A federal appeals court, ruling that blocking access to medical facilities violates a woman's constitutional right to travel, has upheld an injunction that prohibits Operation Rescue and other antiabortion groups from blockading nine clinics in Northern Virginia.
However, the three-member panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also handed antiabortion groups three victories, ruling that a lower-court judge properly limited the time and geographic scope of the injunction, and correctly allowed antiabortion activists to peacefully picket clinics.
The case began last November, when the National Organization for Women sought a permanent injunction forbidding antiabortion groups from staging blockades at any clinic in the Washington area.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III granted a temporary injuction that was extended until the end of this month. A hearing is scheduled for this morning in federal court in Alexandria on whether to extend the order.
Ellis also limited the scope of the injunction to the nine Northern Virginia clinics named in the complaint, and refused to prohibit antiabortion activists from distributing literature or talking with patients outside clinics.
Both sides appealed aspects of the ruling.
Jay Alan Sekulow, representing Operation Rescue, said the opinion represented an overall victory for antiabortion groups. "We are allowed to picket, distribute literature, pray, sing, offer sidewalk counsel or conduct any First Amendment activity" at any clinic, Sekulow said.
He added that the injunction against blockades does not apply to clinics other than the nine designated facilities. Blockades, called "rescues" by participants, have engendered controversy because they involve physically preventing patients from entering clinics.
Patricia Ireland, spokeswoman for NOW, also claimed victory yesterday, saying the ruling sends "a clear message they cannot blockade clinics or harass workers. And we have never opposed their rights to express their opinions peacefully."
The appellant panel agreed with Ellis in finding that "women seeking abortions and counseling were likely to suffer irreparable physical and emotional harm as a result of defendants' blockading of abortion facilities," according to the opinion issued Wednesday and received by attorneys on both sides yesterday.
Such blockades "crossed the line from persuasion into coercion and operated to deny the exercise of rights protected by law," the panel ruled.