by Mary Lou Greenberg
Levels of clinic violence in 1995 declined substantially, according to a recent report by the Feminist Majority Foundation. But I have visited and talked with many abortion providers in the past year who are living a very different reality. While the foundation report acknowledges that one third (!) of clinics are “still under serious attack,” its main message of a decline of violence contributes to a false sense of security and the false assumption that pro-choice people can rely on law enforcement to take care of the situation. One furious clinic owner told me, “This will effectively put us out on a limb!”
Some people just don’t know about the continuing state of siege that many clinics and doctors are under. Some mistakenly think that the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) act, injunctions, and local and federal law enforcement are taking care of business. Others hesitate to come out to the clinics because of fear for their personal safety. And many who would like to come forward don’t know what to do or are told to stay home.
“We can’t defend ourselves against this kind of violence,” and therefore “we have to get the government on our side” so they’ll protect us, one leader of a national women’s organization stated at a memorial service for the Brookline women in January 1995. Such statements only demobilize and disarm people by promoting illusions that this capitalist patriarchy could ever really act in the interests of women. It also encourages the myth of women’s passivity and so-called natural nonviolence and inhibits their ability to fight back.
There is much that needs to be figured out in the battle to defend reproductive freedom, and many different tactics, ranging from writing letters to the editors to demonstrating against the antis, need to be used change the climate. But to ensure access to abortion today, providers and clinics must also be physically defended. Pro-choice people, especially women, must take responsibility for this. When Refuse & Resist! activists raised a banner with the slogan “No Fear! No Silence! Defend Abortion Providers by Any Means Necessary!” after the July 31, 1994, murders of Dr. John Bayard Britton and James Barrett by Paul Hill, we were surrounded by reporters who asked, “Are you advocating violence?”And “Won’t this escalate things?” To that we answered: “The antis have escalated things by killing our doctors! We have to defend ourselves and our providers from them! If we don’t stand up to anti-abortion terrorism, it will escalate.”(And it did escalate only five months later in Brookline.)
It’s not only hostile media who have challenged this position. “You want us to put our feminist bodies on the line; we want the cops to do it,” one woman berated an activist who was encouraging women to defend clinics. I think this comment crystallizes much of the wrong thinking around this issue today. Many women have a real reluctance to deal with issues of security. A few examples of official response in the abortion battle show why we must rely on ourselves to defend providers:
Federal marshals were sent to a number of clinics after the Brookline murders, but most have now been deployed elsewhere, despite continuing death threats against doctors. During their deployment some sat listlessly in cars outside clinics; others made it clear that their sympathies were with the antis.
At one clinic, owned by a doctor whose life was threatened on TV by an anti-abortion Catholic priest, two antis burst into the waiting room and began screaming at clients. A fast-moving receptionist bodily threw them out. When the doctor called the feds, they told him that he needed a federal injunction. He answered, “I have a federal injunction!” They said they’d “write up”the incident.
After Dr. David Gunn was killed in March 1993, Paul Hill wrote and circulated a statement that said the killing of abortion doctors was justified. He was a frequent, loud, and threatening demonstrator outside Pensacola clinics. The director of the Ladies Center pleaded with the FBI to have Hill arrested — but they said that Hill had not broken any law. Later, a U.S. attorney said that “someone with a clear intent to commit violence regardless of the outcome to themselves is almost impossible to stop.”
Well, this may be the opinion of law enforcement, but it’s not mine. Could Paul Hill have been stopped? Let’s look at the situation. Hill was lurking outside the Ladies Center before James Barrett drove into the clinic parking lot with Dr. Britton. Before the car drove in, the parking area should have been secured — that is, no antis should have been on the grounds. And if antis were in the adjoining area, clinic defenders should have been keeping an eye on them. Second, no one, especially a known anti such as Paul Hill, should have been allowed to get close to the car. Third, Hill should not have been able to pull out a shotgun and shoot both Mr. Barrett and Dr. Britton. If pro-choice people had been on the grounds and appropriately trained for self-defense, as many doctors themselves are, Hill quite likely could have been stopped before killing anyone.
Some people have said to me that upholding the right of self-defense against armed attacks would only make things worse and would make pro-choice forces “look like” the antis. There is no way we could ever be “like” the antis for the fundamental reason that they are trying to force women to be breeders and submit to patriarchal domination, and we want women to be free!
Further, defending abortion providers is like a woman fighting back against a rapist. The violence she might use to defend herself is totally justified and qualitatively different from the violence of the rapist. When women defend ourselves and our providers from attack, we declare our commitment to women’s freedom and show by word and deed that we will do what is necessary to defend it. One heavily targeted Florida provider said to me, “If providers stand alone, the right to abortion will be lost.” We must not let this happen.
Mary Lou Greenberg, a revolutionary activist, has in recent years defended clinics and talked with abortion providers in many cities.