Sitting in my office one day at the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, I took a call from the administrator of the Cincinnati Women’s Services clinic. She was very upset and through the sobbing I could hear her say things like “pungent smell…the clinic will be closed for days…they made us take our clothes off to scrub us down…”
It was the first time I had heard about butyric acid and it was the beginning of yet another tactic in the campaign of terrorism against abortion clinics. When the administrator regained her composure, she told me how when she approached the clinic that morning she could smell something from the parking lot that smelled “like one of those high school chemistry experiments.” The smell got worse as she got closer and when she opened the door, it was like a “wave” hit her. Other staff followed her in and, despite the horrific smell, they started calling the police and their patients. Unfortunately, the local police had no idea what to do but when officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived, they immediately diagnosed the problem. They ordered everyone out of the building, set up make-shift outdoor showers and ordered all the staff to take off their clothes to get scrubbed down. They then started the multi-day clean up of the building, which ultimately cost the owners a lot of money because they had no insurance for such an incident.
Butyric acid is a clear, colorless liquid with an unpleasant, rancid, vomit-like odor. Anti-abortion extremists began using it as a weapon against abortion facilities in early 1992. The goal, of course, was to disrupt services, close the clinic, and harass patients and staff. Depending on the amount used, the butyric acid could cause thousands of dollars of damage, requiring clinics to replace carpeting, furniture, and conduct extensive cleanup of the facility. Even after the cleanup, the smell remained months after the incident.
Over the years, there were about 100 butyric acid attacks throughout the United States and Canada, causing in excess of $1 million in damages. From May to July 1998, nineteen abortion clinics in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas were hit with butyric acid, which the perpetrator simply injected through the keyhole of the clinic’s front door with a syringe. Clinic staff and patients were sent to hospitals with respiratory problems and nausea.
The problem in those days was that the federal government had no jurisdiction to prosecute those who were involved in these attacks, so they had to rely on state and local officials whose inquiries were limited because the investigators could not cross state lines to pursue links among the crimes. And, candidly, many local officials just didn’t give a darn if the local abortion clinic had some problems.
Finally, however, after passage of the FACE Act, federal grand juries in Oregon and Eastern California returned indictments in 30 cases against Rachelle “Shelly” Shannon, who is now sitting in a jail in Kansas on state charges for the attempted murder of Wichita physician George Tiller in 1993. In 1995, she was sentenced to 20 more years by Federal District Court Judge James Redden who, when sentencing her, called her a “terrorist.” The sentence was set to begin only after Shannon’s 10-year incarceration for shooting Tiller is completed.
History often repeats itself, so I believe it’s important to remind (or, in many cases, inform) those who are reading this blog of the days when the violence was rampant, when clinics and their workers were under regular attack by domestic terrorists. So, on a regular basis I will continue to share and document the stories of those horrible days.
We cannot forget the past. And we must remain vigilant.
- Pennsylvania Passes Bill That Could Shut Down Its Abortion Clinics [Roe V World] (jezebel.com)
- Anti-abortion church left pink-faced after discovering its charity Bible sales funded Planned Parenthood (mumbailaity.wordpress.com)
- Anti-abortion activist Linda Gibbons gets her day in Canada’s top court (life.nationalpost.com)
- Anti-abortion activist Linda Gibbons arrested at Toronto clinic for once again defying court order (life.nationalpost.com)