After the Fire
An abortion clinic overcomes arson with resolve
By Simon McCormack
At 7 a.m. Friday, Dec. 7, Amanda was woken up by a phone call.
The clinic where she works as a counselor, Abortion Acceptance of New Mexico, had been damaged in the night.
"The person on the other line said someone had bombed the clinic. No one was hurt, and they'd let me know when there was a plan," Amanda says. "For about three seconds, I thought, Oh good, I don't have to work today. Then I just gasped when it hit me." Amanda declined to use her last name, because it could make her a target, she says.
Dr. Curtis Boyd's office in Albuquerque was burned beyond repair. For the staff members and patients at Abortion Acceptance, a tough road lay ahead. "If you've ever had a house burn down or a loved one suddenly die, you go through all the stages of grief, but they're not all at the same time," Amanda says. "I don't think I've been through anything I can compare it to."
With tensions running high, the clinic's employees organized a meeting to lay the groundwork for recovery. After a plan was in place, all doubts about the clinic's survival were laid to rest. "I think right in the beginning it was like, What are we going to do?" Amanda says. "After we had that meeting, we just kept moving. We all sat down, talked about our options. At that point, it was clear we were committed."
While the search for a permanent location got underway, Dr. Boyd's staff worked long, odd hours splitting time between different clinics in the area. The workers never took an unplanned day off, rescheduling some patients and managing to see others with the help of fellow providers. "It was like getting your house burned down and having all of your neighbors say, Come stay with us,” Amanda says. "We all felt a huge feeling of gratitude."
Despite the helping hand, seeing patients waiting in long lines, sometimes without room in the waiting area for their friends and family, took a toll on the clinic's doctors and staff. As workers continued to roam from place to place, the clinic encountered resistance in its quest for a new facility. Many owners were hesitant to rent Abortion Acceptance a space.
"It's pretty shocking that there are places that don't want to rent or even sell to us," Amanda says. "It's hard because we have special needs, so we can't just rent out any space. I just remember thinking, Is this where we're at? Have we moved this far? I would have hoped we'd be moving forward and not backward on this issue."
Soon, though, the dark clouds parted and a facility was found. Abortion Acceptance contacted a willing renter and moved into the building Saturday, Jan. 19. The days of crowded waiting rooms, uncertain schedules and long nights were over, and, after more than a month of struggle, things are getting back to normal.
"The new clinic is beautiful. It feels so good to have a place I almost started crying," Amanda says. "The women we serve and the stories I hear from them every day are what make this all worth it. The whole point of this violent act was to stop us from doing what we're doing, and we never have. There's no doubt in my mind, anyone who had my job for a day would understand just how important choice is."
A Molotov Cocktail, Smashed Windows and Community Response:
Dec. 6, 2007: Abortion Acceptance of New Mexico becomes the victim of arson. The attacker(s) is successful in causing serious damage to the clinic and temporarily forcing the staff to work out of multiple offices while the search for a new building begins.
Dec. 7, 2007: The New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice visits with clinic staff members on the morning after the fire, doling out hugs and words of encouragement. A few days later, the coalition organizes a non-denominational service for Abortion Acceptance workers. "The service was a first step toward healing," says the coalition's executive director, Joan Lamunyon Sanford. "It's especially dangerous when these kinds of violent actions are taken in the name of religion, and our coalition stands against that."
Dec. 25, 2007: Two Albuquerque Planned Parenthoods are attacked. One gets a molotov cocktail thrown on its roof and the other has several of its windows smashed. The damage to both buildings is minor and the clinics open as scheduled the next day. "We were prepared for something like this," says Martha Edmands, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New Mexico. "We were just very fortunate we didn't sustain anything near the damage Dr. Boyd's clinic did or New Mexico women would be up a creek."
Dec. 27, 2007: Sergio Baca, 22, and Chad Altman, 25, are arrested and charged with the Dec. 7 arson. Authorities say the two men set fire to Dr. Boyd's office because Baca's girlfriend told him she planned to have an abortion at the clinic. Both men deny any involvement in the fire, authorities say.
Early January 2008: In response to the three abortion clinic attacks, the Pro Choice Coalition of New Mexico is formed. At its first meeting, the coalition draws nearly 40 people, including several political officials from around the state. "We want those directly affected by the attacks to remember they have the support of their community," says coalition member Hana Li. "The work they're doing is valued, essential and there are a great number of us who stand with them."
Jan. 19, 2008: Abortion Acceptance of New Mexico moves into its new office after more than a month of searching.
February 2008: Convicted abortion clinic arsonist Ricky Lee MacDonald will be released from prison this month. MacDonald was incarcerated for five years after he was convicted of setting fire to an Albuquerque Planned Parenthood clinic in 1999. "He's definitely a risk to re-offend," Edmands says. "We obviously hope nothing happens, but we're prepared if something does."
87 percent of all U.S. counties have no identifiable abortion provider.
Since 1997, abortion clinics and their staff have been the victims of nearly 3,600 violent acts ranging from murder, bombings and arson to burglary, kidnapping and death threats. Eighty-one such acts happened in 2007.
One in three American women will have an abortion by age 45.
From 1998 through 2002, more than 650 letters claiming to contain anthrax were sent to abortion clinics and reproductive health organizations across the country.
Statistics from the National Abortion Federation at www.prochoice.org.
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