Clinic Killings Follow Years of Antiabortion Violence
By Laurie Goodstein and Pierre Thomas
Militant antiabortion activists have been waging a protracted campaign of violence against women's health clinics and the people who work in them over the past decade, creating a climate of terror long before a gunman opened fire last month at clinics in Massachusetts and Virginia.
The killings of two doctors, two clinic staff members and a voluntary escort over the past 22 months have captured national attention. But the tally of violence over the past 12 years includes 123 cases of arson and 37 bombings in 33 states, and more than 1,500 cases of stalking, assault, sabotage and burglary, according to records compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the clinics themselves.
"We have seen a consistent pattern, acknowledging the fact that people are willing to go to any means for their cause," said Ralph Ostrowski, chief of ATF's arson and explosives division. "In the past we would have acts of violence directed at property. Now we see acts of violence directed at people."
Nearly all antiabortion leaders say they are aware of the scope of the violence and have condemned it, and say no one in their groups is associated with such tactics. They describe the violence as an aberration.
"There is not this collective soul-searching on the part of our movement because we have been responsible and we have been nonviolent," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. There are "extremists in every movement... . I think that extremists opposed to abortion got frustrated, felt they were losing the battle and felt it was incumbent upon themselves to resort to violence."
The Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue, went further and accused "those in the abortion-providing industry" of committing most of the violence in an attempt to discredit the antiabortion movement. He said he would soon bring evidence to Washington that would undermine the government's statistics.
However, ATF spokeswoman Susan McCarron said of the 49 people prosecuted so far, "We found that all expressed antiabortion views. There is nothing in our cases that would show it's providers or supporters of abortion that are doing these acts, but we investigate all leads."
The recent slayings have put unprecedented pressure on antiabortion leaders to disavow confrontational clinic blockades and to tone down rhetoric that routinely brands clinic staff members as "baby killers" and "murderers."
Immediately after hearing the news of the killings last month in Brookline, Mass., Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, issued a statement asking for a moratorium on protests at abortion facilities. But his plea has been rejected by other prominent figures across the spectrum in the antiabortion movement -- including Benham, Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York and Judie Brown of the American Life League.
Like many other antiabortion leaders interviewed, Benham said he sees no connection between angry rhetoric and violent action. "This whole thing isn't about violence. It's all about silence -- silencing the Christian message. That's what they want," Benham said of abortion rights leaders. "They screech and scream about us crying fire in a crowded theater. And I agree it is wrong, unless there is a fire. If there's a fire in that theater, we better call it that. Our inflammatory rhetoric is only revealing a far more inflammatory truth."
In most cases, the violence disrupted clinics where a large portion of staff time is devoted not to abortions but to routine women's reproductive health care -- pap smears, teaching and supplying birth control methods, and treating sexually transmitted diseases. Phone calls to a dozen clinics targeted by the violence found that six of them did not even provide abortion services.
At the Women's Pavilion Clinic in South Bend, Ind., which does perform abortions, in recent years somebody has hacked holes in the roof with an ax, shot out the windows and sent repeated death threats to gynecologist Ulrich Klopfer by phone and mail, said Marni Greening, the clinic's director. Meanwhile, protesters with a group called the Lambs of Christ have regularly barricaded the doors and blockaded the driveway, undeterred by repeated arrests.
In the early hours of Mother's Day 1993, someone connected a hose to the clinic's outdoor spigot and fed it through the door's mail slot, flooding the clinic's entry room. The person or persons then poured in butyric acid, a nearly indelible substance that smells like feces and vomit and becomes more potent in water. The clinic had to shut down for 7 1/2 weeks to get rid of the smell, Greening said.
The unrelenting and unpredictable nature of the violence has produced a resolute fatalism among the staff. Klopfer said he was shot at last week as he drove home from work. He reported it to federal marshals, but, he said: "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I'm realistic enough. Look at all the people shooting up the White House, and that has a hell of a lot better security than I do."
Owners of the Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, where John C. Salvi III allegedly fired about 23 shots, sustained $250,000 worth of damage in an arson case in 1984 and another $1,000 in damage in a bombing the next year. Staff members there have stopped commenting about attacks.
At the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lancaster, Pa., clinic director Nancy Osgood remembers a 3 a.m. phone call in September 1993 when she rushed to the clinic in time to see the brick building smoldering, gutted by fire. The Lancaster facility does not perform abortions, although other Planned Parenthood clinics do.
No suspects have been arrested in that arson, although national abortion rights groups offered a $100,000 reward for tips on this and other crimes. "Finally we have national leadership talking about this being domestic terrorism. We've said that for years," Osgood said.
ATF agents have arrested 49 people in 77 of the bombing and arson cases. Thirty-three cases have been closed because they have exceeded the statute of limitations. The 50 cases still under investigation include an arson at the Commonwealth Women's Clinic in Falls Church last July 31.
Damages range from $150 at a Brooklyn, N.Y., clinic that was the target of two Molotov cocktails in 1993, to $1.4 million caused by an arson fire at Family Planning Associates in Bakersfield, Calif., in September of the same year. The total damage to property amounts to more than $12 million.
A federal task force of officials with the ATF, FBI, U.S. marshals and lawyers from the Justice Department's criminal and civil divisions was created in 1993, and stepped up its efforts after Paul D. Hill shot to death two people at a Pensacola, Fla., clinic last July. A grand jury is currently hearing evidence in Alexandria.
Authorities are focusing on whether there is a national conspiracy, although some officials privately note they have not found evidence to support that at this stage in the investigation. Several law enforcement officials say it is more likely they will find separate conspiracies conducted by small cadres of activists, as well as campaigns carried out by individuals.
Some of the incidents match the description of tactics in "The Army of God" manual that law enforcement officers found buried in the yard of Rochelle "Shelly" Shannon, an Oregon activist convicted of shooting Wichita doctor George Tiller, and awaiting trial on eight counts of arson at clinics in several states.
"Annihilating abortuaries is our purest form of worship," the manual says. It gives explicit instructions for home-brewing plastic explosives, fashioning detonators, deactivating alarm systems, and cutting phone, gas and water lines.
Some federal investigators suspect that there is no organized "Army of God." They believe the manual has not been widely distributed, but may have provided guidance in several cases of arson, bombing and sabotage. The butyric acid attack on the Women's Pavilion in South Bend precisely matches tactics described in the manual.
After the recent shootings in Massachusetts, in which two clinic receptionists were killed and five people wounded, the Justice Department ordered federal officials to record every threat against clinics and their staffs, and began to enforce the civil provisions of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) law. Enacted last year, the law makes it a federal crime to physically block access to clinics, damage their property or injure, interfere with or intimidate their staff or patients.
Last week a federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., used the civil provisions of the FACE law to issue a temporary restraining order against Regina Rene Dinwiddie for threatening and intimidating staff and clients at the Planned Parenthood of Greater Kansas City clinic.
Antiabortion protesters say the law is being used to limit their freedom of speech. But federal officials are beginning to crack down on the death threats that have become increasingly common. There were about 400 death threats and bomb threats logged in 1994 alone.
On Jan. 7, signs were found posted at four clinics in Long Island saying, "Danger: This is a War Zone. People are being killed here like in Boston. You risk injury or death if you are caught on or near these premises," said Karen Pearl, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.
The threats follow clinic staff members to their homes and neighborhoods. Carolyn Izard, a nurse and clinic director at Little Rock Family Planning Services in Arkansas, arrived home one day to find her neighborhood was papered with fliers calling her a "death camp worker."
"It backfired on them," Izard recalled. "I got calls from neighbors that told me that they supported me 100 percent and they were furious that this kind of brochure was left on their doors for their children to see."
Curtis Stover has seen a dramatic change in the protesters' behavior in the 21 years he's performed abortions in Little Rock. "Before, all they would do is quietly carry placards around and not do much," Stover said. Now, "every other sentence is full of the word 'murder.' Patients come in and they yell at them not to murder their babies. I've had picketers tell me I was going to die by a certain date."
Arson, bombings and other violent acts have been directed at abortion clinics for years. The first fatal attack occured in 1993.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post