Operation Save America Storms Alabama: This is Not the Civil Rights Movement

Andrea Lynch

Andrea Lynch addresses clinic violence and the anti-abortion strategies of misinformation, coercion and intimidation to build a so-called culture of life.

At 7:30 on the morning of January 29th, 1998, Eric Robert Rudolph stood across the street from the New Woman All Women Healthcare Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama and moved the joystick on a model airplane controller. The dynamite Rudolph had stolen, along with the parts he purchased on Christmas Eve, erupted in a 3000 degree Centigrade fireball.

The blast killed Birmingham police officer Robert "Sandy" Sanderson, and grievously injured Nurse Emily Lyons. Though the damage inflicted on Sanderson, Lyons, and the clinic was horrific, the carnage was not as much as the attacker had wanted. The dynamite bomb containing nails for shrapnel was aimed at the front door with the hope of killing as many as possible—with the thought of murdering the doctor as the highest prize.

Emily has had 22 operations and no doubt there will be more. She lost her left eye and had extensive damage to her right. A hole the size of a person's fist was torn in her abdomen, requiring parts of her damaged intestines to be removed. The bones of the left leg were shattered. The skin was blown off both shins. Her face and hand were broken and her eardrum ruptured. First, second, and third degree burns covered most of the front of her body. Hundreds of nail fragments, along with several intact nails, shot into her. Much of the shrapnel remains to this day.

After eight long weeks in a local hospital, Emily was finally able to go home. However, home was a hospital bed in the living room, where it took the better part of a year to regain some resemblance of independence from her wounds. She was effectively blind for most of 1998.

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This account was written on Emily Lyons' behalf by her husband, Jeff Lyons. He wrote it because the damage inflicted on Emily's hand during Eric Rudolph's 1998 attack still makes it difficult for her to type. I have reproduced it here because from July 14-22 of this year, the anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-Muslim organization Operation Save America (OSA) will be descending on the very same clinic—one of only two left in Birmingham—to "help push what is left of the abortion industry into a deep grave." Their words, not mine. They claim to be organizing a peaceful, prayerful, Christian mobilization, going so far as to compare themselves to the civil rights movement. But their rhetoric tells a different story.

OSA spent last July trying (unsuccessfully) to shut down the last abortion clinic in Mississippi (yup, the last one—87 percent of counties in the U.S. lack an abortion provider, after all), and used similarly inflammatory language to recruit their "peaceful" volunteers. They've been to Birmingham twice before, but their timing is particularly chilling this time around, since their planned protest falls on the anniversary of Eric Rudolph's sentencing, a date of which the clinic staff is only too aware. OSA are careful to distance themselves from organizations and websites—like the Army of God and The Nuremberg Files—that openly advocate violence against abortion providers and clinic staff (and who, coincidentally I'm sure, are planning to memorialize Paul Hill, the man who murdered a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola clinic in 1994, via a symbolic reenactment of his crimes that will take place shortly after OSA's assault on Birmingham). But if you call volunteers to the very same clinic where one person was murdered and another was seriously injured by an anti-abortion extremist less than 10 years ago, and ask them to join you as you "storm the gates of Hell" and "push what is left of the abortion industry into a deep grave" on the front page of your website, can you really said to be distancing yourself from the culture of anti-abortion violence, hatred, and terrorism? Who exactly are you hoping to recruit? And furthermore, can you seriously go on to compare yourself to Martin Luther King on your own website?

Absurd as it is, OSA's elaborately annotated excerpt from Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail (wherein African-Americans become the "pre-born," the white moderate becomes the "Church," and the KKK becomes the "abortion industry") is worth perusing, if only to note the conspicuous absence of certain key actors in the abortion debate, such as—yup, you guessed it—pregnant women. But the oversight is predictable, since there's no place for pregnant women in the OSA:fetuses :: civil rights movement:African-Americans analogy. Just like there's no place for pregnant women in the anti-abortion movement; they, along with the clinic workers who support them, are just a troublesome obstacle standing between anti-abortion activists and the fetuses they are so anxious to liberate by any means necessary. Those women's rights, and indeed their lives, are of little consequence to "gentle Christian warriors" (how exactly does one wage war gently, by the way?) busily building a culture of life. And when those women and their advocates assert every woman's right to be able to access healthcare free from violence, harassment, and intimidation, they are accused of trampling on OSA's right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

While we're on the subject of so-called peaceful assembly, when OSA says it's time to "push what's left of the abortion industry into a deep grave," who, pray tell, do they mean? Do they realize that there are living, breathing human beings in there—doctors, nurses, counselors, security guards, receptionists, volunteers, and let's not forget pregnant women themselves, often joined by their parents or partners? Do those people need to be pushed into a deep grave? If so, how exactly does that relate to building a culture of life? And if not, how does OSA plan to keep them safe? As Emily Lyons (via Jeff) points out, "They may not commit violence (at least not openly), but they create the environment that causes the Eric Rudolphs of the world to act. Of those who feel they know better than the patient, some are going to become angry when their orders are not followed. Some of those become violent."

Marcy Bloom, who was director of the Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle for 18 years, and who is a lifelong advocate of women's right to safe and legal abortion, has a similar take. She comments:

I have lived through death threats, picketing, harassment, and other forms of intimidation against women choosing safe and legal abortion care and the dedicated staff providing this care. I believe it is imperative to point out that when the rights of others are being trampled on, this is indeed fear and violence being used to keep others in our society from exercising THEIR rights and personal freedoms. This type of fear and harassment may be demonstrated under the guise of free speech, religious extremism, prayer, and ‘verbal' violence, they are still forms of violence.

I have a personal investment in this story, because I know what it feels like when clinic violence strikes people you love. On the morning of December 30, 1994, I was at home alone, enjoying the final days of my high school Christmas vacation. The phone rang, and I picked up. The woman on the other end of the line—a colleague of my mother's from the Planned Parenthood Clinic of Greater Boston, where my mother was the Director of Counseling—was crying. I had no idea what she was talking about when she asked if my mother was safe. Then she told me: There had been an attack on the clinic—a man with a gun had walked into the waiting room and opened fire, killing one staff member—she didn't know who—and injuring several others. My blood turned to ice. My mother had recently switched to a part-time schedule, and I couldn't remember if she was supposed to be at work that day or not.

An eternal hour later, my mother came up the path: she hadn't been at work that day, she was fine. But the man with a gun, who turned out to be anti-abortion crusader John Salvi, had in fact killed two women that morning: Shannon Lowney, a 25-year-old receptionist at Planned Parenthood, and Leanne Nichols, a 38-year-old receptionist at the Preterm Clinic just a few blocks away. Several others had been injured in the attack, and though the clinics reopened shortly thereafter, things were never quite the same. Clinic workers and women seeking abortions had long been besieged by protesters—whether it was a small knot of men and women (mostly men) holding doctored photos of bloodied fetuses and calling anyone who entered the clinic a murderer (even my 12-year-old self, going to meet my mother after school), or whether it was hundreds of protesters mobilized by Operation Rescue (OSA's predecessor) every Saturday, whose favorite tactics were to chain themselves together in front of the clinic, or disguise themselves as clinic escorts so that they could indulge in a little unlicensed sidewalk counseling with women who thought they were being led into the clinic by pro-choice volunteers.

The protesters had always been a nuisance, as well as a source of immeasurable suffering to the women who arrived at the clinic steps after making the difficult decision to have an abortion, but suddenly, after Salvi's attack, they also felt like a clear and present threat. The security measures that the clinic had to put in place in order to protect their staff and patients intensified the climate of fear and intimidation, but the staff and doctors kept coming to work, and of course, women kept coming to exercise their legal right to a safe abortion. Amazingly, the protesters kept showing up too, even on the first day the clinic reopened after the shootings. On that morning, the clinic's director—who never used to acknowledge the protesters—turned around when she reached the clinic steps, and asked them a simple question: "How dare you?"

That's what I feel like saying to Operation Save America: How dare you? How dare you wage war against this clinic on the anniversary of Eric Rudolph's sentencing? How dare you claim to be engaged in a struggle for liberation when your actions terrorize women in a country where 87 percent of counties don't even have an abortion provider, and women must already jump through 87 hoops to even get to a clinic in Alabama? And above all, how dare you compare yourselves to the civil rights movement?

Dr. King had a dream. Well, I have a dream, too. I have a dream that one day the anti-abortion movement will face the great moral struggle they currently prefer to ignore: the struggle to reconcile the lives, rights, and decisions of pregnant women with their commitment to preserving the potential life those women carry within them. I have a dream that the anti-abortion movement will look deep in their hearts and find compassion for pregnant women and their living children alongside the boundless compassion they currently feel for the pre-born. I have a dream that they will face and acknowledge the stark moral contradictions of a movement that uses violence, coercion, intimidation, and misinformation to build a so-called culture of life. And I have a dream that they will wrestle mightily with the reality that where abortion is illegal, unsafe, or out of reach, pregnant women suffer and die daily, along with their fetuses — across borders, and throughout history. If my dream comes true, then maybe we can start having a discussion about abortion that is worthy of our democracy. Until then, as Marcy Bloom points out,

Clinics such as the one being targeted are the final fragile links to women being able to access safe abortion care in the U.S. As women's health clinics that perform abortions continue to honor women with safe medical care, their ability to stay open truly depends on the will of the American public to ensure that Roe vs. Wade is not completely hollow and that women truly have at least some access to quality abortion care in the U.S. The lives, health, choices, and destinies of women are truly at stake.

To find out how you can support the New Woman All Women Healthcare Clinic, visit NOW's Alabama Chapter.

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Alabama, Operation Save America

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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