by Merle Hoffman
I KNEW THAT THINGS HAD CHANGED WHEN I WAS HANDED a button that read “I’m Pro-Choice and I shoot back” at a recent abortion-providers conference in Washington, D.C. I also learned that a physician in Nevada had built a million-dollar clinic outfitted with strategic military defense protection and six .357 magnums. He calls it Fort Abortion.
Six years ago, when the danger involved only invasions, harassment, and bombings, the buttons and bumper stickers read “I’m Pro-Choice and I vote.” Now, looking at this button, I knew for certain that armed self-defense in the pro-choice movement was far more than a political or philosophical discussion. Theory had moved full force into reality. And the current reality was hard — very hard.
I was out of town when I learned about the murders of two clinic workers in Brookline, Massachusetts — Shannon Lowny at Planned Parenthood and Leanne Nichols at Pre-Term. How does one measure a living sacrifice? Insurance companies have tables of worth — a leg, so much, an arm, so much more. But how do you measure these deaths?
I thought of my clinic staff and the heroism of their everyday lives. I own Choices. My commitment is a quarter of a century old. They “only work there.”
But that hardly describes their commitment. Waves of protectiveness and responsibility washed over me, a bitter sadness mixed with fury and grief. I stayed on the telephone for hours to share their horror and rage and to listen to their silence, which told me so much more. Now they knew in their guts what they had heard in their minds — that none of us are safe, that there is no impregnable protection, that all of us are potential targets.
I went to Brookline two weeks after the murders. On a cold Sunday afternoon in February I followed the steps of John Salvi. I looked for the spontaneous memorials I had seen on television, the flowers and poems left on the streets in front of the clinics, but the spaces were empty. The sidewalks had returned to their usual functions. Only a lone police car in front of Planned Parenthood and metal-detector newly installed behind the clinic’s glass doors gave hints of the recent violence.
I’ve struggled over how I feel about violence in the service of a “just” cause — violence as a strategy of terror and violence in self-defense. “I’m pro-choice and I shoot back.” When my anger threatened to overwhelm me, when it stuck in my throat and constricted my breathing, I indulged in fantasies — armed ones. Mainly my mind would fast-forward to the courtroom scene. Defense strategy: female rage. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, your honor. The constant assaults by the system on my sensibilities — the little slights; the sexist remarks; the porno billboards; reading every day about another woman raped, slashed, murdered, burned; now Leanne and Shannon. All of it, a sort of drip, drip, drip. I just had to invade that Church, shoot that Cardinal, bomb the Right to Life headquarters.”
What I did in reality was work closely and deeply with my staff — validate their anxiety, address the reality, speak to the fears of their families and work with myself to accept and understand that each of them must make their own decision about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk.
And then, following Emma Goldman’s famed exhortation to “not mourn but organize,” I called a meeting of New York abortion providers and representatives of the city’s political establishment to strategize about how to deal with the escalating violence to clinic patients and staff. And yes, I hired armed guards and upgraded my alarm and security systems.
The stakes have continued to get higher. After the murders, we had an increased number of death threats to the doctors and bomb threats to the clinics. And with the ever-present “sidewalk counselors” shoving and screaming “God’s words” at patients, our clinic escorts increased their numbers and efforts. Not one of my staff left, and we received many phone calls from women expressing support and offering to volunteer. Rage and grief had grown into deeper commitment. Personal psychological response translated into deeper political analysis.
Many roads led to Brookline: Medicaid cutoffs, parental consent, waiting periods, fire bombs, death threats, kidnapping, clinic invasions — all fed by the escalating theological hate rhetoric, all preludes to the real stuff. The war on women — the reality that lay behind all the talk of the abortion “issue,” fetal rights, the sanctity of “innocent human life,” abortion as the “second civil war” — has come home.
And it’s been coming for a long time. Six years ago, I held a press conference in a real back alley to demand increased police protection from a threatened invasion by Operation Rescue. Holding a coat hanger to symbolize the reality of illegal abortion, I stood with members of the clergy and representatives of NOW, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and NARAL. Planned Parenthood, however, refused to participate. Drawing attention to ourselves preemptively and publicly could escalate the danger, they said. And the hanger is “too negative” as a symbol of choice.
But this “negativity” is a powerful reminder of what is at stake for women if they lose this battle. If you followed the story at all, you could have predicted Brookline. Doctors were, according to the anti-choice canon, “baby killers,” the ones whose instruments were the methods of destruction, who carried out their evil work in “abortoriums” and committed “holocausts” on innocent children. It followed with a horrid logic that clinic workers, young women just doing their jobs — answering phones, copying charts, counseling, teaching, being there for patients — were collaborators. And as such, they were part of what had to be snuffed out, their lives shattered in moments of madness.
Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry, writing in the New York Post shortly after the murders made it clear enough. “A society cannot expect to tear 35 million innocent babies from their mothers’ wombs without reaping horrifying consequences,” he said. “Was it perhaps inevitable that the violent abortion industry should itself reap a portion of what it has so flagrantly and callously sown?” And Patrick Buchanan, one of the Republican candidates for President, wants to outlaw abortion once the work on the Contract with America is finished. “The empire we are fighting is every bit the evil empire the Soviet Union was,” he recently told 400 people at a New Jersey Right to Life convention. Abortion providers now become the new enemy, the new communists.
Meanwhile, Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon, writing in the New York Times after the murders, criticized an anti-hate-rhetoric Planned Parenthood ad that proclaimed “Words Kill.” “In seeking to suppress speech, what Planned Parenthood really wants to suppress is the pro-life movement’s insistence — so hurtful to the clinic business — that abortion destroys developing life.'” She quotes physician and novelist Walker Percy, who deplored the “chronic misuse of words to disguise what takes place during an abortion.”
This mythological notion that women really don’t know what abortion is (and wouldn’t ever do it if they did), that they make their decisions in ignorance, that they couldn’t possibly own the power of that act, only reinforces traditional views of women as passive recipients of life rather than active moral agents. Seeing women as victims of money-hungry abortionists is so much more palatable to the conservative mind. The politicians and professors are not there to hear the women talk about the need to end their pregnancies, witness their reactions to the sonogram pictures, share their knowledge of the level of sacrifice and necessity. You hear a lot about “family values” in those counseling rooms.
Back in 1982 when ketchup was a vegetable, I published the results of a survey I had done about the main reasons my patients gave for having abortions. Fifty-three percent said financial reasons were the most important factor — up 13 percentage points from a similar study done the previous year. I called my study “abortionomics,” accusing Ronald Reagan of increasing the abortion rate through Reaganomics. Women were sacrificing their desire for children, and they knew just what they were doing and why. Abortion is ultimately a survival decision.
A repeat of ’82 is what many people fear will be the result if Republican Presidential candidate Phil Gramm and others get their way and cut welfare benefits to mothers with more than one child. This has given rise to this year’s interesting alliance between pro-choice groups like NOW and Planned Parenthood, and the anti-choice Catholic Conference of Bishops and National Right to Life Committee. The bishops fear that denying needed benefits to poor, young, unmarried women with children may pressure mothers towards more abortions and sterilization, while pro-choice forces oppose any type of government intrusion or coercion in reproductive decisions.
As the politicians debate, the street struggle escalates. “Extremism in the face of evil is never a crime” was cited again and again by many of the speakers at the annual January 22nd Right to Life March on Washington. Since Brookline, three more clinics have been firebombed in California, and anti-choice leaders have predicted more violence and killing if abortion is not stopped. And lacking an external enemy, conservative forces inside the U.S. government are joining with fundamentalist religious groups to paint abortion providers as the new Soviet threat or Satanic Cult.
And the women still come for services, as they always have and always will. And the stories are all different but oddly the same. “I really thought about keeping this pregnancy but..” It’s in the “but” that the reality of abortion resides. It’s there in the vast expanse of a lived life — the sum of experience, the pull of attachment, the pain of ambivalence. Every day we bear witness to each woman’s knowledge of holding the profound power to decide whether or not to allow the life within her to come to term. It’s the sharing of those moments that makes the work sacred.
I’m pro-choice and I _ .