Their Own Osamas
Paula had mail duty. Just after 3 p.m. on October 15, she slipped her hands into a pair of clear, plastic medical gloves, walked into the tan-and-blue waiting room, and opened a door in the Planned Parenthood clinic at 3457 N. Dixie Hwy. in Fort Lauderdale. She passed through the lobby, where clients sprawled over navy-blue sofa and chairs, rifled through magazines, and watched television while waiting to be buzzed into the clinic. Wearing her favorite lilac scrubs, Paula opened the front door and stepped onto the sidewalk as cars streamed past the squat storefront.
The medical assistant (who didn't want her last name used) had been trained to follow the protocol: gloves on hands, grab mail, shut herself into a tiny nearby office, and sort through letters and packages, dumping anything that looked strange -- no return address, too much postage, oddly shaped, taped, oily, or lumpy -- into an orange, hazardous-materials bag.
Long before the recent anthrax attacks dusted the rest of us with the fear of bioterrorism, women's reproductive centers and abortion clinics geared up to thwart assaults. During the past 20 years, abortion doctors have been murdered and clinics have been bombed, burned to the ground, and attacked with dangerous chemicals. Florida has long been on the bloody front lines. In 1993, Dr. David Gunn was murdered at a clinic in Pensacola. And in 1994, Dr. John Bayard Britton and clinic escort James Barrett were shot and killed outside another location in the Gulf Coast town.
Bioterrorism is just the latest blip in what antiabortionists call "The Abortion War." "One thing we've learned is not be overly reactionary to these kinds of threats," says Mark Adler, vice president of client services and security for Planned Parenthood of South Palm Beach and Broward counties. "That does nothing but empower the people who threaten us. Instead, we try to be ready, to have procedures in place."
Procedures comfort Paula now. But they freaked her out when she started working at Planned Parenthood four and half years ago. She'd done time in packing and shipping, worked as an usher at a museum, and cleaned houses. Finally, the plain-talking, 29-year-old Looney Toons fan got serious, settled on a career in the medical field, and was certified as a medical assistant in 1997. Her first job after graduation from a Lauderdale Lakes trade school was at Planned Parenthood.
Although the clinic where Paula works doesn't perform abortions, soon she was studying faxes from Planned Parenthood's national headquarters on the latest tools of terrorism. During her first year there, Paula remembers reading a warning about antiabortionists walking into clinics with capsules of butyric acid, stomping on them, and releasing a gas so foul-smelling it makes people vomit. Around the same time, six abortion clinics in Central Florida and four in Miami were attacked with the chemical during a seven-day period. (Butyric acid is derived from rotting pig fat.)
In the months that followed, she fielded bomb threats, and protesters sometimes showed up on the sidewalk outside. Inside, security was (and continues to be) tight. The clinic has a buzzer between the waiting room and the medical offices. There is a mirror in the lobby so the staff can survey the waiting room and the doors into the clinic. "I was like, OK, what have I gotten myself into?" she recalls thinking.
When she meets people who she thinks are against abortion, Paula doesn't admit she works for Planned Parenthood. "It's an instant stigma," she says. Instead, Paula tells such people she works for a gynecologist. "I keep it simple," she explains. "I try to avoid conflict."
Everyone who works in family planning must make a decision at some point, she says, whether to stay and deal with the threats or leave and get a job outside the maelstrom surrounding abortion and reproductive rights. She chose to stay, even after a fax came through the clinic office with a picture of a local doctor and his home address, even after someone threw a container filled with combustible material through the door of the Fort Lauderdale Women's Clinic in April 2000, even after a milk jug filled with gasoline and containing a fuse was found at the back door of another South Florida abortion clinic in June 2000. "I don't want anybody making decisions for me. I feel very strongly about women's rights," she declares. "I won't let anybody tell me where I can work or not work, and I won't let anybody tell me what I can do with my body."
Dealing with intimidation became part of her routine -- like making appointments, checking the answering machine in the morning for messages, drawing blood, and counseling clients on birth control and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. When Paula arrives for work in the morning, she checks the perimeter of the building to see if anything looks out of place. She does the same thing inside the office. "I eat, sleep, and breathe Planned Parenthood," she says. "And if anything is not where it is supposed to be, I wouldn't hesitate to call the police."
It makes for a jumpy atmosphere. A woman who owns a Broward County abortion clinic wouldn't speak to New Times about attacks on her clinic for fear she or her clinic would become targets. "I think everything that needs to be written about abortion has been written," she says. But she has seen plenty: "There's been blood thrown on the door, margarita mix, nails in the parking lot, flat tires, death threats, clinic blockades..."
Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber, a gynecologist who has performed abortions in his medical practice, similarly declined comment. Graber is listed on the Nuremberg Files, www.christiangallery.com, a Web list of doctors who perform abortions, abortion-clinic workers, and others with ties to the procedure. When one of the people on the list dies, a line is drawn through the name. Ninety-one names have been stricken.
About three years ago, long before September 11, Planned Parenthood instituted a procedure for opening the mail at all of its clinics. The change came in the wake of a spate of anthrax hoaxes.
In October 1998, ten clinics in five states received anthrax threats. And the terrorists didn't stop there. In February 1999, 30 clinics received the warnings. And in January 2000, Planned Parenthood clinics in 21 states, including two facilities in Collier County, Florida, received anthrax hoax letters addressed to the clinics' accounting departments. All of the mailings tested negative for anthrax, and the clinic where Paula works didn't receive any of these letters.
Still, she donned the gloves that October 15, opened the door, and reached for the mail.
Just then, the clinic phone rang. Tracy, the clinic manager, took the call. A worker at the Pembroke Pines Planned Parenthood clinic had just opened a letter that contained white powder. It had come in a legal-size, white envelope, and the return address appeared to be the U.S. Secret Service. Printed on the bottom of the envelope in red lettering were the words "Time Sensitive" and "Urgent Security Notice Enclosed."
Tracy hollered to Paula, who looked down at the mail in her hands, which was similarly addressed. "We got one," she responded. Paula walked toward the mail office pinching the corners of the envelope between her thumbs and forefingers. She could feel something lumpy inside. Tracy rushed out of her office. "Stay right there!" Tracy shouted. "Don't move!"
Paula froze. Since September 11, Paula had been expecting something. "It seems to me that when times get crazy, crazy people get crazy," she puts it.
This was the kind of incident she and her coworkers had trained for, drilled for, even been through interactive computer training to deal with. The staff went into action. The air conditioner was turned off so that the spores, if the powder indeed turned out to be anthrax, wouldn't spread. The police and the fire departments were called. Clients and staff were ushered outside. Paula remained isolated with the envelope until the fire department retrieved it. She felt secure because the letter hadn't been opened and she was wearing the gloves. But Paula went to the emergency room to be tested for exposure and began a regime of antibiotics as a precaution.
Paula tested negative for anthrax. So did the letters that the three Broward County clinics received. Nationally, more than 500 clinics received similar letters in October, most of them signed by the antiabortion extremist organization the Army of God.
On November 8, a second wave of more than 280 letters arrived via Federal Express. Security chief Adler intercepted the deliveryman in the parking lot of the Fort Lauderdale clinic after hearing that a similar missive had arrived at a Boca Raton clinic. Adler held out an orange haz-mat bag and asked the man to drop the delivery inside. "He was shaking," Adler recalls.
Though the feds last week arrested fugitive Clayton Lee Waagner for the mailings, Paula doesn't believe it's over. She considers the Army of God (a loose-knit antiabortion group based in Virginia) and other pro-life extremists to be terrorists. "We have our own Osamas," she says. A coalition of women's groups agrees. They are asking Attorney General John Ashcroft to designate the Army of God a domestic terrorist organization.
Although Paula supports prosecution of the Army of God, she thinks other extremists will take its place. "You won't get to the heart of the organizations," she says. "The only thing you can do is to fortify yourself."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.