WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Fed up with escalating violence at abortion clinics, the Senate voted 69 to 30 yesterday to impose stiff new penalties for blocking access to a clinic, threatening its doctors or vandalizing its property.
Opponents like Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire argued that the measure treats peaceful protesters as felons and would lead to "putting nuns in jail." But supporters disagreed, insisting it's the constitutional right to an abortion that is truly under attack through a national campaign of intimidation and violence.
Said Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts: "The only people who have to worry about this bill are the people who believe in violence, those who threaten violence, and those who are obstructing entry to clinics."
Those people could have much to fear. If the bill becomes law, the new penalties include up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine for a first violent offense. A person convicted of a non-violent offense such as blocking clinic access could face a fine of $10,000 and six months in jail.
The legislation is a response to a rising tide of violence that includes the murder of a doctor at a Florida clinic and the wounding of another in Kansas.
The bill drew solid support from the Senate's abortion rights advocates, but it also won votes from some anti-abortion lawmakers from both parties who denounce escalating lawlessness in the pro-life movement. Seventeen Republicans and 52 Democrats voted for the bill; only three Democrats opposed it.
Both of Maryland's Democratic Senators -- Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes -- voted in favor of the bill.
The House is scheduled to consider its version of the bill dTC tomorrow, said Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton have both endorsed the legislation.
"The size and magnitude of this vote is a tremendous message to the House," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. "I am confident they will move fast and will match us."
In yesterday's daylong Senate debate, Mr. Kennedy and his supporters agreed to a series of modest changes in the bill to head off more severe amendments. One change reduces the penalties for a first-time non-violent offender from $100,000 to $10,000.
Opponents of the measure repeatedly charged that the law was so one-sided that it would devastate even peaceful and prayerful protests while not applying the same hard-nosed provisions to abortion rights advocates.
Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina argued that civil disobedience by animal rights activists, anti-nuclear protesters and AIDS activists is ignored, while the Senate cracks down on anti-abortion activists.
"Get those pro-lifers! That's the intent of this legislation," Mr. Helms said. He predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would find the bill unconstitutional.
Other senators argued that abortion protesters should be allowed to engage in civil disobedience, as did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. This drew a harsh retort from Mr. Kennedy, who argued that civil rights leaders were trying to guarantee constitutional rights, while protesters obstructing access to clinics are trying to deny a constitutionally protected right.