When the Refuse & Resist! Reproductive Freedom Taskforce organized the first National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers twenty years ago in fall 1996, clinics and clinic staff were under constant physical attack. Two doctors and a clinic escort had been murdered; clinics were being blockaded, invaded, and bombed; doctors had their homes protested and their children followed to school; and some doctors were even being targeted by law enforcement for prosecution. Just going to work in the morning meant crossing a picket line and being called vile names, or worse being told that they know where you live. Unlisted phone numbers, and in Massachusettes where I lived at the time unlisted license plates, were necessary security precautions. Judicially, the Webster and Casey Supreme Court decisions in 1989 and 1992 had chipped away at the constitutional protections granted by Roe v. Wade. Many had thought that having a democrat in the White House would result in a more favorable climate for abortion after twelve years of a republican presidency, but instead violent attacks on clinics had only escalated. In this context, a small group of activists who themselves had been on the front lines of the abortion battle determined that it was essential to launch a campaign of public support. Declaring “Abortion providers are heroes for saving women’s lives!” the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers was created with two aims: 1) to hearten providers with positive public support and 2) to strengthen the movement by forging stronger links between activists and providers.
Though the first NDAAP was small, the feedback from providers was overwhelmingly positive. As we moved towards the 25th anniversary of Roe on January 22, 1998, we determined to make the Day of Appreciation a major annual event. When just one week after the Roe anniversary a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing the security guard and seriously injuring a nurse, standing with providers and publicly thanking them for their work became all the more urgent. With the permission and participation of David Gunn Jr., we marked the fifth anniversary of his father’s death on March 10, 1998 with the second NDAAP, and ever since then March 10 has been a day to honor the work abortion providers do.
It seems hard to imagine now, but for those first five years we organized on the phone and mailed paper organizing kits to participating organizations like the LIST. We also mailed appreciation packets to clinics all over the country with the cooperation of the National Abortion Federation, the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Appreciation packets over the years included poetry written for the occasion by reg e. gaines and Marge Piercy, original artwork, posters for display in clinic waiting rooms and staff rooms, certificates and letters of appreciation, and even a sermon and prayer for clinic workers.
By the early 2000s the Internet was becoming a viable organizing tool, and the Day of Appreciation had caught on enough that we no longer had to convince organizations to participate or call to remind them that March 10 was coming. We made the decision at that point to let the Day have a life of its own. On the one hand it makes me sad that twenty years after that first NDAAP there is still a need for the Day. Many of the situations I described above are still the daily reality providers across the country, but that kind of daily violence is no longer a news story, just the reality of legal abortion in this country. But on the other hand, it makes me incredibly happy that so many individuals and organizations have taken the day up as their own and that abortion providers are so publicly thanked each year.
Back in the early days of NDAAP, David Gunn, Jr. told us that his father’s favorite song had been Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”
Well I won't back down, no I won't back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won't back down
The song is still an apt theme for the courageous health care providers and clinic staff whose determination and persistence in the face of unrelenting legislative attacks and daily harassment is nothing short of awe inspiring. It is these workers, sometimes the only ones for hundreds of miles or the only ones in an entire state, who make the constitutional right to abortion a reality. Abortion funds like the TEA Fund help make abortion financially accessible, but as the old saying goes, “without abortion providers there is no choice.” You can read some of their stories here https://prh.org/provider-voices/ndaap/
So today, and everyday, I honor all abortion providers and clinic staff. Having worked at Planned Parenthood myself, I know how hard it can be to go past those protestors on your way into work, or on your way back from lunch. I hold close to my heart all the providers I’ve worked with for the past 25 years, whose courage and strength have sustained me. And I remember with deep sadness and enormous gratitude those who were murdered for doing their part to provide safe, legal abortion.
March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn, Pensacola, FL
June 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, Pensacola, FL
December 30, 1994: Shannon Lowney and Leann Nichols, Brookline, MA
January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, Birmingham, AL
October 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian, Rochester, NY
May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller, Wichita, KS
You are my heroes.