On the night of Sunday, April 1st, a small fire started in an exam room at the Appleton, WI branch of Planned Parenthood. The following Tuesday, a man named Francis Grady was arrested, and he seemed quite proud of his accomplishment; he attempted to fire his state-appointed attorney and plead guilty.
Grady had filled a bottle with gasoline, dropped it through a window he’d broken, and lit it on fire. He also apparently set his sleeve ablaze in the process. This was not a random act of arson, however: he attempted to burn down Planned Parenthood because, as he yelled at his court appearance, “they’re killing babies there.”
The Appleton branch is one of three Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin that provides abortion services. The state’s abortion laws aren’t out of the ordinary: written consent is required and partial birth abortion has been outlawed. Aside from that, there doesn’t seem to be much on the books about abortion in Wisconsin, and it is not one of the many states in the news these days with new abortion restrictions being debated.
This makes it a surprising place for an attack, though I suppose an attack like this can never be anticipated. While Francis Grady appeared odd at his court appearance, he did not appear to be deranged or mentally incompetent. He is simply a man wondering if anyone cares about “the 1,000 babies that died screaming,” a phrase he hurled at the judge during his court proceedings.
I spoke with Rachel DiBella, a local advocate for sexual health and justice. She sees this attack as just the tip of the iceberg: “if this past year didn’t starkly illustrate for us what a serious threat certain people and institutions pose to women's health and basic rights, it would be almost comical to watch the countless individuals who have come forward (mostly white men, of course) and spread their toxic rhetoric about 'women's issues' from one end of the spectrum to the other.” She’s right; there were more anti-choice pieces of legislation introduced in 2011 than in any other year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
What’s been largely missing, however, are personal attacks. Since 2009, when Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot dead at his church, there haven’t been a lot of attacks on doctors or abortion providing clinics. The fight has largely moved from the streets to state legislative buildings. It has also largely changed from a discussion of abortion as an overarching issue, and focused instead on aspects within that issue: this year has seen legislation involving transvaginal ultrasounds and even a renewed debate about contraception.
DiBella sees how all this ties together, as well as the underlying issue: “it started with the subject of rape, and how we define it, while abortions came to the forefront. And suddenly, if we paused to look around, we'd see that, with contraception brought into the discourse, these concerns are not about violence or life or choice at all. This is about a deep-seated mistrust and resentment of women.”
This idea of trusting women does seem to underline everything. When we talk about abortion, before we get into the politics of religious or moral beliefs, we talk about a woman’s right to both privacy and the choice to decide when she is ready to have a child. This issue of privacy is something everyone seems able to get behind, yet not when it comes to women’s reproductive and sexual health. It was with this in mind that Ohio Representative Nina Turner introduced a bill requiring men to have counsel with a sex therapist, a cardiac test, and a signed affidavit from their sexual partner in order to get a prescription for Viagra. In an interview with MSNBC, she said “we gotta make sure we guide men to make the right decisions,” borrowing language long used when discussing issues that fall under the umbrella of abortion. While Turner’s bill was generally laughed at, she pointed out the absurdity of the language used. After all, women are adults, capable of thought and decisions. A lot of the language used around abortion implies that they aren’t.
All of this is bigger than the incident in Appleton, of course. The difference is that Francis Grady took it upon himself to do this, apparently ignoring the work already being done on his behalf in state legislation across the country. Whether or not we will see more acts of vigilantism pertaining to abortion remains to be seen, but as long as this distrust of women continues, it wouldn’t be surprising.