ATLANTA: WOMEN AND CHOICE
Anti-abortion activists renew threats to reproductive freedom.
T HE NORTHSIDE FAMILY PLANNING SERVICES CLINIC is located on a small hill, just off a major highway interchange in an Atlanta suburb. When I drove by a few days after it had been demolished by a bomb on January 16, police crime-scene tape blocked the road. The clinic had occupied part of the first floor of a three-story office building, which was almost hidden from the main road. There was no sign with the clinic name or any indication women's services were offered there. Still, the anti-abortion bomber evidently knew exactly where the clinic was located and where to place the bomb. The first bomb was followed by a second about an hour later; it exploded in the adjacent parking lot, injuring seven people.
This vicious attack came just a few days before the 24th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the January 22,1973, Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. In the past, the anti-abortion movement has used the anniversary of Roe to escalate its activities. Convicted clinic bomber Michael Bray, who advocates "justifiable homicide" of abortion doctors, was quoted in the Atlanta Constitution as saying he was "relieved" by the bombings, that they were a sign of "revival" of the anti-abortion movement.
Not to be left out of the Atlanta anti-woman sweepstakes, the Georgia legislator and religious conservative Ron Crews, along with other anti-abortion advocates, held a press conference later that day to announce new legislation banning what they call "partial-birth abortions." This deliberately inflammatory term was invented by antichoice forces in an effort to equate abortion with infanticide. The procedure is known medically as intact dilation and extraction, or D&X. The combination of physical and legislative attacks were like a one-two punch aimed squarely at the women of Georgia.
The Atlanta bombing signaled a newly intensified, all around offensive - from physical attacks to restrictive laws - against women's reproductive freedom. A similar bomb attack that injured five people on Feb. 21 at The Otherside, a lesbian-owned nightclub in Atlanta, made it clear that a broad, reactionary social agenda continues to assert itself with deadly force. It was only pure luck that no one at either the clinic or the crowded club was killed.
The club's owner, Beverly McMahon, is the sister of the late California abortion provider James McMahon, who was one of the physicians who pioneered the D&X procedure. (He testified at the 1995 Congressional hearings on the issue and died of a brain tumor later that year.) She told me that both she and her brother had a commitment to "do what you believe in." The club bombing, she said, had made her determined to speak out on abortion and women's rights, as well as gay rights.
In the weeks that followed the club bombing, few developments were reported in the official investigation. This is not surprising. Only a tiny fraction of the 41 bombings, 108 arsons and 69 attempted bombings and arsons at clinics from 1977 to 1996 have ever been solved. These numbers don't include the hundreds of clinic invasions, occurrences of vandalism, or bomb and death threats. Indeed, this was not the first time Northside Family Planning itself was the target of violence. In 1984, in another location, it was hit by a firebomb; eight days after that attack, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window of another area clinic. No one was ever arrested in either bombing. But it's not just in Georgia that abortion access and abortion service providers are under serious threat. The January 16 bombing itself was part of a string of physical attacks that occurred as 1996 ended and has continued well into 1997. On December 18 of last year, Dr. Calvin Jackson was attacked and stabbed repeatedly outside his New Orleans abortion clinic by a man who was later arrested outside a Baton Rouge clinic (an hour north of New Orleans) with a fillet knife in his possession. Despite losing four pints of blood and requiring hospitalization for many days, Dr. Jackson is now back at his clinic providing services to women. There were three arson attempts on a Phoenix clinic in December; a Tulsa, Oklahoma clinic was firebombed with Molotov cocktails on New Year's Day and attacked twice more in January. There was an arson attack at a clinic near Washington, D.C. on February 18 that caused $100,000 in damages; another at a North Hollywood, California clinic March 7. A noxious substance was spread in the hallway of the office building that houses an abortion clinic in Bozeman, Montana; on March 17, a man drove a pickup truck with explosive materials into the Family Planning Associates in Bakersfield, California.
The Atlanta explosion was the first clinic bombing known to have taken place during the day, when it was likely to injure or kill people. Fortunately, the clinic was not seeing clients that day, although several staff members were on the premises. The Atlanta attack signaled a new willingness by anti-abortion bombers to target staff and clients as well as the physical facilities. Nancy Boothe, director of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Atlanta, told me, "It's time to draw a line in the sand, to say we're not going to tolerate this!"
The specter of continuing murderous assaults on providers was raised, shortly after the bombing, by a vicious posting on a rightwing website maintained by Neal Horsley, who is running for governor of Georgia on the Creator's Rights Party, a far-right organization he founded. The site includes an extensive piece by the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA) announcing that they are "cooperating in collecting dossiers on abortionists in anticipation that one day we may be able to hold them on trial for crimes against humanity." This project is called "The Nuremberg Files," an attempt to equate abortion providers with Nazi war criminals and abortion with genocide.
This website lists hundreds of names. Its main listings are, "Abortionists: the shooters;" "Clinic Workers: their weapons bearers," and "Miscellaneous Blood Flunkies." It explicitly calls for fellow anti-abortion advocates to collect personal information on these people, along with their families, associates and others, and to send such information to ACLA before January 1,1998, the "target deadline" for "the posting of an exhaustive listing of every Abortionist presently plying their bloody trade in the USA." The site includes detailed dossiers on two people - one clinic director and one doctor - complete with photos of them, their residences and their cars, as examples of the "kinds of things we need."
This ACLA list is a call to the would-be Michael Griffins, Paul Hills and John Salvis (the convicted assassins of two doctors, one escort and two clinic workers in three separate deadly attacks at clinics in 1993 and 1994) and suggests possible targets. It also provides a way for other anti-abortion advocates to contribute to the cause while not actually having to pull the trigger. It is, in short, a hit list.
A few weeks after the Atlanta bombing, I attended a hearing of the Georgia State House Judiciary Committee on the bill to ban D&X. Georgia already bars third trimester abortions unless three physicians "certify that the abortion is necessary...to preserve the life or health of the woman." (Itself a tremendous burden on women who need third-trimester procedures.) This bill, therefore, is directly aimed at restricting second-trimester procedures (done at several Atlanta clinics that serve women who come from all over the South and many other states). In using a deliberately vague term and definition of "partial-birth abortions" and calling for felony prosecution with up to a $5,000 fine and five years imprisonment as penalties for physicians who do them, even clinics and doctors who don't use the D&X itself may think twice about performing any late second trimester procedure. The D&X procedure itself, generally performed after 20 weeks, is considered by some doctors to be the easiest, quickest and safest for the woman. Banning it means that women may have to undergo riskier procedures. It also sets an extremely dangerous precedent that surely will be followed by attempts to ban other abortion procedures.
At the Atlanta hearing, there was a sharp contrast between those promoting the bill and those in opposition to it. On one side, State Representative Ron Crews held up a model of a woman's womb with a detachable fetus. It struck me that his words and attitude towards women were well represented by this plastic prop. There was no concern for or even mention of the lives of women in his pious speech - as if the womb and fetus he held up could exist without a woman!
In contrast, a woman from an Atlanta suburb spoke against the proposed law and told her very human story about how women need the right to have late-term abortions. Phyllis Baker testified that she had longed to have a child, but in the third trimester of pregnancy, doctors had discovered that her fetus had an abnormally large head (hydrocephaly) and would not survive long after birth. Her physician also told her that if she carried the pregnancy to term and gave birth, they would need to get a court order to withhold medical treatment or else the hospital would insist on keeping the infant alive by extraordinary means. She and her husband decided an abortion was best. They decided to go to Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, who specializes in late abortions.
Phyllis Baker said Dr. Tiller "truly cares for the welfare of women" and explained that it was only because of his concern and skill that her cervix didn't rupture during the procedure (which would hove prevented her from giving birth in the future). At the conclusion of her moving testimony, she said with great passion, "Do not allow the government to tell my doctor how to care for me!"
The Georgia legislature did not listen to her; it passed the bill in late March and the governor signed it. At least four other states have similarly ignored the needs of women. As of this writing Arkansas, Michigan, Utah, and Ohio have also banned the procedure. A similar ban came up again in the U.S. Congress this spring, refueled by the statement of Ron Fitzsimmons, head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, that he had lied about the frequency of the use of D&X. Frankly, it really doesn't matter how often it is used: What matters is that doctors and their patients must be able to decide what procedure is safest, easiest and best to use at any stage.
One important fact that has been missing from this debate is that those who decry late abortions are, in fact, responsible for making it more difficult for women to get safe abortions earlier in the pregnancy. Some later abortions and virtually all third-trimester procedures are done because the fetus has severe abnormalities, or because the life and health of the pregnant women is threatened by continued pregnancy and childbirth. But many women seek abortions later than the first trimester because they have been denied information about their own bodies and reproduction, they lack access to a clinic or doctor (84 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider), they lack funds, or they have to deal with restrictive laws.
Young women are especially affected. Thirty-nine states have laws on the books that prevent a minor from getting an abortion without parental consent or notice. In Dayton, Ohio, one study estimated that women having abortions later than 20 weeks were more than three times as likely to be women under 18 years old.
In an anti-choice climate, in which 20 states have governors who have stated they want to outlaw abortion outright, it's no surprise that harassment of both women and providers as well as disruption of clinic functions continue. Statistics by the National Abortion Federation show that "nonviolent disruption" such as picketing, harassing phone calls and hate mail more than doubled from 1995 to 1996. There are also increased efforts to blockade clinics in some locations.
On March 15, 17 anti-abortion protesters were arrested while attempting to blockade an Englewood, New Jersey clinic. This was the second blockade attempt in two months. As reported in the Record of Hackensack, the protesters stormed a police barricade in their efforts to reach the clinic door. About 300 anti-choice protesters demonstrated outside a Brookline abortion clinic on March 28, which was Good Friday, another traditional day for harassment of abortion providers; 100 protesters appeared outside a Philadelphia clinic the same day.
While I was in Atlanta, anti-abortion groups announced they were going to picket outside Atlanta's Midtown Hospital, a women's health facility that does second trimester abortions, to urge passage of the bill banning D&X. Armed, uniformed security guards were on the property that morning, visibly patrolling. Despite the fact that only about a dozen protesters turned out (equaled in numbers by clinic escorts that day), the atmosphere was heavy with the memory of the recent blast and with the potential for further incidents.
Even when clinics are not targeted by those marching outside of the doors, other forms of harassment including unannounced visits by state regulatory and licensing agencies - which have the power to shut down facilities for minor or even bogus violations - keep clinics on edge.
"We have to be twice as conscientious as any other medical office," Beth Petzelt, director of AtlantaSurgiCenter told me. "We have to develop detailed protocols and procedures for everything. It's like living in a glass house, where everything you do is always scrutinized."
Shortly after the Atlanta clinic bombing, Hilary Clinton and Al Gore were guests at a pro-choice event January 22 in Washington, D.C. They urged "dialogue" between prochoice and anti-choice forces. One provider I talked to was scornful of this approach. Trying to foster dialogue with the anti-abortion groups or find common ground with them, she said, means "we can either come over to their agenda or they'll kill us."
Talk of "dialogue and compromise" covers over the fact that the anti-abortion movement stands for the enslavement of women. Denying abortion access - through violent attacks, harassment or legislative means - denies women the right to control their own lives. There is nothing to compromise or "dialogue" about. I have heard some people say the pro-choice side should not be too "extreme." But in the face of these recent attacks, being "extreme" in the defense of women is the only rational response. We must be extremely nonapologetic and nondefensive about abortion and extremely diligent and fearless in standing alongside and defending abortion providers.
MARY LOU GREENBERG, a revolutionary activist, has defended clinics and worked with many abortion providers.