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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."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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