Blast at Alabama Abortion Clinic Kills a Policeman, Injures Nurse
By Donald P. Baker
A bomb so powerful that it shattered glass a block away exploded outside a Birmingham abortion clinic today, killing an off-duty policeman moonlighting as a security guard and seriously injuring a nurse on her way to work.
Officials said it was the first fatal bombing of an abortion clinic since violence at clinics began to be recorded more than 15 years ago, although five people have been killed and at least a dozen injured in shootings by antiabortion extremists around the country. The blast occurred one week after the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
President Clinton swiftly condemned the bombing, calling it "an unforgivable act that strikes at the heart of the constitutional freedoms and individual liberties all Americans hold dear" and pointing out that recent legislation makes it a federal crime to interfere with a woman exercising her right to visit an abortion clinic.
"We will continue to enforce that law to its fullest extent -- and to protect our nation's family planning clinics," Clinton added in a statement in Washington.
Randy Tate, executive director of the antiabortion Christian Coalition, joined in the condemnation, calling it a "reprehensible act of violence."
No one asserted responsibility for the attack, which occurred at 7:33 a.m., before the clinic had opened, and no warning was given, according to Birmingham Police Chief Mike Coppage.
Antiabortion protesters marched here last week, but police said the demonstrations were peaceful. Tensions have been high in Alabama over efforts in the state legislature to ban certain late-term abortions that opponents call "partial-birth" abortions. Alabama is one of 19 states where lawmakers have sought such bans.
Seeking to avert a legal standoff, however, the attorney general has ruled that the law does not apply to abortions carried out before the fetus is viable to live outside the womb. In 11 other states that have such laws, federal or state judges asked to rule on the constitutionality of the bans have blocked their implementation.
The clinic bombed today, the New Woman All Women Health Care center, is among four Alabama abortion centers that have tried through lawsuits to block the state government from carrying out its ban despite the attorney general's attempt at compromise. A request from the clinics that the law be suspended until the legal case is settled was turned down Monday by a federal judge in Montgomery, the state capital.
Robert Sanderson, the 35-year-old officer who was killed today, had just left his shift on the city force and was arriving for his job as a security guard at the clinic, Coppage said. The nurse, identified as Emily Lyons, was on her way to work there.
The explosion occurred just outside the front door of the clinic, which adjoins the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and its medical school in a congested area just south of this southern city's downtown commercial center. Police quickly sealed off the area and ordered the evacuation of three university dormitories and a nearby day-care center, fearing a second bomb. But no further incidents occurred.
The two-story building's windows were blasted out and an awning over the entrance was ripped apart by the force of the explosion. Debris littered the street and a crater was visible where the bomb went off.
The stench of fire and burned wood permeated the downtown area. Shattered windows were visible across a broad area surrounding the clinic.
The explosion occurred about half an hour before the clinic normally opens for the day.
"We were 30 seconds away from being in that parking lot," Terry Hermes, who was taking his wife, Lisa, to her counseling job at the clinic, told the Associated Press.
"It felt like lightning had hit the building," said Lindsey Thompson, a university student who felt the blast from her dorm room.
Larry Kasperek, who was on his way to work as a graphics director at the Birmingham Post-Herald, said the off-duty police officer apparently was killed immediately. His body was seen lying in bushes, he said. The nurse, her dress partly torn away, lay bleeding in the yard as smoke swirled around her, Kasperek said.
"This was a vicious, wicked and diabolical attack intended to kill anyone within close proximity," said James Cavanaugh of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, one of more than 100 federal investigators dispatched to the scene. "It was not designed to damage property; it was designed to kill or injure."
Cavanaugh said the bomb appeared to be homemade. He said it was composed of "condensed explosive material" but did not identify the explosive.
U.S. Attorney Douglas Jones said "we are concerned" that the bombing could be linked to an abortion clinic bombing in Atlanta a year ago. "But it also could be an isolated incident," he cautioned.
In the Atlanta bombing, two explosions went off an hour apart, with the second blast causing seven injuries among people who had gathered to view damage caused by the first.
One antiabortion protester was on the scene in Birmingham today when the explosion occurred, police said. He and several other passers-by were taken in for questioning but later released.
"We've been out here 10 years on a daily basis," said David Lackey, national youth director and Alabama director of Operation Rescue, a leading antiabortion organization, "and I've never seen anyone on the streets espouse violence. We require a nonviolence pledge, always have. It doesn't help what we are trying to accomplish."
Michele Wilson, who volunteers at the nearby Summit Women's Clinic, said the New Woman clinic received a written threat last week, but it was from a known crank who was not considered dangerous. The Summit clinic did not receive the threat.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post