I wrote this paper originally in 1996—for a magazine called Sojourner: The Women’s Forum—because the issue of abortion clinic violence screamed to me: As a clinic defender, I witnessed people (mostly men and very few women) yelling violently and acting aggressively towards women going into clinics in Boston and Brookline, Mass. to get abortions. I wanted people to know what it was like at the clinics on Saturday mornings. And I also wanted to honor the two women who were killed at a Massachusetts clinic in 1994 and others who had been murdered over abortion rights. And to remind everyone that if you believed in women’s right to control our own bodies and you were helping women get abortions, you could be murdered.
I especially want to republish this paper now in part because Jessica Critcher, a young feminist in my social justice writing group, wrote “Please republish this!” on her copy of what I read to the group for vetting. She was 7 years old when the paper was originally published and did not know anything about the crimes, murders or verbal and physical violence by the terrorists at the clinics.
Why else now? I am also republishing this paper because of the Massachusetts buffer zone law that was struck down by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2014; all the laws restricting reproductive rights being introduced and passed by Republican lawmakers; the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22; the upcoming presidential election and its debates over anti-abortion rhetoric; the possibility of a new Justice appointed to the Supreme Court by an anti-abortion Republican president; and the recent so-called “upset” election victory by an anti-abortion governor in Kentucky. And, of course, the murders at Planned Parenthood in Colorado.
Of all the work I have done in many movements over many decades, defending abortion clinics with my body was the one I liked best. I knew that if we had not been there, the women would not have been able to have abortions. It was very heartfelt to help real women get something they wanted, needed and had a right to have. I would not have dreamed of not defending the clinics for women.
Sojourner editors’ note: On Friday, December 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into two Brookline, Massachusetts, reproductive health clinics—Preterm and Planned Parenthood—and shot and killed receptionists Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols. These murders followed those of Drs. David Gunn and John Britton and clinic defender James Barrett in Florida. Sheila Parks reminds us that we cannot forget that the battle over women’s right to reproductive freedom has become lethal.
I knew it was not if, but when Friday, December 30, 1994, would happen here in Boston. Others had already died in the fight to maintain women’s right to reproductive freedom. After years of defending women’s health clinics with my body, I had come to know intimately most of the anti-abortionists demonstrating in Boston and Brookline. They always came with such venom, egged on, spurred and blessed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and by fundamentalist Protestant leaders—the religious right-wing—and the political right-wing. They called women “vermin.”
Come back with me to June 1, 1991. I remember. I will never forget. I am standing in front of Reproductive Health Associates (Repro). This is the Brookline clinic that John Salvi missed on his December 30 rampage. I think he dared not go there because an armed security guard stands at the door. Brookline has felt the onslaught of the Operation Rescue (aka Operation Terrorist) and other anti-abortion groups for years.
As I approach the clinic on this bright June morning, the anti-abortion protestors tell me they love me. I tell them they don’t know the difference between love and abuse. They tell me they pray for me. I tell them I don’t want their prayers. I who passionately believe in prayer. “No,” I say to them. “No” to the arrogant, self-righteous, almost all white, mostly male protestors who stand with their bibles and crosses, actually reading and quoting scripture. John Salvi is not the only scripture-quoting zealot in the anti-abortion movement.
As if from nowhere, hundreds of Operation Rescuers swarm across Beacon Street. They push between us and crawl between our legs as we link arms to protect access to Repro’s door. They dive under the police barricades. Because they are doing holy work and must be sure they succeed, they ferociously and viciously shove and elbow us, kick, scratch, bite and spit on us, infuriated that we dare to try to stop them from getting through.
They literally throw us aside and, with layers upon layers of bodies, block Repro’s doors. They are rough, aggressive and mean. They say they are nonviolent. Rage rushes through my bloodstream, and I let it, as part of my pacifist, nonviolent beliefs and practices. “A woman dies every three minutes worldwide from an illegal abortion” runs through my head like a mantra.
They come with plastic dolls (not anatomically correct). They come with enlarged pictures of bloody, aborted fetuses, which they shove in the faces of women and their friends trying to get into clinics, pictures that are distorted and, therefore, lies. This is all part of the sidewalk “counseling.”
This time, they come with flags on high poles and loudspeakers. When they see a woman approaching the clinic, they hold the flags up high to notify the other protesters down the way. On the loudspeakers, they describe the women.
Thus Operation Rescue keeps track of the clinic’s clients through the wild melee—300 or so protestors on each side, anti-abortionists and pro-choicers. They aggressively hassle women entering the clinic, saying, “Don’t murder your baby, we’ll help you,” and physically walking in front of them to prevent them from getting in. They sprinkle “holy water” everywhere. If we clinic defenders, we feminists, were not there, these women would not get in. I will always remember the women thanking us for being there, tears streaming down their faces.
As always, Operation Rescue protestors have a video camera, and they take continuous pictures of everyone going in and out of the clinic—healthcare workers and clients—and defenders, too. They even videotape car licenses. Eventually over 200 anti-abortion protestors are arrested for blockading the clinic. One man crawls under a police bus and, with a kryptonite lock, shackles himself to an axle.
I remember another Operation Rescue blockade. Two young women ask to have their anonymity and privacy protected. In 90-degree weather, we quickly wrap sweaters around their heads and lead them inch-by-inch through the screaming, crazy mob. At another point in the morning, I am sitting in the back seat of a young man and woman’s car, taking them to a different clinic; we have tried unsuccessfully to get them into a blockaded clinic where they have their appointment and health insurance permission. I no sooner return to the blockaded clinic, when I again get into the back seat of the car, this time to take two very agitated women to another clinic. During these rides, I feel like I am giving women back their lives; I feel like I am working on the underground railroad.
I read in the newspapers that Salvi had been at clinic protests, gearing up for his future acts. I wonder if Salvi knew about the “joke” that anti-abortionists sent to medical students all over the country: “You are in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and a doctor who does abortions. You have a gun with only two bullets in it. What do you do?” Punchline: “Shoot the abortion doctor twice.”
I also wonder if Salvi has seen the statement by friends of Paul Hill (Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and James Barrett in July 1994) or if he knows the priest Thomas Carleton, who lives in the Boston area. Carleton, who was incarcerated in Billerica, Mass. for his abortion protests, has regularly gone to local clinics for what have been called peaceful and prayerful presences. Carleton, along with Hill and others, has signed a petition that says: “We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We assert that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children. Therefore, he ought to be acquitted of the charges against him.”
There is a deep thread of misogyny embedded into the fabric of our society. Anti-abortionists want to control women’s bodies and, therefore, our lives. Even though there have not been Operation Rescue blockades at the clinics for a while, the viciousness of the “sidewalk counselors” and their cohorts continues.
There are many of us on the abortion rights side who also believe in God, Goddess. Anti-abortion protestors—no matter what their titles, importance, money or influence—do not have a monopoly on spiritual Truth. I have a direct line to Goddess and so does everyone else. She does not tell me what others should or should not do. Anti-abortionists are not the only ones with deep religious and spiritual beliefs, principles and practices.
Leanne Nichols and Shannon Lowney, we remember you. We remember you every time we stand outside and defend a clinic. We remember you every time a woman has a safe and legal abortion. We remember you every time the right-wing tries to limit and/or take away a woman’s right to abortion. We remember you every time we think of strong women who have the courage of their convictions. We will never forget you.
Photo via Shutterstock. Headshot by Ellen Shub.