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Alabama Clinic Bombing Still Sending Tremors

Birmingham abortion facility has reopened, sidewalk counselors are back, but questions remain about fatal blast's long-term effects

BY Brian Caulfield

February 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/15/98 at 2:00 PM

 

NEWYORK—The shock waves from the fatal bombing of a Birmingham, Ala. abortion clinic were still resounding in the hearts and minds of advocates and opponents of abortion when the facility re-opened on a limited basis Feb. 5, seven days after the blast.

About 30 abortion supporters turned out to “defend” the clinic and a larger number of pro-lifers came to pray and sidewalk counsel. David Lackey, head of the local Operation Rescue group, who has prayed at the site for the past 10 years, was singled out to police by clinic supporters.

“They were screaming that I should be arrested immediately and that all pro-lifers are responsible for acts like this,” he told the Register. “They're using [the bombing] for their own agenda. Their goal is to get us off the streets.”

From media statements given by militant pro-abortionists, Lackey figures that there will soon be efforts to obtain injunctions against all pro-lifers coming near the clinic, even though the bombing was the first violent act against the facility. They will plead the same guilt-by-association argument, he said, that was used to pass the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act after Paul Hill fatally shot an abortionist and his body guard in Pensacola, Fla., in June 1994.

Apart from the specialized opposition of pro-abortion activists, the reaction in Birmingham has been generally positive toward local pro-lifers. Lackey has gotten calls from a few abortion supporters who said they know he was not responsible. He and his cohorts stress they are against all violence, and they consider the blast a setback for their peaceful efforts, which have seen the number of full-time abortion facilities in the city drop from six to two.

Harsh Rhetoric

Away from the blast scene, though, a war of words has heated up. Abortion rights leaders and editorialists point fingers at the whole pro-life movement for inciting violence with their “anti-choice” language. Pro-life and religious leaders denounce the bombing and all acts of violence as totally against the right-to-life ethic. Many abortion supporters dismiss the disclaimers as mere rhetoric. Opponents of abortion accuse their critics of failing to distinguish between those engaged in peaceful protest and prayer, and others prone to violence who are beyond the confines of the pro-life movement.

As is true with the debate about the abortion procedure itself, neither side seems likely to persuade the other—or to join forces—to denounce such violence, which both agree is wrong.

Amid the controversy, the facts remain that an off-duty police officer who was working as a security guard at the site is dead, a female clinic worker lies in a hospital bed with her left eye blown out and other severe injuries, and preborn babies are being killed again in the wombs of their mothers at the New Women All Women abortion clinic.

At press time, the bomber is still being sought, and a national search is on for a man, Eric Robert Rudolph, who was seen fleeing the scene of the blast in a pick-up truck, and is considered a material witness by federal investigators.

The pro-life response to the bombing was swift and condemnatory. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, head of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities called the act “murderous violence” and offered prayers for the victims and their families.

Three years ago, the cardinal was at the center of a controversy surrounding another fatal attack, when John Salvi, who later killed himself in prison, opened fire on two Boston-area abortion clinics, killing two receptionists and wounding five other persons. At that time, Cardinal Law called on pro-lifers temporarily to cease all prayer and counseling in front of area clinics. Many pro-lifers thought the cardinal was wrongly encouraging the notion that peaceful pro-life action is closely related to violence.

Birmingham Bishop David Foley has not gone so far as to impose a sidewalk ban, but he did state that the “intentional bombing of the clinic is against our faith and is a reprehensible act. It militates against our prayers and love for all human life.”

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, a vigorous abortion opponent, said, “No one advances the cause of life by inflicting death.” Years ago, he showed his commitment to those words by persuading a clinic bomber to turn himself in to authorities.

Pro-life groups were also quick to denounce the recent bombing. The National Right-to-Life Committee (NRLC) stated that no one who is truly pro-life could commit such an act of violence to protect unborn children. At the same time, the NRLC took pro—abortion forces to task for lumping peaceful prolifers with violent perpetrators saying, “Such a suggestion is equal to blaming the civil rights movement … for the riots and deaths that were part of that era.”

Joe Scheidler, head of the Chicago based Pro-Life Action League, took an even-handed approach, stating, “We oppose violence both inside and outside the abortion facilities. We never promote the use of violence in our efforts to promote respect for life.”

Scheidler added that in some past fires and blasts, evidence indicates that acts were committed by an abortion clinic competitor or disgruntled husbands or relatives of women who underwent abortion.

A$1000 Reward

The pro-life organization that has perhaps gone the furthest to distance itself from the bombing is Feminists For Life, based in Washington, D.C., which is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bomber. Executive director Serrin Foster stated, “The use of violence to oppose another form of violence—abortion—is not pro-life and undermines the entire movement. We need to ferret out those who advocate violence by turning them into the police.”

In circumstances and results, there were important differences between the Jan. 29 Birmingham blast and most other such attacks. The death of the police officer, Robert Sanderson, 35, was the first recorded fatality in the United States in 47 abortion clinic bombings since 1982. The bomb, packed with nails, was made to kill and injure people, not destroy property, as has been the case in most other incidents.

A group calling itself the Army of God—known more for anti-government and supremacist sentiments than pro-life ethics—claimed responsibility for the fatal attack. Last year the group took credit for two blasts at an Atlanta abortion clinic. Aletter purportedly from the unknown bomber said then that the first bomb was against the clinic and the second, an hour later, was aimed at the federal officers who would come to investigate the scene. Seven people were hurt in the second blast.

After the Birmingham bombing, a letter addressed to a local newspaper and attributed to the Army of God stated, “Those who work in the murder mill's (sic) around the nation be warned once more—you will be targeted without quarter—you are not immune.”

The letter also threatened additional attacks on manufacturers and distributors of RU-486, the French-engineered chemical abortion method, which is being tested on women at sites through the United States and is expected to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration soon.

Controversial Strategies

Not all pro-life advocates are unqualified in their condemnation of clinic bombing, however. Chris Bell, whose wife Joan Andrews Bell was jailed last month in Pittsburgh, Pa., for refusing probation in an Operation Rescue case dating back to 1985, told the Register that while he strictly opposes violence against people at abortion sites, “there is nothing wrong with destroying a building in which innocent babies are put to death.” As a practical matter, though, he does not advocate such action because of the difficulty in ensuring that no one will be hurt in an attack on an abortion facility.

The preferred form of action, Bell said, is the one for which his wife has been arrested more than 200 times—peacefully blocking the entrances to abortion facilities.

“Christ laid down his life for us to save us. Rescuers lay down their bodies—and suffer whatever pain and consequences come—to save innocent babies,” he said.

Taking an extreme position that is rejected by most pro-lifers is Michael Bray, a Lutheran minister in Bowie, Md., who calls the killing of abortionists justified homicide that defends innocent life when civil laws do not. In a Register interview, he compared abortionists to the executioners at the Nazi death camps, who could be justifiably killed to stop the Holocaust. He said that pro-life advocates who oppose violence are either hypocrites or pragmatists who think that shootings and bombings will destroy the credibility of the movement. Claiming that people such as Paul Hill will one day be recognized as heroes, each year on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision he holds a banquet honoring protesters who resorted to violence.

Such a view is familiar in Alabama. Three years ago Father David Trosch was suspended by the archbishop of Mobile for stating that the killing of abortionists squares with Catholic theology.

A view from both sides of the abortion controversy was offered the Register by Frederica Matthewes-Green, who 20 years ago was a “non-death-penalty, vegetarian, abortion-rights advocate.” She saw abortion as a necessary element in women's quest for equality, yet was brought into the pro-life camp by her “consistent non-violence ethic.” After studying the procedure, she concluded that abortion is terribly violent. She remarked on the irony of the bombing, saying that the culprit “did not save a life, and in fact took a life.…”

“The women who were scheduled at the clinic that day simply went somewhere else for an abortion, and their problems were not solved.”

Jane Scheulke, who works in neighborhood development for Catholic Charities and counsels outside a Planned Parenthood facility in New York City, was “horrified” at the news of the bombing.

“It disturbs me because it gives the pro-abortion side the excuse to use the media to perpetuate the myth that there is a very small number of opponents of abortions and they are a bunch of wackos,” she said. “It completely overshadows the thousands and thousands of people who do peaceful, wonderful work.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.