(WOMENSENEWS)--I remember my first time in Technicolor.
I was in a yellow and grey dress. The anti-choice zealots arrived in an orange-yellow school bus bearing dozens of people to Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona's health center at Phoenix Memorial Hospital.
While adults picketed and screamed epithets, children darted into the clinic to strew anti-abortion tracts. Despite sweltering heat, the kids wore rainbow-colored woolen stocking caps and I can see clearly not the color of their eyes, but the feral intensity. Someone chained him- or herself--memory fails here--to a nurse's brown desk and was gingerly removed in a wheelchair by hospital security. The parking lot was chaotic, for the invaders had cleverly invited the media to their show.
It happened almost three decades ago, early in my 18-year tenure as CEO of the Phoenix-based Planned Parenthood affiliate. But when I learned that this week, from July 14-22, Operation Save America is mounting a "rescue" of the New Woman All Women Healthcare Center and Planned Parenthood Alabama in Birmingham, it all came flashing back.
It's hard to predict if the protesters will break any laws, but the fear and intimidation factor is always huge and subject to interpretation. Just having pickets outside elevates patients' blood pressure which increases their pain and health risk.
"How did you stay so calm?" asked a friend who saw me interviewed about the Phoenix demonstration from the hospital parking lot on the evening news. Calm? More like shock. My insides were churning; my heart pumping pure adrenalin. I'd simply reacted in polar opposition to the demonstrators' theatrical emotionalism, looking composed beside their fury.
I knew from that moment something fundamental had shifted in the movement I'd joined a year after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion lulled reproductive justice activists into thinking their battles were won.
Soon I was red hot with outrage, not because of my adversaries but the disappointment of those I thought would be allies. When I asked the police chief for extra protection during an announced clinic blockade, he responded, "Close the clinic," oblivious to who was the perpetrator and who was the law-abiding victim.
I went to the mayor and got the extra protection. Thus began a pattern where I had to work twice as hard to get half as much support as should have been routine. Aggressive acts were tolerated and appeased, partly because no one could comprehend the fanaticism behind them or the escalation ahead. Were it not directed toward women and concerning a subject (sexuality) about which our society is terminally conflicted, I am convinced this thuggery would not have been allowed to go on, for it is an assault on the very basis of democracy.
The handwriting was on the picket signs of bloody stillborn infants portrayed as equivalent to early abortion, giant photos of doctors labeled "murderers" and assurances that (their) God would have us burn in Hell. Legitimate dissent became harassment, intimidation escalated to vandalism, and it all inevitably devolved into terrorism.
According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977, there have been 214 reported bombings and arsons, seven murders, 17 attempted murders. In all, 5,622 incidents of violence and 117,503 disruptions, including butyric acid attacks with their nauseating odor and suspicious anthrax-like powders. By the time Dan Rather and members of Congress received anthrax attacks after Sept. 11, pro-choice groups had well-honed protocols to share with law enforcement.
I've personally been stalked, picketed at home, received telephoned death threats with Nazi overtones. Saturdays, when the sieges were most intense, I was at the clinic by sunrise bearing bagels or donuts. Having no useful clinical skills, I hoped food treats would assuage the staff's tension. I'm proud that never once did my affiliate's doors close, as the police chief suggested. That would have been allowing terrorism to prevail over the human right of accessible medical care.
Period of Counteractions
Around the country, reproductive health providers counteracted attacks.
We mobilized clinic escorts and bought bulletproof vests for doctors. Bomb squad training became routine. To lighten things up, we offered "Pledge-a-Picket;" the more picketers who came out against us, the more donations we'd receive and we thanked picketers for raising money for us.
The more virulent the protest, the more defenders flocked to help; burly security guys, ministers who donned their collars to show pro-choice is pro-faith, people who sent anonymous checks and people who roared through the demonstrators to deliver checks with a flourish. Women in their 70s called to say, "We've lived full lives. We aren't afraid to die protecting young women." There were debates about how to work with media: whether to elevate or downplay attacks. There were far too many memorial services.
But as harassment and ever present possibility of physical harm became normal days in the life of reproductive health providers, some were exhausted from the stress (today, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack abortion providers), while others got hooked on the adrenalin rush.
Clearly, building political clout to pass measures protecting women and staff was critically important. We organized to pass the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, and many city and state laws creating buffer zones around clinics.
Though anti-choice onslaughts no longer muster the same numbers, they continue, taking not very pro-life sounding themes like "The Year of Pain and Fear" and "Siege of Atlanta." Their organizations have Orwellian names: Lambs of Christ, Army of God, Operation Save America.
'Hate is Good'
Operation Save America is the ideological spawn of Operation Rescue, an extremist group founded by Randall Terry. Terry (who has disowned his gay son and opposes birth control) once exhorted his followers: "I want you to let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good."
Police and patient escorts are so far outnumbering picketers, but that hate is what Operation Save America is staging to replay in living color this week in Birmingham.
If the location and clinic name ring a bell, there's good reason. In 1998, Eric Robert Rudolf detonated a firebomb of dynamite and nails at the clinic's front door, killing police officer Robert "Sandy" Sanderson on his beat and seriously wounding clinic nurse Emily Lyons. In addition to sustaining burns covering the front of her body, Lyons lost her left eye and her right was seriously damaged. A hole the size of a fist was blown in her abdomen and her left leg was shattered. Lyons sets the standard for all of us by continuing her advocacy for women's reproductive justice.
In tribute to Emily and others who have sacrificed everything, it is time for American society to commit to change. It's time to say enough. There are better ways to deal with intractably different ideas and ideals. We will not tolerate the intolerable any longer.
To the courageous men and women who stand tall providing reproductive health care, let us all say "Thank you."
And let us pledge to women that they will have the health care, information and social supports they need to make their own childbearing decisions without fear in the bright yellow sunshine of freedom.
Gloria Feldt is author of "The War on Choice: the Right-wing Attack on Women's Rights and How to Fight Back" and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She frequently lectures on the history and future vision for women's rights, health, and justice. Her web site is http://www.gloriafeldt.com.
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