In late December of 1994, an anti-choice extremist named John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Brookline, Massachusetts, and opened fire with a rifle. By the time he was done, there were seven bodies on the floor. Two were dead, and five were wounded. Among the dead was 38-year-old Lee Ann Nichols, who took ten bullets before she died to the sound of Salvi shouting, “This is what you get!”
Salvi ran to Norfolk, Virginia, where he shot up another Planned Parenthood clinic. No one was injured in that incident. He was arrested, tried and convicted for the murders of Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, with 18-20 years added for assault. He served his time at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole, Massachusetts, one of the darkest holes in all of North America, until November 29, 1996. Salvi’s body was found that day in his cell with a garbage bag tied around his head. The coroner ruled it a suicide.
Today, the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue is a fortress. There are no windows, and only one door. To enter, you must pass through a small lobby area and empty your pockets for the metal detector, precisely as if you were boarding an airplane. After that, you pass through a door and enter a small box about twice the size of an old phone booth. The door closes behind you, and you are faced with a huge reinforced metal door before you that can only be opened by one of the clinic employees on the inside, after they check you out through a small rectangular window. All the while, you are under the watchful eye of an armed guard, who has on his desk a dozen small monitors that carry feeds from cameras placed within and without. Nothing, but nothing, is left to chance. Not after Salvi.
I have passed through that door on several occasions, accompanying friends without health insurance seeking affordable OBGYN care. Why did my friends ask me to come? Because my friends were frightened, because like as not the door to the clinic was clotted with Jesus-shouters seeking to intimidate women from accessing the services they need. Sometimes they just stand there and drone, “Praise God … Praise God … Praise God.” Other times, however, they are far more aggressive.
One friend I escorted had a man charge at her shouting, “Don’t kill your baby!” while brandishing a Bible like a club. I yelled back, “She’s getting a pap smear, you stupid asshole!” which was true … but he kept roaring “Don’t kill your baby!” with his eyes bugging and his lips flecked with white spittle. My friend almost fled, but with my support, she was able to get inside safely, and the noise of his rage diminished to nothing with the slow closing of the door. It was good she made it inside; the doctor found pre-cancerous cells on her cervix and saved her life. She was one of two friends I walked in through the mayhem whose lives were saved by those doctors and nurses. They would not be here today, but for the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue.
There is a bright white line on the sidewalk demarcating by law where the protesters can and cannot be outside the clinic, but the span from the car across the sidewalk to that door is wider than the Mississippi River when the shouters find their bull-throated roar. They were disturbing enough. The shadow of John Salvi hangs long and low over that facility, however, and the most disturbing part of all was the tingle of fear upon entry, the idea that another Salvi might make it through that hard door and empty his clip in a fit of fury.
Welcome to the world of Planned Parenthood. The fact that it takes courage to dispense medical services, that it takes courage – Courage! – to avail yourself of those services under threat of assault or even death spits in the eye of the idea that this is a nation of freedom. Planned Parenthood provides basic, affordable OBGYN care, breast cancer exams and contraception for people not fortunate enough to have another option.
Planned Parenthood clinics also offer abortions. It’s the law, it’s a right. Does the so-called “pro-life” crowd recognize this in the context of Friday’s shooting in Colorado? Let’s see what Twitter has to say:
“No sympathy for any pregnant female who was injured in the Planned Parenthood shooting that was there to get an abortion. She deserved it.” – Ryan
“We should terminate the 500,000 female humans. They could have protected sex. But they’re too lazy & slutty.” – Tyranny Hunter
“Active Shooter Colorado Planned Parenthood. I would think this brave HERO is saving innocent Baby lives!” – David J. Goodwin
In counterpoint, I offer a few testimonials from friends who responded to a question I asked about the deaths at the Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic:
“I stand with them as they bravely provide affordable safe & legal health care in the face of violent threats to themselves & their families every day.” – K.
“I stand with PP because when I didn’t have a pot, or a window, I was able to go to them for much needed gynecological care and then pre-natal care. They are kind and caring not to mention they risk their lives on a daily basis giving women, and some men, reasonably priced healthcare.” – J.
“I used Planned Parenthood in my 20s so I would never need to have an abortion. I am grateful they were there for that reason! For that reason I stand with Planned Parenthood.” – L.
“I support Planned Parenthood because it helps many with medical care who could not otherwise afford it; because I am a woman; because half of the population is female; because it is a legally operating entity; and because supporting PP pushes back against those whose goal is to subjugate women.” – A.
The man with the gun who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado allegedly told the arresting officers “No more baby parts” when taken into custody, referencing a wildly discredited meme proffered by Fox News and other right-wing outlets. The rest of the “news” media has been very delicate in their reporting. They use the noun, “gunman,” and the adjective, “disgruntled,” while avoiding the more accurate term: “terrorist.”
This is the war on women, underscored. The bellowers who cluster outside these clinics are preventing women from getting checked for cervical cancer, for breast cancer, preventing them from getting birth control, basic OBGYN care and abortions. Why? They would rather see women dead than see them free, and some of them take up arms to reinforce the point.
I have passed through that steel door after elbowing through a crowd of Bibles accompanying friends into a place that saved their lives. Lives were lost – on Commonwealth Avenue, in Colorado Springs and many other places besides – to guarantee that possibility. Lives are risked every day to continue that promise. I stand with Planned Parenthood, shoulder to shoulder and back to back. It has saved more people than those sidewalk-bound nitwits have ever met.
On the lee of that door lies freedom. That it requires steel, fear and an armed guard is a disgrace beyond reckoning. I stand with Planned Parenthood. So should you.