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Use of the "RICO LAW"
against anti-abortion groups

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The US Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1970 was originally written to target organized crime. It allowed the courts to attack  "enterprises" that engage in a "pattern of racketeering." A similar piece of legislation, the Hobbs Act of 1946 makes it a crime to take property from another with force. Both have been used by pro-choice groups to target anti-abortion organizations.

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1986 case:

In the early 1986, the National Organization of Women (NOW) used RICO to initiate a lawsuit against Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League, the League's Executive Director, Joseph Scheidler, and two of Scheidler's associates: Timothy Murphy and Andrew Scholberg.  The groups had allegedly blockaded a number of abortion clinics in Delaware and Wisconsin.

During the trial, U.S. District Judge David Coar prohibited the clinic lawyers from introducing evidence that they claimed would link the defendants to more than a decade of bombings and arson attacks throughout the U.S. However, they were allowed to introduce evidence about physical attacks and threats against clinic staff and patients.

The case proceeded against On 1998-APR-20, all of the defendants were found guilty of having engaged in 21 acts of extortion. The US Federal jury ordered the three activists and the two organizations to pay $85,962.92 in damages. The amount was based upon the cost of increased security arrangements during the blockade. Because of the nature of the RICO act, these damages were tripled to about $258,000. The way became clear for up to 1000 abortion clinics in the US to follow the lead of the the Milwaukee and Wilmington clinics, bring similar lawsuits, and claim massive damages.

Mr. Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League commented: "They want to bankrupt us; there's no question about that...We wanted to come out as a legitimate force in America, and not as racketeers. There is no honor in being a racketeer and we're not racketeers." Later, he said: "A million dollars, a billion dollars, a trillion dollars, the national debt - they won't get it. You can't get blood from a turnip - and we're turnips." Larry Crane, the lawyer representing Operation Rescue confirmed this; he said: "There's no chance or likelihood of collecting any judgment against these impecunious defendants."

Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, said: "A jury of six men and women saw through the thugs' shameless attempt to pervert the First Amendment."

NOW lost the case at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The court decided that RICO could not be used in this instance. It ruled that the law can only be used in instances of criminal activity motivated by economic gain. 6

In 1993, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court as National Organization for Women v. Scheidler 114 S. Ct. 798. NOW argued that RICO could be used against abortion clinic blockaders. They argued that the latter formed an national conspiracy to eliminate access to abortion clinics through the use of extortion and harassment, with the goal of driving clinics out of business. In 1994-JAN, the Supreme Court overruled the Circuit Court decision and allowed the lawsuit to proceed. The vote to consider the case was unanimous. They determined that the term "enterprise" could include an individual, or group of individuals, a partnership, corporation, association or other legal entity. The anti-abortion groups were found to have "conspired to shut down abortion clinics through a pattern of racketeering activity..."

Defense lawyer Tom Brejcha disagreed with the US Supreme Court ruling of 1994 by stating that RICO should not have been used in this case. "RICO is terribly flawed, vague and over-broad." The defendants claimed that they do not advocate violence, and that they are not responsible for the excesses of a few of their followers who acted on their own.

Fay Clayton, a NOW lawyer, said: "This is the biggest courtroom defeat for the anti-abortion movement ever."

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1986 case (cont'd):

On 2002-DEC-4, the Court heard arguments. Roy Englert Jr., a lawyer representing Operation Rescue and some anti-abortion leaders said that if the Court does not intervene, then leaders of any movement could be severely punished if their "followers get out of hand." An attorney representing the National Organization for Women and a group of abortion clinics said the laws protect businesses from violent protests that drive away clients. According to the Associated Press, "The issue dates back to the 1980s when large groups of anti-abortion demonstrators used aggressive tactics to disrupt clinics. In 1998 a jury in Illinois found demonstrators guilty of dozens of violations, including four acts involving physical violence or threats of violence. In its ruling the high court must differentiate between protected political activity and that which is illegal."

One of the conservative Justices, Antonin Scalia, who has traditionally opposed abortion access, appears to oppose the use of RICO. He said: "It wasn't smacking people around. It was just not letting people in" to the clinics." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a supporter of abortion access seems to disagree. She said: "We're not talking about conduct that's lawful here. To paint the picture we're talking about just pure speech is not the case." 7

On 2003-FEB-26, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in an unusual 8:1 split that RICO cannot be used against pro-life clinic protesters. The ruling released Joseph Scheidler of Operation Rescue and others from having to pay $258,000 in judgments. A national injunction which prevented the groups from interfering with abortion clinics was cancelled. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority: "...even when their [pro-lifers] acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of 'shutting down' a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion." 8

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  1. Planned Parenthood® Affiliates of California
  2. "Anti-Abortion Violence Movement," Office of International Criminal Justice of the University of Illinois at Chicago at:
  3. Feminist Majority Foundation and New Media Publishing, Inc collects and publishes data on the levels of violence at abortion clinics. See:
  4. National Abortion Federation maintains extensive clinic violence statistics at:
  5. Data on abortion clinic violence is also available at:
  6. "Abortion Opponents Suffer Setback: U.S. Verdict Could Bankrupt Movement," Associated Press, 1998-APR-20.
  7. "New Rules for Abortion Foes?," Associated Press, 2002-DEC-5, at:
  8. "Christians Get HUGE Pro-Life Victory at Supreme Court: 8-1 decision rejects NOW’s claim that abortion protestors violated RICO," Operation Rescue West, at:
  9. The text of the U.S. Supreme Court decision is at: You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:

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Copyright © 2000, 2003 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-NOV-
Latest update: 2004-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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