The violent history of a Florida abortion clinic may be repeating itself in a new terrorist act: Anti-choice zealots are suspected of setting a blaze Sunday that gutted the American Family Planning clinic in Pensacola, which was Ground Zero for murders and bombings by vigilantes in the 1980s and 1990s.
A sniffing dog helped investigators at the scene gather samples Tuesday to be tested for fire accelerants, Deborah Cox of the Florida State Fire Marshal’s office told Hatewatch. Investigators already have determined that the blaze started outside the building, she added. Calling the fire suspicious “would be an understatement,” Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons told the Pensacola News-Journal.
The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working on the case with the fire marshal, Cox said. Definitive findings on whether it was arson may take a couple of weeks, she reports. Nobody was injured in the New Year’s Day blaze.
The two-story clinic, formerly called The Ladies Center Clinic, has been at the epicenter of the violent anti-abortion movement for nearly 30 years now. Indeed, this isn’t the first time the clinic has been burnt to the ground; a pipe bomb in 1984 destroyed it. Rebuilding only brought more bombings—and two murders. In 1994, Dr. John Britton, a clinic doctor, and his bodyguard, James Barrett, were gunned down at close range by Paul Hill, who was executed for the murders in 2003. A year earlier, abortion provider Dr. David Gunn was shot to death outside a similar facility clinic in the same town, the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services clinic.
Hill, a former drug enthusiast who eventually became a Presbyterian minister, never expressed remorse for the murders, claiming the Bible justified his acts. He was the first person in America to be executed for murdering an abortion provider.
Destruction of the Pensacola clinic this week comes amid “an incredibly hostile environment attacking women’s right to choose here in Florida,” said Judith Selzer, vice-president for public policy for the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, Inc. “It’s very scary now,” Selzer told Hatewatch.
In 2011 the Florida Legislature passed five laws that could compromise women’s abortion rights, she says. One mandates ultrasounds before all abortions, even if doctors say they’re not needed—“an intimidation tactic,” Selzer says. Another law put a proposed amendment stripping privacy rights from the state constitution on the 2012 ballot, “and we’re worried about how this could affect women seeking abortions,” she added.
An intensifying climate of intimidation, including the 2009 murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., has reduced access to abortions for American women. Nationally, the number of abortion providers has steadily declined for the last 20 years, says Rebecca Wind of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks availability. In 1992, there were 2,380 physicians performing abortions in the U.S.; that had fallen to 1,793 providers by 2008, the latest year available. Some 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion providers, Wind told Hatewatch. The shortage is greatest outside of large cities.