Arson at Planned Parenthood clinic stuns many in tranquil Pa. county

LANCASTER, PA. — LANCASTER, Pa. -- The digital clock was glowing 3:38 a.m. when the security alarm that links her office to her home startled Patricia Brogan awake. By the time she ran a block to the Planned Parenthood clinic here, flames were spiking through the roof.

By dawn that Wednesday, Sept. 29, news services were carrying the report across the country:


The Planned Parenthood offices in tranquil Lancaster County, a clinic tucked amid charming brick townhouses on a tree-lined block, had been set ablaze -- the country's third arson attack on an abortion clinic in 10 days.

Incidents are cited


Anti-abortion violence is on the rise, backers of abortion-rights say. They cite bombings of clinics, the murder of one abortion doctor in March and the wounding of another in August. But Lancaster, a city of about 55,000 in a county associated with the peace-loving Amish, hardly seemed a battleground in the fight over abortion.

Indeed, the Planned Parenthood clinic here doesn't even do abortions, though it will refer women who seek them to clinics in nearby counties.

"We never thought that it couldn't happen to us," said Nancy Osgood, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood clinic, as she sat amid the construction site that her office has become. "But when it did, it was a big shock."

Supporters of abortion rights say no place is safe, not since a few radical abortion opponents, who find political channels blocked, have decided to fight their own violent campaign.

The arsonist's attack on the Lancaster clinic has left Planned Parenthood officials scrambling to offer limited medical services to its 5,500 patients while scorched walls and rafters are being replaced.

The attack prompted groups on both sides of the abortion issue to condemn the violence. And it moved Lancaster city officials to call for negotiation instead of lawlessness.

"For a conservative, placid community, this seems out of character," says Mayor Janice Stork. "But Lancaster is a microcosm of any large, urban city. We have the same problems. We have the same intolerance."

The fire has stunned many in Lancaster and angered many more. In the past few years, the Ku Klux Klan has staged two marches -- one in the city, one in nearby Ephrata. A synagogue has been desecrated by graffiti. A gay and lesbian bookstore was bombed.


For many here, the clinic fire is just another hate crime.

Ms. Brogan, Planned Parenthood's director of community relations, calls the fire "an aberration that does not reflect the fact that most of the people in this community are tolerant, fair-minded people of good will."

"But there's a vocal minority," she said, "whose entire platform is based on intolerance -- intellectual intolerance, religious intolerance, social intolerance, racial intolerance."

She was talking outside the clinic, where construction workers were sizing up the damage and a doctor was standing on the lawn taking inventory of medications.

Patients arrive for tests

Patients were arriving for pregnancy tests or to pick up birth-control pills. But many services that the clinic provided -- including tests for sexually transmitted diseases and Pap smears to screen for cancer -- won't be offered until the spring.


No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which caused more than $130,000 in damage. The Pennsylvania State Police -- working with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Lancaster city police and the Lancaster County district attorney's office -- say they have interviewed several people but won't say if any are suspects.

The ATF is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

With the U. S. Supreme Court declining to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion, and President Clinton backing the right to abortion, some abortion opponents have been frustrated by the political process, Ms. Osgood said. "I was aware there was going to be a backlash," she said. "I could just feel it."

"There's an expectations gap," said Gina Shaw, of the National Abortion Federation, in Washington, which tracks anti-abortion violence. "When people have high expectations and then they don't get what they want, it's actually more frustrating for them than if they'd never expected anything."

Dallas A. Blanchard, chairman of the sociology department at the University of West Florida, has studied more than a dozen cases of clinic bombings for a book he co-wrote, "Religious Violence and Abortion."

People who carry out such attacks, he said, believe they have the support of a much larger community. "Most of these people are encapsulated. They tend to relate only to people who agree with them," he said.


With the election of President Clinton, "the frustration keeps deepening," Mr. Blanchard said. "And frustration leads to violence."

Planned Parenthood of Maryland, like other affiliates, has offered support to Lancaster, including $1,000 from the Baltimore office.

"I really view this as terrorism," said James Guest, the president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "These are violent terrorists who are breaking the law. They've lost politically, and now they're going outside the law. It's not all anti-choice people. But there's a fringe."

For established anti-abortion groups, the violence has become a wearying problem.

Cathy Murphy, executive director of Birthright of Lancaster, said no one is sure who started the fire.

"For all we know, it could have been the angry parent of a client who's upset because their child got birth control pills. So until we know more, I don't think it does any good to point fingers."


Denise Neary, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, said the violence doesn't serve her cause.

"If anyone thinks that killing an abortionist or bombing an abortion clinic is going to protect human lives, then they're very confused and misguided," she said. "We have to restore respect for human life. To do that, we have to win minds and change hearts."

Letter condemns violence

On the night of the fire, Ms. Brogan said, someone who identified himself as a "pro-life activist," called her at home to say he disagreed with the violence. And Ms. Osgood said that an anti-abortion adoption group sent a letter condemning the act.

Tuesday, about 250 people came to a sun-dappled park two blocks from the burned clinic for a Rally Against Violence. Organizers wore "Stop The Violence" armbands.

"Violence, no matter what its rationalization or justification, is absolutely not a solution to our differences," Mayor Stork told the crowd.


Ms. Osgood took the microphone to say, "We must begin today to learn how to talk about fervently held beliefs in responsible, rational, noninflammatory ways. The rhetoric of hate, bigotry and ignorance -- the rhetoric which portrays some good and others evil -- must stop."