By Gloria Feldt
(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum on how the locality of abortion clinics puts them at a higher risk to violence and harassment.)
It’s the sweltering heat of summer. We can count on seeing ads for escapes to the beach, reminders to wear sunscreen, and the extreme anti-reproductive rights, homophobic Operation Save America's annual attempt to turn up the political heat by mounting a media-circus demonstration at a high-profile women's health center that provides abortions. This summer from July 14 to 22, the target-of-choice is the New Woman, Every Woman Healthcare Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.
If the location and clinic name ring a bell, there’s good reason. In 1998, Eric Robert Rudolf detonated a firebomb of dynamite and nails at the clinic’s front door, killing police officer Robert “Sandy” Sanderson on his beat and seriously wounding clinic nurse Emily Lyons. In addition to sustaining first, second, and third degree burns covering the front of her body, Lyons lost her left eye and her right was seriously damaged. A hole the size of a fist was blown in her abdomen and her left leg was shattered—just for starters.
There's something else we can count on too during these heated summer encounters. The doctors and women's health groups subject to these demonstrations, along with their allies in pro-choice organizations such as NOW and the Feminist Majority that flock to defend women from OSA's intimidating harassment, will be joined together with their adversaries in the Kabuki theater of irreconcilable opposites locked into predictable but intractable battles. The only way to stop the Kabuki dance that resolves nothing is for the community around all of these players to decide enough, stop, we're changing the story. Three groups bear a special responsibility to cool things down.
Community leaders of good conscience, regardless of where they stand on the abortion issue, must see themselves as part of the story, whether they want to be or not. It is they who must set the standard for what constitutes freedom of speech versus what constitutes harassment, intimidation, possible incitement to violence, and definite interference with providing and receiving health care services. Do not accept these demonstrations as just normal free speech because they are most certainly not, neither in intent nor practice. Give groups like OSA their platforms for expression to be sure, but not at a location where women can be hurt—and especially not a place where their own allies have killed and maimed in the past.
Every city council should pass two resolutions: one to set a tone of civility and the other to establish alternate ways for dissenters (and they are dissenters—fully two-thirds of Americans want abortion to remain legal and safe) to express themselves away from the health care facility. And there must be zero tolerance for violence against the women, the doctors and other staff, or the facilities. That’s terrorism, plain and simple. Name it and confront it.
Clergy, regardless of where they stand on abortion, must join hands preemptively, before the demonstrations start, and declare their own open microphone day to decry violence and intimidation of women. Pro-choice clergy have an especially important role to publicly support the women who are making decisions they believe as fervently are moral and responsible ones as their detractors scream are otherwise. Pro-choice people of faith need to create a supportive welcome to the women and courageous staff and volunteers by their public words and deeds.
Clinics are vulnerable to violence and harassment precisely because they are isolated from the rest of medical practice. And how ironic it is that these very same clinics are so often women’s main source of medical care, in particular family planning services that prevent unintended pregnancy and abortion. So the medical community has a role to play too. Abortion should be defined and practiced as part of women's health care, and that would in itself diffuse much of the confrontation.
It’s the heat of summer. Time to go to the beach slathered in sunscreen. Time to take a new look at an old story and cool down the script so that our passion can be spent not on fighting intractable battles but on assuring that women have the health care, information, and social supports to make their own childbearing decisions without fear.
Gloria Feldt is the author of The War on Choice: the Right-wing Attack on Women’s Rights and How to Fight Back and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She frequently lectures on the history and future vision for reproductive rights, health, and justice.