Abortion Shootings
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  Violence Hardly Ruffled Protest Ritual

By Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 1993; Page A08

WICHITA, KAN., AUG. 21 -- As dawn broke today, George Tiller's abortion clinic swung open its gates and the ritual daily confrontation between abortion opponents and abortion rights supporters began.

It was so like any other day in the last two years that there was little indication that less than 48 hours earlier, Tiller had been wounded in both arms by a woman who had joined the abortion protesters here Thursday for the first time.

"Clear the drive! Clear the drive!" a young man in an orange vest advertising "Pro Choice" shouted this morning. A car with what appeared to be a young couple approached, the driver apparently uncertain whether to be timid or to gun it.

A woman wearing white pants, a green sweater and a signboard saying "Babies Up to Birth Die Here" walked slowly across the driveway, shouting, "We'll adopt your baby. Please think about what you're doing." The car brushed past her and orange-vested young women moved in to block her.

A young man in a New York Yankees cap began loudly quoting scripture; a woman wearing a vest tried to drown him out, singing, "Oh, what a beautiful morning."

Only the somewhat larger than usual crowd, perhaps 20 people on each side, indicated that anything unusual had happened lately at Women's Health Care Services. The doctor who runs the clinic had been wounded, though not seriously, by a gun-wielding woman as he left the clinic. Across town in the Sedgwick County Jail, his alleged assailant -- Rachelle Shannon, 37, of Grants Pass, Ore. -- was being held without bail on attempted first-degree murder charges.

Tiller, 52, arrived today about 7 a.m. in a compact car driven by a police officer. A spokesman said he has kept all appointments since the shooting.

The shooting ignited a national debate over whether the second shooting of an abortion doctor in five months was part of a wave of terrorism against abortion clinics. Shannon, who became involved in antiabortion activities five years ago, had written admiring letters to Michael Griffin, the man accused of killing David Gunn last March, according to the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal.

But here, the shooting apparently is viewed by both sides as a rude invasion of local matters by an outsider. Local antiabortion groups moved quickly to distance themselves from Shannon. In a statement, Mischele Thompson, executive director of Life Inc., said, "There is no violence that is acceptable -- against Dr. Tiller or anyone."

There was little sympathy for Shannon on the lines this morning.

"I personally don't think violence should be part of anything pro-life," said Patty May, one of several "sidewalk counselors" who attempted to hand antiabortion literature to women entering the clinic.

After several years of facing each other across a psychological divide, both sides have developed a confrontational, but nonviolent, style. The "regulars" on each side know just how far they can push, and both sides frequently pull newcomers away from situations that appear to be growing too tense.

"We might push a bit, but you never hurt anybody," said a young abortion rights worker identified only as Tom.

For example, this morning a young woman, who later refused to identify herself, attempted to grab a video camera from an abortion rights advocate. People on both sides appeared surprised and moved quickly to separate them. Such physical confrontation is taboo here on the line. Shouting is normal, and bumping is accepted. But grabbing is not.

"She doesn't know the rules," said the camera-carrying man identified only as Chuck. "She's the new one."

Many on each side know those on the other side well. It is not unusual for regulars to chat about personal matters during lulls, then suddenly shout epithets and jockey for position in the driveway when a car appears.

At one point, Chuck chatted with Donna Lippoldt, a leader of the antiabortion "counselors." But as they parted smiling, Chuck couldn't resist saying: "Be sure to kill a doctor for Christ today."

The city of Wichita, too, appears to have grown sophisticated in handling its notoriety as the target of the antiabortion movement. In 1991, when major protests were held, the city of more than 300,000 was badly split. But other than blanket news coverage, the town appeared to pay little attention to Thursday's shooting.

Physically, it is easy to ignore the clinic. It is several miles east of downtown on U.S. Highway 54, an area that is the site of hotels, fast-food restaurants, bars and commercial establishments. The clinic is bracketed by two car dealerships.

The Wichita Eagle stressed in an editorial today that Shannon is not from Kansas, and said that local abortion dialogue "has been respectful and in the best democratic tradition." The paper said, "Most people on both sides want to avoid turning every issue into an abortion clash. The attempt on Dr. Tiller's life should be seen for what it is -- a crime."


© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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