Freethought Today, December 2001

The Religious War Against Reproductive Rights

By Emily Lyons

This speech was delivered on Sept. 22, 2001, to the twenty-fourth annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation held at the Concourse Hotel, Madison, Wisconsin. The speaker was honored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for "turning a personal tragedy into a compassionate crusade for women's rights."

We often think of the separation of church and state and our freedoms when we celebrate Independence Day, as we should. However, the concepts of freethought and separation of church and state were debated long before the "New World" of America was discovered. For centuries there was little separation between the church and the government. A thought that did not agree with religion was often punished by the state. Transgressions against the heavenly laws were often punished by earthly punishments.

One of the more famous examples involved a man by the name of Galileo. His thoughts went against the church, so he was placed on house arrest for the rest of his life. The price of his freethought was the loss of his physical freedom. He was lucky--as many people who dared to think of things that went against religion were burned at the stake.

The influence of the church continued long after we won our independence.

There have been many other examples of the state punishing those who disagree with the day's religious beliefs. I'd like to tell you one of those stories that involved a nurse. Sadie Sachs, mother of three, delirious from septicemia, died in a nurse's arms while her husband watched. The cause of her death was clear. She didn't die from AIDS, cancer or any other incurable illness. Sadie's death was easily avoidable at that time using existing technology. The nurse committed her life to making sure that others like Sadie received the help they needed. And for her efforts she was thrown into jail. The year of Sadie's death was around 1912 and the nurse was Margaret Sanger.

Now Sadie had been told that if she got pregnant again she might die. Already the mother of three, she couldn't afford another mouth to feed even if she survived the pregnancy. The advice given to her to avoid that pregnancy was to sleep on the roof and if that didn't work, then "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Her resolution to an unwanted pregnancy was to pay the $5, the going rate at that time, to an illegal abortionist. The result was that Jake Sachs was left a widower who had to raise his children alone.

Now it's no wonder that the state arrested Margaret Sanger. After all, the interpretation of the bible in those days was that women should be subordinate to men and "go forth and multiply." To dare educate a woman about her body, and much less, teach her how to keep from getting pregnant was religious sacrilege, to be punished by imprisonment.

The price of reproductive freedom for Margaret Sanger was her freedom, taken away by being put into jail. For her, and most of us, the price has been cheap compared to Sadie. Unfortunately, Sadie has not been the last one to pay the ultimate price.

Now I want to tell you the more recent story of another nurse.

Three and one half years ago, this nurse, who cared for people, became a person that had to be cared for completely. January 29, 1998, was the turning point in my life. At 7:33 a.m. a bomb exploded outside the clinic where I worked. A Birmingham police officer was killed, and my body was seriously injured.

As you listen to this story, caused by hatred and violence, I would like for you to try to imagine yourself in my shoes, or my husband's, as one of my children, or my parent, one of my friends. I want you to be able to feel how one event of extreme violence can be so devastating to your life or to someone you love. With the recent events of last week this should be a little easier for you to imagine.

A stranger attempted to kill me that day because he disagreed with my beliefs. We all have different opinions, values and beliefs--religious, cultural, ethnic, political, sexual--but does this sound like a good reason to kill someone?

I've learned that the person accused of this crime was raised in a church that preached hatred. It preached hatred of those who thought differently from them. They were right, and everybody else was wrong. And from what I can determine, his logic was that it was his religious duty to try and kill me. If the state was not going to make abortions illegal, then he felt it was up to him to be the enforcer of the church's laws.

On that fateful day I went to work like any other, didn't think anything about it. I woke up and two weeks of my life had passed away that I knew nothing about. As I began to come out of that long sleep I realized something was very wrong. I couldn't talk because there was a tube in my throat to keep me breathing. I wasn't eating either; they had a tube in my nose for that. My eyes wouldn't open. Everything from head to toe was in tremendous pain. My extremities felt like large dead weights that wouldn't move, unless someone moved them for me.

Once I was able to comprehend, they told me a pipe bomb had been placed outside the clinic where I worked. It exploded about 12 feet from where I was standing. This device contained dynamite and nails, and if any of you believe the person accused of this crime did not intend to hurt anyone, think again. After all it was aimed at the front door.

The force of the blast was so strong I was blown out of my shoes and it shredded my clothing. The fireball from a bomb reaches 3000 degrees Centigrade--that's over 5400 degrees Fahrenheit. So I had first, second and third degree burns over most of the front of my body.

The bomb was packed with one and one half inch roofing nails. The FBI drove a crowbar into the ground where the bomb was placed and they tied bright pink strings to every nail that was stuck into the brick of the building. All these strings form a cone. But just to the left of the center of the cone, the missing strings form the outline of a person because that's where I was standing that day and the nails went into me instead of the building.

I have many of those nails and fragments left in my body. They say they can't remove them because it would cause too much damage. The best party trick I know is that we have a large refrigerator magnet at home, and I have many places that magnet just sticks real well. It will pull the skin up on my legs because the nails are so close to the surface. The others are deeper, but I can feel that magnetic tug, so I know where most of them are located. It's just a matter of time before they will work themselves up to have to be removed.

Officer Sanderson was bent over the bomb when it exploded, so his body was literally torn apart. But because he was to the side of the bomb, his body only had a couple of nails in it. The bomb was aimed at the front door, where most of the nails went. This device was not meant to close the clinic or to cause property damage. It was intended to murder.

Now to make sure the bomber killed someone, he stood across the street and he watched us. And when he decided that the two of us were as good as any to kill that day, he pushed the button. He detonated the bomb by remote control and then he walked away. This was no less premeditated murder than if a stranger had walked up to you on the street with a shotgun and pulled the trigger.

According to a Discovery Channel show on bombs, the force usually kills people within 15 feet. Shrapnel kills for several feet beyond that. I was 12 feet from the bomb that day and in the direct line of shrapnel. People heard and felt the explosion for miles around. It's amazing I can hear at all. My left eardrum ruptured eventually, which caused one of my 18 operations that I have had in the first two years.

The first thing the surgeon told my husband that day was that I had a hole the size of your fist in my lower right abdomen. Both my large and small intestines had to be resectioned because there were so many areas that couldn't be repaired. So when people say I'm a gutsy lady, they don't know how literal they are when they say that! Katie Couric said that on the news one day: "Man, she's a gutsy lady."

My right hand was mangled. It was about four times the size it is now. My broken little finger never healed properly so I'll always have that polite pinky finger to drink tea with. It just happened to be the middle finger that had an open joint injury, just tore it apart at the joint and kind of just flopped around. So I will never be able to play the piano or write like I used to, because somebody took that part of my life away from me.

The force of the blast tore the flesh and muscles off the front of my legs. The foot bones in my lower left leg were shattered. My right leg didn't break, which we don't know why, but it did have more muscle and nerve damage than the left leg. My left leg, since it was shattered, had to have four long screws placed into the bone and attached on the outside with a metal rod, which is called an external fixator. It took months to get my what-we-call-"good leg" out of a brace, but it happened that first year.

For several days my legs were covered with pigskin, to help slow the blood loss. Over the next few weeks I was given several pints of blood. As far as blood loss goes, I say that I had a complete oil change that day, because I was down to one third of my blood volume before I reached the hospital and it was only four blocks away.

Now skin will only grow over muscle, not bone, and that's all I had left on the front of my legs. So they split both my calf muscles, then brought part of it around to the front to make a muscle flap. They disconnected my motor nerves, but left my sensory nerves, so when I touch my leg in one place I can feel it in a completely opposite place. I can put an object on my leg and that other place will immediately turn cold. The only thing that really wasn't burned was my left thigh and that's what they used as the donor skin to cover the front of my legs. Skin grafts take months to heal and those were still healing when I finally went home.

My legs don't look great; they're quite ugly. But my husband and I think they're wonderful because they are still attached to my body. The vascular system was destroyed in my left leg, so they had to take the femoral vein from my right leg and turn it upside down and make it into an artery for my left leg. Otherwise the surgeon would have amputated that day. Both my knees have long scars on them where they had to open them up and clean the nails and shrapnel out, because they were literally nailed into position that day and would have never moved again had they not done so.

My right eye orbit and facial bones were broken. The sheer force of the blast was so strong it tore my eyelids off. They had to be sewn back on and my tear ducts reconstructed. They were afraid those tear ducts would never work again, but I proved them wrong on that one. My left eye was torn apart by a one and one-half inch piece of wire that was spinning when it went in. So it just tore everything into pieces. They had to take out what was left, so I have a nice piece of plastic. My right eye was badly damaged, but I've had some great surgeons, so I do have limited vision in that eye now.

I brought a book of pictures and if you get a chance to look at them today, please do so. Because these are pictures of violence that I hope you will never see anywhere else in your lifetime. There are many pictures in here that are very graphic. If you don't have a strong stomach, they're not the ones for you. But look at it and think about what great physical abilities you have everyday, because they can be taken away from you in a matter of seconds. When you look at those pictures I hope they will make you think about how valuable your freedoms are.

Being blind is interesting, for lack of a better term, and I was blind for five weeks. It is so much more than not being aware of light. Even though I am a college graduate I was suddenly illiterate. I couldn't read a book or a menu at a restaurant. I had committed no crime, but I was a prisoner. No bars were needed to hold me, because I knew I couldn't leave my room without vision.

They say that those who are born blind or lose their sight at an early age adapt easier than someone at my age. Perhaps that's true, but things like color and brightness mean nothing to them. My husband's ability to describe things improved so much because he had to tell me the details of the room, tell me about people that I had met. So how could he have described the color of my room if I had never seen color? How do you tell someone about a rainbow who's always been blind? The magic of a rainbow is completely visual. If there is no sight, there is no rainbow.

So I had a new answer for the age-old question, "Why is the sky blue?" My new answer was, "It isn't." The sky wasn't blue. The grass and the trees were not green and a firetruck was not red. Clouds no longer existed during the day; the moon and the stars no longer existed at night. So actually the sky no longer had a day; it was always dark as night. There was no longer a debate over the ocean being green or blue, murky or clear; it was just foul-tasting salt water. The oooh's and aaah's of a fireworks display on July 4, 1998, was gone. There was only the loud noise to remind me of the bomb that took that beauty from my world at that time.

Now when I went to physical rehab I knew each piece of equipment by the way it felt and the type of pain that it caused, but nothing about how it looked. I longed for the day to be able to put a face to the hospital staff that I had become so dependent on. I had to put complete and total trust into strangers that I could not see. It was as if I had never met them. Sight is such an important thing. The fact that I only had one eye, and it had been damaged, makes me treasure vision that much more.

There are varying degrees of blindness, and in another way I was blind before the bomb. I was blind to the facts involving women's rights and reproductive health care. I didn't see that people were out there willing to kill to take away those freedoms. And yeah, they were always there, and I guess in the back of my mind, I knew it could happen, but I never thought it would involve me. So I say that I had a real eye-opener that day, because I lost sight in one eye, but I gained so much more vision in the other.

No matter what your view is toward abortion, you should be outraged at the violence that's being waged in this country against reproductive health care providers. No one should tolerate it. No one should encourage it, and no one should have to endure the harassment, the scare tactics, the intimidation, or the bodily harm, in order to seek, provide or endorse reproductive health care. We talk about equal access. Here's your sober thought for today: in this day and time, the only thing equal about access is that everyone has an equal opportunity of being injured or killed.

Our best means of fighting back is to passionately speak out. Katha Pollitt talked about this last night. Are you truly passionate about your involvement regarding our freedoms? If you are, then you need to let people know. Why would you want to be silent? Fear, intimidation, it might ruin your career? Those are all the things they want from you. And if you're not going to speak up, then your silence is yet another victory for the other side. If you're not passionate, what are you waiting for and what will it take? If you're not willing, then are you deserving of these freedoms and rights?

Our freedoms are in danger each and every day, more so now. This threat is not only from bombers and terrorists, but also through our own political system. Yes, America currently enjoys an environment that still allows free thought, free speech and freedom of choice. This could easily change. If people become complacent, it will change. You've heard the phrase, "Use it or lose it"? Remember something different: "Defend it or lose it."

My injuries have taught me not to underestimate these people; they cannot be ignored. Our freedom must be protected at all costs and I am here to tell you that it is indeed worth the price.

People frequently ask me, "Why do you do what you do? You were almost killed. Why speak up and risk being hurt worse?" Part of the answer is real easy: I'm stubborn. The bigger answer is to let the suspect know that he failed. He didn't shut the clinic down, he didn't silence me, he didn't create the silence that he had longed for, he didn't instill the fear in me or the other workers that he had hoped for. If we allow fear to control us, then the opposing groups win. Instead of killing me, he made me a mentally stronger person, capable of reaching and educating more people than I could have ever imagined.

I do not want this destructive event to happen to anyone else. I want people to know that violence is not the answer, and never will be. So if showing the world what my injuries are will avoid even one act of violence, then for me it is worth all costs, and the story must be told.

Over 28 years ago the tide turned. Instead of the government deciding whether or not a pregnant woman should become a parent, now people who claim to be antigovernment feel it's their duty to decide parental status for others. If someone disagrees with their views, they feel it is their god-given duty to murder those with opposing opinions. People say that the murder of abortion providers is justified, because it is against god's law. I'm tired of people dying in the name of God.

If there's one thing I would like to get across to everyone, it's that violence did not work. What the violence did do was to make Officer Sanderson's wife a widow. She has to raise her two children alone. It has cost Worker's Comp over $1 million to put my body back together. In the latest statistics, $20 million has been spent in search for the person accused of this crime. So violence has not only failed, it is very expensive and it is paid by taxpayers.

Perhaps some feel that laws to protect us are not needed, because what happened was such a rare event. Indeed, this was the first time a bomb was used to murder at a clinic. However this type of terrorism is far from being an isolated event. The Army of God's handbook goes into great detail about how to illegally impede a woman's right to access reproductive health care. The tactics range from super-glueing the locks, putting concrete in the sewer system, where to put the butyric acid in a building to get the best effect, and, my favorite, how to make a bomb. They even suggest that people with terminal illness should wire themselves with dynamite, walk into a clinic and detonate themselves. They say since you're going to die, you might as well take a few others with you.

We all know these home-grown terrorists use bombs, guns, snipers and chemical warfare. These are the weapons of war. However, their most important weapon is fear. The good news is that we decide how effective that weapon will be. We decide if we're going to allow fear to keep us from doing our jobs. Bullies will control you for as long as you let them.

Sadly, we know that this violence is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. Each year, a white rose banquet is held to honor those who have been sent to prison for the murder of reproductive health-care providers. The person suspected of the bombing in my case is a hero to these people. Someone has asked me, "What type of law would have prevented the bombing?" There is no law that can stop someone who is willing to face the punishment for murder. However, there are things that must be done to alter the environment that created the bomber.

There are many websites out there that encourage violence worship. That violence worship creates an environment that yields hate, which leads to violence, which often results in murder. We have a government for the people and by the people. Well, you are the people. Vote for those who are going to help protect your freedoms. Get involved with a change for the better. Because if there's not a continued change, then there will be more fatalities like Dr. Barnett Slepian, Robert Sanderson, Leanne Nichols, Shannon Lowney, James Barret, Dr. John Britton, Dr. David Gunn and others who felt it was important for women to have that freedom of choice. Why do I list these people? They died for our freedom. The least we can do is remember them.

Before the bomb, I was not very outspoken. I went to work, I did my job, I went home. At one point in my career I tried to teach, but the thought of getting up in front of 20 or 30 students was terrifying to me, so you would have never found me talking to a crowd like this. Things have definitely changed. One of my after-bomb sayings is: "Nothing much intimidates you after being blown up."

The former governor of Oregon was the MC at a NARAL event where I spoke, and became outspoken when her school system would not allow her autistic child to attend public school. She said, "The average person is one injustice away from becoming an activist." How true. That blast lasted only microseconds. I hope that you will not wait for an injustice to happen to you to become involved, or more involved.

In 1998, that journey seemed endless. There were many days in rehab that I had no idea how I was going to find the strength to go on the next day and the day after. I was able to find that strength by one simple realization--that I had to. If I wanted to walk again I had to endure the hydrotheraphy. I had to find the strength to take a few steps each day. And if I was to free myself of that hospital room I had to find the strength to go forward. If we want to continue to be free then we have to find the strength to fight those who wish to take our freedoms from us.

I've always been pro-choice, but the threat of losing that right never seemed real. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew terrorists were out there. The protesters were always present, just like the thought of a bomb or a shooting. It was easy to ignore the protesters, and a bomb was something that would happen in somebody else's town. No threat seems real until it happens to you. I have had my wake-up call and I can tell you that threat is very real, and the recent events in this country should tell you that also.

I would like to leave you with one question to think about. What is freedom worth to you and are you willing to pay the price? After all, freedom is never free.

Emily Lyons, a nurse, survived the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1998. After months of recovery, she has dedicated her time to speaking for women's rights and against violence toward abortion providers. Planned Parenthood named her its "Margaret Sanger Woman of Valor" and the Ms. Foundation presented her with its "Gloria" award. Emily has been featured in newspapers, magazines and many TV shows and specials, also testifying before Congress.