The Rebel Girl: Pro-Choice Vs. Terrorism

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Catherine Sameh

FOR THOSE OF us who work in abortion clinics, the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida provokes sadness and fear. For too long we’ve worked with the added job stress of worrying about mail bombs, harassing phone calls, chemical contamination and threat to our lives. We’ve maintained reason in the face of anti-abortion hysteria, and exhausted ourselves providing comfort to women whose anxiety and fear skyrocketed after being harassed by picketers.

The murder of Dr. Gunn crystallizes our worst fears and magnifies this already charged climate. Although the first fatality caused by the anti-abortion movement, the shooting of Dr. Gunn should be viewed not as an isolated incident but as a sort of grand finale to other forms of right-wing violence against abortion providers—particularly full-time clinic staff, most of whom are female, lay health workers.

From setting clinics on fire to pouring toxic chemicals on carpets, thereby causing severe, sometimes permanent damage to facilities and workers, anti-abortion activists have been increasingly resorting to terrorist tactics over the past year, a record year for violence against clinics providing abortion.

Of seventy-seven acts of vandalism in 1992, twelve were fire bombings. In April 1992 a clinic in Ashland, Oregon was closed down after sustaining $250,000 in damages from arson. In June a Redding, California clinic was burned to the ground. With only 17% of all counties in the United States having an abortion provider, the closing of clinics—particularly in rural areas—is a tremendous setback to the pro-choice movement.

Yet as always, voicing our anger at this situation is the easy part. The ever-looming and difficult question remains: What to do? Clearly, thorough investigations into clinic violence must be conducted. To date nothing serious has been done by any local, state or government authorities.

On the other hand, all this talk about the police and FBI makes me extremely nervous, though I understand and echo the desire for greater “protection” against right-wing harassment and outright violence.

We can never guarantee that the “good people” in such authoritarian and often brutal institutions such as the police force, the FBI and the government will be on “our” side. We need only look at the recent history of anti-racist and anti-war movements in this country to see that for such authorities, “terrorist activism” can mean a very broad range of political protest carried out by any group they deem “dangerous.” State institutions have targeted vibrant movements that fundamentally challenged the status quo.

There are no easy answers to such alarming problems as clinic violence. As health workers “on the front lines,” we do want protection from harassment and danger—for our clients and for ourselves. Clinic workers and reproductive rights activists should use this opportunity to debate and discuss organizing strategies for keeping abortion clinics open and safe.

We need to build community support for greater access to abortion and within the context of a larger struggle for accessible, quality health care for all. We should link up with all groups working for greater access for poor and young women, and women of color, who suffer the most when all health care—abortion included—is denied. Moreover, we should fight state regulations that prohibit nurse practitioners and physician assistants from doing abortions and demand that every medical school train resident physicians to do the procedure. The more health care providers willing and able to perform abortions, the less vulnerable they as individuals will be.

Now, more than ever, we need to take the offensive and build on the legacy of the women’s health movement. We should resist the urge to turn inward out of fear, and instead build a broad-based movement that is alive, grassroots-based, and multidimensional enough to offer protection in the strength of its numbers and the power of its unity.

May-June 1993, ATC 44