The Transformation of Emily Lyons

The clinic bombing that maimed Emily Lyons ten years ago today transformed her from an apolitical and quiet nurse to a fierce and outspoken champion of choice and women's lives.

January is a "catch-up" month for most people as they recover from the holiday season and get back into the routine of their lives. However, for those of us in the world of reproductive health and justice, January is hardly routine. In the US, we are always aware of the need to celebrate the January 22nd Roe vs. Wade anniversary. Dedicated abortion providers add "extra" security precautions to their already-embattled facilities and routines. And for Emily and Jeff Lyons, January has a more difficult–indeed, a much more painful–meaning that transformed their lives forever.

Ten years ago today, on January 29, 1998, a bomb exploded outside of the New Woman, All Women Healthcare Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama where Emily still works. The blast resulted in the murder of Birmingham police officer Robert (Sande) Sanderson and very serious injury to Emily. Eric Robert Rudolph was the perpetrator of this hateful act; he was also the 1996 Olympic bomber in Atlanta, where he murdered one woman and injured many others. In addition, Rudolph was "the villain" behind the 1997 bombings of a women's clinic in an Atlanta suburb, as well as a gay and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta.

I have known both Emily and Jeff for several years now and they have become close friends. They are smart, funny, loving, and joyful people. On her website, Emily talks openly about how this horrific act maimed her, and nearly killed her. This excerpt below is from her compelling memoir "Life's been a Blast: The Inspiring Story of Birmingham Bombing Survivor Emily Lyons:"

I have been called a bombing victim. Let me assure you that label is incorrect. I am a bombing survivor.

The Emily Lyons my family and friends knew was murdered by a bomb containing dynamite and nails on January 29, 1998 at 7:33 A.M. My husband and I joke about AA and AB, Before Bomb and After Bomb. The blast lasted only a few microseconds, but it separated two lifetimes. The physically capable person I was before the attack died. The ‘new me' went through a slow and painful birth process. Just like a newborn, I had to learn to walk, speak, use my vision, and many other basic functions. Everything I had known was, pardon the pun, blown away. Life as I knew it ended that fateful Thursday morning, and my new life began. I have gone so far as to make arrangements to put three dates on my tombstone: date of birth, date of bombing, and date of death."

Emily describes her maiming injuries that day: her shins were blasted away, her left eye was destroyed, and her right eye was severely damaged. Her entire body was riddled with nails and shrapnel. She has undergone numerous medical procedures and operations that she calls "hell" and there will be more in her future.

Why did Eric Rudolph bomb the Birmingham clinic? He declared that his bombings were part of a guerilla campaign against abortion and the homosexual agenda.

He has had a long association with the Christian Identity Movement, a white supremacist sect who see themselves as God's chosen people.

Rudolph was, and is, also associated with the Army of God, a terrorist group associated with Christian Identity. In fact, the Army of God web site still contains Rudolph's homepage, where Eric describes himself as an "anti-abortion prisoner," along with other crazed ramblings he is allegedly preparing for a book.

Emily's web site also contains some of what she and her husband Jeff describe as "his bovine excrement writings" that can be found here.

Rudolph was sentenced to life in prison on July 18, 2005. He avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to four consecutive life sentences and through a plea agreement that required him to tell authorities the location in western North Carolina of five caches of more than 160 pounds of explosives he had hidden during his five years on the run. At his sentencing, he said that he considered the bombings a "moral duty" to stop abortions, since the US government is no longer "the protector of the innocent."

Anti-abortion violence is a well-documented phenomenon. I have written about the July 2007 Operation Save America attempted siege of Birmingham's women's clinics for Rewire and Amie Newman recently wrote about the extensive security measures used in a Seattle women's clinic where she and I used to work. The National Abortion Federation provides security trainings for its members and keeps statistics on anti-abortion terrorism.

And what of Emily? To put it mildly, she and Jeff have been through it all. They are still devoted to each other and madly in love. They work hard and enjoy life. They cope with the ongoing effects of Emily's injuries. Emily has been transformed by the hate and horror of January 29, 1998–from an apolitical and quiet nurse to a fierce, dedicated and outspoken champion of choice and women's lives. She did not succumb to the hate. "To hide in fear, to be silent, to be consumed by anger and hate, or to not enjoy my life, would be a victory for my attacker. It is a victory I chose not to give him. Every time I smile is a reminder that he failed, and I enjoy constant reminders."

Ten years is a very long time to live with the painful effects of a violent and deranged act perpetrated by a madman. But Emily Lyons is a powerful and amazing hero for our times. "I fought hard to keep January 29, 1998 from being the final date on my tombstone. In the game of life, I am in extended play, and play is exactly what I intend to do. I want to laugh at every opportunity. My vow is to enjoy the years Eric Rudolph tried to take away from me."

And that is exactly what she is doing. I salute her and I hope others reading this will too. She has given so much of her power, heart, soul, and body to all of us. What more can she give?

Thank you, dear Emily.

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