The HBO movie, "If the Walls Could Talk," tells the story of three women living in three different times. A woman in 1952 finds herself pregnant and alone. Suffocated by traditional values that dictate her purpose in life as wife and mother. She dies, in pain, alone on her kitchen floor. A woman in 1974 is looking ahead. She's already had four children. Now she wants to go to school and become a teacher. When she gets pregnant, her husband tells her "everyone has to sacrifice." A young woman in 1996 has to fight her way through a line of screaming reactionaries to get into an abortion clinic. Inside she finds people who give her medical information, who give her a choice. But the threats outside find their way inside--and a doctor is gunned down in cold blood.
These stories capture the life-and-death stakes in the struggle for abortion rights. From the 1,000's of women who died from illegal abortions before 1973 to the cold-blooded murders of doctors and clinic workers in the 1990s. The stories need to be told.
Dr. David Gunn, killed outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida
Dr. George Tiller, shot outside his clinic in Wichita, Kansas
Dr. Wayne Patterson, killed in Mobile, Alabama.
Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort James Barrett, killed in Pensacola, FL
June Barrett, James Barrett's wife, survives gunshot wounds
Dr. Garson Romalis, shot in his home in Vancouver, Canada
Shannon Lowney, killed at Planned Parenthood in Brookline, MA
Leanne Nichols, killed at PreTerm in Brookline, MA
Dr. Hugh Short, shot while inside his home in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada
268 Death Threats
12 Attempted murders
69 Attempted bombings/arsons
3,020 Hate Mail & Phone Calls
354 Bomb Threats
97 Assault & Battery
A survey of 310 clinics done by the Feminist Majority Foundation, showed that in 1995, over 55 percent of clinics experienced one or more types of violence. This included severe forms of violence like death threats, stalking, chemical attacks, bombings/bomb threats, invasions, arson/ arson threats, blockades, home picketing, vandalism, and gunfire. Other types of attacks included vandalism, glue put in door locks, nails in driveways and parking lots, paint on walls, broken windows, tearing down and defacing clinic property, spreading tar in clinic parking lots, damaging staff cars and other incidents intended to stop women from getting access to clinics.
In the last few years, the anti-abortion movement has focused less on blocades and more viciously concentrated on harassing and targeting doctors and clinic owners. Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in Rhode Island, testified in 19931: "In the beginning, the harassment was the usual nasty letter and graphic pictures of dismembered fetuses; but slowly it became more aggressive. I began receiving strange packages with dolls inside, as well as subscriptions to gun magazines and hunting lodges, showing pictures of dead animals hanging by their extremities. Then the `Wanted' posters began to appear; the first one taped to the front door of the clinic for patients to see. Copies of this hideous poster were also sent to my wife at home and to my office. Then the doors and locks to our clinic were glued on multiple occasions, culminating with three episodes of forceful blockading of our clinic. During one of the invasions, the police failed to arrest anyone and when arrests were fin ally made, the fines were minimal and there were no jail sentences given. The day Dr. Gunn was shot, I knew that my life would irrevocably change.
"One week after his death, as I was driving my mother to the bus station, I realized that my car was steering poorly. Once I dropped her off, I examined my tires and found that there were 45 nails deeply embedded in them; a fortunate finding considering that I was driving over 50 miles an hour on the highway. That evening, when I returned home, still unaware of the location of this act of vandalism, my wife painfully discovered with her foot that my driveway was `boobytrapped' with roofing nails cleverl y buried under the snow. An image of my young children running and skinning their knees on that same section of driveway has filled my heart with a fear that, until this day, I have not been able to shake off."
In 1995, Dr. James Armstrong also described the situation he faces as a doctor who performs abortions2: "The threat of violence and harassment has been a constant concern for me, our medical facility, my family and our community. Last October, the violence became real: arson at our medical office resulted in approximately $200,000 in damages and almost a month with no patient care. The threats have not stopped. We have experienced picketing with placards and violent anti-abortion statements, not only at our office but also at our home and at our church during Sunday morning services.... The most violent act against us took place on October 11, 1994. At 3 a.m., an arson fire triggered our automatic alarm service. By the time the fire department was able to extinguish the fire, substantial damage to our offices had already been done. The perpetrator of this arson is still at large and could be tracking my staff and I even as I sit before you today. This arson put my staff and I out of our office for five-and-a-half months. We were unable to see patients at all for nearly three weeks."
Many clinics have been hit repeatedly with acid attacks. Patricia Baird Windle reported that in 1992 and 1993, there were more than 100 incidents of butyric acid and other acids being spread at her clinics in Melbourne and West Palm Beach, Florida. In one case, a clinic worker had her lungs badly damaged and others lost their hair after being exposed to the toxic acid.
Patricia described how one doctor at her clinic was targeted by the antis: "The minute they identified this doctor they put out what we call, `wanted posters' that say, `unwanted, doctor so-and-so is an abortionist' and they distributed those all over the hospital where he worked and all over his neighborhood. They picketed him at his home and at his hospital, scaring his pregnant wife and scaring him in terms of his future and what kind of jobs he'd be able to get. They have now been able to get rid of 17 of my doctors since 1989.... Another doctor, they followed his girlfriend's children into the school. They were seen standing across from the school and on one day came inside the school to tell the children's teachers that these children were being fathered by this doctor who was an `abortionist.'
The anti-abortionists make it clear that a key aim of their movement is to murder those who give women the right to choose. Since 1991, six abortion providers have been shot and killed. Five others have been wounded by gunfire. After the July 1994 Pensacola murders, 52 clinics reported an increase in death threats.
Abortion providers have to live in constant fear for their lives. They have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to secure their buildings. They have to wear bullet-proof vests. Their families are also subjected to harassment and death threats. Shortly after Dr. David Gunn was killed in 1993, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez described how his whole family had been affected by this situation:
"We are in the midst of an epidemic of violence against providers and patients of reproductive health clinics that threatens many more lives.... Over the last few months a national campaign called `No Place to Hide,' has been launched against providers all over the country. There are manuals and training camps for the perpetrators of this campaign that uses fear as their main weapon. As Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, I was not surprised to find out that I and my clinic would be targets....
"I have small children and I can tell you that the hardest day of my life was the day that I had to explain to my son Kiko, now four years old, why someone put nails across the driveway for his mom and dad to step on. I also had to explain to him that someday he may hear bad people saying terrible things about his dad, and that we were not safe in our home because these bad people do not like the way his dad helps patients.... For us, the providers of this legal option for women, the abortion debate permeates every minute of our lives simply because, as the name of the campaign says, we have `no place to hide.' We have no place to hide from the vandals that destroy our property. We have no place to hide from the threats on our lives and we have no place to hide from the fear that grows within us and rules every minute of the day and night."
Dr. James Armstrong testified how abortion providers face constant fear: "Violence comes not only in arson or murder; it also comes in the form of threats. These threats, even if they are not carried out, are still a weight which must be borne. Less than three weeks ago, for example, we received a letter threatening us with a bomb on May 5th.... We also receive threats via rhetoric in letters-to-the-editor and in ugly placards carried by picketers. We have had picketers at home and at church as well as at our office. In my opinion, all of these contain rhetoric which incites more real violence.... The stress of these experiences on my staff, my family and me cannot be overstated. There is always an undercurrent of anxiety and awareness of potential stalking or attack. The murders of my NAF colleagues David Gunn, MD, Shannon Lowney, Leanne Nichols, John Bayard Britton, MD, as well as his volunteer escort Jim Barrett, reinforces our caution. It pre-occupies our thoughts during social occasions as well as i n the office. At our homes, we are armed with alarm systems....
"After the arson, we spent half a day as a group with our families visiting with a counselor to talk about our feelings about the dangers we face. Each of us dealt with the continuing threats in different ways. Some of my staff continues to see a counselor. My physician assistant made special arrangements for her son to be transported to and from school each day instead of walking.... For all of us, the most difficult part of dealing with violence and the threat of more violence is the emotional toll. It gets tiresome to have that constant awareness of stalking and snipers.... The toll on me and my family is huge. My wife and daughter on their own volition took handgun and self-defense training.
"My practice has a large mental health component. As a family physician, I deal on a daily basis with the relationship of emotions and disease. This is an important aspect of medical care--perhaps we can call it the art of medicine. In my office, we don't wear white coats. We dress casually; the decor is informal. This is the type of relationship we want to foster with our patients. In short, the security elements we put in are intimidating and incongruous; they run completely counter to the core of our practice philosophy. Everything that we have to do to oppose anti-abortion violence comes at a direct cost to patient care."
This state of siege at clinics has greatly hindered women's access to abortion and other health services. Most of the clinics which perform abortions also provide many other health services, like gynecological exams, birth control, cancer screening, pre-natal care, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV testing. Many times, patients coming to have abortions or other health procedures have to face a gauntlet of screaming antis. Because of this, they suffer heightened levels of anxiety and stress--which leads to greater risks of medical complications. Many women delay getting an abortion because they don't want to be subjected to threats and harassment. Such delays also increase health risks for women. And sometimes it has meant women not getting the abortion they need. Low-income women have been particularly hard hit in this situation.
Patricia Baird Windle established a clinic in Port St. Lucie, Florida when she realized that women there were having difficulty getting transportation to her clinics in Melbourne and West Palm Beach. Many of the people in Port St. Lucie are itinerant farmworkers, residential farmworkers, and service workers who work in hotels in the tourist areas. It was a much needed clinic. But the antis forced it to shut down. Patricia said:
"The antis put some residential, full-time antis in place who were paid. I believe that at least two of them were paid full time and I have some evidence that another four or five of them were paid part time to do nothing but use harassing tactics against our landlords, their wives, their children, the other tenants. This was a little medical complex of three buildings that had 12 or 14 offices in it. The doctors had their clients harassed and lied to and made to be afraid to come there. There was a day care center in one of the buildings and the antis took the license plate of every parent coming to pick up a kid there and wrote them letters that said, `We have reason to believe your children are not safe when they are on those premises.' And when our lease came up for renewal, our lease was not renewed. And Port St. Lucie is not a place that offers us a great deal of rental or sale options, so that clinic is closed.... I think the loss to the women is huge and very, very difficult to quantify. Many of them when they come to our clinics now--they do get a ride and they come to us, mostly in West Palm, rather than Melbourne--have used their rent money to pay for somebody to drive them down there. And then some of them end up not getting the abortion that they needed."
In the face of death threats, constant harassment and daily fear, many abortion providers have remained staunch and committed. They are still on the frontlines because they know what it means if women can't get abortions. They know women were killed and maimed when abortion was illegal. And they know that without the right to choose, many women's lives are ruined.
In some cases, doctors and clinic workers have quit because of the vicious campaigns by the antis. But the attacks have made others stronger and even more committed. This courageous spirit came through in Dr. James Armstrong's testimony when he said:
"My staff is wonderfully supportive and caring. They have been with me for years: my physician assistant, 18 years; my medical assistant, 14 years; my secretary, 12 years; and my receptionist, over 4 years.... I have decided that, at age 65, I wanted to practice at least five more years. I like my work, and there are many rewards. We believe in the care that we provide for all our patients, including women electing abortion.... We are committed to our work. Satisfaction comes from the enormous gratitude of our patients. Anti-abortion rhetoric and violence is a constant undercurrent limiting our ability to be spontaneous and deal directly with our patients' needs. The rhetoric and violence will not deter me and my staff because we are so committed to our patients. But perhaps the real question on access to health care...is who will follow when I and my NAF colleagues retire. Will there be other providers willing to take on the harassment, threats of violence, and aggravations to provide these necessary services for women?"
1. May 12, 1993 testimony in favor of FACE Law.
2. May 11, 1995 hearing on Violence Impeding Access to Health Care Senate Subcommittee on Labor, HHS & Education-Related Agencies.