As Abortion Battle Becomes a Shooting War, Fear Intensifies : Medicine: Doctors don bulletproof vests; clinic workers buy guns or personal alarms as those on front lines fight for survival.
Instead of a little black bag, the slight, white-haired doctor usually reaches each morning for a recent addition to his standard medical garb--a bulletproof vest.
But rising before dawn for his first appointment on this day, Dr. Randall Robinson forgot his vest. As he approached the clinic where he performs abortions two days a week, Robinson saw a solitary protester--a familiar face who’s “been coming here for years.” The doctor smiled.
The man began shouting, something about killings and insurance, while the doctor was escorted from the car and into the clinic by a security officer.
Once inside, Robinson noted that a vest hardly guaranteed his safety.
“I’ve had protesters say, ‘Well, we’ll just have to shoot you through the head,’ ” he said.
The 81-year-old doctor recounted the threat calmly. It’s one of many he’s had, like the message he would hear on his answering machine every night, until he finally disconnected it.
Always the same: “Tomorrow’s going to be your last day.”
For Robinson and others on the front lines, the abortion battle is not just a matter of debate. It is, says clinic director Diane Derzis, “an all-out war,” and death threats aren’t considered idle.
In less than two years, two abortion doctors, two clinic receptionists and a volunteer clinic escort have been slain, and two other abortion doctors and five other clinic employees or volunteers have been shot and wounded.
How often does Derzis feel her life may be in danger?
“Every day,” she said without pause.
She said she will buy a semiautomatic gun to replace her small handgun, and vowed: “If I’m going, I’m going to take some of them with me.”
Other doctors, administrators and nurses at clinics here and around the Alabama-northwest Florida area, where the first slayings occurred, say they, too, are arming and protecting themselves--with guns, flak jackets and alarm systems.
“We all have a heightened sense of awareness,” said Sandy Sheldon, director of a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. “We don’t think they’re finished.”
“I think anyone who tells you he doesn’t feel fear is lying,” said Derzis, whose Summit Medical Center was visited this day by a security salesman who took orders for small “body alarms” and door alarms. Less than a month later, the two clinic receptionists were killed in Brookline, Mass.
“There’s going to be more murders. I would not be surprised if I heard there was one today,” she said. “As soon as David was killed, I knew there would be more.”
On March 10, 1993, Dr. David Gunn, 47, of Eufaula, Ala., was shot in the back three times as he walked from his car at the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services clinic, which Sheldon directs.
Most anti-abortion activists and veteran organizations, such as Operation Rescue, condemned Gunn’s fatal shooting by Michael Griffin.
But Gunn’s slaying signaled the emergence of an extreme segment of the anti-abortion movement--those who use terms such as “justifiable homicide” and “the execution of mass murderers” in support of killing abortionists.
Often offering interpretations of Scripture to support their beliefs, they contend they are justified in protecting the lives of fetuses that would be aborted, just as they would be morally correct to take action to prevent the killing of a “born” child.
“We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child,” said a letter signed by 30 anti-abortion activists after Gunn’s slaying and circulated by Paul Hill of Pensacola, a former minister.
Last July 29, Hill put his beliefs into action. He killed Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, of Fernandina Beach, Fla., and his protective escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, 74, of Pensacola, as they arrived at the Pensacola Ladies Center.
Hill bypassed Britton’s bulletproof vest by firing his shotgun at Britton’s head. He blasted Barrett in the face.
Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced Dec. 6 to die in Florida’s electric chair, Hill was remorseless. He acted honorably, he said, to “defend the unborn.”
Hill’s death penalty--Griffin is serving a life imprisonment sentence--was seen by leaders of both sides as unlikely to deter future violence.
“I believe that there will be more,” said the Rev. David Trosch, a Roman Catholic priest in Mobile, Ala., who has been suspended from official church duties because he supports killing abortionists. “Of course, we don’t have any details on this, but I believe we will see increased violence not only against the clinic buildings but those who work out of them.”
“This will gradually escalate,” Trosch added, “until it becomes a fairly common occurrence.”
The unsolved sniper wounding in November of a doctor who performed abortions, shot as he ate breakfast in his kitchen in Vancouver, British Columbia, raised fears among some abortion workers about home attacks. And the Dec. 30 slayings of receptionists at two Brookline, Mass., clinics confirmed fears that anyone involved in clinic work is a potential target.
There have been predictions on both sides of “Beirut-style” assaults on clinics. Henry Felisone, an anti-abortion activist from New York, suggested that opponents may use truck bombs and even surface-to-surface missiles to attack clinics in terrorist fashion.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno ordered federal marshals to guard some clinics after the July slayings. Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern declined for security reasons to say how many marshals remain on clinic duty or where they are, but said the number has declined while most clinics have beefed up security on their own.
A survey of clinics nationwide, released last month by the Feminist Majority Foundation, found that while the number of anti-abortion blockades of clinics had declined last year, the number of death threats had increased. One-fourth of the clinics reported receiving death threats.
A federal grand jury in Virginia has been hearing testimony on whether there is conspiracy behind the violence, which supporters of it deny.
But Derzis and others believe it is a concerted strategy to scare doctors, nurses and others out of the business, one that grew out of frustration over the lack of legal or political progress against abortion in the last decade.
“After David was killed, it had a tremendous impact--we figure at least 15 (abortion doctors) quit,” said Ron Fitzsimmons, spokesman for the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. “Then you have to consider the chilling effect on the medical students who were coming up through the ranks.”
But only one or two other doctors have left the field since the Britton slaying, Fitzsimmons said.
Those remaining in the abortion business “have done a lot of personal inventorying,” said Derzis, 40. “We believe what we’re doing is right. We’ve made our peace.”
“When you work in an abortion clinic every day, you have to be very committed,” said K. B. Kohls, director of a Montgomery, Ala., clinic.
Abortion opponents show up daily at the clinics in the region where Gunn and Britton practiced. Some are there only to pass out information pamphlets urging women against abortion; they express opposition to violence against abortionists.
“I don’t approve of killing, because where does the killing stop?” said Eleanor Stisher. She held up a poster showing the stages of a fetus and handed out pamphlets charging that Robinson is an unsafe doctor.
A passing van slowed and the driver shouted at Stisher and other protesters: “Get a life!” That prompted her to say that abortion foes have been harassed and threatened too.
Derzis has developed a close friendship with one regular protester and said, “There are some good, well-meaning people who protest.”
But videotapes made by Scott Morrow, a Birmingham police officer Derzis hires for the days abortions are performed, show protests where emotions grow to fever-pitch. In one, a protester begins leaping into the air and shouting, and another speaks in tongues.
“I’ll die for what I believe in, will you?” a protester on tape shouts at Derzis, adding: “You’re going to.”
In addition to his work here, Robinson flies each week from his Kentucky home to Mobile. He started performing abortions there last April--a temporary job, until a new doctor could be found. None has been, so each week he works there one day and in Kentucky two days.
“I thought I’d be retired by now, but it’s hard to find doctors,” said Robinson, a father of six who has 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “They’ve scared away quite a few younger doctors.”
Clinics try to shield doctors’ identities and residences, doctors vary their routes to the clinics, and appointments keep getting advanced earlier in the morning in an effort to avoid demonstrators.
Robinson calls himself “persistent” and said one reason is memories of the days when abortion was illegal and he would treat women suffering from mishandled back-room abortions.
“As long as it’s considered a legal and ethical procedure medically, I’ll continue to do them. They should be done by people who know what they’re doing,” Robinson said.
He professes not to worry about the threats.
“I’m just looking on the bright side,” he said. “I sleep well at night.”