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Defending women's clinics against hate

Published Jul 19, 2007 9:11 AM

A small but dedicated group of activists are on the front line defending women’s reproductive rights in Alabama. They have launched Alabama Reproductive Freedom Week in Birmingham to counter the attempts by right-wing Operation Save America (OSA) to close the two women’s clinics in the city during July 14-22.

From left: Mary Ouellette,
president, Little Rock, Ark.,
NOW chapter; Michelle Colón,
MidSouth NOW regional director;
Nicole Casey, state president,
Arkansas NOW.
WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

Local and Southern activists belonging to the National Organization for Women (NOW) are the primary organizers of the week, with assistance from Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas state NOW groups, as well as National NOW.

The Planned Parenthood Clinic and the New Woman All Women Clinic both provide an array of health services, including abortion, to women, especially low-income women. Women not only from Alabama, but also from neighboring states, depend on the clinics for a full range of reproductive services presented to them in a caring and non-judgmental way.

The activists defending these clinics know that when a complete range of women’s health care is threatened, then women’s lives are at stake. Anywhere in the world where safe, legal abortions cannot be obtained is a place where pregnant women die.

At that time using the name Operation Rescue, OSA targeted these and other clinics in the city in 1988. In 1998, the ultra-rightwing and anti-woman terrorist Eric Rudolph bombed the New Woman Clinic, killing its security guard and gravely wounding clinic nurse Emily Lyons. Rudolph, who has a history of anti-Semitic and white supremacist activity, also bombed Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, injuring 100 people, some of them permanently. He is now in prison, from where he continues to write diatribes against feminism and homosexuality as well as attacking abortion rights.

Lyons spoke at the opening rally of Alabama Reproductive Freedom Week on July 14. Referring to the OSA threat to bury abortion services in Alabama, Lyons said, “Rudolph tried to put me in a grave, but I am still here.”

About 80 people gathered in torrential rain at Kelly Ingram Park to hear speakers that also included Patricia Todd, an Alabama state representative who is the first self-identified lesbian to be elected to the state legislature. The park commemorates the historic 1963 Children’s March, a key event in the Black civil rights movement, and was also the location for recent May 1 immigrant rights rallies.

Some pro-choice supporters went directly from the rally to the New Woman Clinic for defense, as about 30 anti-abortion protestors had gathered there to chant and preach. Clinic supporters are an eclectic group including feminists, members of the lesbian/gay/bi/trans community, long-time civil rights activists, socialists, health care professionals and people from various religious communities of Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants.

Slated for the week’s activities are clinic defense, rallies, an abortion speak-out and a women’s health fair. On Sunday, July 15, an interfaith panel of speakers from Catholic, Muslim and Protestant traditions explored ethical and religious issues in reproductive rights.

Sanovia Muhammed, speaking as a member of the American Muslim Mission of the Nation of Islam, said, “To me the Koran is a book of choice,” and eloquently affirmed her belief that “a struggle against oppression—and that includes women’s oppression—is a tenet of Muslim faith.”

‘Fighting for reproductive justice’

Of the need to place abortion in a larger context of economic and social justice, Michelle Colón, MidSouth NOW regional director, explained: “We are fighting for reproductive justice. For the right to abortion, yes, and also for the right for the children we choose to have food, shelter and childcare, everything they need.”

Several women in the audience spoke out about having had abortions, both legal and illegal, and emphasized their decision as “positive” and “the best decision I ever made.” All the panelists stressed the necessity of keeping abortion safe, legal and accessible for all women.

Clinic defense resumed at 7 a.m. on Monday morning, July 16, and continued until 6 p.m. There were about 20 pro-choice supporters on alert at all times. Anti-clinic forces were as many as 130 at the height of harassment. The local police allowed OSA to occupy the sidewalk across from the New Women Clinic during the afternoon, even though Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer had secured a permit for that area for every afternoon during the week.

At midday the OSA forces moved their signs and chants a few blocks away to Five Points South, hub of the clinic’s neighborhood. In line with their tactic of disguising their anti-woman position by falsely claiming to be part of the civil rights movement, they proceeded to read an “Emancipation Proclamation” against women’s right to choose abortion. On its Web site, the OAS quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and cynically and wrongfully substitutes its anti-woman, anti-choice language for the anti-racist language King uses. The OSA’s presumptuous attempt to link abortion rights with slavery and genocide immediately backfired when the people in the area heard what they were saying.

Birmingham is the heart of over a century of struggle by working class and nationally oppressed peoples. People who live there clearly know what a real freedom struggle is. And they saw right away that the OSA had nothing to do with struggling for freedom.

Local residents who had not heard earlier about the OSA demonstrations became outraged at these right-wing tactics. They immediately walked over to the New Woman Clinic to offer support.

Nicole Casey, the young activist who is the president of Arkansas NOW, summed up the reason why people are gathering for Alabama Reproductive Freedom Summer: “We came to support our sisters in activism, and to support our sisters who need these services and need defense against hatred.”

Minnie Bruce Pratt has been taking daily shifts of clinic defense at the New Woman Clinic in Birmingham.