Today is the birthday of Emily Lyons, a nurse who was brutally injured when the clinic she worked at was bombed by an anti-abortion zealot named Eric Robert Rudolph. The homemade bomb was full of nails and shrapnel. Lyons lost one of her eyes and had multiple injuries all over her body. She had to have several surgeries, and was forced into early retirement.
Lyons was the director of nursing at the New Woman All Women Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. The bomb exploded at 7:30 a.m. on January 29, 1998, just as Lyons was opening the clinic for the day. Robert D. Sanderson, on off-duty police officer who was a part-time security guard at the New Woman All Women Clinic, died in the explosion. The clinic had previously been a target of anti-abortion protesters, and other women’s health care clinics in the U.S. had been bombed, but this bombing was the first time someone had died as a result.
The New York Times interviewed people who lived near the clinic to find out how they felt.
Maegan Walker, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, called it “an awakening” to the threat the clinic workers live with. “They say abortion is murder,” Miss Walker said. “What do they think they did to that police officer?”
Before the bombing, Lyons considered herself to be a quiet person. However, the incident motivated her to become an outspoken advocate because “it flipped a switch in my mind and things just had to be told.” Lyons says:
To hide in fear, to be silent, to be consumed by anger and hate, or to not enjoy my life, would be a victory for my attacker. It is a victory I chose not to give him. Every time I smile is a reminder that he failed, and I enjoy constant reminders.
In 1998, Lyons was interviewed by the Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center. When she was asked what her message was to other folks after her experience, Lyons said that “violence is not the way to do it. If you want to change something, go through the system. You don’t take it upon yourself to decide what is right and wrong.”
Lyons has taken every opportunity she has been given to share her story. Her goal is to encourage others to stand up and speak out in favor of women’s reproductive health care. In 2001, Lyons was honored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation for turning a personal tragedy into a compassionate crusade for women’s rights — activism that has included testimony before Congress, public opposition to anti-women’s health Supreme Court nominees, and sharing her story in several documentary projects. In her acceptance speech, Lyons urged the audience to speak out about violence:
No matter what your view is toward abortion, you should be outraged at the violence that’s being waged in this country against reproductive health care providers. No one should tolerate it. No one should encourage it, and no one should have to endure the harassment, the scare tactics, the intimidation, or the bodily harm, in order to seek, provide, or endorse reproductive health care. We talk about equal access. Here’s your sober thought for today: In this day and time, the only thing equal about access is that everyone has an equal opportunity of being injured or killed.
Our best means of fighting back is to passionately speak out … Are you truly passionate about your involvement regarding our freedoms? If you are, then you need to let people know. Why would you want to be silent? Fear, intimidation, it might ruin your career? Those are all the things they want from you. And if you’re not going to speak up, then your silence is yet another victory for the other side. If you’re not passionate, what are you waiting for and what will it take? If you’re not willing, then are you deserving of these freedoms and rights?
My injuries have taught me not to underestimate these people; they cannot be ignored. Our freedom must be protected at all costs and I am here to tell you that it is indeed worth the price …
I do not want this destructive event to happen to anyone else. I want people to know that violence is not the answer, and never will be. So if showing the world what my injuries are will avoid even one act of violence, then for me it is worth all costs, and the story must be told. (Emphases mine.)
What, then, can we do as a community to prevent violence and protect access to women’s health care? For starters, stand up and speak out. Honor Emily Lyons’ legacy by engaging in nonviolent forms of activism, such as contacting your city, state, and federal representatives to let them know that banning coverage of women’s health care from the American Health Care Act is reprehensible. Educate yourself and others about the importance of accessible reproductive health care. Then share the stories of people like Emily Lyons to motivate others to take action themselves.