by Eleanor J. Bader
Like many survivors of war, 63-year-old Patricia Baird-Windle suffers from chronic Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). Acute sleep disorders, depression from repressed anger, difficulties concentrating, and short-term memory loss mark her every day. So does fatigue, resulting from constant infections caused by a severely compromised immune system.
But Baird-Windle’s war was not fought in Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf. Her war has been fought on the streets of Florida — and it is an ongoing conflagration. Currently the founder-owner of two women’s health centers, in Melbourne and West Palm Beach, Baird-Windle has been under relentless attack for more than two decades — since 1977, when the first Aware Woman Center for Choice was brutally targeted by the Christian right and other anti-abortion forces. Her clinics have been repeatedly sabotaged. Her clients and medical providers, and members of her family, have been threatened and harassed. According to Captain Ron Bell of the Melbourne Police, officers have responded to more than 180 calls from Baird- Windle and other clinic staffers since 1993. Incidents have included vandalism, bomb threats, harassing phone calls, aggravated assaults, and violations of a court order barring protesters from blocking clinic entrances or entering the buffer zone that was created to put some physical space between anti-abortion protesters and clinic patients.
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While the worst violence against the Aware Woman Centers occurred in 1993 and 1994, the unrelenting harassment goes on. Daily, protesters picket the clinics, often crossing the police barriers set up to protect the buffer zone. Clients and staff are followed and taunted as a matter of course. Earlier this year, the protesters garnered a spate of publicity when, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, Melbourne Mayor John A. Buckley declared the month of January, 1998, to be a period of “prayer to end abortion in the city of Melbourne.” Supported by several city councilors, the proclamation has served as an anti-abortion call to arms.
Unfortunately, the attacks against Baird-Windle and the Aware Woman Centers are not anomalies. Since 1982, abortion clinics across the U.S. have sustained more than $13 million in damages. The year 1993 saw the highest number of acts of violence, 437, along with 2,929 non-violent disruptions (hate mail, bomb threats, picketing, etc.) for a total of 3,366 incidents directed at abortion providers. (The highest total number of incidents was in 1997: 9,886, with 166 acts of violence.) In reaction to this, pro-choice activists, service providers, and physicians launched an all-out, albeit short-lived, organizing effort to press federal lawmakers into action.
In May, 1994, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). The Act makes it a federal offense to use force or threat of force or physical obstruction that attempts to, or actually injures, intimidates or interferes with a person seeking or providing reproductive health services. FACE mandates a $10,000 fine and up to one year in prison for first-time violators, and raises the ante to $25,000 in fines and up to three years imprisonment for subsequent offenses.
Since FACE was passed, anti-choice terrorism has diminished, but violence against clinics is far from extinct. A five-year analysis of anti-abortion violence conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation, and released in January 1998, reveals that serious violence — blockades, invasions, bomb threats, bombings, arson threats or attacks, death threats, chemical attacks, or the stalking of clinic staff or patients — continues to plague fully 25 percent of clinics. And, as the January 29 bombing of a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed an off-duty police officer and seriously injured a clinic nurse, makes clear, some anti-abortion fanatics will stop at nothing to end what they call “the abortion holocaust.”
Enter Baird-Windle, known to her family and friends as the “steel magnolia.” Like other vehement defenders of choice, Patricia Baird-Windle works more than full-time to keep abortion legal and provide high quality health care for women who need it. Her days include public speaking, writing, and clinic management, a juggling act that is aided by her quick wit and unwavering political commitment.
Baird-Windle, who was born in Arkansas and raised in Louisiana, became involved in the abortion business serendipitously. “I’ve been a feminist all my life, but in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I was really caught up in the movement fervor,” she says. “At the time, I owned a retail jewelry store. Brevard County is the part of Florida with the missile industry, and we’ve always had boom times and bust times; 1976 was a bust time. I decided to close the store and take a year off to decide what to do next. I really wanted to use the time to decide how to be a full-time, practicing feminist.”
Shortly after the store closed, Baird-Windle received a call from the South Brevard Women’s Center, a newly organized project in which she had been tangentially involved. Center volunteers asked her to help with a study they were conducting on the availability of birth control. After a few weeks, she says, they offered her the directorship. “I took it as a temporary, 10-week thing. I did typical women’s center stuff: battered-spouse counseling, divorce counseling, abortion referrals. I also drove two patients to the nearest abortion clinic, which was 70 miles away, 140 miles round trip. It felt like we were being banished to Siberia. It was ridiculous. These women deserved community-based care, and I made my decision, then and there, to open a clinic in the Melbourne area.”
But how to do this? “Twelve feminist friends put up $204 each. I also borrowed money. We were the 34th clinic to open in the state of Florida,” she says.
Once the initial financing was secured, Baird-Windle leased a fully equipped doctors’ office in Melbourne; shortly thereafter her troubles began. “As soon as the news that we were starting an abortion clinic hit the newspaper, before we even opened, two school buses full of picketers from the local Baptist and Catholic churches appeared,” she says. Threats to the landlord of the proposed clinic were so unrelenting that she told Baird-Windle she wanted to cancel the lease, leaving the would-be abortion provider in the lurch. Baird-Windle goes on: “I agreed to find another space if she would give us all the furniture, equipment and fixtures we needed. She did this, so I had to pay much less to outfit another space once we found one.” Baird-Windle eventually secured another site, in Cocoa Beach, a small town 18 miles northeast of Melbourne. “We moved in under cover of darkness. Then we went to City Hall to get our operation license. The clerk looked at us and said, ‘You’re not those abortion people, are you?’ When we replied ‘yes,’ our license was denied. On top of this, the city of Cocoa Beach passed an illegal and very restrictive health care ordinance to keep us out. And it was in all the media.”
Baird-Windle admits that she had only $300 in the bank at this time. Luckily, the news coverage generated numerous donations, including $5,000 from a South Carolina doctor. “They thought I’d give up and disappear,” she says, laughing. “Instead, I found an incredible lawyer, who got us open in four days. On September 1, 1977, the Cocoa Beach clinic was open for service.” In 1982, the Cocoa Beach clinic moved to Melbourne, where it has been operating ever since.
Several years later, Baird-Windle opened other health centers, in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie. The latter clinic closed in 1994, because of the unremitting pressure exerted on the center’s landlord, the other tenants in the building, and the clinic’s clients and their families.
Although all three Aware Woman clinics were sites of anti-abortion protests from their inception, it was not until January, 1993, that the full-fledged war against Baird-Windle was launched. “My husband Ted and I were on vacation when we got a call from an acquaintance who had been tracking the anti-abortion people,” she says. The caller told her that Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and Meredith Raney of the anti-feminist group Women’s Legal Action Coalition were launching what they dubbed a “boot camp for Christians with an attitude” called the “Institute of Mobilized Prophetic Activated Christian Training” (IMPACT Team).
Terry had announced his threats against Baird-Windle while preaching in a Melbourne church. The next day he reiterated his promise in a face-to-face confrontation. “We will make your lives a living hell. You will have no place to hide,” he told her.
“Things got frightening at that point,” Baird-Windle says. “And they stayed that way until October, 1994. Anti-abortion activists began targeting our homes. They were jamming our phone lines, diverting our faxes. They ‘locked’ the Melbourne clinic’s seven doors with glue twice. West Palm Beach had three or four gluings. The West Palm doctor had acid thrown onto the roof of his Mercedes. There were three attacks on our clinics with butyric acid. One of our employees was out for six months with chemically-triggered pneumonia because of this. They put it under the front-door frame, in mailbox slots, in the front-door keyhole, around the window frames. We think they must have used long veterinary needles. This acid is so toxic, the smell bowls you over, and it can give you an intense migraine, or makes you vomit, or both. The protesters also stole our air-conditioners once and sabotaged them five or six times.” On top of all this, the IMPACT team organized almost-daily demonstrations outside Baird-Windle’s home, and in 1993 led nearly 100 people in repeat 7:00 a.m. “prayer services” that blocked traffic and intimidated her neighbors.
Her entire family was — and still is — affected. “During the worst of it, my granddaughter, who was then 13, told her mother that she wanted to come to the clinic to help me defend it, and be my ‘bodyguard.’ The anti-abortion people took photographs of her on the picket line that they sent to us, with a message that warned: ‘If you can rip the heads off fetuses, we can rip the head off your granddaughter.’ It was a death threat. They followed her and her friends as they were leaving their junior high school. She had to go into therapy and take antidepressants because of it.”
Other members of the family, including her sons and daughter, a nephew, her sister and her husband, have also suffered from stress-related illnesses. At the present time only one of Baird-Windle’s children, her daughter Roni, is employed by Aware Woman, as administrator of the Melbourne center. Yet that still has not stopped the anti-abortion activists from targeting the rest of the family. “They regularly steal the garbage of one of my sons to gain access to records,” she says. “He was in California a few months ago, and he discovered that they had changed the address on all his credit cards.” Worse, Baird-Windle adds, “All my children have seen their marriages and relationships dissolve because of this. We’ve all had to go through stress-management training. Many of us are on antidepressants. We live in fear of everything, but we cannot live in a fortress.”
Likewise, doctors working at the Aware Woman centers have had their homes picketed, and have been berated in public as “murderers.” In fact, the impact on medical providers has been so severe that the clinics have been forced to fly doctors in from other states, because no local practitioners will perform the procedure.
Patients have also fallen victim to anti-abortion harassment. Baird-Windle recounts story after story of patients being videotaped as they enter or leave the clinics, of being followed to their homes or repeatedly telephoned and exhorted to repent. Several patients have been subjected to all-night doorbell-ringing and verbal insults, and still others have had their names paraded on picket signs.
“Most of our patients become angry at the harassment,” says Baird-Windle. Nonetheless, she concedes that the number of women seeking abortions at the Melbourne clinic has fallen. “Brevard County is one of the top 10 growing counties in the U.S., so you’d think we’d see more women coming in for terminations. In Melbourne we serve between 4,500 and 5,000 women a year for general gynecological visits, and do about 1,100 abortions. This is down from 2,000.”
Yet Baird-Windle perseveres. She has taken her fight as far as the Supreme Court (Madsen vs. Women’s Health Center, a 1994 case that affirmed a clinic’s right to a buffer zone separating patients from anti-abortion protesters), and has seen U.S. Marshals assigned to protect her property from anti-choice zealots when local police failed to do the job. “Even on the worst day of the acid attack we were able to get the clinic open. We knew what to do from other clinics that had been hit with butyric acid before us. Maybe I’m arrogant to have thought I could run an abortion clinic. But I knew I had the social service, the volunteers, and the business and medical credentials.
“I absolutely love my job,” she says. “It’s an honor to serve these women. Look, I’m a smart-as-a-whip woman. I could have made a lot of money if I had wanted a career for the sake of money. But these clinics are precious gemstones. I insist we go all out to give every woman what she deserves.”
Still, Baird-Windle cannot help but express her frustration at the lack of financial and emotional support she feels she and other clinic owners have received from the prochoice community. She believes that few people understand the burdens and stresses facing abortion providers, and urges the pro-choice community to recognize that without service providers, there are no meaningful abortion rights. “Providers have worked without community support long enough. The prochoice community can no longer afford to be just pro the issue. They have to become pro-provider. We need financial support.
“My husband has two other sources of income, a pension and a small inheritance, without which we would have had to close the Melbourne clinic two years ago. But we have reached the bottom of the money that we dare put back into the clinic. I’ve just taken my eleventh pay-cut and presently earn just $16,000 a year for working a six-day week. Ted and I are jeopardizing our retirement security. We need direct, concrete help. Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority Foundation have helped us in the past, so I hope Smeal will come down here again to help us pay for the next round of legal bills resulting from a frivolous lawsuit against us by one of the local anti-abortionists. He is charging that we violated his freedom of speech when we had him arrested for ignoring the injunction keeping him off our property. People take the availability of abortion for granted, and they take providers 10 times for granted. We would add $80,000 worth of security to our little bitty clinic if we could afford to. The scope of what the anti-abortion movement has done is so overwhelming. But by and large the public has no idea what we go through.”
Despite this small eruption of anger at her feminist peers, it is clear to anyone speaking to Baird-Windle that she is going to neither back down nor give up this struggle. “I’m proud that I’m tough,” she confides. “I come from an indomitable matriarchy. The anti-choice movement has always underestimated my tenacity and the tenacity of my family. We are all indomitable. But I still want to be clear about this. We can be defeated by our tenacious and well-funded foes. No one can hold out against them forever.”
Eleanor J. Bader is a writer and teacher who makes her home in Brooklyn, NY.