The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that a law which was originally designed to protect legitimate businesses from organized crime, can now be used by abortion centres against pro-life demonstrators.

In a January 24 unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the Racketeer-influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, could be applied to groups such as Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue and Joe Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League.

The 1970 law had originally been enacted to protect businesses from mafia extortion.  However, because of RICO’s vague wording, it has long been given a wide interpretation by the courts.  In 1992, the United States Court of Appeal had previously denied applying RICO saying that the pro-life activists were motivated, not by economic, but by political and ideological gain.  However, in the recent National Organization for Women v. Scheidler, the Supreme Court decided that pro-life activism is a form of extortion, even though it doesn’t lead to any financial gain.

Now that they have this powerful legal tool, The National Organization for Women will go to Chicago and try to prove that Scheidler’s group can be charged under RICO.  If successful, it will no doubt lead to a host of lawsuits by abortion providers across the U.S.

Pro-life groups were dismayed by the ruling.  Randall Terry called it a “vulgar betrayal of over 200 years of tolerance toward protest and civil disobedience.”  On whether the Court’s decision would increase pro-life activity, Joe Scheidler said, “Social protest is at the heart of what America stands for, and has been since the Boston Tea Party.”

Many groups worry that the decision will turn away their non-activist supporters.  There is a feeling that anyone connected with an organization charged under RICO could be liable.  Many observers, however, feel that the courts would never go this far.

The biggest hammer which pro-abortion groups now carry is their ability to cripple pro-life groups with the strong penalties contained in the act.  Prosecution under this law could triple lawsuit settlements and impose much stricter prison sentences on offenders.  RICO might also be used by judges to impose the sort of injunctions with which Canadian pro-lifers have become familiar.

In spite of the ruling, Scheidler remains characteristically optimistic.  “We haven’t been found guilty yet.  I don’t know what damages they could show or what they could take.  We don’t own the office, I don’t own my home, and if they want the fax machine, they’re welcome to it.”  Scheidler also feels that the latest interpretation of the RICO will be its last.  “We are not racketeers and we are not going to back down from our pro-life activities.  I think this is a step toward the downfall of RICO.”

Randall Terry went further saying that, “Under this decision, Martin Luther King Jr. would have been a racketeer.  What I’d say to the AIDS activists, the anti-nuclear groups, the animal rights people, is get your affairs in order and line up, because you’re next.”

Both AIDS activists and animal rights groups expressed alarm at the decision.  “It’s a two-edged sword that’s going to come back to haunt people on many sides of issues,” said lawyer William Dobbs, who represents the radical homosexual group ACT UP.  Todd Davis, lawyer for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commented that, “animal rights activists sometimes use peaceful, non-violent protests…and we’re concerned that this kind of decision is going to chill that First Amendment activity.”