The National Organization for Women is urging its members to stay overnight in abortion clinics throughout the country on the weekend before the 12th anniversary of the Supreme Court's abortion decision, a time when federal authorities and police fear there may be new bombings against clinics.
"Our goal is to protect the clinics with our presence," said NOW president Judy Goldsmith, who plans to spend the night at a clinic in the District. "Someone has to stand up to these bullies who take the law into their own hands."
Two major associations of abortion clinics, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, have described NOW's "Vigil for Women's Lives" as dangerous and have asked their member clinics not to cooperate with anyone wanting to stay inside their clinics overnight.
An agent of the Washington field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is investigating clinic bombings, also denounced the idea at a Jan. 3 meeting of abortion providers in Washington.
"I think it's as irresponsible as it can be," said Barbara Radford, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, an association of some 300 abortion clinics nationwide. "We're telling clinics not to even consider a security guard overnight unless they're in a climate where the person can be outside. It's too dangerous to have them inside."
Goldsmith said the clinic groups have "a different perspective than ours. We have managed this program responsibly and it will deter violence."
In letters sent to the 800 NOW chapters on Dec. 14 and Jan. 4, the national office of NOW encouraged members to conduct vigils around the clock in abortion clinics Jan. 18-21 as a means of protecting clinics during a high-risk weekend.
According to the letters, vigil members are to alert the public about their presence in the clinic by posting signs about the vigil, informing the police and press and leaving lights on at night. Members are supposed to stay at the clinics in two-hour shifts and help escort patients to their appointments, particularly on Saturday, when antiabortion picketers frequently are in place.
Emily McCoy, president of NOW in Virginia, said that the Northern Virginia NOW chapter will hold an overnight vigil in a Falls Church clinic, featuring half-hour shifts, refreshments and Trivial Pursuit games. The Norfolk chapter of NOW will hold a vigil from a van outside the Hillcrest Clinic, she said, because that Norfolk clinic has been bombed in the past.
At least some NOW chapters are finding that their members and area clinics are apprehensive about participating. "The clinic in the Alton Ill. area said this could prompt problems and said no," said Clara Johnson, a staff member of Illinois NOW. "People are very much afraid."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the U.S. Treasury Department recently sent notices to abortion groups warning them that the symbolism of the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision and the Jan. 21 presidential inauguration ceremony "represent a potential for increased action directed towards abortion clinics and/or pro-choice offices."
As a result, clinics throughout the country have been planning to increase security next weekend and on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.
"We're just anticipating some problems on that day," said Brenda White, assistant to the director of Pre-Term, a District clinic, referring to Jan. 22. "We're hiring a guard during the day and we'll be very cautious." She said NOW members have not contacted the clinic, but added that a vigil would be discouraged as "dangerous."