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March 3, 1998

Of Bombs and Bookshelves

by Nicole Youngman

Just when you think you've gotten used to living in Alabama, several different kinds of hell break loose all at once.

The bomb that exploded at an abortion clinic in Birmingham on Jan. 29 came after a three- year period during which no one was killed at the clinics. Abortion providers and pro-choice activists were beginning to dare to hope that the worst was over. The right-to-life activities up in Washington on the 25th anniversary of the Roe decision had largely fizzled. Then the death toll suddenly went up to 6, with the number wounded too high to keep track of anymore, and we went back to being afraid all over again.

But of course, this tragedy didn't stop the powers-that-be in the state of Alabama from trying to pass the so-called "Woman's Right to Know Act," a bill that has been brought up in various forms in state legislatures around the country. This bill would require that a patient be given mandated "counseling" though information printed by the state government; she would then have to wait 24 hours before having the abortion. Not only does this bill blatantly interfere with doctor- patient relationships and present a hardship to women who sometimes travel hundreds of miles to reach a clinic, it makes use of mythology developed by the anti-abortion movement to demonize providers and the clinics where they work. The bill's language is far from neutral. Clinics are portrayed as money-grubbing institutions providing little or no counseling that railroad women into having abortions they don't really want. And despite its "we-care-about-women-so-much" title, it clearly states that one of the bill's goals is to "Protect unborn children from a woman's uninformed decision to have an abortion." Of course, this language also betrays what the bill's sponsors (which include Sen. Roger Bedford) really think about women: we certainly don't think through tough decisions like whether or not to continue a pregnancy, and we certainly don't bother to ask questions of our health care providers. Big Daddy in the Legislature will make sure those nasty baby- killers don't take advantage of you, honey -- assuming you can make it to a clinic in the first place after we get done with them.

Next up: felony charges against Barnes & Noble for selling "child pornography." Gee, thanks, Mr. Pryor, like this state hasn't embarrassed itself enough lately. Having the Christian Coalition and ACLU make us the laughing stocks of the rest of the country once again is exactly what we need. But believe it or not, there's a connection here between the attacks on the bookstores and the attacks on abortion providers -- Operation Rescue. Remember them, the folks that used to like blockade clinics back in the good old days before anyone got shot or blown up? Now they're jumping in on the "porn" issue, and joining up with the Southern Baptists, the American Family Association, and others who are giving Disney a hard time lately about its gay- friendly policies. Last fall OR's founder, Randall Terry, started telling his syndicated radio audience around the country to go into Barnes & Noble stores and tear up copies of the offending photography books -- and, being good little sheep, quite a few of his listeners followed his instructions. Right after Christmas, OR was in Melbourne, Florida -- a city which has been heavily targeted by anti-abortion activists for years --protesting at the local Barnes & Noble. Current head honcho Flip Benham lead his crew of 50+ people into the store and its cafe, where they began harassing customers and sticking copies of their flyers wherever they could. After being escorted out of the store by the cops, the protesters took to the sidewalks, waving large signs and hollering at unfortunate drivers trapped at the stoplight at a busy intersection. Before very long, Flip and some buddies had returned to a position directly in front of the store's front doors, making it rather difficult for customers to enter without being verbally assaulted with cries of "Don't take your children in there!! Look at what these people sell!!"

Terry has once again begun encouraging his listeners to protest at their local Barnes & Nobles, trying to build on the momentum provided by the Alabama indictment. David Lackey, an anti-abortion activist in Birmingham with a long arrest record, was Terry's guest on 2/19. Lackey was present at the Melbourne protest and will likely continue to cause trouble at both the clinics and the bookstores --particularly now that Benham is serving a 6-month jail sentence in Lynchburg, VA., for a protest he led at a high school there last year. OR's next major protests are planned for Orlando during the first week of June: they plan to hit Disney, B&N, and local clinics in one fell swoop.

These attempts to dictate what books Barnes & Noble should be able to offer its customers follow a pattern similar to the harassment of abortion providers: one branch of the movement goes after its prey in the legislature and/or the courts, while the other hits the sidewalks and the front doors. The fact that many of the exact same people are involved in both efforts is certainly no coincidence. Just as the legalization of abortion increased its availability and visibility, the rapid expansion of Barnes & Noble and Disney in recent years has given people in cities like Mobile access to ideas and entertainment that until very recently were only available in those evil big cities up North. Needless to say, this is not a development the religious right welcomes. And thanks to the political climate of Alabama, we get to be the proving ground for their efforts to take us back to the good-ol'-days when women did what they were told, gays stayed in the closet, and folks didn't go around reading stuff that might make them question the way things are.


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