When a bomb ripped through an abortion clinic here last week, rattling windows miles away and killing an off-duty policeman, a new reality in the abortion movement was cemented.
While violence has long been a component of the fight against abortion, the proliferation of bombs - especially those aimed at harming people, not destroying property - is a more recent development.
The number of bombings at abortion clinics nationwide tripled to six in 1997, according to the National Abortion Federation in Washington. Last year, a clinic in metro Atlanta witnessed the first bomb ever set off with the intent of injuring a person. In Birmingham, a similar bomb, made of nails and gunpowder, caused relatively little property damage but killed Officer Robert Sanderson - the first person ever killed by a bomb aimed at an abortion clinic.
"The voice of violence in the abortion movement is increasing," says Dallas Blanchard, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, who has tracked the movement since the 1980s. First, there were attacks on clinics, then the murders of clinic workers, and now bombs intended to kill, he says.
At press time, authorities had not identified the person or group responsible for planting the package bomb at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic, located in the heart of the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus, just blocks from the city's extensive hospital complex.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended on the city hours after the bomb went off Thursday morning, shattering windows and exploding a crater in the sidewalk. The agents cordoned off a six-block area and set up shop - complete with mobile laboratories and a helicopter launching pad.
The authorities' lead
The only lead authorities have made public is the search for a man named Eric Robert Rudolph, whose gray Nissan truck was spotted leaving the scene. Through the truck's license plate number - seen by an eyewitness - authorities traced the vehicle to Mr. Rudolph, whose last known address is in Cherokee County - a remote, mountainous region of North Carolina that experts say is home to a strong militia movement. But authorities say they do not know who was driving the truck, and they stress that Rudolph is wanted as a witness, not as a suspect.
As agents continue their search for the bomber, the city of Birmingham - dotted with aging brick smokestacks from its steel-producing days and the gleaming new skyscrapers of today - struggles to cope with the tragedy.
John David Russell epitomizes that struggle. Standing across the street from the police blockade, he soaks in what has happened. Once a pro-life protester himself, he cannot believe "the premeditated, cold-bloodedness" of this act.
"I know people die every day, but this ... this took a lot of preparation," he says.
Birmingham, despite its image as a sleepy Southern city largely removed from violence, has had a long history of protesting abortion. A second nearby abortion clinic has been broken into, and its furnishings and equipment were destroyed. Last year, in neighboring Tuscaloosa, Ala., a clinic was set on fire. The situation has been so volatile that the National Abortion Federation listed Alabama as one of a dozen trouble spots it highlighted to the Justice Department in a report last month.
Effect on abortion clinics
Touched even more profoundly by this than Birmingham, though, may be the national network of abortion providers. Heightened security alerts for clinics across the country will continue throughout the week. A candlelight vigil with pro-choice representatives from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was staged on Saturday. And national organizations like Planned Parenthood have already released updated safety guidelines in the wake of the bombing.
"Law enforcement is truly the key to containing and stopping this," says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "If you don't stop the vandalism and the threat of bombings, they turn into blockades. And the blockades turn into bombings. And the bombings lead to a murder like we saw [last week]."