I'll never forget the early morning of July 29, 1994. It was about 6 AM and I wasn't fully awake yet. I was still lying in bed listening to the radio and heard the reporter talk in very animated tones about the killing of an abortion provider in Pensacola. I sleepily wondered why the tragic assassination of Dr. David Gunn (the first killing of an abortion provider in the US) on March 10, 1993 was being mentioned on this cool summer morning more than a year later. Then I heard the name of the physician who had been shot-John Bayard Britton-and I jumped out of bed. I screamed to my partner, "They've killed another doctor in Florida!" He looked at me in shock and we both ran downstairs to put on the TV on and learn more.
At the time of this shocking incident, I was the executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, at the time the oldest feminist women's clinic in the Northwest. Our clinic was well-known for respectful, woman-focused gynecological and abortion care and for our passionate advocacy of reproductive justice. Having worked in this honorable field of abortion care since 1970, the possibility-as well as the reality- of clinic violence was certainly not new to me. But it was-and remains-disturbing and terrifying. This is our homegrown version of domestic terrorism that has been around since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in the US in 1973. Physicians and clinic workers have been murdered, harassed, threatened, and stalked; clinics have been bombed, burned down, invaded, and blockaded, and patients seeking care have been harassed, abused, and intimidated — all, of course, in the name of life.
Fetal life, that is. The life of the woman or girl is not seen as worthy of any attention or focus, except to attempt to harm or humiliate. Perhaps both.
On that July morning, as I tried to pour my coffee to clear my head, my phone quickly started ringing. I soon found out from colleagues and the media that Dr. Britton and his bodyguard had been killed by Paul Jennings Hill. I felt a chill go through my entire body and I started to shake. I knew who Paul Hill was. I had seen him at the one- year memorial service for Dr. Gunn in Pensacola in March 1994. I had also seen him on the Phil Donahue show and Nightline, espousing his chilling brand of extremist "defensive action" anti-choice hate he called "the justifiable homicide of abortionists to save the lives of unborn babies."
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Just who was Paul Hill? At one point in his life, Hill was a counter-culture rebellious young man, experimenting with drugs and not always linking his actions to consequences. Like many who struggle to find focus, he was trying to figure out his place in the world. Gravitating towards the black-and-white philosophies of some religions, he eventually became a born-again Christian and later became a minister affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But he was soon excommunicated for his extraordinarily violent views. His following as the head of the terrorist group "Defensive Action" increased after he appeared on Nightline in December 1993 and his profile in another terrorist Army of God organization also grew. Their web site still glorifies him and his actions, and in fact, defends his deranged behavior.
Hill appeared to become totally obsessed and galvanized by the March 10, 1993 shooting of Dr. Gunn. Full of a terrifying and passionate hate towards abortion providers and women seeking abortions, he appeared on the Phil Donahue show five days later. He proudly stated: "I'm advocating the consistent theology of the Bible and that is we must protect innocent life." He further equated killing an abortion provider with killing Hitler and also said that a woman who has an abortion is "an accessory to murder." I remember seeing Hill on this show and he appeared to be a ticking time bomb, spewing forth verbal violence in a rapid-fire and rote manner on a national stage as he advocated the shooting of doctors as "defensive action to save all of the children, at any cost." I thought at the time that it was inevitable that he would eventually go a step further.
And he did.
If you ever passed by the Pensacola Ladies Center in the early 1990s, you would have seen a tall, slender, blonde man picketing the clinic and carrying a huge sign that said "Execute Murderers, Abortionists, Accessories?" That was Paul Hill. Over the years, he escalated his behavior and began screaming out to the women who entered the building: "Mommy, mommy, don't kill me, please don't kill me!" He was charged with disorderly conduct and violation of the noise ordinance numerous times, but never went to jail.
That is, not until July 29th, 1994, when he killed Dr. Britton (ironically and tragically, Dr. Gunn's replacement) and Dr. Britton's bodyguard, Retired Air Force Colonel James Barrett, with a shotgun, and seriously injured Col. Barrett's wife June. I have met June-she is a dignified and ardent woman on the issue of reproductive justice. She was sitting with Dr. Britton and her husband in the truck (she was in the back seat) when they drove into the clinic on that fateful morning. She told me on hot days, when she sweats, small shards of glass from the truck windows still emerge from her skin. She may live like this the rest for the rest of her life.
In total, seven murders of abortion clinic staff have occurred, as well as 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 173 arsons, and thousands of acts of attempted bombings and arsons, assault and battery, invasions, vandalism, trespassing, death threats, kidnappings, burglaries, stalking, hate mail, chemical attacks, and countless other crimes against women and abortion providers. And these are "only" the ones reported to the National Abortion Federation; there are very likely more. The hate of Paul Hill and the distorted and obsessive philosophy of "killing in the name of life" still lives on in US society. Abortion providers manage to prevail and keep serving women with quality care in spite of the violence, the fear, and the numerous restrictions and societal stigma placed on this noble work. But access to safe abortion care continues to be increasingly difficult-often impossible-and the faded promise of Roe vs. Wade is now very bleak for far too many women.
There have certainly been numerous legal attempts to control violence against reproductive health facilities. The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act was passed in 1994 and prohibits "the use of intimidation or physical force to prevent persons from gaining access to a reproductive health care facility" and also creates criminal and civil penalties for the destruction of, or damage to, these clinics. FACE has had a clear impact on the decline in certain types of violence against clinics and providers, specifically the disruptive and harassing clinic blockades of the 1990s that were sponsored by Operation Rescue. Other types of violence against clinics have also decreased and this is attributable to the deterrent effect of the FACE penalties, as well as the changes noted in law enforcement attitudes and results by the key involvement of federal agencies in the investigation of anti-choice violence which was facilitated by the passage of FACE. In addition, a few states have passed their own versions of FACE and several cities and municipalities have also passed noise ordinances that attempt to control the screaming of demonstrations that occur outside of clinics. Another state law prohibits the possession of weapons during anti-choice clinic demonstrations, pickets, and rallies. Yet another form of such legislation designed to protect clinics is the creation of a perimeter around the building, known variously as a "buffer zone," bubble zone," or "access zone." This area is intended to limit the proximity of these demonstrations to the clinics. Similar zones have also been created to protect the homes of abortion providers and clinic staff. Bubble zone laws are divided into "fixed" and "floating" categories. Fixed bubble zone laws apply to the static area around the clinic itself, and floating laws to objects in transit, such as people or cars
I know that all of these legal changes have helped providers in many areas to feel at least somewhat safer, yet the threat of violence is always with us. And none of this would have stopped Paul Hill.
Hill remained totally without remorse for the assassinations and, in fact, he stated that he expected "a great reward in heaven." He was certain that had acted righteously; in 1999, he told a reporter: "I'm experiencing more joy and inner peace and satisfaction than I ever have in my life." The online and unedited version of his book posted by the Army of God is called "Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn;" this tells us a great deal about violent obsessions. Other extremist rants and misguided justifications for his beliefs and actions are available here.
After being jailed and convicted of the murders, he said his good-byes to his wife and two young children. With all of his alleged concern about the sanctity of life (in-utero only, apparently), he evidently viewed his martyrdom for the unborn as a far greater cause than the lives and well-being of his own family. Ever keeping to his wild delusions of martyrdom and historical importance, he compared himself to John Brown, who had attempted to incite a violent insurrection to end slavery. He was unrepentant to the end and said: "I think more people should act the way I acted." His final words were: "The last thing I want to say: If you believe abortion is lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected."
Paul Jennings Hill was the first person in the US to be executed for killing an abortion provider. He was put to death by lethal injection on September 3rd, 2003, at the age of 49. Many extremist anti-choice groups celebrate this day as a day of martyrdom and so clinics on this day need to have extra awareness around security issues and be "extra careful."Of course, I am not sure what being "extra careful" at a clinic that provides safe abortion care in the US even means anymore. Everyone is always "extra careful"; this is the way we have lived and functioned for years. This is what the deep and unabiding hate of Paul Hill and other pathetic self-described martyrs like him who use violence to oppose the rights of women have done to us.
Even as I write this, I vividly remember the fear-induced chills that I experienced that cool July morning when I heard what Paul Hill had done. My hand still shakes.