WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno is urging Congress to move swiftly to make violence or threats against abortion providers and women seeking abortions a federal crime.
Ms. Reno told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee yesterday that legislation now before it would not threaten the free-speech rights of abortion foes.
She added that the legislation was needed because "in recent years, anti-abortion activists have increased the intensity of their activities from picketing to physical blockades, sabotage of facilities, stalking and harassing abortion providers, arson, bombing" and finally the murder of Dr. David Gunn at a Pensacola clinic.
She said that organized blockades of abortion clinics often overwhelmed local police and that federal help was needed.
The hearing produced little direct criticism of the bill, introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who heads the committee. But two Republicans, Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, complained that the bill was not even-handed because it did not also require punishment of abortion-rights supporters who committed or threatened violence.
Mr. Gregg also complained that the bill singled out one topic of protest, abortion, but ignored others, such as use of laboratory animals. A similar complaint was offered by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which after the hearing issued a statement denouncing Ms. Reno's testimony.
The statement by Operation Rescue, which has mounted huge protests outside clinics in Wichita and other cities, said, "While the crime rate is skyrocketing, Reno admits her first priority is to prosecute peaceful people who hold a different opinion than the Clinton administration."
The organization, which is planning to begin protests in mid-July in Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Central Florida, Jackson, Miss., Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia and San Jose, Calif., said the bill "will be used to silence free speech."
Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor, dismissed those arguments in his testimony. He said it was legitimate to punish violence or threats against abortion providers because the punishment was directed at conduct, not beliefs. "This does not make anything a 'thought crime,' " he said.
As to the complaint that the bill does not make similar offenses by other protesters federal crimes, he said, "The Constitution doesn't require you to solve more than one problem at a time."