The Birmingham Clinic Bombing and the Culture of Violence Against Reproductive Freedom

After earning her nursing degree from the University of Alabama in 1977, Emily Lyons developed a suite of skills in a variety of health care settings, from in-home care to emergency services. She passed on much of her knowledge to future nurses when she taught at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and by 1998, she had taken the helm as director of nursing at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.

The 1990s were a time of numerous murders and attempted murders of reproductive health-care providers.

Lyons remembers little from January 29 of that year, a date 15 years ago today. She woke up earlier than she wanted but pushed herself through her morning routine, knowing she could look forward to a nap after work. She also looked forward to being home again with her husband, who was back from two weeks of business travel. But when she arrived at work, a devastating act of violence would ensure that nothing that ordinary would happen to her that day.

At 7:33 a.m., just as the clinic was opening, a bomb containing dynamite and nails exploded outside, killing security guard Robert Sanderson and critically injuring Emily Lyons. Although it was one of dozens of abortion clinic bombings that had occurred since abortion was legalized in 1973, the bombing of that Birmingham clinic was the first that resulted in a fatality. The five prior murders of reproductive health-care providers had been by gunshot.

Wounded in her face and legs, Lyons’ life was changed forever. After a long recovery, she was unable to resume her nursing career, but she became a spokesperson and activist for reproductive rights, receiving, among other honors, the Margaret Sanger Woman of Valor Award from Planned Parenthood.

The man responsible for the bombing, Eric Robert Rudolph, managed to elude authorities until he was finally captured on May 31, 2003. Rudolph was not only responsible for the horror of the January 29 bombing; he was also charged with three others: the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics, the bombing of another abortion clinic in an Atlanta suburb in January 1997, and the bombing of an Atlanta LGBTQ bar in February 1997. Forensic evidence linked him to all four bombings, a series of attacks that killed a total of three people and injured more than a hundred others.

The roots of Rudolph’s violence were in his long history of connections to racist and anti-government groups, including Christian Identity, a group that espouses a white supremacist theology. What pushed him toward anti-abortion violence was his connection to the Army of God, an underground, anti-abortion extremist group that has claimed responsibility for several bombings and other acts of violence and intimidation, including the mailing of hundreds of threatening letters to abortion clinics and reproductive rights organizations.

Rudolph’s extreme political beliefs enabled his crimes, and his experience living a survivalist lifestyle enabled him to escape justice for those crimes for almost five years. After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1989 for marijuana use, Rudolph lived in North Carolina on a cash-only basis with no bank account. To support himself, he worked as a carpenter and (according to some sources) grew marijuana in the wilderness of North Carolina. After his four bombings, he returned to North Carolina and applied his experience being self-sufficient and untraceable. When he was arrested in 2003, he was caught while scavenging for food in a waste container.

Although Rudolph first pleaded not guilty at a June 3, 2003, arraignment hearing, two years later he pleaded guilty to all charges against him and released an 11-page statement blaming his violence on legalized abortion. On July 18, 2005, he was sentenced to two life sentences.

Rudolph’s bombings were carried out in the worst decade of violence against reproductive health-care providers. In addition to other acts of violence, such as a rash of butyric acid attacks, the 1990s were a time of numerous murders and attempted murders of reproductive health-care providers. Carol Mason, a professor of women’s studies who has a background in English language and literature, and who once worked for a Planned Parenthood affiliate, used her background in narrative analysis to look for an explanation for the decade of heightened violence against reproductive freedom. In her book, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics (Cornell University Press, 2002), Mason posits that in an America forever shaped by the Vietnam War and the social change of the 1960s and 1970s, a growing number of American men, many of whom were veterans like Rudolph, felt a need to “regain a sense of moral goodness” and find “a new war with which to revive their American manhood.” The abortion wars became their new battleground, a way to transfer from men to women “the bloodshed, confusion, denial, guilt, and shame” still haunting the post-Vietnam era. As Mason summarizes, “A concern about killing babies in the sense of aborting pregnancy seems to have supplanted the concern about killing babies as part of the immense military operation that had constituted U.S. intervention in Vietnam.” After being redefined in that way, killing babies became “an act men cannot commit (unless they are abortionists, who therefore are not real men, according to abortion warrior logic).”

Opening the door to violence was the introduction of a new narrative about abortion, a change from one that echoed principles of civil rights or human rights — the argument that a fetus should be granted the same rights as a developed person — to one that sidestepped the issue of individual rights and claimed that pregnancy is God’s gift of life, and that the power to terminate a pregnancy does not belong in the domain of women and their doctors. If abortions are allowed to continue, the apocalyptic narrative goes, a wrathful God will stop protecting America from ruination. The new rhetoric removed the focus from individual life and upheld the collective unborn as God’s creation. At the same time, it equated stopping abortion with stopping an apocalyptic future.

Although the optimism she shares with him is guarded, Mason looked at the work of historian David Garrow to answer how we can end anti-abortion violence. Garrow’s research compared the anti-abortion violence of today to the anti-civil rights violence of the 1950s and 1960s — the threats, murders, and acts of arson that were used against the civil rights movement — and how that violence was eventually brought under control. Garrow concluded that although violent anti-abortion groups might never disappear completely, “aggressive and thorough criminal investigations and prosecution” could eradicate their violence in the same way it eradicated the violence against civil rights workers decades ago.

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to see that happen. Within three years of his first term, the Obama Justice Department had filed eight cases against protesters who had violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, the 1994 law that prohibits intimidation and violence toward clients and personnel at reproductive health clinics. (For comparison, during George W. Bush’s entire tenure, the Justice Department filed one such case.) Whether for that reason or other factors, violence at abortion clinics dropped during Obama’s first term. With enough persistence, David Garrow’s conclusion could prove to be accurate.