Before I earned my degree in nursing, I worked as a medical assistant at the Bill Baird Abortion Clinic in Hempstead, Long Island, which is believed to be the first abortion clinic in the United States. We used to take turns driving to LaGuardia Airport to pick up out-of-state women who came to New York City to access safe and legal services—something they couldn’t get back home in their own states. We served women of all ages and from all backgrounds. I counseled women and assisted during procedures.
It was also where the first arson attack against a clinic took place, on February 15, 1979, four years after Roe vs. Wade. Fifty people, over half of them patients, were inside at the time. Peter Burkin, a 21-year-old who’d picketed the week before, burst into the waiting room armed with a flaming two-foot torch in one hand and a gallon of gasoline in the other. While a clinic doctor completed an abortion, Burkin threw the gasoline and the torch. It was only because the staff had been trained for just such an attack that they and all the patients were able to escape in time. Burkin was captured.
I showed up to work a couple of hours later to find the clinic in flames, the streets lined with fire trucks and the police, my colleagues huddled together in tears, shaking and in shock. I was angry and struggled to try to understand this senseless violent act. We reopened a couple of weeks later in a new location, determined to continue to provide legal, safe abortions to women. I don’t remember being afraid for too long. We all got back to work and acclimated ourselves to the new line of picketers who were outside the clinic every day as we escorted the women safely inside. As the weeks went by we all assumed it was an isolated incident. There was a trial—Burkin was found guilty, and was given less then two years in a mental institution.
I was wrong about this being an isolated incident—every year since then there has been more and more violence against health care providers who provide abortion services to women in communities across America. The violence has escalated, clinic personnel have been murdered, and thousands of cases of vandalism, stalking, bombings, arson, and other serious violations have been reported. Along with the increase in violence has been an increase in legislative barriers denying access to care. Today, there are 87 counties in the United States that do not have providers available to perform abortions.
This past Sunday, more then 30 years after this first firebombing, Dr. George Tiller, one of the few U.S. doctors who performed the procedure later in pregnancy, was shot and killed at his church in Kansas.
When I heard the news, I could barely breathe. I cried. Are doctors, nurses and other caregivers who go to work to provide legal reproductive health care services, including abortions, for women in clinics and hospitals around the country at risk for their lives?
I am angrier then ever and I am determined to act. As a registered professional nurse, I ask you to join the chorus of voices demanding that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security treat the murder and intimidation of health care workers as domestic terrorism. The violence must stop.
—Barbara Glickstein, MPH, MS, RN, is an independent broadcast journalist in NYC and a member of the board of Project Kesher. She is also on AJN’s editorial board.
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