The Rebel Girl: Choice and the RICO Dilemma

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Catherine Sameh

THE U.S. SUPREME Court said, in late April, it will take up an appeal from anti-abortion activists to review two cases involving the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, known as RICO.

Congress passed this act to protect legitimate businesses from organized mob crimes, but the law has been widely used outside of mob cases. Because RICO incorporates other laws, repeated violations can be grounds for a RICO suit.

In the early 1990s, the National Organization for Women brought a civil RICO suit against Operation Rescue to “stop the anti-abortion forces from denying women access to reproductive health services by establishing a permanent, nationwide injunction and charging them triple damages for orchestrating anti-abortion terrorism,” according to the National Abortion Rights Action League’s website.

NOW’s suit cited numerous incidents across the country where clinic staff and patients were physically harmed by anti-abortion protesters and clinic properties were destroyed, and charged that anti-abortion leaders responsible for these acts violated the Hobbs Act.

The Act “makes it a federal offense to `obstruct commerce’ or `obtain property’ through the `wrongful uses of actual or threatened force, violence or fear.’ Repeated violations of the Hobbs Act make for a `pattern of racketeering activity’ that comes under RICO.” (Los Angeles Times, 4/23/02)

NOW won the case and a trial judge in Chicago “issues a nationwide order that forbids the protesters from trespassing at clinics, damaging property or interfering with their operation for ten years. Violators can be charged with a crime. (Los Angeles Times, 4/23/02)

The use of RICO laws against anti-abortion militants raises interesting dilemmas for the left and often leaves us feeling a bit schizophrenic. The injunction did seem to quiet some of the anti-abortion violence, and has created more of a sense of safety for clinic staff and patients. On the other hand, RICO and RICO-like laws are more likely to be used against the left, particularly in a climate like now, where dissidence or any form of protest can be labeled as “terrorism.”

Then again, many in the pro-choice movement argue that because RICO-like laws are more often used against left militants, it’s important to pressure the courts to apply them to right-wing militants.

The dilemmas of RICO, let alone its vulnerability to shifting court interpretations, remind us that while the battle for reproductive freedom is waged in the courts, we as activists on the ground must continue to build movements that keep Americans committed to women’s reproductive freedoms and invulnerable to the agenda of anti-abortions.

Laws are important. Long-term commitments to feminist and democratic culture are crucial.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)