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The long-running nationwide controversy over abortion has entered a new phase with news that a Chicago jury has awarded Milwaukee and Wilmington, Del., abortion clinics damages totalling $85,926. The award will be tripled under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. This is the first nationwide class-action suit filed against the anti-abortion movement under the law intended to fight organized crime. The verdict allows clinics across the country to claim their own triple damages.

This is a landmark federal case that will, if upheld, portend many more such cases to come, with potential liability climbing into the tens of millions of dollars. The defendants, including anti-abortion leader Joseph Scheidler, say there is no way they can pay anywhere near such an amount. "A million dollars, a billion dollars, the national debt -- they won't get it," said Scheidler. "You can't get blood from a turnip -- and we're turnips."

Besides Scheidler, defendants are Timothy Murphy and Andrew Scholberg, the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue. The lawsuit was brought by the two clinics and the National Organization for Women.

NOW and the clinics expect the judge to issue an order barring any further blockades or violent protests, but the defendants say they don't advocate violence and aren't responsible for the excesses of a few of their followers.

It is most regrettable that it has come to this. No responsible abortion opponent supports violence in the service of this cause. Pro-life leaders must continue to denounce it whenever it raises its ugly head. Still, the business of using the RICO criminal statute against legitimate pro-life organizations raises troubling questions as well. Millions of Americans will agree with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who likened the blockade organizers to the civil rights protesters of the 1960s.