Life had pretty much returned to normal at the Birth Control Institute, a Southeast San Diego clinic that was all but destroyed in an arson fire last September.
After two months spent on repairs, the clinic had reopened and regained its client load of 1,000 women a month, about 20% of whom receive abortions. An elaborate alarm system and outdoor floodlights were installed, and as clinic Director Carol Roberts recalled, the pre-dawn fire that caused $200,000 in damages was fast becoming "just a real bad memory."
Until Saturday night--when it happened again.
At about 10:15 p.m., 30 minutes after clinic workers had completed the day's paper work and closed up shop, someone hurled a Molotov cocktail through a side window of the El Cajon Boulevard clinic, causing the building's reception area to explode into flames.
No one was injured in the blaze, which firefighters contained within minutes, and damages--estimated at $10,000--were confined to the reception room, said Denis McNeill, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire Department.
McNeill said local fire investigators and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is investigating the bombings of abortion clinics nationwide, have offered rewards totaling $6,000 for information on both fires at BCI. He declined to comment on whether investigators at the scene of Saturday's fire had uncovered evidence of a connection between the two fires.
Roberts, saying she felt "angry, violated and in total shock" as she sifted through the rubble at the clinic Sunday, condemned the weekend fire as the act of a "fanatical, unbalanced person who just won't let people live their own lives."
A San Diego feminist leader, meanwhile, charged that religious fundamentalists who have picketed the clinic in the past are "just as responsible as the sick individual who lighted the fuse and threw the bomb."
"By fostering a climate of hatred and anger and by spreading incorrect and damaging propaganda against a woman's right to choose, the so-called right-to-lifers have jeopardized not only the lives of those who work in women's health care at BCI but anyone who might have been in the vicinity," said January Riddle, president of the San Diego chapter of the National Organization for Women.
BCI, a private, nonprofit agency that offers birth control and family planning services, was the target of weekly picketing by fundamentalist anti-abortionists until July, when an injunction was obtained prohibiting the protesters from picketing near the clinic's entrance and from harassing women trying to enter the facility. Two dozen picketers were subsequently fined and placed on probation for violating the court order.
On Sunday, the fundamentalist preacher who led those pickets said that while he doesn't advocate arson and related tactics, he sympathizes with the perpetrators and "can see a point in the future where such methods may be our only choice."
Such tactics "are very effective and serve as a public outcry against the murders that go on in there," said the Rev. Dorman Owens, pastor of the Bible Missionary Fellowship in Santee. "We're hoping the laws will be changed, but if not, it's a question of how far Americans will go to save human lives."
Owens said that he believes those who set fire to the clinic are "normal, outraged San Diegans who feel their hands are tied in this time of urgency."
Although Saturday's fire gutted BCI's reception area, Roberts called the blaze "a totally useless act of violence" and vowed that the clinic would be open for business as usual at 9 a.m. today.
"Our exam rooms and everything else was spared, so if they were trying to put us out of business, this hasn't really accomplished a thing," Roberts said.
Fire officials said the attack on BCI was the 33rd incident of arson, bombing or firebombing at abortion clinics nationwide since May, 1982. Leaders of the pro-choice movement have estimated that there have been 60 such attacks since 1977.
McNeill said damages in Saturday's fire were limited because of fire prevention tips BCI officials have followed since the September arson attack. Most effective, he said, was the practice of keeping all doors within the clinic closed, thus preventing flames from spreading throughout the building.
McNeill encouraged anyone with information on the fires to call 235-TIPS.