Abortion Vandals on the Move 

A wave of apparent vandalism outside East Bay abortion clinics pits pro-life against pro-choice and pro-choice against itself.

The curse of the 24-hour news cycle continues. Ever since last November, when superficial election exit polls promulgated the myth of a resurgent religious conservative movement, wacky Christians have been emboldened to push their agenda both nationally and locally. Last January, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, thousands of anti-abortion activists marched through San Francisco, serving notice that not even one of the country's most pro-choice cities is safe from the armies of the Lord. The Terri Schiavo death spectacle chugged ahead despite the clear disgust of most Americans. In May, activists with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue picketed the San Francisco conference of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, even sneaking into hotels where doctors were staying and shoving literature under the doors of attendees. Operation Rescue activists also leafleted the neighborhood of an Oakland gynecologist, denouncing her as a "lesbian abortionist." And in the last few weeks, someone has apparently been targeting two East Bay abortion clinics with a campaign of vandalism.

Clinic representatives don't want the news to get out, so the details are murky. But according to abortion providers and activists, someone has been smashing the windows and mirrors of cars belonging to staff at the Oakland Planned Parenthood clinic at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. In Concord, someone has done the same to the cars of staffers at the Planned Parenthood clinic. Roughly six weeks ago, someone reportedly used a paintball gun to shoot golf balls through the windows of the Concord clinic, forcing staff to evacuate the building.

Therese Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Planned Parenthood chapter that operates the MacArthur clinic, acknowledged the vandalism, but denied that it had anything to do with anti-abortion activism. "We live in urban environments, and I think that's the reality of this vandalism," she says. "I've been doing this for a long time, and I trust I have a good feel for this. Looking at the vandalism over the past six months or so, I just think this is no indication of anti-choice activity." Heather Hoell, a spokeswoman for the Concord clinic, refused to confirm the details of the vandalism, and urged this paper not to report the events. "This really isn't a story," she insisted. "A few of our windows were broken and immediately replaced. Again, we have no reason to believe that was violence specifically toward health care."

When Operation Rescue activists fliered the gynecologist's neighborhood in May, Hoell asked this paper to refrain from publishing the doctor's name, out of concern for her safety. That seemed reasonable. When asked why she doesn't want coverage of this latest illegal harassment campaign, however, Hoell replied, "There's a potential to incite someone else to do a copycat ..." and broke off midsentence, refusing to elaborate.

But Linci Comy, the executive director of Oakland Women's Choice clinic, openly claims that the last year has seen a spike in anti-abortion activity. "I think staff are freaked out, and I think patients are freaked out," she says. "It's specifically gotten worse since the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. ... That led to more harassment on the phone, physically at the clinic sites, and it opened a floodgate of haters that are showing up in the Bay Area.

"When you look at clinics that are having minor vandalism all the time," she continues, "they're making claims on their insurance because someone is busting out their car windows. That kind of low-level vandalism is domestic terrorism, and the burden is going to fall on clinic workers."

Hoell's reluctance to speak about such incidents underscores a split among Bay Area abortion-rights advocates. What do you do, they ask themselves, when the Nazis march in Skokie? Do you hunker down and wait for the fanatics to go away, or do you staff the barricades and proclaim that women will defend their rights without shame or apology? This is hardly a new dilemma. Fifteen years ago, I was among the more radical pro-choice activists, defending Bay Area clinics against large-scale Operation Rescue sit-ins, and my comrades and I always felt frustrated by the milquetoast, soccer-mom attitude of Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women. Today, Planned Parenthood officials still prefer to quietly sponsor legislation protecting clinics, while their more radical colleagues think direct confrontation is the only safeguard for abortion rights.

"We're not afraid to actively oppose religious zealots," says Toni Mendicino, an organizer with the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR). "We need clinic defenders that can help keep the clinics open, but also be part of a movement that speaks out against clinic attacks, that battles the anti-abortion legislators and the courtroom challenges. This movement has to be multi-issue, and more radical than trying to ignore what's happening. Being afraid to confront just plays into the hands of the emboldened right."

Mendicino and her colleagues plan to escalate their particular brand of activism, staging a San Francisco rally on November 5 to muster opposition to the Parental Notification initiative on the California ballot, as well as to recruit clinic defenders. But according to Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, the vehemence of pro-choice sentiment in the Bay Area has dwindled in the last few years, and cities like Portland and Seattle have emerged as the epicenters for robust abortion support. "I just haven't found extreme animosity from the Bay Area," he says. "Boston, oh my goodness. We were there for the convention, and it was the middle finger every other car. They're far more antagonistic than the Bay Area. In fact, we've got a lot of supporters in the Bay Area."

In fact, Newman claims in rather colorful terms, the Bay Area's vaunted radical days are almost over. "The environment has gotten much better in the last ten years," he says. "You had BACORR, you had ACT UP down there. You had radical people who would spit in our eyes to try to give us AIDS, or they would scratch us and spit in our wounds, just vile stuff. All that animosity has disappeared." On the other hand, he says, "I guess you still have some pro-choice people up there. You had that woman who threw her babies off the pier -- that's late-term abortion right there."

Again, you can blame that damn poll last November. Christian activists smell blood in the water, and from Harriet Miers down to the local abortion clinic, they're filled with a renewed sense of possibility. This January, thousands of anti-abortion activists are expected to descend on San Francisco once again to march on Roe v. Wade's anniversary. Will they merely look like fanatics and lose more popular support, as they did after abortion doctors were murdered in the '90s? Or will they roll over a pliant, spineless liberal majority that, despite its pro-choice sentiment, thinks abortion is something to be ashamed of? That's what advocates at Planned Parenthood and BACORR must grapple with in the next few months.

Meanwhile, clinic employees need to look over their shoulders when they leave work at night.

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