Brookline Clinic Shootings: December 30, 1994

BROOKLINE, MASS., DEC. 30 — A gunman dressed in black opened fire with a rifle at two abortion clinics here this morning, killing two female staff workers and wounding at least five other people.

This matter-of-fact sentence was the opening of a Washington Post story on December 31, 1994. Today marks the 20th anniversary of these shootings at the Planned Parenthood and Preterm Health Services clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.

Planned Parenthood buffer zone in Vermont. Photo: Adam Fagen

Planned Parenthood buffer zone in Vermont. Photo: Adam Fagen

The Brookline shootings are generally considered the third in a series of assassinations by anti-abortion activists and followers, beginning with the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, in March 1993. A history of acts of violence compiled by NARAL frames Dr. Gunn’s killing as a turning point, while recognizing that violent acts were happening all through the 20 years since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

I was living in Massachusetts in 1994; my life, however, was such that I did not have much time or energy for the news. I have a friend who lived in Brookline at the time; I asked for her memories of the shooting. She sent me this:

 My 7-year-old daughter and I were coming home to our apartment in Brookline on the trolley to Cleveland Circle when we saw the police swarmed around the brownstone that the [Planned Parenthood] clinic was in. I had a friend who worked there part time, so I was very worried. I wanted to join the crowd of people behind the police line to find out what happened, but my daughter’s safety was first on my mind. Continue reading

Hobby Lobby: Birth Control and the Law

Birth control activists Margaret Sanger and Fania Mindell inside the Brownsville birth control clinic, circa October 1916

Birth control activists Fania Mindell and Margaret Sanger inside the Brownsville birth control clinic, circa October 1916

In 1964, when I was a 16-year-old college freshman, my Bronx pediatrician asked if I was sexually active, and offered to prescribe birth control whenever I started having sex.

In 1964, his doing so was legal in New York because of a 1918 ruling by Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals, but not in Massachusetts, where I was in school.

Birth control is only legal in this country because of a concerted campaign of civil disobedience carried out by Margaret Sanger and her followers. Here is a brief look at the legal history of birth control in the United States.


In 1917, a judge opined that women did not have “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”


In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed into law, making the dissemination of “obscene” material through the mail illegal. Any attempts in the early part of the 20th century to teach about sexuality and the prevention of pregnancy — including Margaret Sanger’s work as well as Mary Ware Dennett’s The Sex Side of Life, which she wrote for her sons when she could not find any adequate literature to assist in educating them — were prosecuted under the Comstock Act.

Margaret Sanger witnessed her mother’s early death after 11 live births and seven miscarriages. Later, as a nurse on New York’s Lower East Side, she witnessed poor women dying from attempting to abort unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. She decided to challenge the Comstock Act. Continue reading