The Hate of Paul Hill

I'll never forget the early morning of July 29, 1994. It was about 6 AM and I wasn't fully awake yet. I was still lying in bed listening to the radio and heard the reporter talk in very animated tones about the killing of an abortion provider in Pensacola. I sleepily wondered why the tragic assassination of Dr. David Gunn (the first killing of an abortion provider in the US) on March 10, 1993 was being mentioned on this cool summer morning more than a year later. Then I heard the name of the physician who had been shot-John Bayard Britton-and I jumped out of bed. I screamed to my partner, "They've killed another doctor in Florida!" He looked at me in shock and we both ran downstairs to put on the TV on and learn more.

At the time of this shocking incident, I was the executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, at the time the oldest feminist women's clinic in the Northwest. Our clinic was well-known for respectful, woman-focused gynecological and abortion care and for our passionate advocacy of reproductive justice. Having worked in this honorable field of abortion care since 1970, the possibility-as well as the reality- of clinic violence was certainly not new to me. But it was-and remains-disturbing and terrifying. This is our homegrown version of domestic terrorism that has been around since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in the US in 1973. Physicians and clinic workers have been murdered, harassed, threatened, and stalked; clinics have been bombed, burned down, invaded, and blockaded, and patients seeking care have been harassed, abused, and intimidated — all, of course, in the name of life.

Fetal life, that is. The life of the woman or girl is not seen as worthy of any attention or focus, except to attempt to harm or humiliate. Perhaps both.

On that July morning, as I tried to pour my coffee to clear my head, my phone quickly started ringing. I soon found out from colleagues and the media that Dr. Britton and his bodyguard had been killed by Paul Jennings Hill. I felt a chill go through my entire body and I started to shake. I knew who Paul Hill was. I had seen him at the one- year memorial service for Dr. Gunn in Pensacola in March 1994. I had also seen him on the Phil Donahue show and Nightline, espousing his chilling brand of extremist "defensive action" anti-choice hate he called "the justifiable homicide of abortionists to save the lives of unborn babies."

Just who was Paul Hill? At one point in his life, Hill was a counter-culture rebellious young man, experimenting with drugs and not always linking his actions to consequences. Like many who struggle to find focus, he was trying to figure out his place in the world. Gravitating towards the black-and-white philosophies of some religions, he eventually became a born-again Christian and later became a minister affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But he was soon excommunicated for his extraordinarily violent views. His following as the head of the terrorist group "Defensive Action" increased after he appeared on Nightline in December 1993 and his profile in another terrorist Army of God organization also grew. Their web site still glorifies him and his actions, and in fact, defends his deranged behavior.

Hill appeared to become totally obsessed and galvanized by the March 10, 1993 shooting of Dr. Gunn. Full of a terrifying and passionate hate towards abortion providers and women seeking abortions, he appeared on the Phil Donahue show five days later. He proudly stated: "I'm advocating the consistent theology of the Bible and that is we must protect innocent life." He further equated killing an abortion provider with killing Hitler and also said that a woman who has an abortion is "an accessory to murder." I remember seeing Hill on this show and he appeared to be a ticking time bomb, spewing forth verbal violence in a rapid-fire and rote manner on a national stage as he advocated the shooting of doctors as "defensive action to save all of the children, at any cost." I thought at the time that it was inevitable that he would eventually go a step further.

And he did.

If you ever passed by the Pensacola Ladies Center in the early 1990s, you would have seen a tall, slender, blonde man picketing the clinic and carrying a huge sign that said "Execute Murderers, Abortionists, Accessories?" That was Paul Hill. Over the years, he escalated his behavior and began screaming out to the women who entered the building: "Mommy, mommy, don't kill me, please don't kill me!" He was charged with disorderly conduct and violation of the noise ordinance numerous times, but never went to jail.

That is, not until July 29th, 1994, when he killed Dr. Britton (ironically and tragically, Dr. Gunn's replacement) and Dr. Britton's bodyguard, Retired Air Force Colonel James Barrett, with a shotgun, and seriously injured Col. Barrett's wife June. I have met June-she is a dignified and ardent woman on the issue of reproductive justice. She was sitting with Dr. Britton and her husband in the truck (she was in the back seat) when they drove into the clinic on that fateful morning. She told me on hot days, when she sweats, small shards of glass from the truck windows still emerge from her skin. She may live like this the rest for the rest of her life.

In total, seven murders of abortion clinic staff have occurred, as well as 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 173 arsons, and thousands of acts of attempted bombings and arsons, assault and battery, invasions, vandalism, trespassing, death threats, kidnappings, burglaries, stalking, hate mail, chemical attacks, and countless other crimes against women and abortion providers. And these are "only" the ones reported to the National Abortion Federation; there are very likely more. The hate of Paul Hill and the distorted and obsessive philosophy of "killing in the name of life" still lives on in US society. Abortion providers manage to prevail and keep serving women with quality care in spite of the violence, the fear, and the numerous restrictions and societal stigma placed on this noble work. But access to safe abortion care continues to be increasingly difficult-often impossible-and the faded promise of Roe vs. Wade is now very bleak for far too many women.

There have certainly been numerous legal attempts to control violence against reproductive health facilities. The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act was passed in 1994 and prohibits "the use of intimidation or physical force to prevent persons from gaining access to a reproductive health care facility" and also creates criminal and civil penalties for the destruction of, or damage to, these clinics. FACE has had a clear impact on the decline in certain types of violence against clinics and providers, specifically the disruptive and harassing clinic blockades of the 1990s that were sponsored by Operation Rescue. Other types of violence against clinics have also decreased and this is attributable to the deterrent effect of the FACE penalties, as well as the changes noted in law enforcement attitudes and results by the key involvement of federal agencies in the investigation of anti-choice violence which was facilitated by the passage of FACE. In addition, a few states have passed their own versions of FACE and several cities and municipalities have also passed noise ordinances that attempt to control the screaming of demonstrations that occur outside of clinics. Another state law prohibits the possession of weapons during anti-choice clinic demonstrations, pickets, and rallies. Yet another form of such legislation designed to protect clinics is the creation of a perimeter around the building, known variously as a "buffer zone," bubble zone," or "access zone." This area is intended to limit the proximity of these demonstrations to the clinics. Similar zones have also been created to protect the homes of abortion providers and clinic staff. Bubble zone laws are divided into "fixed" and "floating" categories. Fixed bubble zone laws apply to the static area around the clinic itself, and floating laws to objects in transit, such as people or cars

I know that all of these legal changes have helped providers in many areas to feel at least somewhat safer, yet the threat of violence is always with us. And none of this would have stopped Paul Hill.

Hill remained totally without remorse for the assassinations and, in fact, he stated that he expected "a great reward in heaven." He was certain that had acted righteously; in 1999, he told a reporter: "I'm experiencing more joy and inner peace and satisfaction than I ever have in my life." The online and unedited version of his book posted by the Army of God is called "Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn;" this tells us a great deal about violent obsessions. Other extremist rants and misguided justifications for his beliefs and actions are available here.

After being jailed and convicted of the murders, he said his good-byes to his wife and two young children. With all of his alleged concern about the sanctity of life (in-utero only, apparently), he evidently viewed his martyrdom for the unborn as a far greater cause than the lives and well-being of his own family. Ever keeping to his wild delusions of martyrdom and historical importance, he compared himself to John Brown, who had attempted to incite a violent insurrection to end slavery. He was unrepentant to the end and said: "I think more people should act the way I acted." His final words were: "The last thing I want to say: If you believe abortion is lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected."

Paul Jennings Hill was the first person in the US to be executed for killing an abortion provider. He was put to death by lethal injection on September 3rd, 2003, at the age of 49. Many extremist anti-choice groups celebrate this day as a day of martyrdom and so clinics on this day need to have extra awareness around security issues and be "extra careful."Of course, I am not sure what being "extra careful" at a clinic that provides safe abortion care in the US even means anymore. Everyone is always "extra careful"; this is the way we have lived and functioned for years. This is what the deep and unabiding hate of Paul Hill and other pathetic self-described martyrs like him who use violence to oppose the rights of women have done to us.

Even as I write this, I vividly remember the fear-induced chills that I experienced that cool July morning when I heard what Paul Hill had done. My hand still shakes.

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  • invalid-0

    For the record, Paul Hill was no John Brown. Just as the issues surrounding slavery and abortion are neither morally or politically identical, so neither are these two Christian men. The former was a killer who chose to use excess violence as the first measure despite the democratic potential that lay wide open toward fighting for his cause. The latter used violence and actually minimized it, and only when there were no other solutions, when democracy had utterly failed, and those he deemed the enemy had virtual control of the nation.

    I’m not pro-choice but I have no desire to debate or fight with those who are. I figure that if this is what you want for yourselves and your nation, you’re going to have to answer for it. Most born-again Christians who oppose abortion are too intimidated and fearful of being considered “fanatics” anyway. You really don’t have to be afraid of us. You should be more fearful of the culture you are producing by all this self-righteous bloodletting you are sanctioning in the name of women’s right to choose. “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, and you are mad.” That’s what John Brown told the slaveholders of Virginia, and the same applies to a “liberal” culture that eliminates human life on the basis of whether one is wanted by his/her mother. We Christians don’t kill our own children. Still, our hands tremble when we think of how you will have to answer for it before God, history, and your descendants–the ones that survive, that is.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Anonymous,

    I view the work of safe abortion care for women as the work to which God led me. Legal abortion is truly a miracle and a blessing for the lives, rights, and dignity of women and girls everywhere. In the developing world, 68,000 women and girls die every year because they are denied access to safe and legal abortion care. These are reproductive health CRIMES against women. The fact that religious fundamentalist forces in many societies allow this form of violence—the brutality of unsafe abortions—to occur is a disgrace.

    These women’s lives have tremendous importance and value and I only wish that anti-choice Christians (and I do certainly know that not all are physically violent)would be committed to respecting and saving THESE lives as much as you claim that you are committed to saving fetal life.

    Abortion is a moral choice between a woman and her conscience. Between a woman and her God. After all, God is within all of us. No one has a monopoly on God or faith. Women and girls are moral and ethical decision-makers.

    This is God’s work and I know that this is the work that God wants me to do on earth.

    Respectfully, but acknowledging our core differences,
    Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    I once met paul hill’s parents. They were like the parents on ‘Leave it to Beaver’, very nice, christian. I felt bad for them. They really were like the ‘typical normal american’ family, often portrayed in films. He was just a crazy man, but he was a troubled young man first. If he found a different philosophy or was able to self-reflect or if he was able to reason, could his trajectory have been changed somehow?

    Signs he was capable of violence were clearly present. His behavior escalated, his behavior was full of real threats. Why was he not in jail for this? I think b/c nobody believed he would act. We didn’t want to believe it could happen. Yet it did happen.

    Signs were there also, with the kid who shot all of those VT students, he was clearly capable of violence and his writing was threatening.

    In our society, we ignore behavior until there is a crime. but should a man really be allowed to threaten/terrorize the public, as paul hill was allowed to do repeatedly at the abortion clinic? Isn’t that a crime? Why was he allowed to be there?

    He has the right to protest, you might say. When political figures speak, often protesters are relegated to a ‘free speech zone’ and far removed from the site of the political event. Why should the general public be held to a different standard, when a man who was actively THREATENING to kill the people allowed to canvas his target repeatedly at the clinic?

    The least we could do as a society is limit gun ownership for the mentally ill or people with a criminal record. It’s not that radical.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for writing. The downward spiral of Paul Hill’s hate is indeed a tragedy beyond words…for his own violent wasted life, for his delusional belief in his martyrdom as a tool for social change, for his parents, for the women he harassed outside of the clinic, for his own wife and small children, and, of course, for the lives and families of Dr. Britton and the Barretts. Many people’s lives were impacted, and destroyed, by his years of obsessive ravings and subsequent violent actions.

    I feel for everyone hurt and terrifed by this…and that includes my dedicatd colleagues, as well as his parents, his wife, and children. His mental illness and his rantings appear to be encouraged, supported, and likely brought to fruition by other extremists and violent anti-choice persons and organizations. If Paul Hill was indeed mentally ill—and there is evidence to support that supposition—then his manipulation by others using God, martyrdom, and the afterlife to “save the unborn” by killing Dr. Britton and Col. Barrett is yet another abomination.

    Yes, our “system” should have stopped him and certainly had many opportunities during his years of picketing and TV appearances. He always looked like he was about to snap.

    We have extremely regressive gun laws in the US and our mental health sytem is woefully inadequate (understatements both) and far too often ignores the obvious. So Paul Hill slipped through numerous cracks and finally found his calling and his “place in the world” with the violent wing of the anti-choice movement. The rest, as we know, is tragic history.

    As I wrote this piece, I did wonder how all of this has affected Hill’s parents, wife, and small children. I reflected on how it must be growing up and knowing that your father is gone and was put to death for “killing in the name of life.” And that some people in the world think that is just great and should, in fact, happen even more frequently.

    It is very difficult to imagine.

    Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    “We Christians don’t kill our own children”, you say? Christians are no less likely to abuse or even kill their already born children than people who follow other religions.
    Lately I’ve read some interesting anectodal stories from abortion clinic workers. Pro life Christian women protesting at clinics would go in to have abortions, then go right back to protesting. No concrete count has been taken, but it’s another lie to that statement, since you regard embryoes/feti as “children”.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you, Ruthless. It is indeed very easy to judge someone else’s choice of abortion, but see your own as “different,” special, unique, and ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.

    Every woman and girl—and why they have chosen abortion at a particular time in their lives—is truly special and unique. We are not here to judge. We can have informed opinons, and a diversity of thought, but our goals should always be equality, justice, and compassion. No one woman or girl is more unique than another.

    Every woman’s reproductive health choice—whatever it is— should be met with support and understanding. We must all learn to respect ALL women and girls as moral agents capable of moral and ethical decision-making.

    But we are not quite there yet….

    Thank you for writing.

    Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    I, too, recall the chilling interview of Paul Hill, justifying the murder of Dr. David Gunn.

    I agree with the comment above regarding protestors not being allowed outside clinics. Protestors are at the clinic to harass and intimidate. They come to the clinic, using terrorist tactics. They bring their signs and they scream horrible things to the patients, about whose circumstances they know nothing. They take pictures of patients, staff, and escorts and put them on their websites. They incite violence. And they sometimes bring their children to the clinic, and stick signs in their hands, and make them yell in unison as the patients enter the clinic door, “Please, don’t kill your baby!” Protestors are teaching their children to be terrorists and to disrespect women. They are anti-reproductive rights. They are advocates for the content of a woman’s uterus, but they are not advocates for women, nor are they advocates for children. And these are the same people who oppose birth control, family planning, and sex education being taught in public schools.

    Every woman must be allowed to decide for herself whether or when to bear children. She must make her decision based on her own beliefs and her own circumstances, and she should be supported in whatever decision she makes. Every child deserves to be wanted and loved!!!

    Thank you, Marcy, for all that you continue to do.


  • invalid-0

    Thank YOU, Cheryl, for your recent leadership in keeping the clinics of Birmingham open during the recent Operation Save America siege there. Your activism, dedication, long hours, and hard work kept the clinics accessible and the staff safe, and saved the lives and futures of many women and girls during that hateful, anti-woman onslaught.

    And we will see more…..

    Thank you for being there, Cheryl.

    For women’s lives,