Look out and lock up, abortion providers told

January 05, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

From Seattle to Baltimore, abortion providers are reviewing their security procedures, considering everything from installing metal detectors to hiring armed security guards.

Their concerns have been heightened because weekend shootings at two clinics in Brookline, Mass., crossed a real and perceived threshold. The attacker opened fire inside the clinics, killing two staffers and wounding five other people. And while clinic administrators may feel uncomfortable about imposing new measures that may inconvenience patients, the restrictions may be unavoidable.

Since the shootings at the two clinics in suburban Boston on Friday and in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, Ann Glazier has fielded 40 calls a day from abortion providers who are worried about security. Ms. Glazier, the director of the clinic defense project for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has offered pointed advice.

"You have to be able to see who is coming to your clinic before you open the door. You have to look into everybody's parcel or purse that comes into the building," said Ms. Glazier, who heads the New York organization's six-month project.

"You really don't want to become an armed camp, where no one wants to work, and no one wants to come as a patient," said Joan Coombs, a Philadelphia clinic director who chairs a planning committee for the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based provider association. "But it would be foolish and insensitive to do nothing. What you're looking for is a balance."

"If your employees get to the point where they are too afraid to come to work, you're not going to have a clinic," added JoAnn Lewallen, director of the Memphis Area Medical Center for Women in Tennessee. "We're doing as much as we can do financially."

Security is not a new issue for abortion providers, although the weekend shootings have sharpened the issue. Clinic firebombings and vandalism attacks date to the late 1970s. Abortion opponents routinely picket clinics, although many do so peacefully.

But as incidents of violence have increased, so too has security. Today, some physicians wear bulletproof vests to their clinics. Others are escorted to work. If a center employs an armed security guard, a patient may be asked for identification at the door.

Like many of their counterparts interviewed across the country, officials at Maryland clinics refused to discuss specifics. Measures vary based on a center's locale, the kind of building it uses and medical procedures performed there.

"We consistently review our security here. It's ongoing," said Maris St. Cyr, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which has seven health centers. "We don't want to say what we have or what we don't have."

Cheryl Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Hillcrest Clinic on Baltimore National Pike, said doors are locked and patients have to be buzzed in. She would not discuss other protections. "We are just more wary," she said. "We do try to keep a very low profile, and I think that helps."

Other abortion providers said the recent shootings in Massachusetts and Virginia have increased fears that clinic assaults are not isolated incidents planned by a few unstable members of the religious right. And several national anti-abortion groups have denounced the attacks, saying they don't condone violence of any kind.

After the weekend's shootings, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston called for a moratorium on protests outside clinics to ease tensions. And a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said that church leaders in other dioceses may follow the cardinal's lead.

In May of last year, a new federal law aimed at ensuring access to abortion clinics took effect. Known as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, the law gave federal authorities the responsibility to protect clinics and investigate crimes involving them.

After Dr. John Bretton and an escort, James Barrett, were shot and killed in Pensacola, Fla., last year, federal officials dispatched U.S. marshals to nearly two dozen clinics across the country. They also formed a task force to investigate allegations that a network of abortion foe was plotting the violence. Earlier this week, President Clinton ordered U.S. attorneys throughout the country to form their own task forces to help increase security at abortion clinics.

Ms. Glazier, the New York Planned Parenthood official, said abortion providers throughout the country must monitor protests outside their clinics and talk regularly with local police about protesters.

Susan Hill, the owner of nine clinics across the country, is getting ready to open her 10th in Jackson, Miss. The center will have bulletproof glass, surveillance cameras, armed guards and metal detectors. Patients will not be permitted to bring purses or bags into the clinic, only wallets and identification.

Ms. Hill is taking the measures because abortionist opponents have targeted her clinics. For Ms. Hill, who has operated clinics for 23 years, the issue of staff and patient safety is a familiar one.

"All of the problems that are going on nationally have been occurring to us for years," said Ms. Hill, who is also president of the National Women's Health Organization. "We've had 14 arsons in our facilities over the last eight to nine years. We started out to be health care providers. We didn't start out to be the ultimate security providers."

But providers alone can no longer ensure that women have access to abortions, others in the field said.

"The responsibility no longer lies on the medical doorstep," said Dr. Suzanne T. Poppema, of Seattle. "It lies with the country as a whole."

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