Out of America: Right-to-life extremist insists on right to kill

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia - From the road you wouldn't give a second glance to the Commonwealth Woman's Clinic, a nondescript redbrick building on a nondescript highway cutting through this nondescript Washington suburb.

Round the back, however, things are rather less ordinary. The lower entrance is charred and partly blown out, after a petrol bomb exploded there late on Friday night. A black van bearing the legend 'US Marshal' is in the car-park to deter anyone contemplating a repeat performance. Lurking on one side are a couple of TV crews, just in case anyone does try. Welcome to one of the abortion battlefields of the USA, 1994.

The Commowealth Woman's clinic here was lucky. The damage was only dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,500) worth. No one was inside the building when the device went off. A policeman alerted by a passer-by put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher. Not so the Ladies Centre for Abortion clinic 800 miles away in Pensacola, Florida, a retirement town whose sole claim to fame until recently was miles of gorgeous beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and, it is said, more churches per capita than anywhere else in America.

A few hours earlier that day, a gunman had coolly shot dead John Britton, a Ladies Centre doctor, and a bodyguard, and wounded the bodyguard's wife. Paul Hill, anti-abortion activist and defrocked Presbyterian minister, has been charged on two counts of premeditated murder. No one has yet established whether the Pensacola and Falls Church incidents were directly connected. It scarcely matters. Running an abortion clinic anywhere in this country is a dangerous business.

Since 1982, roughly the moment opposition to abortion turned into a latter-day holy war, police have recorded over 150 arson attacks at clinics, half-a-dozen shooting incidents, and three murders, all of them in Pensacola. With its deep conservatism, supercharged religiosity and gun-happy culture, Pensacola is a rich breeding ground for such deadly fanaticism. But those ingredients (albeit in lesser measure) are to be found in Virginia too - which makes the calm and amiability of Wayne Codding, director of Commonwealth Women's Clinic since 1984, all the more remarkable.

Like President Clinton, he describes what happened in Pensacola as 'domestic terrorism'. 'You find fringe elements everywhere, in every walk of life. Murder, though, is another matter. The only way to stop this kind of terrorism is rigorous pursuit and punishment.' Years of hate mail and phone calls and graffiti reading 'Killers' on the clinic's walls have made Mr Codding a hard man to scare. 'Why should I be frightened? What's the point? If someone wants to do this sort of thing, you can't stop them. They'll do it.'

Britton was protected by a vest and by a bodyguard, but much good they did him. Mr Hill's performance at his committal hearing the day after the killings helped explain why. The New York Times wrote of his 'cheerful insouciance' upon being charged. This, plainly, was a man convinced he had done the right thing. Long before his day in court, Mr Hill's opinions were well known. At countless pro-life demonstrations he had carried placards urging 'Execute abortionists'.

On Monday, the Attorney-General, Janet Reno, ordered US marshals to protect dozens of clinics across the country, and said the Justice Department will investigate whether an 'organised criminal element' is behind the attacks. Mainstream anti-abortion groups have condemned the double murder in Florida. But condemnation never stopped the fanatics these groups unwittingly breed.

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