This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 10/18/01
Page A14, Opinion; Copyright 2001 by Beth David

Abortion providers have been immersed in the fear
Beth David is a freelance writer living in Fairhaven.

Anthrax. The word itself creates fear. In the heyday of the westerns, many an episode dealt with the dreaded disease. WThe usual method required killing every last steer and never using the poisoned pasture again.

Fast forward to the late 1990s. Abortion providers around the country get powdery substances in the mail, with notes labeling them as anthrax.

By 1998, most clinics and many activist groups had instituted strict policies for opening their mail. The task once reserved for the lowliest intern now went to the bravest.

These are the people who can teach us how to live with the threat of violence. We need not turn to the Londoners of World War II, or the survivors of some faraway war. We need only look to everyday Americans who refuse to be cowed, even when faced with sniper shootings, fire bombings and chemical attacks.

The reality is that every woman on this planet lives with the threat of violence perpetrated by men who are coddled by a system created by men to protect men. But I digress. That subject deserves its very own column.

At Cincinnati Women's Services, Executive Director Debi Jackson has been the only one opening mail for years. She knows all the warning signs. On Feb. 18, 1999, she opened an envelope that looked perfectly legitimate to her trained eye.

Inside she found a piece of paper smudged with a powdery substance with a crudely drawn skull and crossbones on it. The writing read: "Anthrax. Have a nice death."

The tale then becomes one of conflicting messages from authorities, to chaos at the clinic, to a humiliating experience with "decontamination."

In Debi's words it was a "big zoo."

"There was a lot of not knowing what was going on," she said.

But Debi did not run for the safety of a new profession. Instead, she arranged a meeting with the FBI, ATF, the police and fire chiefs, and the directors of the city's other abortion clinics. They developed a more orderly way of dealing with bioterrorism.

The meeting created a new level of trust and understanding among the response teams and the targets of this very real threat. And that is the biggest blow to terrorism.

"The goal is to paralyze, to make you hunker down and change your lifestyle," said Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. "That's what abortion providers have learned. It was the specter of violence and the words they are using."

And the chaos. And the uncertainty. And the disruption of services.

Fast forward to October, 2001.

Anthrax-threatening letters have turned up throughout the country. Only this time, some of the "powdery substances" have actually contained anthrax. One man has died, and several others are being treated for exposure.

The attorney general is furious. He will not stand for it. After all, Tom Brokaw got one of those letters.

Surely, abortion providers would have benefited from such righteous indignation in years past. According to research done by the Feminist Majority Foundation, there is a direct correlation between a strong response by law enforcement and a drop in clinic violence.

Abortion providers have not been left out of the current spate of threats. They have received at least 110 anthrax-threatening letters in recent days.

Fortunately, they have learned well from their experiences. This time around, the vast majority of the suspicious letters were sent unopened to authorities. Not that it matters. No one has ever been arrested.

"Our folks have learned how to handle the prospect of terror, with security measures and that kind of thing," said Mr. Fitzsimmons. "But we have also learned to go on with our lives. You've got to do this."

Meanwhile, people around the country are reporting every powdery substance they encounter as "suspicious." The result is an emergency response system stretched to its limit and a very edgy populace.

"Our clinics have been through that drill," said Mr. Fitzsimmons. "But for the public, this is the first time."

Back in Cincinnati, Debi Jackson experiences deja vu and sends this message: "Abortion providers have been living with the fear and suspicion our mail delivery brings for years -- along with the fear of bombs, snipers killing our physicians and staff people, and whatever activities America's own religious fundamentalists can think up. We have not and will not bow to those who choose to inflict their radical fundamentalist religious views on others, especially when they turn to violent terrorism to send their message."

Maybe it's time the world looked to women like Debi for the courage to take on this threat. Obviously, the way it has been handled since the beginning of recorded history hasn't worked very well.