US women defend abortion clinics: Supreme Court asked to help end harassment of doctors

'DON'T kill any more babies,' shouted Michael Griffin as he stepped out of a crowd of anti-abortion protesters in Pensacola, Florida, in March and shot dead David Gunn, one of the few doctors in the city who performed abortions.

Earlier, Griffin had asked members of his church to pray for Gunn's soul. 'He asked that the congregation pray, and asked that we should agree with him that Dr Gunn would give his life to Jesus Christ,' said a preacher.

In Kansas, Rachelle Shannon, the editor of an anti-abortion newsletter, fired several bullets at a van driven by Dr George Tiller, wounding him in both arms last August.

The shootings were two of the most violent incidents in a campaign to target clinics and doctors who perform abortions. Supporters of abortion rights admit it is working. Alleging a national conspiracy to shut down abortion clinics, they tried yesterday to persuade the Supreme Court to allow the use of draconian laws, originally aimed at the Mafia, to keep the clinics open.

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, said harassment of doctors is having a serious impact on the availability of operations, particularly in rural states. 'In Mississippi there are two clinics, so if they close one it has an effect. In South Dakota there is only one, and that's run by a single 65-year-old doctor.'

In states with big cities it is still easy enough to get an abortion, but fewer medical students are being trained to perform abortions. A year ago supporters of abortion were triumphant that in Bill Clinton they had a pro-choice president, but they are now finding the practical ability - as opposed to the legal right - to get an abortion is declining.

Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, which sends flying pickets to target abortion clinics, identified doctors as the weak link. Few of them want to wear a bullet-proof vest or face a line of demonstrators. Mr Fitzsimmons believes that in some Southern and Mid- West states abortion will soon cease to be available.

Only 13 per cent of Americans believe abortions should be illegal according to polls, but the hard core of pro-lifers have conducted a successful guerrilla war against clinics and doctors. In one incident, protesters stole 4,000 aborted foetuses from a pathology laboratory and allegedly threatened to disclose the mothers' names. 'Wanted' posters give doctors' names and addresses.

Incidents like these have led the National Organisation of Women to try to persuade the Supreme Court that it can invoke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO) against the protesters. Originally directed at the mob, RICO would be used to stop the harassment of clinics.

Even if the Supreme Court allows RICO to be used - which is doubtful - it will be hard to stop the anti-abortion campaign. Doctors know they are vulnerable. 'You can't live in a suit of armour,' admitted one clinic spokesman. While the anti-abortion groups officially oppose violence, their supporters often do not. After Gunn's murder, a bystander said the protesters 'looked like they were just happy'.