January 1998
by Claire Spurlock-Cohen, as told to Laura Billings
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark

by Claire Spurlock‑Cohen, as told to Laura Billings

Police vans. Yellow crime-scene tape. At first, when I arrived at work, I thought a movie was being filmed. But as I got closer, and counted almost 30 cops and federal agents clustered nearby, I realized that no film crew had staged this. The Lovejoy Surgicenter, a women's health clinic in Portland, Oregon, where I work as a counselor, had just been hit by an arsonist, and nearly one third of it had been burned out.

I joined my coworkers on the sidewalk across the street and watched as local bomb inspectors and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms explored the damage. Here's how the crime was later reconstructed: An arsonist had apparently siphoned diesel fuel from a 55-gallon drum into a window of the clinic and, using an accelerant (a substance that spreads the flames quickly), set the fire‑starting mixture ablaze around 3:00 that morning.

We were shocked at what we were seeing--and yet, on another level, not shocked at all: When you work in an abortion clinic, there's a part of you that expects this to happen. Every morning, you walk past protesters with ugly picket signs and hear them hiss "Murderer." Your license‑plate number is written down by antiabortion spies. And there's a new and dangerous trend on the Internet: Web pages that call clinic workers and doctors "child killers," something that can set them up for harassment, stalking and worse. Ever since I'd started work at Lovejoy, I'd wondered what it would be like to experience anti-choice violence firsthand. Now I knew.

We couldn't tell our patients what had happened or get into the damaged building to retrieve our records; instead, we met their worried looks on the sidewalk when they arrived for their appointments. As we stood in a light morning rain and rescheduled them at other medical facilities in Portland, I realized that it was just by chance that no one happened to be at the clinic late that night, as we sometimes are. It was just luck that none of my patients or coworkers had been hurt or killed. How can I ever believe that the other side genuinely respects life, I thought, when they've made me afraid for my own?

The fire set that morning caused nearly half a million dollars in damage to our clinic. One of the surgery rooms we use for tubal ligations, vasectomies, minor gynecological surgery and abortions suffered serious smoke damage. Our $58,000 ultrasound machine was ruined, along with thousands of dollars' worth of Depo‑Provera and diaphragms (as a full‑service clinic, we also provide contraceptive counseling). All of our legal records were destroyed in the blaze. Anger about what happened, and anxiety about what could have happened, weighed on all our minds in those first few weeks after the arson. No one joked, smiled or laughed. We were short-tempered--working in such an intense environment doesn't make for a lot of fun by the watercooler.

You'd think that we'd be more prepared for this, considering a typical day at the Lovejoy Surgicenter. Imagine for a moment what it's like to go to work there: On my way in, I usually pass an unstable‑looking man who cranes his neck to the sky all day "to see the little babies go to heaven," he says. There's a woman wearing red, white and blue who carries a 3‑D picture of Jesus while she intently sprinkles holy water on the sidewalk. Every week or so, a group called Rock for Life gathers with drums on the corner outside my office window and sings church hymns and Neil Young tunes remade with bizarre anti-abortion lyrics. One member often brings a video camera and records everyone who passes through our door, even our neighbors, who complain about the group's handheld posters of mutilated fetuses--which actually, more often than not, depict the pathologies of late-term miscarriages. Though we have an injunction against one of the main anti‑choice groups, Advocates for Life Ministries, we don't call the police every time some­body threatens or crosses the line. We have to pick our battles carefully.

A flagship facility in the abortion rights campaign that has provided safe abortions since 1969, Lovejoy has been one of the main targets of the many antiabortion protests in the Pacific Northwest. (Not so incidentally, the infamous Rachelle Shannon, a.k.a. Shelley Shannon--an Oregon activist affiliated with Advocates for Life who was arrested in 1993 for shooting and injuring a Kansas clinic doctor--set a fire here in 1992.) Three years ago, the American Coalition for Life Activists released a list of 12 doctors‑"the deadly dozen" whom they intended to drive out of the field; three Portland doctors, one a surgeon at Lovejoy, made the cut. When the list was released, one of the Portland doctors (included for her supposed contribution to the research on the abortion‑inducing drug RU‑486) was picketed at her home by protesters who carried signs that said "Free Paul Hill"‑a sinister reference to the death sentence Paul Hill, a violent antichoice activist, received for two counts of first‑degree murder in Florida. Lovejoy's owner, medical director and counseling director have seen their faces plastered on "Wanted" posters tacked up around town, which offered $5,000 for any information about their "crimes against humanity."

And then there's that new technological twist on antiabortion tactics: Web sites like "Jay's Killer Web Site" and "The Nuremberg Files." (See "WebSite Weapons," page 131) The former documents the names, addresses and photographs of doctors who perform abortions; the latter posts names of clinic staffers, pro‑choice judges and politicians. No wonder some of the doctors in my clinic have worn bulletproof vests to work. No wonder the Feminist Majority Foundation, a national women's‑rights organization and information clearinghouse, reports that in 1996, a dozen abortion clinics lost staffers because they feared the violence and harassment. I sympathize with the men and women who finally decided that the constant stress of working in this kind of place is too much to take. I've thought long and hard about what I do--and I believe that what I'm doing is right. Without that conviction, I might have been wavering, too.


John Bayard Britton, M.D.
Dr. Britton was shot and killed outside Pensacola's Ladies Center by Paul Hill on July 29, 1994. Hill founded the violently anti‑choice group Defensive Action

Where I'm Coming From

The people on the antiabortion side of the fence probably assume I'm a godless baby‑killer. The truth is, I belong to a church. And before I came to Lovejoy, I trained with a midwife. That might seem like an ironic shift in career aspirations, but, to me, both jobs came out of the same values. I've always had a passion for public health‑women's health in particular. And I've always believed that every baby should be a wanted baby. When a pregnant woman or a couple comes to me for counseling, we talk about all of the options: becoming a parent; carrying to term and giving the baby up for adoption; or ending the pregnancy. All are reasonable choices. And if a patient makes the decision to have an abortion, my job is to help her get through the difficult experience (I won't lie to you--it is difficult) and to make her feel supported. My hope for these women is that if they do have a baby someday, it will be a baby who is loved and cared for.

Before working at Lovejoy, I was very outspoken about being pro‑choice. When I was a kid, I went to pro‑choice and women's‑rights rallies with my mom and her friends. While I was studying sociology and anthropology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, I remember how chilled I was at news of antiabortion crusaders like Hill and Shannon--and John Salvi, who went on a murderous two‑day shooting spree at women's clinics in Massachusetts and Virginia in late 1994. Still, I'd never had to confront the issue personally.

Coming to work at the clinic was a smack‑in‑the‑face reality check. I realized that "choice" is mostly a middle‑class privilege. The majority of my patients are poor, young and struggling, and when they're confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, almost all of them feel they don't have much of a choice at all. I see teenage girls who lack the money or family support to raise a child, or even the emotional strength to give one up for adoption. I see young, exhausted mothers with little babies at home, women whose mini‑pills or diaphragms or condoms have failed. I see single moms with two or three kids already, who just can't afford to feed another one. I see drug addicts in rehab who found out they became pregnant at the time they were shooting up. And, yes, I also see women in their twenties, just like you or me, who under different circumstances would be elated to be pregnant, but who came to the agonizing decision that now is the wrong time. I even see the kind of woman who, at another time or place, would have been protesting outside. These women say to me, "I don't believe in abortion, but . . . ." Moralizing fails them when they're confronted with the messiness of real life.

Life After the Arson

I'm not the type to get freaked out by harassment; I couldn't have lasted a day in this job if I were. I know that occasional threats are a given in this line of work, so when zealots call the office to tell us we're going to hell, I don't flip out. I politely put them on hold. That started to change soon after the arson, when I was in a counseling session with a married couple. Suddenly, the husband blurted out, "Aren't you afraid they're going to come to your house?" The question startled me and got me thinking. What if they did follow me home? What if they came to my door? How would I protect myself? I tried to focus on the counseling, but for the first time I was shaken, really shaken.

A few weeks later, I was in my car at a stop sign when a woman protester walked up and snapped my picture. She had nothing but a little Instamatic camera, and I know she did it just to scare me, but I imagined a mug shot being transferred onto a Web page like "Jay's Killer Web Site," along with my address and phone number, and all sorts of exaggerated and made‑up personal details. I've seen some antiabortion literature go into that kind of detail before, describing a doctor's manner as "effeminate" or his skin tone as 'pink and oily," and I've realized that many of these people are driven not by their political beliefs but by something else: Their activism is emotional, irrational, fueled by hate. It chilled me to imagine myself as a target of that hate.

How would I protect myself? In the weeks and months after the arson, I thought about this a lot. I've taken classes in martial arts, I live with my boyfriend, I have an unlisted phone number, I never take the same route home. But is that enough? I could get a gun. Or at least I thought I could, until a coworker showed me the semiautomatic she carries for protection. When she pulled it out of her purse and dropped the clip, the sight of the stacked bullets made me sick I realized then that if these people scare me into changing my life, if I start living like I'm under siege, then they've accomplished what they've intended. They've won.

Why I'm Still Here

Naturally, people who know about the threats wonder why I keep working here. When my mom heard I was considering buying a gun, she thought I should first think about getting another job. "Other people can do this, Claire," she said. "You don't have to."

But I do have to. One of the frustrating parts of my job is that I see so many women who assume that safe, legal abortions will always be available. I think our right to choose is tenuous, and that the best way I can stand up for what I think is right is to keep going to work.

The scary thing is that when you're standing where I am, the antiabortion people seem far more vocal than their pro‑choice counterparts; they seem to wish we could go back to the time, long before Roe v. Wade and RU-486, when they believe things were 'simpler." But the decisions women face have never been simple. If there's one thing I've learned in this job, it's that when a woman wants a child, she will go to any length to protect him or her. And when a woman doesn't want a child, she will go to any length to end the pregnancy. This is a fact that's not going to change. If women lost the right to make the choice to end their pregnancies safely, the abominable result would be a return to the days of the back‑alley butcher.

When I look out my window at the protesters, I get confused. If these people are so intent on saving lives, why don't they help the already‑born who are in dire need? If a woman turns away at our clinic's door because a horrifying picture of a mutilated fetus has been pushed at her, what will they then do to help her? How are they going to make sure that her child doesn't live in poverty, has access to good medical care, has a real chance in life? When I ask some of the protesters this question, they vaguely say, 'I do my duty." Well, what is this duty, exactly?

I'm sure that many of you who are reading this disagree with me. You may think that what I do is wrong, even sinful. I respect your opinion. I really do. And if you feel strongly about it, I think you have a responsibility to act.

By act, I don't mean standing on a street corner and taunting people. Or putting my name on a Web site and calling me a murderer. By act, I mean doing something positive so that women don't have to make this choice. Work for an adoption agency. Volunteer for a social-service agency. Teach young people about pregnancy prevention. Find new ways to give women the support they need to make sure that the children they have are brought into a safe and healthy environment.

Sometimes, the battle I see outside my window seems eternal, unwinnable. Other times, though, I think there's hope our two camps can find common ground. My grandmother is a devout Methodist who takes part in a weekly prayer group, and because I suspect that her religious values cause her to feel conflicted about abortion, we've never really talked about what I do at work. But on the weekend after my clinic was set on fire, my grandmother did something wonderful. She put me and my Lovejoy coworkers at the top of her prayer list. She and her church group didn't pray for us to close down. They didn't pray for us to stop what we're doing. They prayed for our safety, and the safety of our patients. That's my prayer, too.