A New Challenge Facing Choice

by Chris Houpt | 11/9/95 6:00am

Ruling in a seemingly trivial landlord-tenant dispute last week, New York judge John DiNoto acceded to America's slide toward disorder. The decision, which allowed a landlord to evict an abortion clinic from his building because of violent protests by pro-life groups, demonstrates the extent to which such groups have undermined the rule of law. By giving in to these domestic terrorists, the judge accepts the helplessness of law-abiding businessmen and emboldens those who reject majority rule.

The building in Garden City, New York, has been the target of relentless attacks by anti-abortion protesters because of the clinic's presence. In the past year, according to the building manager, bullets have been shot into the building and into a physician's car several times. A number of other tenants have been physically assaulted, including a 72-year-old nurse at another office in the building, who, according to Long Island Newsday, "was dragged down the hallway, slammed into a wall, and called a killer." In the 16 months since he bought the building, Ronald Morey has replaced 13 broken windows and received two bomb threats. Morey's attorney argued that "The building was literally under attack" by anti-abortion protesters.

Last spring, notes were left on the building calling the clinic "a war zone" and threatening that the double murder at a Brookline, Massachusetts clinic could be repeated in Garden City. Shortly thereafter, Morey instituted a rule prohibiting activities that endanger other tenants' life or property and began eviction proceedings against the clinic on the grounds that the protests pose a threat to the building's occupants. DiNoto rejected arguments that Morey had unilaterally changed the terms of the lease, which had eight years remaining, but the clinic will appeal.

The decision validates the tactics of some pro-life groups, which, having failed at swaying courts, legislatures and public opinion, now try to limit access to legal abortions through harassment, vandalism and intimidation. In the past, these radicals had to intimidate doctors, staff and pregnant women; now, they have a new and perhaps more pliant lever -- landlords.

Morey himself is pro-choice and deeply regrets the eviction but says, "I'm just not prepared to sacrifice real human lives for principle." Since it was pro-life violence and not personal or political conviction that led him to evict the clinic, only protesters who use intimidation and violence could expect to benefit.

Therefore, the jubilant reaction of many mainstream pro-life groups is telling. The chair of Long Island Coalition for Life, Danny Sherry, hailed the decision but asserted that "The only violence I know of that's being done is to the pre-born babies." Loraine Gariboldi, executive director of the Life Center of Long Island, was more straightforward, saying, "Anything that stops abortionists from performing abortions is a positive step." She also said that the same tactic should be used to close clinics across the country. Gariboldi should be, and doubtless is, aware of what "anything that stops abortionists" means after pro-life gunmen have committed five murders in two years.

The clinic was not evicted because the non-violent protests converted the landlord or persuaded the court to recognize fetuses' right to life. It was closed because a terrorist minority in the anti-abortion movement made the building's tenants so fearful for their lives that the landlord was forced to remove the clinic. If pro-lifers really believe that their colleagues did not commit violence at the clinic, they should be outraged by the decision. Instead, they condemn the terror but happily accept its consequences.

Admittedly, Morey was in a difficult position, being forced to evict a paying tenant because of actions by a third party. The blame lies not with Morey or Justice DiNoto, but with law enforcement, because ultimately, protection against physical violence is not the responsibility of either landlord or tenant, but of the state. A legal business may be forced to close because of a lack of customers, poor management or democratically enacted zoning laws, but not because the police cannot protect it against an organized mob.

When the institution of slavery still persisted in the United States, Abraham Lincoln declared, "There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law." Denouncing violence is easy for pro-life groups. The harder, but equally necessary, part is denouncing the objectives of violence. Pro-lifers' implication that the ends justified the means in Garden City further blurs the distinction between moderates and radicals in the anti-abortion movement.