After much anticipation and preparation (see Part One), I flew to Birmingham, Alabama to help with the clinic defense of the two remaining women's clinics that perform abortions there. Operation Save America (OSA) had chosen Birmingham as its next focal point of attack to attempt to make it an abortion-free city. Once again, Birmingham had become a hub of the abortion debate, in spite of the shocking violence there ten years ago. I also wanted to visit my friends Emily and Jeff Lyons. Emily is a champion of choice and the survivor of the destructive and deadly bomb set by Eric Rudolph in front of the New Woman All Women Health Clinic on January 29, 1998 that seriously injured her. As if that tragedy was not sufficient, that same deranged act of destruction also killed the security guard, Robert "Sandy" Sanderson, an off-duty police officer.
Birmingham NOW, Alabama NOW, and many other groups had been mobilizing support throughout the city and were holding various actions, in addition to supporting the staff and women having abortions at Emily's clinic and Planned Parenthood, which are about two miles apart. This inspiring collective action was named Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer and it was exciting to see representatives from several local churches and groups, including the ACLU of Alabama, Georgians for Choice, Medical Students for Choice, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There were also various national organizations: the National Abortion Federation, the Feminist Majority, NOW, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. People endured the hot Alabama sun and rainstorms to come to Birmingham from near and far: Montgomery (Alabama), Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Washington state.
The first event organized by the Alabama Reproductive Freedom Coalition (ARFC) on July 14th (which was the first declared day of the week-long "Operation Save America Back to Birmingham National Event" that promised to "bring the gospel of Christ to the gates of hell") as a powerful rally that saw many determined voices committed to keeping the clinics open for women. Here are some of Emily Lyons' words from her speech that day:
Once again, a bully has determined that a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy can't possibly be allowed to decide what is best for her. They feel they know what we should and should not do, and they are here to enforce their opinion. Bullies will control you for as long as you let them. It is time to let them know their interference is not welcome. OSA's stated goal is to help push what is left of the abortion industry into a deep grave. Rudolph tried to put me into a grave, but I remain …others have tried to close the clinic, but it is still open. How long women have the right to make their own decision depends on you.
And so it was up to us.
Throughout the week, due to the determination of the committed individuals of the AFRC, the clinics did indeed remain open and women did receive their abortions, although with disruption. Women were at times called murderers, whores, and baby-killers from across the street, as OSA had received permits allowing up to 200 protestors at each of the clinics. (Their numbers were far smaller than in the past, but receiving this permission from the city of Birmingham to be so close to the clinics was unbelievable to me.) Flip Benham, the Head of OSA, was arrested for using an unauthorized sound system; that was very satisfying, even though, in general, the police were lax.
I accompanied Emily to work and spoke with the staff there. They seemed professional, resolute, and tired. One said that it was a very long week for all of them. The inside of the clinic is pretty and peaceful, with attractive walls of lavender, green, fuchsia, yellow, and floral patterns.
I asked Emily about returning to work and how she felt. She has struggled to regain her health and mobility and will always have health challenges related to the horrific 1998 bombing. She continues to work as a registered nurse, although in a limited capacity due to her injuries. "I am not afraid … I like this work. The clinic is a very comfortable place to be." Her impressions of OSA?
They are bullies and their agenda is intimidation and violence. Ultimately, nothing will change … after Birmingham, organizations like OSA will go elsewhere to try to hurt women, but, unfortunately, they will always be around … It's like saying the Klan will go away entirely; that will never occur. Their destructive attitudes fuel violent behavior. We have seen that here … Yet, women will have their abortions and the clinics will stay open and serve women, despite the ongoing difficulties. This is the Bible Belt, after all.
Yes, it is. Outside of the clinic, I saw several "This Clinic Stays Open" signs held by many of the determined clinic defenders, as well as "Keep Abortion Legal," "Pro-Family, Pro-Choice, Pro-Faith." One defender wore an "I Had An Abortion T-shirt." I hoped that their presence was comforting to the staff and the patients. A lingering protestor wearing the trademark OSA red "Jesus Is the Standard" T-shirt shouted out "Not the church, not the state, God Almighty will decide our fates." His look of disdain and hostility was chilling.
Jeff Lyons, Emily's devoted husband, showed me the locations where both Emily and Sandy had been standing when Eric Rudolph's hateful bomb detonated in front of the clinic on that January day almost 10 years ago. Sandy was blown apart; in fact, he was decapitated. Blood and body parts were everywhere. It was tough to imagine. Jeff said that for many years, when it rained and the soil of the garden in front of the clinic shifted, pieces of Emily's pink scrubs and Sandy's blue uniform came up through the grass. Reminders of violence and hate linger for a long time in many places and in many lives.
This was the reality of violence. Women having abortions, staff helping women, and clinic defenders all working together to keep clinics open and safe from those who wish to hurt and shame. Later that evening, at an abortion speak-out in a public area, powerful words rang out. Reverend Katherine Ragsdale of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice called for abortion to be destigmatized and said that "abortion a blessing and a miracle." More inspiring words by dedicated defenders of women's lives and rights were expressed the next day at our Victory Rally. It was clear that we could not…we would never go back.
I spoke to the crowd about this work being an international women's struggle that is all about women's dignity, respect, and human rights. The Mexico City-based organization for which I work, GIRE, has been on the frontlines of the recent legalization of abortion in Mexico City: That was a breath-taking victory, but just as in the U.S., the road ahead to preserve the law and ensure access will be long and hard … Whether it is Birmingham, Mexico City, or anywhere in the world, women need safe and legal abortion care in compassionate clinics. More than 1,000 women needlessly die every year from the ravages of illegal abortion in Mexico and we need to all work together to reverse this tragedy of devaluing women. The Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer has shown us the way!
After the rally Emily and I went to see the moving exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, again being reminded that out of great struggle, pain, and personal sacrifice, true progress can occur. Two of the staff recognized Emily and welcomed her to the museum. They said that they were honored to see her there. I smiled to myself. Our work goes on…or as we say in Mexico, "La lucha sigue…the struggle continues."