Heroism: Theory and Practice

Heroism: Theory and Practice

by Merle Hoffman

By nature, I am a romantic and have had warrior fantasies since my early adolescence. Surrounding myself with images of heroic battles, I enjoyed the luxury of believing that reality came in black and whiter— good or evil. I was Elizabeth I on her white horse at Tilbury, rousing her troops to fight the encroaching Spanish Armada with the words, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” I stormed the ramparts as Joan of Arc, played by Ingrid Bergman on her white horse, sword high, shouting, “Now is the time. This is the hour.” I rode with Amazon women, hair flowing wildly behind me as I drew my bow to strike. Unlimited by gender, I was Richard III and Henry V, defending their crowns in battle, and even a samurai warrior meditating and philosophizing his way to victory.

The combination of focused energy, heightened drama and danger, and an extraordinary sense of mission excited me. It wasn’t conquest I was after; I was moved by an empathic connection with the vulnerable and oppressed. I challenged a great evil power. I was forced to protect and defend my land, my people, or my principles. Of course, however great the odds against me, I always triumphed. And like Wonder Woman with her magic weapons, I always remained physically untouched and forever invincible.

Oddly enough, my dreams have not died, nor have I outgrown my need for them. Quite the contrary. They have formed a psychological background that has subtly merged with my political and personal landscape.

As president of Choices, one of the largest and oldest feminist medical centers in the country that performs abortions, my warrior fantasies have taken on a definitely realistic tone. There are positions and staff to defend, and women to protect against invasions from both the anti-abortionists and their own unwanted pregnancies. And lately, the risks have become so real that my life sometimes feels like one of those Shakespearean plays performed in modern dress, with shotguns instead of swords and T-shirts instead of tunics.

On July 29, 1994, in Pensacola, Florida, the “Reverend” Paul Hill, described by The Washington Post as an anti-abortion “crusader,” pumped three shotgun blasts into the head of Dr. John Bayard Britton, killing both him and his clinic escort James Barrett and wounding Barrett’s wife June. I had witnessed Paul Hill’s “crusading” in Pensacola during the memorial service for Dr. David Gunn, who was killed by Michael Griffin in March 1993. Hill was the lone picketer—contaminating the service with a sign reading “Execute Murderer Abortionists.”

The threats following Dr. Gunn’s murder had pushed me into buying my first shotgun, a 20gauge, pump-action Mossberg—an action, reported in the New York Daily News under the column head “Make Her Day.” Explaining that the gun was bought for protection in my country house, I said, “If you’re looking for violence, it’s the anti-choice people who harass and hunt people down.”The image of me challenging the antis to “draw” was more prophetic than comical, and in the days to come I would think deeply about the nature of the cause I would die, kill, or be killed for.

Within two days after Dr. Britton’s death, Choices received three bomb threats and a phone call saying, “I have a gun and will be hunting your doctors next week.” Although Choices had received many bomb threats over its 23 years of operation, and I receive death threats on a continual basis (particularly around Easter, Christmas, and Mother’s Day), this time it felt different. The count now totaled two dead doctors and one, Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, wounded. (Tiller now drives to work in an armored car and bulletproof vest.) Frantically, my mother kept calling from Florida asking me why I insisted on going into the clinic. I explained to her I was not living a normal life and that the situation demanded courage and engagement, not retreat.

I knew that 1 was a lighting rod and a high profile target. This time, I thought, they may really kill me or my staff. 1 felt a combination of anxiety and intense energy; I was in battle and I was in character.

Choices has a 115-person staff, including seven doctors, and almost 1,000 patients a week. Understandably, our staff was upset and anxious. The doctors discussed wearing bulletproof vests, but stopped when they recalled that Dr. Bntton was wearing one when he was blasted in the head. “Perhaps I should come to work in a full suit of armor,” one doctor joked nervously. We both decided that Sir Lancelot walking along Queens Boulevard would attract too much attention.

The ironic part was that Dr. Britton’s murder took place only two months after the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) bill, making it a federal crime to block access to an abortion clinic or to use force or threats against a clinic’s patients, had been signed into law by President Clinton. For years, anti-abortion violence and harassment against clinic patients and staff were not taken seriously by the law enforcement community.

Since 1977, almost 200 clinics have been bombed—and that doesn’t include 347 unlawful clinic entries, 178 death threats, 568 acts of vandalism, and 35 burglaries. Protecting clinics and their staffs and patients had obviously not been a high priority. We had turned into sitting ducks. Women had been putting their lives on the line for years—and often losing them—in the struggle for abortion rights. Yet it was only after Dr. Gunn (a man) had been killed in the battle that the law-enforcement establishment became involved.

But where were my troops? Although Choices has a group of loyal clinic escorts who are on duty every Saturday morning to counteract the amis’ harassment of patients, they are a meager substitute for 12-gauge shotguns. I had no armed throng of supporters defending my gates in the days after Dr. Britton’s death. What I did do is reinforce, with armed guards, internal-security procedures honed after years of dealing with bomb threats and potential invasions from Operation Rescue.Then I found out about Henry Felisone and Tony Piso.

These two New York City residents had signed Paul Hill’s infamous petition describing the “use of lethal force in the killing of Dr. David Gunn as justifiable, provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.” And they lived within a 10-block radius of Choices.

The danger was clear and present. Federal protection had been ordered for other clinics under siege around the country, and my staff needed visible signs of support. I called the New York State Attorney General, demanding protection. Two days later, Washington acted and two federal marshals were posted in front of Choices on a 24hour basis. “These people are terrorists and should be picked up for just making threats,” I told the New York Post on August 2.

The FBI agents who were investigating the threats to Choices were new to the intricacies of the FACE bill and were unsure about jurisdictional issues.

I found myself in the strange position of having to coordinate representatives of the civil rights and criminal divisions of the FBI with my local police precinct to begin an investigation of Felisone and Piso on criminal conspiracy charges.

It wasn’t until after Britton’s murder, the second doctor to die in 19 months, that government officials seriously began to consider and investigate the possibility of an organized national anti-abortion conspiracy to kill providers. Although seemingly realistic and psychologically comforting, it is a Glenda Jackson, as Elizabeth I, in Mary, Queen of Scots, 1972 serious strategic mistake to view the murders of the two doctors as acts of individual madness. The evidence can be extracted from both the statements of anti-abortionists about what to expect in the way of more killings and the intellectual climate that has been, I believe, deliberately created to undermine support for freedom of choice— even among its strongest proponents.

Consider the words of Don Treshman, director of Rescue America, who was quoted in The New York Times on July 30 saying that Dr. Britton’s killing “may be the start of a new civil war.” He continued, “Up to now, the killings have been on one side, with 30 million dead babies and hundreds of dead and maimed mothers. On the other side, there are two dead doctors. Maybe the balance is going to start to shift.”

The first time I heard the Civil War analogy used to describe the abortion struggle was in 1983 when I debated Nellie Gray, an anti-abortion leader who helped coordinate the yearly January 22 Right-to-Life march on Washington. During a break in our taping, she told me, “You know, this is just like the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery,” casting herself as Abraham Lincoln. Of course, she did not seem to consider bearing a child against one’s will as a special form of slavery. Given that there has been an “open season” on providers for years, positioning the abortion struggle as a civil war—or any type of war—is basically optimistic. The guns are all on one side, and women, regardless of which side they may fall on, are most often the casualties.

Years of anti-choice rhetoric by both political and religious leaders positioning abortionists as murderers and abortion clinics as “abortoriums” has created an environment of “moral” entitlement. True believers conclude that killing doctors is working forChrist and their own salvation. The fetuses are “innocent” and must be protected at all costs against the barbarian hordes who so casually annihilate them. In this situation, these anti-abortion “crusaders” are slashing and burning their way to God’s City on the Hill, killing the infidels in their path. God’s word is the theory. Killing doctors, bombing clinics, and harassing women is the practice.

Holding the “moral” white banner in defense of “innocent human life” as a positive value in comparison with the “pro-death” forces who allow women the right to control their own bodies has created an environment in which people like the Rev. David C. Trosch say to The New York Times (on August 24, 1994) that it would not trouble his conscience if he learned that someone had actually killed an abortion doctor: “You’re comparing the lives of morally guilty persons against the lives of manifestly innocent persons.”

A few days after the murder of Dr. Britton, Cardinal O’Connor of New York, who had recently appeared on the front page of the New York Post threatening to go to jail in an act of civil disobedience if abortion was included in a national health-care package, issued a passionate statement to The New York Times on August 6. “If anyone has an urge to kill an abortionist, let him kill me instead. That’s about as clearly as I can renounce such madness,” the cardinal proclaimed. The fact that O’Connor had deflected a bullet to himself rather than disarming his anti-choice rhetoric was in character. He was not condemning violence per se, merely asking for a change of venue!

Meanwhile, what we get from the media is the kind of sports mentality that views everything in neatly competitive categories: Right to Life 2, ProChoice 0. Cable channel New York 1, for example, wanted me to “debate” two right-to-lifers on the “issue” of whether or not murdering doctors was “justifiable homicide.” I declined, telling them that this was like asking the SS guards at Auschwitz to debate the inmates on the “issue” of the efficacy of genocide by gas inhalation. Hill had used the media to defend his position on the justification of murdering doctors who perform abortions. “We’re saying 30 million children have died. Sometimes you have to use force to stop people from killing innocent children,” he told Nightline on December 8, 1993. Two days after Gunn’s murder, Hill called the Donahue show to set up an appearance to announce that Dr. Gunn deserved to die.

Another, maybe even more dangerous casualty of the relentless onslaught on abortion and abortion providers has been to increase a sense of ambivalence about abortion itself as a moral or necessary choice. Many people who describe themselves as politically pro-choice and are committed theoretically to the issue, often feel the need to say, “I don’t like abortion, but…” while political leaders follow President Clinton’s adage that he wants abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.”

This reluctant public and political engagement with the reality of abortion within women’s lives has extended to the millions of women who have abortions, and to their lovers, families, and friends as well. Having made the difficult, profound, personal choice to have their abortion, feeling relieved and grateful for the service, most women prefer to integrate the experience privately, rather than cast it in political terms— understandable, but dangerous. Few become vocal supporters of the clinics that have helped them or return to work as clinic escorts. And we need their support. If the 30 million women who have had abortions since legalization—and their husbands, friends, lovers, and families—came forward to support choice and providers, what an army that would make.

Unappreciated and unrecognized, viewed as mavericks at best or pariahs at worst by establishment institutional medicine, abortion providers stand alone, apart and vulnerable. For historical and political reasons, most abortion services are performed at outpatient, freestanding facilities. Risking their lives on an almost daily basis, doctors and other health-care workers continue to provide services in a war zone where only one side is armed.

This both real and intellectual isolation played out most recently on the international front at the UN. Population and Development Conference in Cairo. The Catholic Church, along with its situational fundamentalist allies, described the provision of birth control to women who need it as “biological determinism” and the promotion of women’s equality as “cultural imperialism,” while aggressively promoting their own brand of theocratic imperialism. Bending to this pressure, Vice Presi-dent Al Gore assured the attendees at the conference in an August 25 press conference that “the United States has not sought, does not seek, and will not seek an international right to abortion”—underlying the U.S. government’s belief . that reproductive freedom is not viewed as a transcendent human or civil right, but merely as a local privilege that can be granted, limited, or denied according to national customs and laws. This may have been situational diplomatic maneuvering, but it reads as gender-specific noblesse oblige.

Back on the home front, Piso and Felisone continue to live happily in Queens and the FBI investigation continues with no published results so far. The federal marshals are down to guarding Choices seven hours, and patients come and go as they have for years.

I sit in my office surrounded by my warrior images. A large painting of Elizabeth I (the Armada portrait) hangs on the far wall and on my desk stands a statue of Diana (Artemis), Virgin God-dess of the Hunt, protector of pregnant women and sucking animals. She holds her bow and arrow taut, taking aim at unseen enemies.

I sit alone and think of Kawana Michele Ashley from Clearwater, Florida. Lacking romantic heroines, desperate and living very much in the present, Ms. Ashley felt forced to use a deadly weapon to defend herself against an invasion. Nineteen years old and 20 weeks pregnant, she couldn’t raise the funds for an expensive, second-trimester abortion. No swords and daggers for Kawana. No metaphoric visions of Amazons in battle. No, she just picked up a pistol and shot the fetus in her uterus, causing a wound that eventually killed it after delivery by cesarean section. Because the fetus was considered developed enough to have lived outside the womb, Ms. Ashley was charged with manslaughter and is currently being held on $50,000 bail.

The casualties mount. Where are my troops?

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.