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OTI Online
Summer 1998

When "Pro-Life" Means Death
by Mary Lou Greenberg


As I held in my hand the sharp slivers of glass that were now the only remains of the shattered windows, my eye was drawn to a metal object in the debris. It was a nail, a small, sharp spike two inches long. I shuddered. Hundreds of these projectiles intended to shred human flesh had been propelled outward by the blast when the bomb went off, just a few feet from the main entrance. I could still see some of the nails embedded in the building's masonry facade, between the now boarded-up door and bits of what had been an awning. A crater, a foot deep, marked where the bomb had been planted. The trajectory of the nails and shrapnel was toward the front door and windows, and the reception area just inside. If the bomb had gone off minutes later, women coming to the clinic for abortions would have been among its victims. As it was, security guard Robert D. Sanderson was killed in the explosion, and nurse Emily Lyons was severely injured. The bomb was not meant to destroy the building -- the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Ala., sustained no structural damage -- but the walls of the reception area were torn by the nails.

At a rally to protest the bombing and support abortion clinics,
Birmingham, January 31, 1998

Photo: Debra Sweet

Just as this anti-personnel bomb at the clinic was intended to rip apart bodies, so too was it meant to penetrate people's minds and emotions with a chilling message: If you provide abortions, if you work at clinics or go to them as clients, you will be a target! This is the stark reality behind the statistics on clinic violence: In the last five years, six people have been assassinated at five clinics. They included two doctors, two clinic workers, one clinic escort, and the security guard in Birmingham. Seven others were wounded in these attacks. During the same period, two more doctors were seriously injured -- one was shot, the other slashed with a knife -- outside their clinics. And three physicians were shot and wounded by a sniper or snipers in Canada. In 1997, there were a total of 12 bombings or arsons at U.S. clinics, the highest annual rate since 1984.

I have traveled to the sites of all the fatal anti-abortion assaults to help organize pro-choice demon-strations against the attacks and to support the clinics. Now, in Birmingham, these bomb shards brought home to me once again, with vivid, gut-wrenching intensity, the seriousness and viciousness of this war.

But as soon as the yellow crime-scene tape came down, and clinic staff were allowed to enter the building, an outpouring of support and assistance both locally and across the country turned the intended message of intimidation on its head. It was hard for some of the local people to approach the building; images of their absent colleagues, recurring in news photos, were vivid in their minds. But as volunteers began to sweep up the glass inside and out, and the clinic's owner, Diane Derzis, and its administrator, Michelle Farley made plans for repairs, the work at hand propelled all of us forward. Workers were soon filling the holes and repainting the walls, and installing new glass. A shredded sofa was removed from the reception room, and chairs from an inside room which had not been damaged were brought out to replace it. New plants were delivered. And the phone began ringing with calls from women who wanted to make appointments.

"This Clinic Stays Open!"

At an outdoor press conference exactly one week after the bombing, Jeff Lyons, the 41-year-old husband of the injured nurse, spoke for us all. "I just want to tell whoever did this," he said defiantly, pointing to the clinic, "it didn't work!" Diane Derzis announced proudly that the clinic was open again, and with a full staff -- there had not been one resignation, and another nurse had come forward to fill in for Emily Lyons. A sign in the window boldly proclaimed: "This clinic stays open!"

In the weeks to come, Emily's continuing recovery and courage would be an inspiration to everyone. The nurse lost her left eye and sustained serious injuries to her right one; she had multiple shrapnel wounds in her face and torso, a broken left leg, and damage to the muscle in her right leg and to both shins. She was forced to undergo numerous surgical procedures, and received intensive physical therapy. Yet this mother of two teenage daughters by a previous marriage is hopeful of walking, even jogging, again. In a statement read by her husband at a press conference on March 2, she said the bombing had not swayed her from her strong belief that women should have the right to an abortion if they choose. "Abortion is a legal and legitimate form of health care, and I offer no apologies for being employed there," she said.

I arrived in Birmingham on Friday, January 30, the day after the bombing. On Saturday morning, I and other out-of-town activists from Refuse & Resist! (an organization formed in 1988 to oppose today's repressive political agenda) went to Summit Medical Center, another abortion clinic just a block away, to join local volunteers in escorting clients to the clinic. When we arrived, there was a small crowd at the entrance to the driveway. Some wore neon-orange vests with "clinic escort" printed on the front in bold, black letters, and were waving cars into the parking lot. But local anti-abortion activists were present, too. Showing no remorse about the fatal bombing the day before, they thrust signs with anti-abortion slogans at the occupants of the cars and yelled, "Don't murder your baby!" The demonstration was being orchestrated by the national leader of Operation Rescue National, Flip Benham. Well-tanned, and with a TV evangelist's perpetual smile, Benham, like a military commander, could be heard urging his troops to give their all.

One man, who had driven a woman to her appointment at the clinic, stormed across the sidewalk to confront the protesters, with their photos of what they claimed were bloody aborted fetuses. "The bombing was terrible. Why are you out here?" he demanded. A protester wearing a clerical collar pointed to the poster of a fetus and began to speak, but the challenger cut him off: "This is about a woman's life," he said, gesturing toward the clinic door. "It's her choice. Not yours!" A woman holding anti-abortion pamphlets tried to elbow me away from the clinic driveway. I asked her how she felt about the death and injuries caused by the bombing. She muttered that she was "sorry" about the security guard, but sorrier about "the babies being murdered." Other anti-abortion protesters echoed this sentiment. One man, who had been at the bomb scene shortly after the explosion, told the Birmingham News: "I don't like to see anybody die, but they're in a business of death. . . . You live by the sword, you die by the sword. We've told them that they're in a grisly business -- the flesh trade. You never know what's going to happen to you. . . .There are 200 to 300 people [sic] killed a week in those clinics. That's a much more tragic loss of life."

Such rhetoric encourages attacks on clinics and staff, says David Gunn Jr., son of Dr. David Gunn, who was murdered outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic in 1993 -- the first physician killed by an anti-abortion gunman. As long as anti-abortion demonstrators continue to call clinic workers "murderers," he said, "you can't be surprised" by such attacks.

Justifying the "pro-life" activists' kill-people campaign, Rev. Donald Spitz, director of Pro-Life Virginia, sent an e-mail to a columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, stating: "Robert Sanderson [the security guard] was the protector of the baby killers and was an accessory to murder. He was paid with blood money from the babies that were slaughtered. He reaped what he sowed. He was not a hero or a good person. He was a killer, an accessory to murder. He deserved exactly what he received." Spitz also intruded on the web site Emily Lyons' husband set up (www.net800.com.emily) to enable people to send their get-well wishes to Emily and to publish updates on the progress of her recovery. Addressing himself to the wounded nurse, Spitz wrote: "Emily, there are many, many people who believe you reaped what you sowed. I am one of them. I hope you get out of the BABYKILLING business. Your husband is going around showing your picture for sympathy. He doesn't show any pictures of the babies you helped murder. Why not?"

The national media gave a platform to others to promote the same message. Michael Bray, who served four years in jail for a string of clinic bombings in the Washington, D.C., area, told a nationwide audience on ABC-TV's Nightline that he had no misgivings about the clinic bombing, "given the benefit that comes from it and the issues at stake." Bray also praised the Army of God, which had claimed credit for the 1997 bombings of an abortion clinic and a lesbian-owned nightclub in Atlanta, as well as the Birmingham bombing.

On the surface, claiming to be "pro-life" yet approving cold-blooded murder reflects either twisted logic or rank hypocrisy. But such words provide moral justification and encouragement for those who plant the bombs and pull the triggers.

Such justification also indicates that the movement's real agenda is not the protection of so-called unborn "people," but a political campaign bent on denying women, at any cost, the right to decide how their lives will be lived.

Anti-abortion campaigners' comments to the media cannot be dismissed as the rantings of lone crazies. They must be seen for what they are: rallying cries for the brutal, storm-trooper wing of the anti-abortion movement, a movement that is funded and sustained by powerful, well-organized, well-connected forces hiding behind professedly moral motivations.

A number of the Birmingham-based anti-abortion protesters are part of a committed national movement that has harassed abortion providers and clinic clients across the country. I had seen their faces in Dayton, Ohio, in July, 1997, when they helped Operation Rescue blockade and close clinics there. Outside the clinics, OR leaders preached and testified about the "glories" of women submitting to men. And this past January 22, the 25th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, these same people were present in front of the Supreme Court, where they participated in a large anti-abortion march. They were the thugs who bullied and shoved pro-choice demonstrators on the steps of the Court, as we held up a large banner that read, "They can't have our day, or our lives!" The Rev. Spitz was there, too, holding a sign reading: "Free Paul Hill -- Execute Abortionists." Hill is the man convicted of killing Dr. James Bayard Britton and clinic escort James Barrett, in Pensacola, in 1994.

Such zealots are unyielding in their determination to intimidate women and abortion providers and, ultimately, to halt abortion entirely. "If you don't want to be pregnant, keep your legs closed!" snarled one man to a young pro-choice woman at the Supreme Court.

But there is committed determination on the pro-choice side, too, as exemplified by the courage and dedication of the clinic employees and escorts in Birmingham. They had been seasoned over a period of a dozen years, dealing with anti-abortion protesters who have continually targeted both the Summit and the New Woman clinics. Many clinic employees and escorts live near the clinic, so when the bomb exploded they knew immediately what had happened. People promptly began mobilizing, and grief quickly turned to resolve as volunteers started calling the Birmingham Clinic Defense Team's hotline to see what they could do. Some local people who had not been involved before offered to be escorts. Others stepped up their activism because, as one said, "Women can't be truly equal until they can control their bodies. I've decided that this fight is mine as long as it takes."

No Access Means no "Choice"

In major urban areas where there are relatively few restrictive laws, the availability of abortion is easy to take for granted. But for women who live in states with no Medicaid funding, waiting periods between the time they first visit a clinic and when they can get the abortion, parent consent and notification laws, and other restrictions, obtaining an abortion requires major resources and extensive planning, or, because of this, may not be an option at all. Consequently, for millions of women who are poor, under 18, or live in the 84 percent of U.S. counties that have no abortion provider, "choice" effectively does not exist. From 1978 to 1992 access to abortion decreased with an 18 percent drop in the number of providers nationwide. Rural areas are hardest hit, with at least 15 percent of women in many states -- including Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and the Dakotas -- having to travel more than 100 miles to get an abortion. The cost of transportation and overnight accommodation can be prohibitive for those on low incomes.

Drawing the Line in Birmingham

The Birmingham bombing was part of a many-pronged attack on abortion rights and access. The response to the attack, however, indicates that we may be moving toward a new level of national unity and support for the providers who make "choice" possible. National organizations, including the Feminist Majority, National Organization for Women, National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood, and Refuse & Resist!, immediately sent representatives to Birmingham. And three days after the bombing, the Birmingham Emergency Coalition for Choice organized a protest rally.

Then, on March 14, well-known feminists and leaders of many Washington, D.C.-based organizations came together with the staffs of Birmingham clinics and local and national activists at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in an encouraging show of national unity and resolve. (The church was the scene of the racist bombing that killed four little girls in 1963.) The theme of the gathering was in the proclamation: "We're drawing the line in Birmingham!"

Today, new sod has replaced the shards of glass which covered the lawn of the Birmingham clinic after the bombing. A new maroon awning with crisp white lettering shades the doorway. And a new level of energy and determination to defend abortion access and women's lives is coming out of the horror of that early morning in January.


Mary Lou Greenberg is an activist and writer who has defended clinics and worked with abortion providers around the country.


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