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Abortioncam is disheartening but it's legally sound

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

Neal Horsley of Carrollton, Ga., the anti-abortion zealot whose Nuremberg Files Web site listed the names of abortion doctors and crossed out those who had been murdered, has a new weapon in his war against legal abortion. He is using the Web to distribute video of doctors, patients and employees entering and leaving abortion clinics in order to "expose the evil of legalized abortion." He calls it an "abortioncam" and he wants to bring it to a public access cable channel near you.

Last month, Horsley sent out an e-mail request to supporters: "Help us get to your local television stations." Horsley's new Web site boasts real-time images of abortion clinics from 21 states, and he wants to bring these images to "television sets all across America." But to do so he needs people to apply for spots on their local cable access channel.

You get the slot, and he supplies the propaganda -- "Abortion: Finally, The Whole Story," a program localized for your area. Horsley promises that broadcasts for the Portland region will feature "images that are being generated outside Portland's abortion 'clinics.' "

As disheartening as this is to supporters of abortion rights, like myself, it is all perfectly legal and protected by the First Amendment. And it should remain so.

No, this is not an illegal invasion of privacy. A person who enters an abortion clinic is doing so in a public manner and is open to being photographed. No, there shouldn't be a law against it. Think of how the press would be constrained if the law prevented publishing someone's picture without his or her consent.

In possibly the first case of its kind, late last month, an Illinois judge ordered the removal of Web site photograph and medical records of a woman who had suffered a botched abortion at a clinic. Her situation had become a cause celebre of the anti-abortion crowd, and the information landed on a number of Web sites. But the case differs from the abortioncam site, since the disclosure here involved medical records whose confidentiality is protected under Illinois state law.

There are a myriad reasons why running to the courts is the wrong tactic to use against abortioncam. Primarily, it damages the First Amendment without tangibly impacting the efforts of Horsley and his band of supporters.

Keep in mind, these battles are a tonic to people like Horsley. They give him publicity and puff up his importance. In the e-mail message, Horsley claims to be under siege by his enemies, that Planned Parenthood has already sought help from Attorney General John Ashcroft to shut down Planned Parenthood Federation of America says Horsley's making it up. But the group is not immune from trying the censorship route.

Planned Parenthood went to court in 1997 in an effort to shutter Horsley's Nuremberg Files Web site, using a federal statute designed to protect abortion clinics. The site, which drips animated blood off aborted fetuses, lists detailed dossiers on abortion doctors, calling them "baby butchers." The suit filed by Planned Parenthood and abortion doctors calls the site "threatening," in violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. But after Planned Parenthood initially won a $107-million verdict against 13 contributors to the Web site, the award was overturned. In March, a panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the site did not threaten abortion doctors and was constitutionally protected.

The case is still ongoing. Planned Parenthood has asked the full appellate court to hear the case. But I believe the effort is counterproductive and an unnecessary diversion. Even after the whopping Nuremberg Files Web site verdict was announced, Horsley was able to keep the site operational by moving it to different Internet service providers. He claims to have providers in at least four countries willing to continue posting his stuff, including South Africa and Holland. Then there is the problem with collecting. The 13 named defendants in the case are virtually judgment-proof, owning few assets in their own names.

So even if Planned Parenthood ultimately prevails in the lawsuit, what has it really won? It has not protected abortion doctors from harsh exposure. It has done nothing to harm extremist anti-abortion forces beyond giving their efforts priceless publicity. And it has given the government broader powers to restrict speech.

Rather than boxing shadows and the Constitution, abortion advocates should leave Horsley's Web and cable productions alone. Instead, those energies should be directed toward making abortion more broadly available. The drug Mifeprex, the American equivalent of RU-486, will be legal in the United States for a year on Sept. 28, yet reportedly the number of physicians prescribing it has been underwhelming.

Start recruiting.

The Food and Drug Administration has still not provided a substantive response to a petition filed in February by more than 70 medical associations to make morning-after pills available over-the-counter. Unyielding political pressure needs to be applied here.

The answer to defeating Horsley and his minions is to disperse abortion services so widely that every pharmacist and every obstetrician and gynecologist is a potential abortion provider.

Where would he train his Web-cams then?

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