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1 Year After Bombings, Hostility Still Surrounds Birth Control Clinics

Times Staff Writer

The woman who answered the phone at the birth control clinic not only refused to give her name; she insisted that her employer not be named.

“There are crazy people out there who are bombing clinics and we’d like not to be one of them,” she said.

Dr. Warren Roberts, president of the Birth Control Institute of Southern California, the parent organization of the clinic that was firebombed twice in San Diego, refused to give the exact location of his new facility.

“Just say it’s in Orange County,” he said.

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Patricia O’Neil, associate director of Womancare, a San Diego family-planning clinic, had only three words to say about the tension that still exists in San Diego between birth control clinics and anti-abortionists:

“We’re talking war.”

The three comments illustrate how--more than a year after the bombings at a San Diego clinic--a climate of suspicion still lingers in family-planning clinics in San Diego. One clinic operator provides “anti-terrorist” training for workers. The chill continues despite the absence of any recent violent incidents.

“The media attention has stopped focusing on it, but it goes on still. . . . People in birth control clinics work in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia,” said Carol Roberts, former director of the Birth Control Institute in San Diego.

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The charged climate in San Diego reflects the situation nationwide, clinic operators say. Abortion workers say threats have also become a routine part of their life.

“This is just an example of what’s going on across the country. . . . My horror stories match up with everyone else’s horror stories,” said Roberts.

“There weren’t as many bombings in 1985, but there were more arsons,” said Barbara Radford, executive director of the National Abortion Federation in Washington. D.C. “People thought the anti-abortionists were calming down when in fact they were just changing their tactics.”

In September, 1984, the San Diego Birth Control Institute became the first California abortion clinic to be firebombed. After several months of repairs, the clinic reopened, only to be firebombed again in March, 1985.

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In December, after an increase in medical malpractice insurance that would have forced the clinic to pay a $100,000 annual premium instead of $7,000, the clinic was forced to shut down.

Carol Roberts hopes to reopen the San Diego clinic by this summer if the insurance problem can be resolved, she said recently. Radford confirmed that the National Abortion Federation, of which the San Diego clinic is a member, was working on getting insurance for its 250 member clinics, but she declined to say when it would be available.

Despite the possibility of higher insurance costs and renewed harassment, Roberts, 29, remains enthusiastic about reopening the San Diego clinic. She has lost touch with her former 30-member staff, cut “I don’t think we’ll have any problems getting (new) staff.”

Carol Roberts said that most abortion supporters “still want to fight” and that although San Diego is “extremely conservative” she will find enough people to work in the clinic.

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However, Patricia O’Neil not only has difficulty staffing the Womancare clinic, but has trouble keeping the staff she has. In one recent instance, she said, an anti-abortion picketer was found on the third-floor balcony of the clinic staring through the window and taking notes. And there have been bomb and death threats as well as harassment of workers at their homes, O’Neil said.

“We’ve had to spend $2,500 on a security system,” she said.

Womancare has a court injunction that keeps picketers across the street; escorts are provided for women who want abortions but who are afraid of harassment. In addition, employees are now trained how to deal with “terrorist tactics,” she said.

“It’s not normal that a health care facility would have to prepare for attack,” she said.

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The clinic, which opened in 1973, has 34 employees, said O’Neil.

Police never fixed responsibility for the firebombings of the Birth Control Institute, which opened in l974. “It’s still under investigation,” said John Buono, a fire investigator with the Metro Arson Strike Team. “We’re still investigating it occasionally, but as time goes on it gets more and more difficult.”

Religious fundamentalists who picketed the facility before it closed, many of whom belonged to the Bible Missionary Fellowship in Santee, have repeatedly denied either being involved in the bombings or endorsing such activities. However, the Rev. Dorman Owens, the Fellowship’s activist preacher who led the pickets and was arrested four times for violating a court order restricting the picketers, once told The Times that he sympathized with the perpetrators and “can see a point in the future where such methods may be our only choice.”

No one knows for sure why the Birth Control Institute was chosen as a target .

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“You have a group of right-to-life fanatics in San Diego,” Carol Roberts said.

Warren Roberts (no relation to Carol) feels the same way.

“They’re just as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan or any other cult,” he said.

Roberts believes anti-abortionists made threatening phone calls to his daughter’s home, even though she didn’t work at the San Diego clinic.

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Clinic employees experienced similar harassment and soon it began taking a toll, he said.

“Our employees were getting worn out and burned out . . . when you added up all the problems together it just wasn’t worth it” to stay in the San Diego clinic, he said.

Roberts said he didn’t want to say much more because he feared a possible backlash from anti-abortionists.

“I don’t want to give the anti-choice people any more fuel . . . We got out of there without losing anyone’s lives and we’re thankful for that . . . We were the victims of a war, but it was not of our own choosing, not of our own making. It was just to defend ourselves,” he said.

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The war doesn’t seem to be over. Still, Carol Roberts has hope for the future.

“I’ve lost so many battles, do I feel like I’m winning the war? I guess so. Abortion is still legal . . . ...I’d have to say yes, we are winning the war.”


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