On the morning of Sat. Jan. 12, 10 days before the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a prominent liberal activist and pro-choice advocate drove his car out of the parking lot of a West Ashley women's clinic, allegedly striking a pro-life advocate in the knee with the bumper.
The driver was Larry Carter Center, and anyone who has spent time in Charleston progressive circles knows him by name, if not by face. Center, an Iowa native who named his daughter Darrow after Tennessee v. Scopes ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow, attended some of the first meetings of Occupy Charleston. In November 2012, as a Green Party candidate, he attempted to unseat Republican S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell. And on March 9, he and James Islander Eugene Platt will square off in a Green Party special convention for the District 1 Congressional nomination.
The man Center reportedly hit on Jan. 12, William Edward Gasque, says he has spent nearly every Saturday morning for the past 10 years protesting abortions and trying to steer women away from the Charleston Women's Medical Center, which provides abortions and routine gynecological services. A video taken by another abortion protester at the scene (see below) shows Gasque standing at the edge of the parking lot right-of-way, pamphlets in hand and some sort of sign hung around his neck, when Center's teal sedan exits the parking lot and appears to edge into Gasque, causing him to stumble out of the way. Gasque says he wasn't hurt, but four days later, he filed a report against Center with the Charleston Police Department.
Police arrested Center at his home on Fri. Jan. 25 and released him the next day. He faces a charge of simple assault, which can carry a penalty of up to 30 days in prison.
When asked if he hit Gasque with his car on purpose, Center replies, "No, of course not." He says Gasque and other abortion protesters have been violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 1994 law that makes it illegal to block or intimidate people who are trying to obtain reproductive health services or abortions. "My window was open, and I kept telling him to get out of the way, get off of clinic property," Center says. "You could tell that he was two feet inside the driveway."
Center says he volunteered outside the clinic starting in 2006, escorting women to the front door while shielding them from the slogans and interference of protesters. He says he stopped volunteering as an escort in 2009 due to a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, but he still occasionally returns on Saturdays, when a crowd of protesters often assembles in the early morning hours, to put up a temporary plastic fence at the clinic property's edge.
According to Center, the protests are disruptive and illegal; he refers to the protesters as "tampon terrorists." But Gasque, who calls the clinic "the abortion mill," says he usually walks back and forth across the entrance to the parking lot, always looking both ways to make sure he's not blocking anyone from entering or exiting. Gasque says that if anyone stops and rolls down a car window, he says something to the effect of "God loves you and loves your baby," and then he offers the person a packet of devotionals, Christian tracts, and pamphlets about sexually transmitted infections. He says that in his 10 years standing outside the clinic, he has convinced about five percent of the women seeking abortions to turn away.
Gasque and Center have a history. Gasque says he has tried to share the Christian gospel with Center and Center's life partner, Sue Edward, but he was loudly rejected. "He's a problem child," Gasque says of Center. Gasque is 81 years old; Center is 60.
"I keep asking the Lord to give them a wake-up call and shake them up before they draw their last breath, because if they die the way they are now, it's eternal damnation," Gasque says. "This is where the love of God in Christ Jesus is. We're told to love our enemies, and they're definitely enemies."
The Charleston Women's Medical Center, at 1312 Ashley River Road, has a history of tension. Early one Saturday morning in 2010, during the annual 40 Days for Life protests, Tennessee physician Gary Boyle was charged with brandishing a handgun outside the clinic after three protesters approached him in the parking lot. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and paid a $100 fine. According to a report from The Post and Courier, the prosecutor said the case raised "significant castle doctrine issues."
Center says city police have failed to enforce the FACE Act at the clinic. "I'm not going to enable it," Center says. "I'm not going to say it's OK for [Gasque] to stand in the middle of the driveway when I know it's a federal crime. For me to say all I have to do is avoid him is enabling him. I'm telling you, it's entrapment, and these things would not happen if the City of Charleston would enforce the law."