49. American Terrorism: Abortion Clinics on the Front Lines (with Diane Derzis, Dr. Monica McLemore and Frances Kissling)

With Guests:

  • Diane Derzis is a reproductive rights activist and the owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the clinic at the center of the case that will be heard at SCOTUS in December, and the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. She is also the owner of several other clinics in the south.
  • Dr. Monica McLemore is a professor of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, where she is also the co-director of the Abortion Care Training Incubator for Outstanding Nurse Scholars. Her research at the intersection of nursing and public health and policy delves into abortion, birth, human sexuality and more from a reproductive justice lens.
  • Frances Kissling is an activist in the fields of religion, reproduction, and women’s rights. She is currently the President of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy, and was President of Catholics for Choice from 1982 until 2007. She is a visiting professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas at UNAM, Mexico City.

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In this Episode:

In this episode, we’re talking about a uniquely American form of terrorism — violence at the abortion clinic. Our episode comes as Americans grapple with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on five counts in the wake of his killing two protesters and injuring a third last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Meanwhile in Georgia, the fate of three men caught on camera killing Ahmaud Arbery has yet to be decided. Many are concerned about whether there is a two-tiered system of justice in the United States.

We turn to the often overlooked violence at abortion clinics. As the December oral arguments date for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case fast approaches, all eyes are on the Supreme Court. But we’re wondering — what’s happening at the on the ground, at clinics that provide abortions and reproductive health services where persistent, even daily violence against patients and providers goes overlooked and under-addressed?

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

And be sure to check out our recent collaboration with the Brennan Center for Justice, which investigates how abortion rights and democracy are intertwined — and how both are at risk in 2021.

Transcript:

00:00:10 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine. A show where we report, rebel and you know we tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we think about the future. 

On today’s show, we’re talking about violence, and a uniquely American form of terrorism: violence at abortion clinics. Our episode comes after Americans are grappling with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on five counts in the wake of his killing two protesters and injuring a third last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the fate of three men caught on camera participating in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery has yet to be decided. Many on social media are expressing concern about whether there are two tiers of justice in the United States. 

In this episode, we turn to the often-overlooked violence at abortion clinics. As the December hearing date for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case fast approaches, all eyes are on the United States Supreme Court—but we’re wondering what’s happening on the ground at clinics that provide care, abortion and reproductive health services? 

Even though abortions are legal, providers face violence and intimidation daily. Anti-abortion protesters stand outside clinics every day, harassing patients and doctors, taking down the license plate numbers of anyone who enters the clinics, threatening medical providers and their neighbors. Clinics have been bombed, doctors murdered, abortion-seekers heckled and physically assaulted. So, in this pivotal moment for abortion rights, how do we reckon with this long legacy of violence associated with the anti-abortion movement? 

The “Invent-Your-Own-Facts Approach”: Many Abortion Laws Use Medically Incorrect Language
A counter-protester (right) joins the the 2017 March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally in D.C. Against the scientific evidence, some anti-abortion advocates claim they want to outlaw abortion to protect women’s health. (James McNelli / Wikimedia Commons)

In this episode, I’m speaking to Diane Derzis, whose clinic was bombed and an officer, Robert Sanderson, who worked at the clinic, died, and others severely injured, including a nurse, Emily Lyons. Diane operates the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. 

I’m also speaking to Frances Kissling in this episode. Frances owned abortion clinics in New York, where abortion was legal before Roe v. Wade and went on to lead Catholics for Choice. 

In the second half of our episode, I’m joined by Dr. Monica McLemore, who conducts research across the reproductive spectrum, including abortion, birth, cancer risk, contraception, family planning and healthy sexuality. She is a professor, advocate and award-winning author. 

For this episode, I want to warn our listeners. Some of the content may be unsettling and even graphic. 


Diane, it’s really…it’s a pleasure to be with you, but I’m also deeply concerned about what I know you’re going to be sharing with me, which is about the background of violence and of worry, of concern, that you’ve had to have in operating a clinic, so can you tell me a little bit about the clinic that you operate and the ways in which you’ve had to be concerned about the safety of the people that you provide care for and the people who work at your clinic?

00:03:59 Diane Derzis:

Actually, I’m glad you asked that because it is extremely important. For the last, I’d say, 30 years, we’ve been under assault, and each year it has worsened. We have had absolutely no response in the last five years. I’m going to point Jackson out right now, Mississippi. The police will no longer come. We have sometimes 100 protesters in the street, blocking the driveway. It is absolutely … I can’t even portray the picture to you of how bad it is for those women who have to enter that every day, but they do so. They do so with tears running down their faces, grimaces, but they come in because that’s what women have always done, and they do whatever it takes to obtain an abortion. 

As long as we’ve watched … I guess, especially in the last 10 years … as long as we’ve watched these kind of behaviors unaccounted for, nothing done, you’ve sent out a clear message to the community and to the country that we aren’t important, that women aren’t important, and I think that’s definitely the crux of this whole problem here, you know. We’re going to see a Supreme Court looking at whether a woman can make the most important decision that she will ever make, but the fact that we are just women has put it into a whole different realm.

00:05:40 Michele Goodwin:

So, Diane, I know that you experience, your staff, your clients see this every day, but the violence has become so normalized, and I think that people don’t know what that looks like, so can you give us …

00:05:53 Diane Derzis:

You’re right.

00:05:55 Michele Goodwin: 

… a sense of what the day-to-day is of the 100 people? Do they just stand there in silence? Or are there things …

00:06:01 Diane Derzis:

Oh. Oh, no.

00:06:01 Michele Goodwin:

… that they say? Are there things that you’ve had to worry about such as vandalism, and then we’re going to talk about that deep kind of violence because you’ve also been aware of people’s lives being threatened, clinics being blown up, and we need to talk about that because that just simply somehow .…

00:06:16 Diane Derzis:

That’s perfect.

00:06:18 Michele Goodwin:

… doesn’t make news coverage.

00:06:19 Diane Derzis:

No. No. It doesn’t, and no, this is violence, violence, violence. They have not only dead baby pictures. It’s gone way beyond that.

In Jackson, Mississippi, we have a doctor who has 12 children, and they are stairsteps, and they are in the road grabbing hold of cars. I’m surprised one of them has not been killed, but they use these children to stop traffic. They’re screaming to the women and to the patients. They’re banging on doors, on patient doors. The men are clearly armed. You can see the guns in their pockets, and many of them will stand across the street and use their hands to tell the women that are with them what to do, where to go. 

It is absolutely frightening when you sit and watch this, and this is an everyday occurrence. You know, women are not able to get into the driveway. Police will not come. We don’t have … I mean, the [Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act] FACE things we used to be able to utilize are no longer there. The FBI hasn’t answered the phone for Jackson Women’s Clinic in the last two years. That’s pretty frightening. I mean, it just goes beyond anything you would imagine.

A view of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, aka the Pink House, the last abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi. (Montinique Monroe / Ms. magazine)

00:07:38 Michele Goodwin:

You’re just getting so this … this sounds like domestic violence. So, you’re saying that people show up with guns. They put their own children in the street to stop the traffic so women can’t get … you can’t make it up.

00:07:48 Diane Derzis:

The children are in the street. 

Yes. Absolutely. I’ve got pictures and videos, and in fact, I believe they are online, the defenders … we are so lucky to have unbelievable women and men who stand out there to escort these women in and get them through this nonsense, but they’ve got … we’ve taken all of this. We’ve shown it to the FBI. We’ve shown everything, and it makes no difference. They get on a ladder, Michele … a ladder that’s 20 feet tall, and use a megaphone that can be heard in the clinic talking about killing babies, and how these women are going to go to hell.

And I guess this sounds, for many people, like you know, so what? It’s a few words. It’s a few whatever, but these women have made a very difficult decision because contrary to what the public likes to say, you know, no one wakes up one morning and decides to go in and have an abortion. You’re talking about young women from 11 and 12 years old accompanied by parents to women in their 60s who had an unexpected pregnancy. It’s absolutely unbelievable, even when you watch it. It looks like some kind of a sitcom.

But we’ve now had a … and this is a mayor who is African American, who ran on a ticket of helping women seek services do so privately and at least with a little dignity, and that office has just remained completely closed, allowed the police chiefs to not make a call. I mean, the only way we’re going to get a call is if someone dead in the streets, and I can’t tell you, but I have been expecting that for years. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.

00:09:45 Michele Goodwin:

And what’s interesting about the story that you tell is, of course, nobody else in getting a medical procedure has to go through any of that. Nobody else …

00:09:55 Diane Derzis:

Absolutely not.

00:09:56 Michele Goodwin:

… has to go through the gamut of that in protecting a constitutional right to medical care. You did mention that there’s something that you used to be able to use. You said something involving FACE. Can you tell our audience about what …

00:10:10 Diane Derzis:

Absolutely.

00:10:11 Michele Goodwin:

…yes…what that is?

00:10:12 Diane Derzis:

When that was … I believe if I’m not mistaken … Janet Reno, in the Clinton years, and we had FACE which prevented this kind of activity because it is absolutely interfering with a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion, but see, we’ve seen now, we’re at the point of is there a constitutional right to have such a procedure? I guess we’ve been seeing this firsthand so long that while it’s a shock this is in front of the Supreme Court, it’s not really something that just crept up overnight. 

00:10:59 Michele Goodwin:

What I came to understand by my conversation with Diane Derzis is that getting help has not always been easy—not only for the patients who seek abortions but even the people who try to help and support them. Let’s turn back to that interview. 

00:11:18 Diane Derzis:

We’ve not had the help there. We have had citizens who’ve come forward, and that’s been wonderful to do things, but in Jackson, these people have been allowed to ruin the businesses that surround us, so another way that makes us … I mean, let’s just be honest, we aren’t good neighbors. We aren’t good neighbors because we have these creeps that are there to see the women, but now they have … we have businesses threatening to leave the city. They have been unable to get police protection. I’m not alone. I mean, I know this happened in Texas. It happens in every other state, and you don’t hear about it because we have so many irons in the fire, and no one really cares.

I mean, really, when it comes down to it, no one really cares unless it’s your wife or your daughter or someone you love getting ready to walk in that door, and then, for that brief moment, you realize what other people go through.

00:12:19 Michele Goodwin:

Was it always this way? Well now, we’re going to come back to my conversation, this interview, with Diane Derzis, but I also spoke to Frances Kissling, who operated two abortion clinics in New York. They were in existence even before Roe v. Wade was decided by the United States Supreme Court. Frances later served as the president of Catholics for Choice. She’s a prolific author, educator, lecturer and bioethicist, and I started off my conversation with Frances asking about what are the concerns that emerged over time in her running of the clinics that she operated.

So then, let’s talk about the concerns that have emerged and emerged over time, including the 1980s about violence associated with movements, the anti-abortion movement. Did you have to worry about that in the early ‘70s, or at what time?

00:13:21 Frances Kissling:

Yes.

00:13:22 Michele Goodwin:

Okay. So, tell us a little bit about that.

00:13:24 Frances Kissling:

It was a little different. It wasn’t so much that there was violence. Violence came with Randall Terry and Operation Rescue and the slogan, “If you believe abortion is murder, then act like its murder,” for right-to-lifers, which was the … you know, just go in and invade clinics, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This was much more subtle. 

I mean, for example, one day somebody came into the clinic and said to me, there’s a priest outside. There was a priest outside the clinic, kind of lurking in the gas station behind the pumps, and he had come because some parents had told him their daughter was going to have an abortion, and he wanted to convince her not to do that, but he was, by no means, what we came to see later on, on this issue. We did not have, in those early days, at least and not in the clinic, both clinics I worked in, in New York, we did not have pickets, and we were able to pretty much go about our business. 

We also didn’t have something else in New York, which I think was important. We didn’t have the kind of stigmatization, particularly stigmatization of physicians that we have now. I mean, I think one of the biggest problems we have now, and moving forward, is the participation of doctors in the provision of abortion services.

But we, our clinic, most of the abortions in our clinics were performed by residents from, in my case, from Albert Einstein Hospital, and the residents were glad to do it and were with us politically, and the chief of ob-gyn, Cy Romney, hero of the movement, was very, very much in favor of this happening. Once the state says there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s legal, this arouses a certain intensity about wanting to make it illegal.

00:15:34 Michele Goodwin:

So then, this intensity that emerged, tell us about what that looked like in the 1980s and ‘90s because it didn’t look like the bucolic nature of your clinics and people .…

00:15:45 Frances Kissling: 

No.

00:15:46 Michele Goodwin:

… able to come in. It was something vastly different. 

00:15:49 Frances Kissling:

Thousands of people. Thousands of anti-abortion people would gather in the front of various abortion clinics around the country. There would be a day, Georgia Day, okay. Everybody would gather at the clinics in Georgia. There would be a lot of shouting and screaming. There would be some people who would be accosting women. This is how the clinic escort movement developed. They’d go up to them, and don’t kill your baby. There would be direct confrontation of women. 

Clinic escorts watch an anti-abortion protester in the back entrance of Jackson Women’s Health Organization on August 19, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Montinique Monroe / Ms. magazine)

Doctors would have to arrive at the clinic by back doors the night before, all sorts of ways in order to avoid being attacked, and the desire to close the clinic was such that protesters would come with, you know, the highest quality bicycle chains you could ever imagine, and they would, you know, chain themselves to the clinic so the clinic couldn’t open. This was a widespread, very active movement for a number of years, you know. 

00:17:00 Michele Goodwin:

So, I want to get back to that, but you mentioned that doctors would arrive the night before, so are you saying doctors arrive the night before, come in through back doors, and have to sleep in the clinic overnight?

00:17:09 Frances Kissling:

Some of them would have to do that. Some of them had other methods of disguising themselves, or they had …

00:17:15 Michele Goodwin:

Disguises? Are you serious? Actually … yes.

00:17:19 Frances Kissling:

Yes. Yes, of course. They had security guards and all of those things, and this was before doctors were killed. 

00:17:27 Michele Goodwin:

Okay. So, this is the leadup, right? So, this is the disguises, come in the night before, sleep out, hide out in the abortion clinic. 

00:17:36 Frances Kissling:

Have security guards bring you in. 

00:17:38 Michele Goodwin:

Right. All of that. 

00:17:39 Frances Kissling:

Celebrities … also. Have the car drive directly up to the clinic. Get out of the side door. All of those kinds of maneuvers. 

00:17:45 Michele Goodwin:

So right. Right. So this is having to happen at a time in which now Roe has already taken place. This is not pre-1973. This is after 1973. This is … yes. This is the ‘80s that this is happening, and then the movement goes deeper. It’s not just chains and bodies to the doors and the gates of the clinic. It turns violent. What’s that like, and what are the conversations that are taking place alongside that violence for those of you who are in the movement trying to protect folks who are seeking to terminate their pregnancies?

00:18:24 Frances Kissling:

Well, I mean, I think that there was, of course, I would think … I think a number of doctors … some doctors stopped doing abortions. 

00:18:37 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. Because of the threats, and because people were killed.

00:18:40 Frances Kissling:

Killed. They were killed. We have five or six … there were five or six cases of doctors who have been murdered who performed abortions. Buffalo had a case. We all know Dr. Tiller. You know, we have doctors who talk about it now who … Dr. Hern in Colorado is very outspoken about this, the man who lives with a bullet-proof vest on. You know, there was an awareness. There was also enormous courage on the part of those doctors who were most public about providing abortion care. 

00:19:31 Michele Goodwin:

Since Roe v. Wade, there have been the bombings of nearly 50 abortion clinics in the United States. There have been mass shootings. The direct killings of abortion providers. Numerous arsons. Daily threats and heckling and assaults and harassment that just simply goes by. They’re overlooked as just simply part of doing business, of providing this kind of care, and it’s not just the people who provide care or the people who seek care, but it’s also friends and neighbors. It’s the businesses that are adjacent to or nearby abortion clinics that also receive threats and experience the harassment. Neighbors of doctors and providers who get threatening mail in their mailbox at their front door. Perhaps for this reason some doctors have simply moved out of the states where they lived, and they fly into states to do abortions, coming in in the middle of the night and through back doors.

I’ve been told so many stories that just seem so incredibly unsettling in a place where our constitution is supposed to be meaningful, that operating a lawfully licensed business shouldn’t mean being harassed. I’m told that at a number of abortion clinics across the country, there are people who show up, anti-abortion protesters, brandishing weapons such as guns. 

I return to my interview with Diane Derzis. She operates the last remaining clinic that provides abortion care in Mississippi. She was the owner of a clinic that was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, by Eric Rudolph, and if that name rings a bell, perhaps it should. He also detonated bombs at the Olympics that were held in Atlanta, Georgia. In total, he killed three people and injured over 100. 

At Diane’s clinic, one of the people who died was an officer, an off-duty officer, that provided security at her clinic. As well, one of her nurses was severely injured, and to this day, has gone through 80 surgeries just to help her physically recover from that brutal day. I now turn to my interview … back to my interview with Diane Derzis. 

Diane, the bombing of your clinic was in south Birmingham, Alabama, if I’m correct, on January 30, 1998.

00:22:17 Diane Derzis:

That’s correct.

Major Victory for National Abortion Federation Against Anti-Abortion Extremists
Outside the Supreme Court awaiting the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision in March 2016. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

00:22:18 Michele Goodwin:

And there was a bomb packed with dynamite…

00:22:20 Diane Derzis:

Yes.

00:22:20 Michele Goodwin:

… and five and half pounds of nails locked in a toolbox and hidden under a plastic plant, I guess. And it exploded early in the morning. Diane, can you take us back to that, and tell us about that?

00:22:39 Diane Derzis:

I received the call that said, the sirens you hear are coming for us. They’ve just blown up the clinic. Officer Sanderson, who was absolutely wonderful, was our Birmingham policeman that we paid as security, and he saw the plant and bent over because it wasn’t normally there, and Rudolph was right across the street, and he detonated the button because he knew the game was up. 

Emily Lyons was our RN. She was at the door, opening it, and when that bomb went off, it cut him in half, and it nearly killed Emily. She’s had over 80 surgeries since that time because her insides are so messed up. She lost an eye.

Obviously, she is no longer able to work as a nurse, but she is the most incredibly vibrant woman who just made her much stronger and you know, just to look back and think at that time, I believe they had already killed three or four physicians, and interestingly enough, three of those four worked either in a clinic I was associated with or around that, and this, you know, was chilling. When you start losing physicians, obviously, your staff doesn’t want to work there. When staff’s friends and family finds out they’re working there, the pressure that’s put on them …and all of this makes sense. I mean, why not? 

But the clinic, I think, when it was blown up in Birmingham was different because someone had been in that facility. I guess it was the DEA, they drew lines that went into … and at each one of those went to a seat in that clinic into the staff where they would have been standing, so this bomb was intended to kill people. Prior to that, it was intended to do property damage, but we were now down to the wire on this, and only through the actions and loss of life of our policeman did that not happen.

So, yes. This has been going on every few years, that you would see someone killed, and you’d see, you know, little tasks that … yes, that’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t happen that often, but that’s what all of these words and these hateful signs and the way these people are able to get away with breaking the law, that all gives them credence that they’re doing the Lord’s work, and they’re doing the right thing.

00:25:43 Michele Goodwin:

So, what’s also disturbing about what you share here is that we’re not looking at that as an isolated incident. It’s since the late 1970s, there’ve been nearly 50 bombings of clinics that perform abortions. 

00:26:00 Diane Derzis:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And numerous invasions, property destruction, people harmed, loss of business.

00:26:11 Michele Goodwin:

Over 200 arsons.

00:26:13 Diane Derzis:

You know, it just goes on and on. 

00:26:13 Michele Goodwin:

Over 200 arsons. You know, so as I try to wrap my mind around this, and I’m sure listeners, too, if there were an organization or a kind of movement responsible in the United States for bombing nearly 50 legally operating medical clinics … I mean, these aren’t just sort of underground things. You’re operating a legal business, and so these are nearly 50 bombings of legally operated licensed business. Over 200 arsons and shootings, chainings, destruction of property, you know, it would seem to me that that would make or should make, general national news. It should be at the front of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal that Congress should be doing something about this. Who do you think is responsible…

00:27:12 Diane Derzis:

And you would think …

00:27:13 Michele Goodwin:

… for these attacks, and why don’t we see the kind of response that you’d think should go along with it?

00:27:22 Diane Derzis:

The law enforcement knows who this is, Michele. They know who they are. These people have big banquets and dinners every year where they talk about what they do, and there were lists in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. People were identified as being put on the … the name escapes me right now, but there were actually lists of people who were named as people who should be next to be done away with. You know, and all this has been put out there with the kind of society that we have that can take care of these things, we always wonder why not, but I think it comes back down to the shame that we still attached to abortion to the people who provide those services and to the women who utilize them.

00:28:20 Michele Goodwin: 

I wrap up this episode in conversation with Dr. Monica McLemore. She’s a provider in California, a professor, nurse, advocate and award-winning author who writes about reproductive health, rights and justice including issues addressing maternal mortality.

In this interview, we pick up the threads that have been woven by Diane Derzis and Frances Kissling, and I’m asking her about what these issues mean for her as a person who’s been a provider for the patients that she has served and how we ought to process this violence, which seemingly, goes overlooked and in some ways, has also become racialized. Let’s turn to that conversation.

00:29:14 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, first of all, thank you for having me on the show. I really appreciate getting an opportunity to talk about this. You know, one of the things that … the first thing that comes to mind for me, is, you know, recognizing in my role as a board member for the Abortion Access Front, which used to be called Lady Parts Justice League run by our good colleague and friend Lizz Winstead, who’s one of the founders of the Daily Show. 

It was so fascinating when the insurrection happened on January 6, that we were able to identify participants in that rally because there was a synergy between people who had threatened either abortion clinics or patients trying to seek abortions, and we have been documenting those individuals, both in terms of video footage as well as photographs outside of clinics harassing patients, so basically the Venn diagram between the white supremacists who addressed and attacked the U.S. Capitol and anti-abortion extremists is a circle. And so, for me, what are you facing? 

The Women of the Insurrection
(UN Human Rights @UNHumanRights / Twitter)

00:30:22 Michele Goodwin:

No. Exactly. 

00:30:24 Dr. Monica McLemore:

I mean, let’s just dive right in, right. What are we facing? We are facing this situation where for the past 40 years there has been a mounted attack both, you know, violent and in my opinion, harassment, intimidation of people seeking abortion. We have always been the canary in the coal mine who have been subject to practices that we are currently seeing being played out in a whole variety of other places within our democracy and in our society.

So, when people get confused about where misinformation came from, that was practiced and perfected in abortion spaces, right, discrediting abortion providers, trying to, you know, subject people seeking abortions to stigma and shame and judgment and blame. We see the deterioration of, you know, the courts and rule of law. All of that was practiced in abortion, so where are we at a month out from hearing, you know, one of the biggest cases in front of the Supreme Court? We are at the culmination of 40 years of strategic planning to, you know, disrupt our democracy, to control and to manipulate pregnant-capable people into a religious theocracy and a worldview that in my opinion is, you know, grounded in white supremacy and oppression.

So, that’s where I think we’re at. I said a lot what, but.

00:31:41 Michele Goodwin:

Okay. Well, no. You broke it down. You gave a lot of food for thought, including connecting the insurrection and the takeover of government to the anti-abortion movement. Let’s unpack a little bit more of what that means just in terms of our democracy and what’s at stake. What’s your sense there because some people think, well, this is just about the uterus, and it’s not.

00:32:07 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. No. No. This is about pregnant-capable people and other folks in child-bearing families being able to participate as full members of society. That’s what this is really about, and anybody who doesn’t want to admit that. Let’s do a deeper dive, right. 

The capacity to control reproduction means that you have some thoughts, some beliefs, something about understanding the future, so if you are in a situation, and this is unfortunately where public health and demography, in my opinion, have contributed to, you know, the false narrative or the flawed narrative that somehow population control, population density, numbers of people on the planet, all of that somehow is associated with, you know, this panic, this fear, you know, the “browning” of the United States, all of that. 

I reject all of that because it takes you down a path where you can’t ask more, I think, humane and interesting questions, like what do we, as a society, want to be able to do, and what’s the role to support our citizens, right, to have a dignified life over a life course, right? All this other stuff, in my opinion, is noise because if we say we want to be, you know, good people. If we say we want to care about our neighbor. If we say we want an open and civil democracy, then that means we can’t also have eugenicist notions that are underpinning our public policy. 

00:33:39 Michele Goodwin:

Eugenicist policies. Break that down a little bit more for people who are not familiar with those histories in the United States.

00:33:47 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Sure. I mean, I hold the full field of demography, counting numbers of people and their identity, right, their age, race, ethnicity. And I’m a scientist, so don’t get me wrong. I like data, and I think it’s really important that we understand phenomenon so that we can optimize our inner … so people can have a healthy life and a dignified death, right. I believe in that, but when your questions, your data, when your policies are really grounded in, you know, some people are more valuable or worth more than others in society, or that all citizens don’t have a fundamental right or fundamental rights to certain things, then you’re going to have the situation where no wonder we have health-related disparities. No wonder we have health-related inequities because if fundamentally there is no baseline, there’s no human rights, right, then we have a problem in terms of how we think about our laws and our policies.

I’ll give you a perfect example, right. This whole idea that we’re dealing with Build Back Better and finally it’s signed and all that, we are fighting over paid family leave, right. Let’s talk about how ridiculous that is in the 21st century, that we say as a society—especially for our religiously affiliated folks who really believe that, you know, family is important this and all—but we can’t even provide them the policy supports that would allow everyone to be able to have a role transition to be parents, to have the physiological changes, you know, revert back to a non-pregnant body, to allow people to bond, to have—like, all of that. Those are grounded in eugenicist policies that say that, from a historical perspective, some people can birth and go back out in the fields and work. That there is no value, there’s no equitable value across families because we have only even hierarchy. 

00:35:42 Michele Goodwin:

And those are facts of economic violence.

00:35:44 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Of course. And you know, if you think back to, you know, the way that capitalism, you know, sort of differentially values and worths individuals, I know moms who I’ve talked to have had C-sections who go back to driving for Lyft and Uber 10 days after a C-section. 

00:36:01 Michele Goodwin:

Wait. Stop. Dr. McLemore, no, no, no. 

00:36:04 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes.

00:36:06 Michele Goodwin:

What?

00:36:06 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. Yes. I mean, you’re already at risk for blood clots in the legs, deep vein thrombosis, or all sorts of other physiological conditions, but because they need money, and because we, as a society, have not decided that post-partum people are worthy of investment—that’s what I mean when I say we have eugenicist policy.

00:36:23 Michele Goodwin:

And this as the backdrop of abortion bans. 

00:36:28 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. So let’s get on it, right. I mean, first of all …

00:36:31 Michele Goodwin:

Let’s get on that.

00:36:34 Dr. Monica McLemore:

I want to say this for your listeners because I’ve been saying this to everybody in the universe, right, because I need to people to understand how serious this is. Currently, you know, we theoretically have bodily autonomy in life and death, right. Nobody can technically go dig up your corpse when you’re dead and harvest your organs without your permission. Okay, right. So, if we have bodily autonomy in life and then in death, that means that nothing can happen to your body or should happen to your body, without your permission or your consent, and that includes forced pregnancy. Pregnant-capable people should get to decide what risk they want to take on or not. They are the only arbiters of that decision in my opinion. 

So, if you are a Black woman who wants a home birth with your birth team, you should be able to have that. If you are a, you know, white woman or Black woman or whatever regardless of whatever color you are, if you want an abortion, you don’t want to be forced to be pregnant, you shouldn’t have to be because that is not risk that any government or state or other human, by the way, should have to tell you that you have to take on. It’s not right.

So, when you think about abortion bans, or even worse, when you have this aid and abet situation like we have in Texas, right, and we’re talking about [S.B. 8], now we’re deputizing private citizens to be able to police the decisions that you make in your own life. Again, going back to, are we citizens? Do we have the full rights in society? If that’s true, then there is no way you have any positionality to opine about a decision that I’m making that is grounded in my own bodily autonomy. 

A procedural room at Jackson Women’s Health Organization on August 18, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi. Five doctors work at the clinic, all of them flying in from out of state. (Montinique Monroe / Ms. magazine)

00:38:17 Michele Goodwin:

So, I want to pick up … oh, go. Go right ahead. 

00:38:20 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Oh, it just … it drives me up a tree that … and I want to be really mindful of the fact that, you know, we have had a campaign for the last 20 years that has been very fetus-centric without ever having any consideration for the pregnant person, and for me, that infantilization, this lack of ability to appreciate that pregnant-capable people, women, trans folks who can get pregnant, all of us somehow are incapable of being experts in our own lives is offensive, and it’s very, very frustrating.

00:39:01 Michele Goodwin:

But that somebody at the state’s capitol who’s never met that person is capable of making that decision.

00:39:06 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Exactly.

00:39:07 Michele Goodwin:

But I want to drill back to something else that you’ve said, which is the platform of violence.

00:39:12 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. Let’s get on violence and intimidation. Let’s get … because I’m somebody who gets death threats, right. People think it’s a good idea to send me all sorts of emails, and …

00:39:20 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. I want to talk about that. Exactly. This nurturing over the last half-century, the kind of platform to kill, to harm, to maim, right. I mean, when you think about it, it would otherwise be named terrorism, perhaps. If there were a movement that had bombed nearly 50 legally operating medical clinics in the United States, mass shootings, there are threats, arson, all of those things would be things that would perhaps be put on a watchlist in the United States by groups identifying themselves as saying, yes, we’re responsible for, and we will do more of the bombings, mass shooting, arson, and more and then beyond that, we will use the leverage of the political space to do even more, and then beyond what the news even captures, as you have … were just about to express, the threats that you get, so I want to talk a bit about that, what the real life is like. 

00:40:22 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, it’s so interesting, right, because you know, this morning Brittney Cooper, Professor Cooper at Rutgers, posted a letter of support that the African American Studies Department posted on her behalf because she’s being attacked by, you know, right-wing and you know, Republican folks, you know, who are calling for her death and death threats, right. This kind of harassment of Black women in academia or public scholars or clinicians who are doing, you know, not only legal work but community work, you know, is really something that I wish more people were paying attention to. 

Every time I publish a new paper, right, so I’m a licensed nurse. I’ve been a nurse since 1993. I have cared for pregnant-capable people my entire career, in life and death, right. I mean, my dissertation was in tumor markers and ovarian cancer, so when I talk with people, and every time I publish a new paper the harassment, the potential for intimidation. I can’t be the only faculty member that keeps an email folder called hate mail. 

00:41:26 Michele Goodwin:

Oh, wait. You do too? 

00:41:28 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. And I have to send to campus police, and that’s tricky because I don’t even believe we should have police on campus, but that’s a whole other discussion.

00:41:35 Michele Goodwin:

You know, that’s a whole other discussion, but they got your file, right. 

00:41:38 Dr. Monica McLemore:

That’s a whole other discussion, right. 

00:41:39 Michele Goodwin:

Exactly, so they can keep track of the hate mail.

00:41:42 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. And at the same time, though, every time I published a new scientific, rigorously collected data paper that I attend to very carefully understanding the role of nurses in abortion care provision or what patients who seek abortions really need, I get … I am harassed for a week or more after my pieces come out getting hateful emails from folks threatening to kill me. Oh, your mother should have aborted you, all this mess, right. 

And here’s something I want listeners to understand. Look to the side where all the war and hate and violent rhetoric is coming from because you know what, it’s not those of us who are in academia or those of us who are in clinical care provision who are actually bringing the violence, right. 

People talk about a culture war, and I have been trying to stop people using war metaphors because there only one side that’s being violent. There’s one group of individuals who are using harassment and threat and intimidation. I don’t spend my day sending hateful emails out to individuals who have different views than I do when we think about people who need abortion care. I don’t, you know, precipitate that. I don’t … the origin is not from me, so I really wish that we would be more honest in our reporting and in our political system about where that heat is coming from. And to put the real blame on the blamee.

00:43:07 Michele Goodwin:

Well, to that point … well, and to the point that you’re making, as per the Nation, in 1985 the Ku Klux Klan, KKK, began creating wanted posters listing personal information for abortion providers. That’s something that many listeners may not be aware of.

00:43:30 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, okay. So, let’s take that even to its, you know, full point of fruition, right, because I am filming a documentary on Friday with the Scientific American to talk about some of the work that I’ve been doing with childcare and families, and part of that documentary, they were like, oh, we want to see you in your office, but we also want to see you in your natural environment. I was like, that’s not going to happen. I have had a mailbox in addition to my home address, in addition to all my work addresses since I started my career because I can’t have people harassing me and sending me violent stuff to my home, right. 

00:44:06 Michele Goodwin:

And that’s real. That’s real. That’s real.

00:44:08 Dr. Monica McLemore:

This is the kind of life … this is what … these are the decisions you make when you are an abortion provider when you are a person who stands with people who have had abortions, right. You have a mailing address, in addition to a home address, in addition to multiple office addresses, so that you can have some anonymity wherever so folk don’t know where you are, there in the 21st century.

00:44:31 Michele Goodwin:

Well, there … in the 21st century, and there are people that we both know who refuse to be photographed or be in video, doctors who provide care because they’re concerned about people showing up at their home and potentially killing them or their children. 

00:44:49 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Or their children at school, right. I mean, I’m a childless by choice person, so you know, and I’m really lucky. My dad’s FBI file was thick, so you know, I don’t live with risk-averse people, and I’m lucky that my family, you know, they know my work. They understand what I do, but the truth of the matter is we’ve been living under a system that has been violent, that have behaved like terrorists. I agree with you, domestic terrorists, and people who have been unhinged and dangerous, and yet, they’ve been allowed to continue to do this for the last 40 years. You know, harassing some of the most vulnerable people in our, you know, citizenry slash population, folks who are seeing healthcare at a time when they need compassion and love and understanding and support.

We need this narrative to be really, really different, and honing in on this violence piece, honing in on this hateful piece, honing in on this notion that there are citizens who are trying to navigate their lives as experts by experience, and no one else can be an arbiter in those discussions or decisions is a really important narrative that I think that has been lost with people getting wrapped up in their emotional reactions to abortion. 

00:46:17 Michele Goodwin:

All right. Now, before I let you go, I have a couple of additional questions for you. In Ebony, in 2015, you may recall an interview that was done that focused on you, and you spoke about, when you worked for Planned Parenthood, having protesters ask you how as a Black woman can you participate in the murder of Black children. What’s been very interesting is how this movement has taken on using civil rights, and even abolition, to their cause. There are abortion bans that are now named after Frederick Douglass. One cannot make up.

What’s your sense of the weaponization of Blackness against abortion rights?

00:47:03 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, I think that’s purposeful, right. And again, it’s grounded in an ahistorical understanding of white supremacy, and for me, it is the cooptation of language and cooptation of ideas that are razor-thin if you are grounded in history and you really understand civil rights as human rights, right, as opposed to a legal strategy and a movement to actually try to, you know, shore up the operationalization of rights, but it’s actually much deeper than that because it really, again, gets back to this philosophical notion that Black people are not fully human, that we have no capacity to actually be experts in our own lives, and we need to be treated like children, not citizens. 

00:47:54 Michele Goodwin:

You just broke that down.

00:47:55 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. I can’t … and it’s the same principle of ownership, and you know, it is this very patriarchal, you know, understanding of, you know, we need to be protected from ourselves. It’s the same, you know, retold, rehashed reason why, you know, they’ve always sold it to white women that they should not be having abortions. Oh, they can’t be trusted. Oh, they can’t take care of themselves. We are the best arbiters to make these decisions for them. That’s the allegory when you think about why civil rights language has been co-opted.

00:48:28 Michele Goodwin:

We’ve reached this time where I ask about silver linings, and in the backdrop of all that seems so incredibly daunting, it can be hard to think that there is some hope that underlies what you see happening all across the country, and in particular, these former Confederate states, shall we say? But what do you see as hope and a silver lining?

00:48:55 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, I know this makes me unpopular in the movement, but I don’t really care. Roe was never the best we could get. And so, for me, with reproductive justice advocates and activists and more and more people really understanding that everybody loves someone who’s had an abortion, and that’s the purpose of shoutout that We Testify and the incredible work of Renee Bracey Sherman and a whole lot of activists, you know, I really believe that we have an opportunity to curate a different kind of conversation, right. You know, as the sort of provisions and protections, you know, of Roe are becoming more apparent, I think the opportunity to have a different conversation of build something else, we’re not talking about that enough. It’s all about the demise of Roe, but not, what could we put in its place, right? And that’s where I’m really hoping to push people to think about, you know, oh, my goodness in our geopolitical environment, we could never have, you know, the kinds of elected leaders that could represent our interests. We have two very interesting senators right now in Georgia pulling off the impossible. 

So, I don’t listen to people who limit what’s possible and who are not prepared to have a conversation about what’s better that we could replace Roe with because then we’re so also spinning our wheels around the death of something that actually isn’t really operational as right now it is not accessible and serving a whole lot of people despite the fact that it is the law of the land. 

Supreme Court Hears DOJ Challenge to Texas Abortion Ban, Considers the State’s Revival of a Jim Crow Era Tactic to Circumvent Constitutional Rights
The Women’s March in D.C. on Oct. 2, 2021. (Courtesy of the Women’s March / Kisha Bari)

So, what can we replace it with that’s better? That’s the kind of discussion I want to be able to have with folk, you know. And where can we be working in our own lanes to ensure that, you know … we just got an infrastructure bill.

Where is the healthcare infrastructure bill that we’re talking about to remake many of our organizations and institutions to steer away from eugenicist concepts and really get towards a human rights approach? That’s what I’m interested in, and that, for me, is the silver lining.

00:50:50 Michele Goodwin:

I love that. 

00:50:52 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Yes. Getting folks who historically never … I mean, we had the first time ever a maternal health brief, a Black maternal health brief, in the Supreme Court a case of an abortionist in Mississippi making the argument that human rights from states … 

00:51:07 Michele Goodwin:

I love it. I love it. 

00:51:07 Dr. Monica McLemore:

We need more of that. 

00:51:10 Michele Goodwin:

Dr. Monica McLemore, thank you so much for being with us at our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” podcast at Ms. magazine. 

00:51:20 Dr. Monica McLemore:

Well, it’s been an honor being here with you. 

00:51:23 Michele Goodwin:

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests, Dr. Monica McLemore, Frances Kissling and Diane Derzis for joining us in being part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you will join us again for our next episode where I promise, we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is as usual. It will be an episode you will not want to miss, and for more information about what we discussed today head to msmagazine.com and be sure to subscribe.

If you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. We are ad-free and reader-supported. Help us reach new listeners and bring the hard-hitting content you’ve come to expect by rating, reviewing, and subscribing. Let us know what you think about our show, and please support independent, feminist media. Look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates, and if you want to reach us to recommend guests for our show or topics that you want to hear about, then please write to us at ontheissues@msmagazine.com

This has been your host, Michele Goodwin reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our social media intern is Lillian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Kyle Goode, and music by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.