IFAS | Freedom Writer | March 1996 | violence.html

Clinic violence:
the python of choice

By Anne Bower

Like a python surrounding its prey, violence at the nation's reproductive health clinics is choking the life out of legal abortion. It's been that way for years, and it will continue into the twenty-first century.

Since 1993, when Dr. Gunn was shot in the back outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, there have been five murders (assassinations, really) and twelve attempted murders at clinics which provide reproductive health care ranging from abortions to pap smears.

While murder is a new tactic of the religious extremists attempting to impose their religious principles on the public, their mayhem goes way back.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF), an organization of doctors committed to education and improving abortion health care, has been keeping statistics on clinic violence for the past two decades. As early as 1977, just four years after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in all 50 states, there were signs of trouble. From 1977 to 1983 NAF recorded 149 incidents including bombing, arson, invasions, vandalism, and death threats.

There was even a kidnapping. Dr. Zevalos and his wife were taken prisoner by a group calling itself the Army of God. After holding the couple for a week, they were released after the doctor agreed to cease providing abortion services. Don Benny Anderson, a soldier in that "army", was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

A few months after this trial, Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe v. Wade decision, was sent a threatening letter, supposedly from the Army of God. In March 1985, a shot went through the Justice's window while he and his wife were watching television. No one was ever apprehended.

When people think of clinic violence, they often remember Operation Rescue (OR) and its blockades which swam into public consciousness during the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. Lead by Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, fanatics laid siege to clinics across the city and the nation. NAF statistics report 182 blockades in that year with 11,732 arrests, including Terry who spent time in a Georgia work camp for his trouble.

The height of OR's power came in the summer of 1991 with the siege of Wichita, which lasted six weeks and resulted in almost 3,000 arrests. Dr. George Tiller, who operates one of the few late-term abortion facilities in the country, was the prime target of its attacks. (This distinction almost cost Tiller his life in 1993.)

However, by 1991, Randall Terry had relinquished control of OR to the Rev. Keith Tucci and over the next few years, the number of blockades and arrests diminished. Perhaps passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), a law making it a federal crime to block clinics and threaten staff had some impact on OR's activities. With penalties of up to a year in jail and $10,000 fines, the era of blockades has subsided, but the violence is far from over.

When Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) was passed in 1994, the anti-choice community engaged in much wailing and gnashing of teeth claiming now that "peaceful" protests (i.e., preventing women from accessing health care) were outlawed, all that was left was fanaticism. National Abortion Federation statistics show that there never was a diminution of violence during the blockades, just an increase in harassment and disruption of service.

Of course, 1994 did have one outstanding characteristic four murders. In July, the Rev. Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister and supporter of convicted murderer Michael Griffin, walked up to a car carrying Dr. Britton and his escorts, Col. Barrett and his wife June, and pumped fourteen shots into their vehicle, blowing the two men apart and wounding Mrs. Barrett. Rev. Hill was immediately apprehended, eventually tried, and sentenced to death in Florida's electric chair.

This minister of death was the author of a petition claiming that the murder of Dr. Gunn was "justifiable" because the Bible teaches that it is permissible to take the life of one who threatens that of another, i.e., a doctor about to perform an abortion. Six months before these murders, Rev. Hill lovingly wrote of Phineas, who speared two fornicators in a tent. One can imagine the righteous images going through his twisted mind as he pumped shell after shell into the bodies of the two unarmed men.

Then, at year's end, John Salvi III went on a killing spree in Massachusetts, which resulted in the death of clinic workers Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols, plus the wounding of five others.

Were these murders the result of FACE being signed into law? Of course not! In 1993, five months after David Gunn was murdered, Shelley Shannon, a Grants Pass, Oregon housewife, decided that bombing and burning clinics was just not enough "good works" for her. Shannon, a great admirer of Michael Griffin, decided to take her training from the Army of God (AOG) manual (copies of which the police dug up in her backyard), to the final test and engage in what the AOG calls "u.d.r.," ultimate direct rescue. She would kill a doctor. Her target was George Tiller.

Her attempted murder of Dr. Tiller was enough to end her career as a terrorist, and she was sent away for eleven years. Since then, Shannon has had 20 years added to her sentence for all the arson and bombings she engaged in during peaceful 1992 before FACE.

To the steady drumbeat of the old Operation Rescue motto, "if abortion is murder, then act like it's murder," anti-abortion fanatics have marched across the land for years. The most extreme have signed up for a hitch in the Army of God, proving their worth by attacking clinics and murdering providers, assured of their place in heaven as martyrs for the faith.

There will be no end to this madness in the foreseeable future. These fanatics have painted themselves into a corner from which there is no escape. In the name of God and their cause, they have justified everything including homicide. Only vigilance by clinics, doctors, escorts, and law enforcement will prevent further mayhem.

Anne Bower is the publisher of The Body Politic, a monthly magazine focusing on pro-choice issues. For more information, call (607) 648-2760, or email annebower@delphi.com.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.