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Surviving the Anti-Abortion Crusades

The long, brutal fight for Patricia Windle’s Florida clinics

Anti-Abortionists

Anti-Abortion Campaigners stage a counter-demonstration during a Pro-Choice march on New York State Route 27 during Reproductive Freedom Week, New York, May,1988

Barbara Alper/Getty

God’s shock troops came early by Florida standards, setting fire to the morning. Nine a.m. that brick-oven Saturday, the heat already radiating off the blacktop, 400 of them were out there in front of the Aware Woman Center for Choice, in Melbourne, roiling the air for Christ’s vengeance. Fat white men went among the mob, whipping it up with prayer. Women with the blood of the lamb in their eyes trampled all over neighbors’ lawns, shoving plastic fetuses into the hands of small children and beshrewing them to burn in hell. And 10 feet from the room where women lay groggy after their abortions, born-again teens stood on aluminum ladders and cried out in angry, plangent wails: “Mommy, Mommy, why did you kill me? Why did you let them pull my head off with pliers?”

Every several minutes, a car drove up Dixie Way, making gingerly for the clinic. Immediately, the faithful rushed it on both sides, howling at the terrified girl inside and thrusting their grisly literature upon her – the pamphlets depicting mangled babies, puddled in their blue-black blood. Twenty yards away, two dozen cops sat in their cruisers, as inert as big snakes with rats in their bellies.

At 9:30, a cry went up, and the mob drew back in damp beatitude. Randall Terry, the pale messiah of the pro-life movement, came sauntering slowly up the street, taking the star turn for the TV cameras. A crew from CNN converged on him, as did one from Der Spiegel, muscling out the tinhorns from the local affiliates. Catching sight of their hero, young girls in T-shirts that read I SURVIVED THE AMERICAN HOLOCAUST shrieked and breathlessly clutched their hearts, as if the fifth Beatle had arrived.

In the street, Terry stopped and assessed matters, an oleaginous halfgrin betraying his pleasure. And then, with a great rout of Christians at his back, he started for the clinic, bellowing the eschatology of his cult: “Faggots! Dykes! Femi-Nazis! Bring down the butchers and child killers!”

At the end of the driveway, 40 women locked arms, girding themselves as they’d been taught at the Thursday-night NOW and Feminist Majority meetings. “Four-six-eight-10,” they chanted, “why are all your leaders men?” Terry stopped, nose-to-nose with them in a howling scrum. “Four-six-eight-10,” he shot back, “why do all your women want to be men?” Eleanor Smeal, the two-fisted president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, stepped out onto the curb and confronted him. “Randall Terry, do you take responsibility for any of these crimes?” she barked, handing him an 18-page list of assaults on the clinic. Terry cackled, ripped the list up and tromped on it with both feet.

“You’re going to burn in hell!” he screamed, jabbing his forefinger at her like a bayonet. “Have you heard of hell, because that’s where you’re going. You and the rest of your red-handed murderers!”

An incipient riot on their hands, the police finally moved in. Addressing the pro-lifers as if they were foreign dignitaries, the police tactfully issued two and three warnings before threatening them with mass arrest. Unimpressed by the cops’ restraint, however, the pro-lifers heaped upon them that most Christian contumely – the imprecatory death prayer. “I beg of God to strike you dead,” they brayed. “Jesus, come down here now and smite these apostates!”

Cowed, nonetheless, by the sight of handcuffs and nightsticks, the so-called Green Berets of the anti-abortion movement backed up fast across the street. There, the incident essentially ended. But several weeks later, under the same circumstances, an extraordinary thing took place. All morning long, pro-life parents had petrified their children with stories of what went on inside the “hateful abortuary” – “They cut up babies like pigs in there, then flush ’em down the toilet bowl. Watch out they don’t catch you, too; they’ll pull the arms and legs right off you.” Now, mothers and fathers suddently began pushing their children across the street, instructing them to “go kneel down and pray, and let the bad people take you to jail.” The older kids went solemnly, already adroit, at the age of 9 and 10, at the business of political arrest. Other children as young as 6, however, sobbed and bit their hands in horror, begging their mothers not to make them go. With a knee in their back, though, and the fires of hell in their ears, on came the smallest of Florida’s evangels, tottering, arms out, like tipsy zombies, groaning for their sweet friend Jesus to save them.

Since the coldblooded execution of Dr. David Gunn by an alleged wife abuser named Michael Griffin in March and the attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller by an Oregon housewife in August, there has been increasing, if belated, attention paid to the persecution of abortion doctors. But virtually nothing has appeared in the national press about the duress of clinic owners and their employees – a small, tight corps composed almost entirely of women forced to defend themselves against a violent cadre led almost entirely by men. It is an extraordinary story, rife with the hot text of gender politics, and no character in it is more compelling than Patricia Baird-Windle, who, after the last four years of nonstop torment, can with perfect justice call herself one of the most oppressed women in America.

“Anyone who still thinks that protecting clinics is a First Amendment freedom-of-speech issue needs to stand outside my window for an hour,” says Windle, the vivid and dauntless owner of the Melbourne clinic and two others in Central Florida, in Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach. “There, they would hear such personal ugliness as to fry the hair on their head. ‘Pat Windle is a witch who burns babies and eats them! Pat Windle kills more kids than Nazi Germany!’ Not long ago, I had a son in the hospital on a respirator, hovering near death from illness. Three weeks later, still smarting like a scalded dog over it, I go out in front of my clinic and hear one of the anti women yell: ‘Oh, Pat, we’re so sorry about your son. Maybe if you stopped and been a better mother to him, this never would’ve happened!’ “

At this last, her soldierly laugh gives out, and bitter tears appear. Three of her five children were born with a serious blood disorder, and Windle fought frantically to save them, scouring the country in the late ’50s for anyone knowledgeable about the condition. With the help of an Alabama hematologist, Windle contrived to pull two through, but a third died horribly of the disease. “So much for Christian solicitude and the sanctity of life,” says Windle. “How dare these people, who send their 6-year-old children over to be arrested, criticize the quality of my mothering?”

On this immaculate summer Sunday, a rare breeze putting in from Cape Canaveral, we’re sitting in Windle’s living room with all the windows closed, and the blinds and curtains drawn. Even the shutters on her porch are pulled almost to, and through the crack that remains, Windle reflexively scans the beach, checking for trouble. A number of antis have been spotted out there recently, though in general they prefer the front of her house, where as many as 90 have shown up with their bullhorns and dead-baby posters, mortifying the neighbors.

Windle has been a fixed target since the spring of ’89, when Operation Goliath, an ad-hoc wing of Operation Rescue, opened up shop in Melbourne and summarily declared war on the small women’s clinic off U.S. 1. “April 15, 9 a.m., there were 600 screaming people on my property, 200 of ’em wedged up against the front doors,” Windle says and shudders. “We were terrified, it was like something right out of The Birds, these hateful faces swarming and beating the glass. The cops hauled 147 of them off to jail, but it didn’t seem to deter ’em any. They went down to the Port St. Lucie office and mashed my son Tod up against a wall, physically abused some of my people there, then came back up here and trapped everybody inside the building. That spring and summer, it was just one long blockade – we never knew what hit us.”

y the spring of ’90, the blockade ended, but the picketing of Windle’s home began. Every weekday morning for 26 months, she was awakened at 7 a.m. by at least one woman praying for her death. The antis “literally wore a groove in our front lawn,” says Windle’s husband, Ted, a retired Air Force major and aerospace engineer who now oversees the finances of her three clinics. “We had a protective injunction, but the local cops wouldn’t enforce it. Melbourne Beach [a suburb of Melbourne] is a tiny town with a very small budget, and the antis threatened it with a huge lawsuit. Give ’em credit, they’re extremely savvy about what they can get away with – about who they can put the muscle on and which laws they can flout.”

Melbourne police Capt. Gary Allgeyer agrees: “They’re very well briefed in the letter of the law, especially the gray areas. They know, for instance, what is and isn’t a death threat and that the law doesn’t call it stalking until you’ve been caught following someone three times.” But Allgeyer, who has presided over this battle since it began, bristles at the suggestion he hasn’t been tough enough on the antis. “We’ve made hundreds of arrests, spent tens of thousands of dollars in overtime,” he says, “and frankly, we must be doing something right, because both sides are plenty mad at us.”

It wasn’t as if the antis were presenting themselves, palms up, for arrest. Often, Allgeyer’s men would show up en masse in the blazing heat only to find that the antis had given them the slip and attacked Windle’s West Palm Beach office instead. Nor was it any easier in the beginning to pin down the group’s size or leadership. By and by, Windle began seeing the same faces at arraignment: Bruce Cadle, a former real-estate salesman and professional clown with a long clinic-arrest record who has recently been named Operation Rescue’s southeast regional field director; Cadle’s son, Brent, a spindly, goggle-eyed teen who, like many of the kids in the anti-abortion movement, has been home schooled; and Meredith Raney, a former computer engineer in the aerospace industry.

“Raney’s the truly scary one,” says Windle. “For four years, he’s been standing in my driveway, videotaping women coming out of my clinic. He writes their license-plate numbers down, gets their address through the motor vehicle bureau – we have very loose privacy laws in the state of Florida – and sends letters to their house for their husband or parents to see. He’s followed my patients home, he’s followed my children home and sent surveillance tapes to the doctors of their comings and goings. The doctors turn around and scream, ‘Do something!’ to me, I turn around and scream, ‘Do something!’ to the cops, and the cops shrug and say, ‘It’s legal,’ and walk off.

“Meanwhile, the cops are telling me, ‘Patricia, we’re very worried about you, because the closer we look into this bunch, the more we see single males who fit the Son of Sam profile – white, self- or unemployed, with few if any connections to the world [who] got into these fundamentalist churches because they get a lot of their emotional needs met there.’ [Picketing clinics] provides them with a life, a purpose – and above all, a heap of voyeurism. It’s the sex of the lonely man.”

Since Jan. 22, 1973, the day Roe vs. Wade was inscribed into law, women in this country have had almost 30 million abortions, and people have been arrested more than 50,000 times opposing their right to do so. If you are not included in either of these groups, however, chances are your connection to the topic is fairly ephemeral. That is to say, you are probably acutely interested in the question of a cheap, safe abortion when you are pregnant and wish not to be, or your wife or girlfriend is and wishes not to be; otherwise, you are very likely bored to tears by the whole business, repelled by the blood-in-the-face screeching from both sides, the 20-year death dance at the barricades. It is one thing, after all, to declare yourself prochoice, as at least two-thirds of Americans do in poll after poll; it is quite another to spend your Saturdays defending clinics or collecting door-to-door for the Feminist Majority.

But in the face of such broad, vexed lack of interest, a curious thing has happened: It has become vastly harder to get an abortion, particularly if you live any distance from a major city. According to Gina Shaw at the National Abortion Federation: “There are no doctors to perform abortions in 83 percent of the counties in America, and several entire states, like North and South Dakota, are down to one or two. Moreover, since the murder of Gunn, a number of physicians have fled the field, leaving behind only the most committed doctors, many of whom are in their 50s or early 60s. And God knows where their successors will come from, since only 12 percent of the OB-GYN residency programs are still teaching the procedure, down from 25 percent just five years ago.”

The exodus of two generations of doctors from the abortion business occurred not because they suddenly found it repellent or unprofitable; in fact, given the current shortage, a young physician straight out of med school can make $200,000 a year riding the clinic circuit. Rather, these doctors quit because for the last dozen years a holy war has been waged against the men and women who provide abortions. As cultic and ceaseless as any jihad launched by Tehran, this one has the distinction of being entirely unilateral: All the violence and intimidation has been carried out by the pro-life side, whose obedience to God and consecration of the fetus proudly “supersede the laws of man.”

Since 1977, according to Shaw, there have been numerous acts of violence committed against abortion clinics and the people who work there, including 36 bombings, 83 arsons and 494 incidents of extreme vandalism, like the butyric-acid attack at the clinic in Melbourne last December, which closed the office for several days and sent a cop to the hospital.

“These aren’t the spontaneous acts of a handful of psychos, but a meticulous campaign of coordinated terrorism whose only purpose is to send us screaming into another line of work,” says Windle. “Essentially, the antis have decided that since they can’t beat us in the courts or on Capitol Hill, they’re going to burn us down or put three bullets in our back. It may make for lousy PR, but it’s been brilliantly effective. I can’t even get a new doctor to return my phone calls these days.”

Indeed, 12 hours after Gunn’s murder across the state in Pensacola, two of Windle’s three doctors abruptly quit, bringing to nine the number who’d left her in the last four years. Not that Windle could blame Frank Snydle or Monthree Ruangsomboon, whom she calls “two of the toughest, most courageous doctors I’ve ever met.” Both had been the target of a relentless, two-year offensive, during which Snydle was stalked on the freeways, Ruangsomboon was blockaded in his house and both were vilified by WANTED posters displaying their pictures and offering a $1,000 reward for their “arrest and conviction.”

“In Snydle’s case, the harassment was particularly savage,” says Windle. “At the Catholic hospital where he practices, the antis went all the way to the presiding bishop, telling him, ‘There’s a baby killer working in your hospital.’ They followed his girlfriend’s children to school and woke up his 82-year-old mother, who has a severe heart condition, to tell her that her only son had just been killed in a car accident. No piece of viciousness is beneath these people; their hatred is bottomless, inexhaustible.”

On the night Bill Clinton was elected president and most of her peers were decanting champagne, Patricia Windle sat alone in her living room, brooding. “A fanatic frustrated is a fanatic turned violent,” she moped and kept herself up all hours with nightmare scenarios – a bold new round of clinic burnings; the kidnap and murder of an employee or doctor. The antis had just blasted her Port St. Lucie office with acid and tried to run one of her physicians off the road in Daytona. Seven weeks later, they pulled the acid attack in Melbourne. And then, in January, came the worst hit of all: Operation Rescue moved its national headquarters to Melbourne and held a 12-week boot camp for anti-abortion commandos. Twenty-two recruits showed up for the so-called IMPACT training. The announced staging area: Windle’s clinic.

Every Friday for the next three months, a different star of the pro-life movement flew into Melbourne to impart his putative savvy, including Randall Terry, who blew in four days before Dr. Gunn was killed and exhorted his troops to hunt down their enemies in “the pro-death kingdom of darkness.”

The onslaught began in earnest in late January, when 10,000 calls jammed the clinic’s WATS lines, knocking out its phones for a week. Patients were brazenly stalked and “outed” – their names emblazoned on picket signs, their front steps daubed with a red fetus. Windle’s employees were threatened with death and their children subjected to harassment. In one incident, antis waited for the clinic’s nurse to go to work, then went to the front door of her apartment to terrorize her three children inside. In another, the 13-year-old son of a clinic counselor was lured to a Burger King and told he and his mother would “burn in hell” because of her work.

“It was five months of caterwauling, round-the-clock hell; my whole staff and I were on the verge of total breakdown,” says Windle. “Our business fell off by 70 percent, our doctors had their tires slashed and their cars smeared with fake blood – and don’t you know that on the day David Gunn was shot, these people stood on my sidewalk and yelled at my daughter, ‘One down, bitch; how many more to go?'”

Spending money she didn’t have, Windle hired several bodyguards and paid off-duty cops to stand sentry at the clinic. She bought bulletproof vests for herself and her staff and went nowhere without a stun gun and pepper gas. But amid all the hysteria and mounting aggression, a savior appeared: Eleanor Smeal, the top cop of the pro-choice movement, dispatched two of her Feminist Majority lieutenants to mount resistance.

“My first thought was ‘What if they come in and bark at my cops?'” recalls Windle, who’d envisioned a herd of avenging radicals riding in and jackbooting her tenuous rapport with police. “But from the minute Kathy Spillar and Lisa Sergi got here, it was one of the most wonderful and edifying experiences of my life. They immediately recruited 300 defenders and taught ’em how to stand tough and button their lip. They ran a brilliant campaign to spike community awareness, staging rallies that brought out everyone from bikers to Baptists. But by far the most important thing they did was to assemble the legal help I’d so desperately needed. In ’91, I’d spent my last dime on an injunction that had no value. Ellie picked up the phone and got Sandy D’Alemberte, the immediate past president of the American Bar Association. Four weeks later, I had myself a killer injunction and wasn’t out of pocket one red cent.”

That injunction, handed down on April 8 by Judge Robert McGregor, set a 36-foot buffer zone around the clinic and strictly prohibited chanting, screaming or the deployment of signs within eyesight or earshot of clinic patients. And though Operation Rescue leaders thumbed their noses at McGregor, calling him a “judicial whore,” his order clearly broke the back of the siege. Dozens of antis were hauled off to jail, some of them charged with child abuse for subjecting minors to arrest. The huge turnout at clinic protests dried up, and the IMPACT boot camp quietly disbanded.

“All I can say is, ‘God bless Ellie Smeal and her people, and God bless Sandy D’Alemberte,'” says Windle. “Without them, those bastards would’ve surely run me into the ground. We were the lab rats for their national strategy, and if they’d managed to shut me down – one of the toughest, most entrenched providers in the country – they would have taken that game plan to every city in the country. But as sweet as it was to whip their fannies, none of us around here are jumping for joy. All we won was the battle, not the war. We know they’ll be back, en masse, and soon.”

The woman on the phone at Operation Rescue was the soul of politeness but regretted to inform me that Bruce Cadle had just left town on short notice. So, upon further inquiry, had Meredith Raney and Keith Tucci, the leader of Operation Rescue National. Determined, if nothing else, to meet their travel agent, I drove over to the group’s offices on Aurora Road. On the radio, Jerry Falwell was huckstering a video called Sodom and Gomorrah, which, for $38, favored viewers with scenes from this year’s Gay Pride March on Washington: “Friends, this film captures a male playing God sodomizing a male playing Uncle Sam, while another male playing a Boy Scout looked on and laughed. Blasphemy! … We need to pray for revival, we need to write to our congressmen, we need to save this great country from the gay and lesbian takeover….”

I pulled into a dowdy, weed-grown lot, the asphalt buckling under the flamethrower sun. Curiously, however, there was no sign on the door or other attestation that this was the proud headquarters of the army of God; indeed, by all appearances, the place was abandoned. Tentatively, I poked my head inside and saw two figures hunched over a Formica counter. The one in the mustache was Cadle. He was a large, pink man in his middle 30s, whose neck protruded in wattles from a too-tight shirt. In his polyester tie and coke-bottle glasses, behind which darted huge, trepidant eyes, he looked like nothing so much as a john nabbed in a vice sting. I introduced myself, commending his lightning return from out of town. He told me to get out of his office: “I have no respect for you or your publication. It’s obvious to me that you aren’t a good Christian.”

Abundantly mindful of that defect, I nonetheless began inquiring after his views on women and privacy. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” he said. “Get out. I’m not talking to anybody from ROLLING STONE.”

Standing next to him was a tall, cadaverous boy with the arrowhead gauntness of an El Greco peasant. Belatedly, I recognized Cadle’s teenage son, Brent. For five minutes, he had been staring into the middle distance, seeing and hearing nothing, a kind of selective catalepsy. “Isn’t today a school day?” I asked his father.
“Get out!”

A month or so later, Windle’s premonition was borne out. Operation Rescue showed up in force on her doorstep, mustering hundreds of protesters for its weeklong Cities of Refuge campaign. But Windle was prepared. Patients came and went without incident, and only seven of the antis braved arrest, all of them teenagers. Shortly thereafter, their leader, Keith Tucci, was himself arrested and is facing possible jail time, as is his predecessor, Terry.

“I like to think of myself as gracious in victory, but I get limitless pleasure imagining the two of them in jail,” says Windle. “Only in America can ex-used-car salesmen get rich and famous doing harm to women. Because that’s what all this is finally about – a bunch of angry, empty, failed white men beating up on women for taking charge of their bodies.”

After four years, however, of harrowing 70- to 100-hour weeks and sleeping with one ear cocked for the phone, Windle sounds exhausted, not exuberant: “I’m going to be 59 this fall. How much longer can I go on hacking it alone, this constant Chinese water torture of attacks? Randy Whitney, my one remaining doctor, is 60; how much longer can he hack the abuse? We need tough laws from Congress that are enforced to protect clinics and doctors, so that we can finally start getting some new blood in this business. Society has expected us not only to be its generals in this war but to foot the bill for it out of our pockets. Well, I’m sorry, but my employees and I have already taken five pay cuts; we can’t go on financing your war. Freedom isn’t free; in fact, it’s damned expensive.”

A call comes in on her other line: The Alabama state cops need help investigating the recent murder of George Patterson, the prominent abortion doctor and clinic owner shot dead in downtown Mobile. “That’s five of us now,” says Windle, her voice breaking into shards of rage. “Five of us shot in the last 15 months. How many more of us have to die before we get help? How many more of us have to die before we get justice?” 

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