Clinic Violence, A Personal Account

The following is an article from the Rag issue #4, which was published three years ago in October 2009. It's a personal account of working in an abortion clinic, and its dangers. While we launch campaigns to achieve the right to choose abortion in Ireland, it should always be in the back of our mind that this will never be a cause completely won, because threats (legislative, violent, societal) will always remain.

It seemed like any other Friday morning at work on 30 December 1994. The cold New England winter was in full effect as I scurried into the warmth of the abortion clinic, where I worked as a receptionist and telephone counsellor. I greeted Stan, the armed security guard at the door, and clocked in. Stan was a somewhat eccentric guy who had been in the US Army for many years. He had the affect of someone who had been in combat and never quite got over it, but would never admit it. His modus operandi seemed to be “tough guy with a soft side,” but on duty he was all tough guy. I was on phones that day, which I was thankful for because it was a busy Friday, and I didn’t feel like dealing with all the patients in the waiting room downstairs. So I sat down, coffee in hand, shut the answering machine off, and started to answer the ringing phones.

When I told my parents I would be working at an abortion clinic on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, my mother said, “I don’t suppose I can talk you out of that, can I?” She knew the answer. I had been adamantly pro-choice for years, and despite the dangers of working in a clinic, I jumped at the chance. Massachusetts had a “buffer zone” law designed to protect patients and staff that prevented protesters from picketing closer than 18 feet from the building. Sadly, this was mostly not enforced, and clinics didn’t have a method of screening who got into the building. Anyone could simply walk right in. 

Later in the morning, I received a phone call from Stan’s wife, wanting to know if he was OK. “Um..I think so?” I answered tentatively. Why would he not be? I peeked downstairs and saw him standing, like always, at his post. After she called, a couple of other people called, friends and family of some of the medical staff, wanting to know if they were OK too. I told them that everything was just fine here. But by then I was really starting to wonder what was going on.

That’s when my boyfriend called. “Thank God,” he said, when I answered the phone, “I nearly had a heart attack. Is everything OK?” He had been driving to work, listening to the radio, when a breaking news bulletin came on the air to say that two clinics on Beacon Street in Brookline had been attacked by a gunman. Several people, including each of their receptionists, had been shot.  He heard the report on the radio and thought I might be dead. He nearly crashed the car pulling over to call me from a payphone. I insisted that I was fine, although inside I had started to panic a little.

It seemed as though the moment I knew why everyone was calling the clinic, the phone lines truly started to light up. Bits of information poured in about the clinic shootings. But one thing was on my mind and the minds of everyone I worked with: Lee Ann. 

Lee Ann Nichols, our former co-worker, the woman who trained me to do my job, and though it sounds trite to say so, one of the most unique and fantastic people I’d ever met, had just left us to work at a neighbouring clinic only three months prior. So quiet and sweet, you would never expect her to be wry and hilarious at the same time. And I remember the day she told me she was 38. I couldn’t stop staring at her. She looked all of 24. We were sorry to see her go because she felt like the light of our office. But frustration at our overbearing boss forced her to find work elsewhere. She had been hired as a receptionist at Preterm, a clinic only a few blocks away. It had just been attacked. We hoped and prayed that she had had the morning off. I wish I could say that she did. But word quickly spread that Lee Ann had been shot. The gunman had walked into each of the clinics, verified with each receptionist that he was in the right place, and then pulled his rifle out of a gym bag and started shooting, starting with her. People ran for cover and out any door they could. Then he walked out. Neither of the clinics had armed security, so no one could stop him.

The two clinics that were hit each sat a few blocks on either side of the clinic where I worked. We wondered why he skipped over us. The only thing we could figure was that our armed guard, surveillance cameras, and the awkward layout of our clinic deterred him from hitting us. You had to walk through two heavy glass doors and down the stairs to get to reception. He could have gotten in, but he never would have gotten out alive. Supposedly, our security cameras showed him walking around the building several days before the attack. But knowing that he literally hit one clinic, drove by ours, and then hit the other was truly sickening.

We managed to finish out the workday in tears of sadness and fear. It may seem incredible that we saw all of our patients that day, and the only explanation I can come up with is that this clinic was a for-profit business. Lost patients meant lost revenue. But this for-profit status was also the reason why we had an armed guard, while the other two clinics, both non-profits, did not. My co-workers and I didn’t put up a fuss about continuing to work, but the perpetrator still had not been caught, and we felt like sitting ducks, as if a bomb could go off any second.

When my shift was done, I went home and turned on the news. One man, who had been sitting in one of the waiting rooms talked about what happened. He said that as he sat in the waiting room, he was thinking to himself about the receptionists’ voice, and how it was the most soothing, beautiful voice he’d ever heard. I started to cry because I knew he was speaking of Lee Ann. Her voice was pure music, and I’d remarked on it myself. But the man on TV continued to say that his reverie was broken by the gunman coming in and shouting at her “This is what you get! You should pray the rosary!” while he shot ten bullets into the woman the stunned witness had only, seconds before, been lulled by. “How could anyone shoot this innocent woman?” he asked. Lee Ann and Shannon Lowney, Planned Parenthood’s receptionist, were pronounced dead. I turned off the television. 

My boyfriend came home early from work with instructions and cash from his boss who commanded him to take me out for dinner. We went to our favourite Thai place. But everyone at all the tables around us were talking loudly about the clinic shootings. I wanted to stand up and scream at everyone that they didn’t know the half of how horrible it was. It wasn’t just a news story! People, really lovely people with lilting voices and hilarious senses of humour, who were loved and cared for by friends and family were dead. And here we all were having dinner talking about it like it was a soundbite. But of course I didn’t. Instead we took home what was left of our food.

The next day, the front page of The Boston Herald featured a huge photo of Lee Ann being wheeled out to an ambulance, smeared all over in blood. She had no shirt on, a cloth haphazardly thrown on top of her, but you could clearly see the side of her breast. It was a disgusting last image of a friend, put there to sensationalise and sell papers.

A candlelight vigil was held in front of the statehouse as a reaction to the shootings. I went with a friend and co-worker. As we held little candles in our cold, chapped hands, we felt completely alienated by the chants and speeches given that night. Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney had become martyrs for the Pro-Choice cause. The occasion was not to remember who these two women were, but to declare what they would now represent. My companion and I couldn’t see beyond our grief to grapple with the big picture just then.

On Sunday, I had to work again --my regular Sunday shift. I usually enjoyed Sundays because I was the only one in the building, so I had free reign to do whatever I wanted. Sometimes I even brought my guitar. But when I showed up less than 48 hours after the shootings, I found a cop car stationed out front guarding the building. The city provided this round-the-clock security to all of the clinics in case the suspect or anyone else wanted to have another go. At first, I thought I’d be brave and go in alone, disabling the security system in the dark interior of the clinic. But once I was inside, I went back out again and asked one of the policemen to come in with me and have a look around. I thanked the policeman, and he went back to drinking coffee in his car while I turned the answering machine off and started my work. It was New Year’s Day.

The news that John Salvi, the killer, had been caught in Norfolk, Virginia, shooting at a clinic there from outside, wouldn’t be out until that day’s paper. (Luckily no one was injured.) He  pled insanity, saying he was schizophrenic, but was convicted of murder on March 19, 1996. Ironically, that same day, the Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of abortion clinic “buffer zones.” Salvi was found dead eight months later in his prison cell. When I saw his photo on the front page of the newspaper with the headline, I felt numb with hatred and anger: he’d never get to be punished for what he did. And since he died before his appeal could be processed, a judge overturned his conviction, essentially exonerating him after death. That’s justice for you, I guess.

And clinic violence rages on. In May of this year, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was shot dead in his own church after repeated threats had been made to his life. In today’s world of anti-terrorism campaigns, I wonder if those committing abortion clinic violence will ever be seen as the true terrorists that they are. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.

Since Roe vs. Wade made abortions legal in the US in 1973, protests against clinics have become progressively more violent. Arson, gun fire, bombings, and chemical warfare are just some of the more alarming tactics. However, anti-choice protesters also use cameras to intimidate clinic patients, regularly blockade entrances, try to stop patients and their escorts from getting out of their cars and stand outside of clinics with posters featuring mutilated babies. Their terrifying tactics are designed to instill fear in both the providers of abortion and anyone seeking their services.

The fight for choice doesn't end with making abortion legal. The battle against anti-choice terrorism is a fight for all time. Since 1993, their violent, murderous tactics have failed to get the media coverage and outrage they deserve. The list of extremely violent acts, compiled by the National Abortion Federation is truly impressive, and not in a good way. 

In the US, while law-abiding anarchists as well as activists taking part in direct actions to protect animals and the environment are being jailed without due process and convicted as terrorists, abortion clinic violence is not considered a terrorist act under the law, despite the fact that clinic staff are confronted with threats of violence every single day. Letters claiming to contain anthrax. Acid attacks. Arson. Stabbings. Shootings. Bombings. These are real threats, real dangers that people must face when going to work each day, not to mention the patients. 

It's pretty grim, to be honest. But that's why we must persevere. It's why it's our job to educate people on why abortion safety is important, why it's essential to de-stigmatise abortion, why it's ok to admit that we're afraid, but why we must soldier on with making our pro-choice voices heard, even after we win the right to choose.

For an idea of the frustrations, fears, and dangers faced by patients and pro-choice volunteer escorts (and to learn more about escorting) at an abortion clinic in Kentucky, USA, check out the blog "Every Saturday Morning" at

The Rag, Issues 1 to 6

The Rag, Issues 1 to 6