Birmingham Blues: Part 2

Marcy Bloom

Marcy Bloom shares stories from her experience in Birmingham, Alabama -- including Emily Lyons' perspective and highlighting the different groups who came together to protect women.

After much anticipation and preparation (see Part One), I flew to Birmingham, Alabama to help with the clinic defense of the two remaining women's clinics that perform abortions there. Operation Save America (OSA) had chosen Birmingham as its next focal point of attack to attempt to make it an abortion-free city. Once again, Birmingham had become a hub of the abortion debate, in spite of the shocking violence there ten years ago. I also wanted to visit my friends Emily and Jeff Lyons. Emily is a champion of choice and the survivor of the destructive and deadly bomb set by Eric Rudolph in front of the New Woman All Women Health Clinic on January 29, 1998 that seriously injured her. As if that tragedy was not sufficient, that same deranged act of destruction also killed the security guard, Robert "Sandy" Sanderson, an off-duty police officer.

Birmingham NOW, Alabama NOW, and many other groups had been mobilizing support throughout the city and were holding various actions, in addition to supporting the staff and women having abortions at Emily's clinic and Planned Parenthood, which are about two miles apart. This inspiring collective action was named Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer and it was exciting to see representatives from several local churches and groups, including the ACLU of Alabama, Georgians for Choice, Medical Students for Choice, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There were also various national organizations: the National Abortion Federation, the Feminist Majority, NOW, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. People endured the hot Alabama sun and rainstorms to come to Birmingham from near and far: Montgomery (Alabama), Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Washington state.

The first event organized by the Alabama Reproductive Freedom Coalition (ARFC) on July 14th (which was the first declared day of the week-long "Operation Save America Back to Birmingham National Event" that promised to "bring the gospel of Christ to the gates of hell") as a powerful rally that saw many determined voices committed to keeping the clinics open for women. Here are some of Emily Lyons' words from her speech that day:

Once again, a bully has determined that a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy can't possibly be allowed to decide what is best for her. They feel they know what we should and should not do, and they are here to enforce their opinion. Bullies will control you for as long as you let them. It is time to let them know their interference is not welcome. OSA's stated goal is to help push what is left of the abortion industry into a deep grave. Rudolph tried to put me into a grave, but I remain …others have tried to close the clinic, but it is still open. How long women have the right to make their own decision depends on you.

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And so it was up to us.

Throughout the week, due to the determination of the committed individuals of the AFRC, the clinics did indeed remain open and women did receive their abortions, although with disruption. Women were at times called murderers, whores, and baby-killers from across the street, as OSA had received permits allowing up to 200 protestors at each of the clinics. (Their numbers were far smaller than in the past, but receiving this permission from the city of Birmingham to be so close to the clinics was unbelievable to me.) Flip Benham, the Head of OSA, was arrested for using an unauthorized sound system; that was very satisfying, even though, in general, the police were lax.

I accompanied Emily to work and spoke with the staff there. They seemed professional, resolute, and tired. One said that it was a very long week for all of them. The inside of the clinic is pretty and peaceful, with attractive walls of lavender, green, fuchsia, yellow, and floral patterns.

I asked Emily about returning to work and how she felt. She has struggled to regain her health and mobility and will always have health challenges related to the horrific 1998 bombing. She continues to work as a registered nurse, although in a limited capacity due to her injuries. "I am not afraid … I like this work. The clinic is a very comfortable place to be." Her impressions of OSA?

They are bullies and their agenda is intimidation and violence. Ultimately, nothing will change … after Birmingham, organizations like OSA will go elsewhere to try to hurt women, but, unfortunately, they will always be around … It's like saying the Klan will go away entirely; that will never occur. Their destructive attitudes fuel violent behavior. We have seen that here … Yet, women will have their abortions and the clinics will stay open and serve women, despite the ongoing difficulties. This is the Bible Belt, after all.

Yes, it is. Outside of the clinic, I saw several "This Clinic Stays Open" signs held by many of the determined clinic defenders, as well as "Keep Abortion Legal," "Pro-Family, Pro-Choice, Pro-Faith." One defender wore an "I Had An Abortion T-shirt." I hoped that their presence was comforting to the staff and the patients. A lingering protestor wearing the trademark OSA red "Jesus Is the Standard" T-shirt shouted out "Not the church, not the state, God Almighty will decide our fates." His look of disdain and hostility was chilling.

Jeff Lyons, Emily's devoted husband, showed me the locations where both Emily and Sandy had been standing when Eric Rudolph's hateful bomb detonated in front of the clinic on that January day almost 10 years ago. Sandy was blown apart; in fact, he was decapitated. Blood and body parts were everywhere. It was tough to imagine. Jeff said that for many years, when it rained and the soil of the garden in front of the clinic shifted, pieces of Emily's pink scrubs and Sandy's blue uniform came up through the grass. Reminders of violence and hate linger for a long time in many places and in many lives.

This was the reality of violence. Women having abortions, staff helping women, and clinic defenders all working together to keep clinics open and safe from those who wish to hurt and shame. Later that evening, at an abortion speak-out in a public area, powerful words rang out. Reverend Katherine Ragsdale of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice called for abortion to be destigmatized and said that "abortion a blessing and a miracle." More inspiring words by dedicated defenders of women's lives and rights were expressed the next day at our Victory Rally. It was clear that we could not…we would never go back.

I spoke to the crowd about this work being an international women's struggle that is all about women's dignity, respect, and human rights. The Mexico City-based organization for which I work, GIRE, has been on the frontlines of the recent legalization of abortion in Mexico City: That was a breath-taking victory, but just as in the U.S., the road ahead to preserve the law and ensure access will be long and hard … Whether it is Birmingham, Mexico City, or anywhere in the world, women need safe and legal abortion care in compassionate clinics. More than 1,000 women needlessly die every year from the ravages of illegal abortion in Mexico and we need to all work together to reverse this tragedy of devaluing women. The Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer has shown us the way!

After the rally Emily and I went to see the moving exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, again being reminded that out of great struggle, pain, and personal sacrifice, true progress can occur. Two of the staff recognized Emily and welcomed her to the museum. They said that they were honored to see her there. I smiled to myself. Our work goes on…or as we say in Mexico, "La lucha sigue…the struggle continues."

News Health Systems

The Crackdown on L.A.’s Fake Clinics Is Working

Nicole Knight

"Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options," Feuer said. "And therefore every day is a day that a woman's health could be jeopardized."

Three Los Angeles area fake clinics, which were warned last month they were breaking a new state reproductive transparency law, are now in compliance, the city attorney announced Thursday.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a press briefing that two of the fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, began complying with the law after his office issued notices of violation last month. But it wasn’t until this week, when Feuer’s office threatened court action against the third facility, that it agreed to display the reproductive health information that the law requires.

“Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options,” Feuer said. “And therefore every day is a day that a woman’s health could be jeopardized.”

The facilities, two unlicensed and one licensed fake clinic, are Harbor Pregnancy Help CenterLos Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

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Feuer said the lawsuit could have carried fines of up to $2,500 each day the facility continued to break the law.

The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care. Unlicensed centers must disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Feuer’s office in May launched a campaign to crack down on violators of the law. His action marked a sharp contrast to some jurisdictions, which are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach as fake clinics’ challenges to the law wind through the courts.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Some 25 fake clinics operate in Los Angeles County, according to a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California, though firm numbers are hard to come by. Feuer initially issued notices to six Los Angeles area fake clinics in May. Following an investigation, his office warned three clinics last month that they’re breaking the law.

Those three clinics are now complying, Feuer told reporters Thursday. Feuer said his office is still determining whether another fake clinic, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, is complying with the law.

Fake clinic owners and staffers have slammed the FACT Act, saying they’d rather shut down than refer clients to services they find “morally and ethically objectionable.”

“If you’re a pro-life organization, you’re offering free healthcare to women so the women have a choice other than abortion,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several Los Angeles fake clinics fighting the law in court.

Asked why the clinics have agreed to comply, Bowman reiterated an earlier statement, saying the FACT Act violates his clients’ free speech rights. Forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs,” Bowman said.

Reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, Googling “abortion clinic” might turn up results for a fake clinic that discourages abortion care.

“Put yourself in the position of a young woman who is going to one of these centers … and she comes into this center and she is less than fully informed … of what her choices are,” Feuer said Thursday. “In that state of mind, is she going to make the kind of choice that you’d want your loved one to make?

Rewire last month visited Lost Angeles area fake clinics that are abiding by the FACT Act. Claris Health in West Los Angeles includes the reproductive notice with patient intake forms, while Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.


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