The Abortion Wars: 21 Years Ago But Still Relevant

The Abortion Wars: 21 Years Ago But Still Relevant

by Barbara Santee

Note by the author: I wrote this article in 1992, but believe it is as relevant today as it was 21 years ago.  In 1992, there were 11 providers in Oklahoma.  Now there are three.  Reproductive Services is no longer open on Saturdays so the demonstrators show up on Friday mornings.  And leaders on both sides have died, but people have stepped forward to take their places, and the beat goes on.  In the mid-1990s, states began to put into place legislation that created a protective perimeter around a facility,  This legislation was known  as a “buffer zone, “bubble zone,” “access zone.” This area was intended to limit how close to these facilities abortion opponents can approach. 

During the 1980s and early 1990s, clinic protests and blockades were on the rise. Violence against abortion providers was escalating across the country, culminating in the murder of Dr. Gunn in March of 1993 outside a Pensacola, FL clinic and the attempted murder of Dr. Tiller in August of 1993 outside his Wichita, KS clinic. These incidents created urgency in Congress to pass new federal legislation to address the violence committed against reproductive health care facilities and providers and the denial of access to women seeking their services. 

In 1994, President Clinton signed the FACE Act.  FACE stands for Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances and was the Federal government’s response to the clinic violence and intimidation.  FACE makes it illegal “to intentionally use or attempt to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to injure, intimidate, interfere with individuals obtaining or providing reproductive health care services. FACE also punishes anyone who intentionally damages or destroys a facility that provides reproductive health services. However, it hasn’t stopped the vandalism of  clinics being damaged or destroyed.  And it didn’t stop the killing of Dr. Tiller in May 2009 who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in the foyer of his own church while serving as an usher.

No other profession in the world is subjected to the type of constant threat and reality of physical violence and death as that visited on facilities where abortions are performed (with the possible exception of the military in war zones).  Not only are threats leveled at the physicians who do the procedures, but their staff members and even their patients. The laws that have been passed to prevent harassment, threats of bodily injury or death are ineffective, and when they are used to prosecute a suspect, the offender often is not punished.  Generally, they pay a small fine and that’s it.  Unless, of course, they end up killing someone, then they are put in prison, usually for life.  Imagine any other profession enduring this kind of harassment with threats so real the victims must wear bulletproof vests to work.  Can any of us imagine CPAs, professors, lawyers, dentists, insurance agents, and  store owners being under this kind of constant threat?.  Should any other profession be exposed to this level of extremist violence, there is no doubt the authorities would have put a stop to it long ago, but because it has to do with abortion, and because 100% of the patients are women, society tends to look the other way.  Social conditioning, as with other areas of harassment and violence against women, has taught us that we are sluts who bring it on ourselves, and the authorities are not immune to that brainwashing. Women are always blamed; the men involved are seldom mentioned.   

The Clinic Demonstration

On this last Saturday, December 1, 1992, 14 anti-choice demonstrators blocked the doors to Reproductive Services here in Tulsa in an attempt to prevent women from entering that facility to obtain safe abortions.  Like many other Tulsans, I found it very disturbing to see the TV pictures of a priest and other protestors literally dragged to a squad car in order to clear the door for patients to enter.  However, what the TV cameras did not show was the impact among the pro-choice supporters and the women who came to the facility for medical services that morning.

As a volunteer clinic escort at Repro Services, I was there as I have been nearly every Saturday morning for over a year as a part of the Peaceful Presence sponsored by the Oklahoma Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.  The purpose of the Peaceful Presence is to provide support for the clients of the clinics and the staff members who provide them with services.  Every Saturday morning starting about 7:00 a.m., whether rain, shine, snow or sleet, the anti- and pro-choice forces stand nose to nose at the property line of the clinic, both sides determined and committed to their cause, neither side giving one inch, each side truly believing they are saving  lives.

Usually the anti’s merely walk back and forth carrying their signs and screaming at anyone entering the clinic.  When there are no patients, they try to save the souls of the pro-choice escorts who basically ignore them because our souls have already been saved.  Or they try to engage us in useless debate over minor biblical points that have nothing to do with abortion.  A few times in the past year, the antis have tried to block the clinic doors and have been arrested for their efforts, charged with trespassing, levied a fine of $450, and sent home with essentially a slap on the wrist.

For the last five years, Reproductive Services has been the frequent target of vandalism such as glue put in the locks, the door handles removed, the air conditioning system disrupted, dead flies and maggots and butyric acid**  shoved into the director’s office through a hole the antis had cut in the window, etc.  We knew the anti-demonstrators were going to be out in force on Saturday because a notorious anti-abortion extremist, Joseph Scheidler, was in town to lead a rally that night.  (Scheidler wrote a do-it-yourself book titled:  CLOSED:  99 Ways to Stop Abortion.)   So in order to fend off any damage on Friday night, about a dozen pro-choice supporters held a 12-hour vigil at the clinic starting at 7:00 p.m.  We brought sleeping bags, fruit and cheese, and we worked on pro-choice mailings and other tasks that needed to be done.  

About 9:30 several carloads of anti-choice people showed up after the Scheidler rally, but because we were in the clinic, no damage was done.  The next morning, we folded our sleeping bags and gulped down some coffee, and prepared to escort the patients and to face down once again the usual contingent of anti-choice extremists.  Outside the clinic, the antis had already begun to gather, and as we expected, there were more than usual, including Scheidler himself strutting back and forth in a black fedora and long black trench coat, giving the impression of some mythical Wyatt Earp who had come to the shootout at OK Corral.  He was such a caricature that I had to laugh at how absurd he looked.

I was assigned to escort the first patient that morning who turned out to be a young woman about 18 or 19 who was being brought to the clinic by her mother.  The mother let her daughter out in front of the clinic before driving to a parking spot toward the back of the building.  As she pulled away, the young woman and I started for the door.  On a given signal, some of the antis rushed the front door and began lying down to block the entrance.  They pinned three of our pro-choice people against the door.  Another group of antis rushed for the young woman and me, surrounding us, screaming at her that she was killing her baby and waving their gruesome signs in her face.  Understandably, she became hysterical.  Instinctively, I put my arms around her and, having my keys in my pocket, I rushed her to my car which was nearby for protection.  

We both got in the car, but that didn’t stop the antis.  They surrounded my car, got on the fenders and hood and pushed their grisly pictures against the windows so that we were enclosed by a wall of mangled fetuses.  By this time, the young woman was absolutely traumatized.  That did not deter the demonstrators, however, but seemed to fuel their frenzy.

They screamed “baby killer” and other terribly upsetting things at both of us.  By this time, her mother had parked her own car and came running to mine yelling at the demonstrators, and they turned on her like barracudas, accusing her of killing her grandchild and telling her that her own daughter would die if she went into the clinic.  The mother got into my car with her daughter.  I got out and pushed my way through the demonstrators, rounded up some pro-choice people, and they were able to make a circle around my car to keep the antis away from the young woman who, although traumatized and sobbing hysterically, was extremely brave.  She did not leave, which would have been the easy option, but rather stayed the entire two hours until the clinic doors were cleared by the police.  There were other patients who arrived during the arrests and waited in their cars until the demonstrators were hauled away.

Although these patients were frightened, upset, and outraged at this terrible experience, none of them left.  They were all determined to have their procedures, and they were not about to let these religious fanatics deprive them of their right to a safe abortion.  Not a single appointment was cancelled that morning, and not a single abortion was prevented by their mindless antics.

That experience was very upsetting for me, too.  Most of the antis were young males.  I fear that someday they will get out of control and really hurt someone.  What they don’t seem to understand is that Reproductive Services is also an adoption facility, and some women come there to make arrangements to give up their child, while others are there to adopt a child.  Some women come for pregnancy tests and advice on where to get prenatal care because they intend to carry to term.  I know because I have escorted such women back to their cars after leaving the clinic.  When a woman decides to carry to term, I do not look upon that as a “defeat” for our side and a “victory” for the opposition.  This is not a football game.  I look at it as a victory for the woman who has had the freedom and the information to make a choice that is right for her, and I rejoice in her decision.  Reproductive Services is not an abortion mill.  It is a women’s health care facility, and it provides a variety of services for women, including alternatives to abortion.  As pro-choice supporters, we escorts do not support forced abortions nor do we support forced motherhood.  We are for the middle ground, the compromise position which is Choice, and that Choice should always be in the hands of the woman.

Unfortunately, I can see no end to this bone-weary battle, but I am committed to staying in the fight for as long as it takes to assure that women keep their hard-won right to reproductive freedom.  So I will be at the barricades in front of the clinic next Saturday and the Saturday after that and the Saturday after that.  They can wave their Bibles at me, and I in turn will wave the Constitution back at them.  Freedom is too fragile, too precious to be intimidated out of existence by a bunch of moralistic bullies.  I simply will not let that happen nor will any of the other members of the Peaceful Presence. We put the opposition on notice:  We are here for the duration.

**(Butyric acid is a clear, colorless liquid with an unpleasant, rancid, vomit-like odor. Anti-abortion extremists began using butyric acid as a weapon against abortion facilities in early 1992. The goal of introducing butyric acid into a clinic is to disrupt services, close the clinic, and harass patients and staff.  Depending on the amount used and how it is introduced into the clinic, butyric acid can cause thousands of dollars of damage, requiring clinics to replace carpeting, furniture, and conduct extensive cleanup of the facility.  In addition, even after cleanup, butyric acid’s smell leaves a reminder of the incident for months, and often years, to come.  As of 2013, there have been about 100 butyric acid attacks throughout the United States and Canada, causing in excess of $1 million in damages.)

Dr. Santee is the retired executive director of NARAL ProChoice Oklahoma, the state affiliate of NARAL ProChoice America.