Abortion clinic bombed in Alabama

Issue 

By Claudette Bégin

On January 29, a nail-studded bomb killed a guard and seriously injured a nurse at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

It had appeared to be a normal day at the New Woman All Women Health Clinic. An anti-abortion protester from Operation Rescue was outside at his daily post while the staff, including an off-duty policeman who worked as the clinic's security guard, arrived.

The nurse asked the guard to check out a package outside the clinic. Seconds later the fatal explosion rocked the clinic.

On February 2, the FBI reported that the Army of God had claimed credit. In their statement, they warned they would target "without quarter" those "who work in the murder mill's [sic]" and "anyone who manufactures, markets, sells and distrobtes [sic] the pill" (RU-486.)

The Army of God had previously claimed responsibility for the bombing of a clinic and a lesbian centre in Atlanta last year. It has yet to be proven that they are responsible, however, and the FBI is still searching for the bomber.

Pro-choice movement

While organised protests were few, abortion-rights supporters from around the country travelled to Birmingham to show their support for the New Woman clinic and to help repair the damage.

"The only way terrorists will win is if we fail to reopen clinics after they have been hit", said Kathy Spillar, national director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We will not be intimidated."

Diane Derzis, the owner of the clinic, returned from her new home in Virginia to direct the recovery of the clinic's operation and to attend the funeral of Robert Sanderson, at which hundreds of policemen mourned one of their own. She announced at a press conference, "We will be seeing patients on Thursday this week. We'll work all night if we have to."

The clinic's head nurse and counsellor, Emily Lyons, is still in the hospital, her condition upgraded from critical to serious.

The fact that the FBI immediately stepped in, and the statements by many anti-choice organisations disassociating themselves from the violence against clinic providers, show what was achieved by the massive mobilisations by the women's movement and reproductive rights organisations in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Thousands of clinic harassers were out-mobilised and marginalised; suits by NOW and other organisations succeeded in jailing prominent clinic harassers; pro-choice became a popular cause during the 1992 election.

Later, public outrage at the killings of Dr Gunn, an abortion provider, and the women workers and volunteers at the Brookline, Massachusetts, clinics, finally resulted in the Justice Department's decision to investigate terrorist acts at abortion clinics.

The anti-choice movement went through a crisis on the issue of violence against people. A national anti-choice coalition for condemning violence was formed.

Fight not over

Since Clinton's publicised ending of some anti-choice federal policies and legislation, and the start of research and development on RU-486, however, it has been very difficult for women's organisations and reproductive rights organisations to recruit volunteers and raise money. Many mistakenly think the battle has been won.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade case legalising abortion in the US, but availability of abortion is limited to 20% of the counties in the US and is being progressively restricted by state legislation limiting when it can be performed. The New Woman clinic is a party to a suit against Alabama legislation prohibiting certain late term abortions (similar to federal legislation that was vetoed by President Clinton.)

Even with government security support, working at clinics has become an increasingly stressful occupation. At this clinic and others, security measures are extreme.

No clinic operates without security guards. They require security apparatus normally reserved for banks; clients are carefully screened prior to entering. Threats are not uncommon; the New Woman had received such a threat just days before the blast, but the police discounted it.

Doctors wear bulletproof vests and are constantly vigilant. The previous owner of the clinic left, exhausted by the toll on himself and his family. The current owner, the former director of a neighbouring abortion clinic, now lives out of state.

Operation Rescue and its allies continue to have an impact despite their inability to organise large numbers of clinic harassers. Doctors who perform abortions continue to be targeted.

Dr Bruce Stern, a doctor in California who performed abortions across the state for independent clinics, was recently arrested for murder after one of his patients died. He had travelled hundreds of miles to perform the late term abortion because no other doctor could be found. He has surrendered his licence and is having to mount a campaign to defend himself in criminal court.

The pro-choice and women's movements continue to defend abortion rights. We need to respond not only to the horrific bombings, but to the continual erosion of abortion rights by state legislation and the constant harassment of abortion providers and doctors. Events like the one in Birmingham should be a wake-up call to all of us that the struggle is not over.