacks on clinics, day-surgery centers and hospitals that perform abortions. In the first five months of 1985, the Washington. D.C.-based National Abortion Federation, a pro-choice health-care trade group, reported seven instances of bombings, arsons and attempted arsons against abortion facilities in California, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. In 1894, the group recorded a total of 24 attacks or attempted attacks on clinics, a number equal lo those recorded for the previous seven years. The increased violence, which observers credit to the pro-life movement’s increasing frustration over its failure lo convince both the courts and elected officials lo roll back abortion rights, has pushed the struggle over abortion back into the media. Among a number of recent stories was a cover article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about a Forest Grove. Ore., physician who performs abortions.

In Portland, the recent incidents of vandalism, which have been investigated by police but remain unsolved, have occurred against a backdrop of growing pro-life militancy. “Clients are increasingly physically blocked from entering our facility or verbally abused on their way in,” says one of the feminist clinic’s security officers, who does not wish to be named. “The demonstrators are trying to create a climate of fear and intimidation.”

At Lovejoy, the protesters seem close to succeeding — and they threaten to turn the chic Northwest Portland neighborhood into a battleground. In what police say has become an almost routine Saturday event, Lovejoy Surgicenter supporters and pro-life protesters trade insults outside the center. Last Saturday, for example, a core of frequent protesters began the demonstration around daybreak by shouting slogans from across the street and reading from the Bible. Below a window of the Surgicenter that butts up against a sidewalk, a cluster of pro-lifers sang hymns.

Though the demonstrators claim they are victims of harassment themselves, one police officer describes “some of the tactics used” by protesters al the weekly gatherings as “questionable " The manager of Westover Tower, an apartment building up the street, says that as many as “nine or 10″ of his tenants call the police weekly complaining about noise, and though police are careful to respect rights of free speech, arrests sometimes are made. By 9:30 last Saturday, for instance, two patrol cars had arrived and one demonstrator had been cited for trespassing. Says Klass, who has been active in the pro-choice movement for more than a decade, “The harassment is escalating like I never thought it would.”

Besides street confrontations at Lovejoy and at the feminist clinic, some abortion opponents, loosely organized around a group called Advocates for Life, plan lo support efforts at “street counseling” against abortion by opening a counseling center within one block of Lovejoy Surgicenter. The planned center’s name: Lovejoy Problem Pregnancy Center. Andrew Burnett, a founder of Advocates for Life and a member of the planned center’s steering committee, insists that the aim of the office won’t be “specifically to disrupt Lovejoy [Surgicenler].” He says the decision to seek a location near the medical facility — and to use a similar name — was “a logical one.”

Fueling the Protest

Pro-choice advocates link the recent surge in both harassment and vandalism to a July 13 Portland visit by Joseph Scheidler, a Chicago-based abortion opponent. Scheidler recently published a book detailing scores of ways to close day-surgery centers or clinics that perform abortions, and he travels the country advising local pro-life groups, such as Advocates for Life, on tactics and strategy. Scheidler particularly favors the bullhorn, which he calls “a useful pro-life tool.”

Pro-choice activists also believe that the national prominence of staunchly pro-choice Bob Packwood — the U.S. senator from Oregon is the target of a national attempt by pro-life groups to unseat him — has fueled recent protests. And while they hesitate lo blame pro-life protesters for the recent vandalism, they contend that increasingly disruptive tactics used by demonstrators — last month, for instance, a man was arrested outside Lovejoy for using a bullhorn during a protest — have encouraged vandals.

Portland pro-life activists disavow violence — and insist they look no part in the recent vandalism — but some show sympathy toward the vandals. Burnett, who says the 8-month-old Advocates for Life has 600 supporters on its mailing list, opposes “the destruction of property” and thinks that vandalism does his cause more harm than good. But he admits, “I don’t get all upset when [an abortion clinic] gets burned down.”

Another prominent anti-abortion group, Oregon Right-to-Life, recently split with the national Right-to-Life organization, which officially “condemns” violence against abortion providers. After six months of internal debate, the board of the state group voted in late July simply to “oppose” acts of violence, but not to condemn those who carry them out. Says Vicky Maurseth, president of the stale body, “This is one of the most difficult issues our board ever grappled with.”

Though usually contained among themselves, confrontations between pro-choice and pro-life supporters are beginning to draw in non-combatants. People living near the Lovejoy Surgicenter complain of being awakened at dawn on Saturday mornings, and staff at the facility say the din of the protesters can get so loud as to make simply taking a patient’s blood pressure almost impossible.

City Council member Mike Lindberg is concerned enough about such side effects that on Sept. 9, a member of his staff asked the city attorney’s office to draft a proposed ordinance that would form a quiet zone around city medical facilities, including those that perform abortions. " f we draft an ordinance, it should be as narrowly tailored as possible,” notes Steve Lowenstein, Lindberg’s executive assistant. According to the National Abortion Federation, Dallas recently passed a similar ordinance, and San Diego has one under study.

Local lawyers agree that such a measure would probably be constitutional, but they see it running into trouble if its language is too broad “lt can be done,” observes Ken Armstrong, a Portland lawyer specializing in civil-rights issues, “but it must be written carefully to eliminate free speech objections.”

Even if an ordinance passes the constitutional test, it may do little to limit noise around abortion facilities — or the harassment. An official al the Feminist clinic hopes that if an ordinance is passed, it will create a buffer around the facility, say 50 feet from the entrance, which would allow clients to avoid a face-to-face meeting with opponents. But Burnett, while conceding that an ordinance could be written within free-speech guidelines, says Advocates for Life supporters would oppose it nevertheless. Says Burnett, “We’d break the ordinance anyway.”