'A Gunman Shot Up the Waiting Room I’d Just Left'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader remembers how she came upon one of the worst abortion clinic attacks in U.S. history:

December 30, 1994. It started before I even got out of the cab. The protesters were screaming, flashing their gruesome signs, even in liberal Brookline, Mass. The cab driver felt it was his place to ask, rudely, “This is an abortion clinic?” as I fished bills out of my wallet. “It’s a women’s health clinic,” I snapped, slamming the door on the way out.

There was one protester who blocked my path, a tall, heavyset woman, screaming in booming voice, “Don’t kill your baby,” as she stood between me and the door. In that moment, she seemed like a giant to me, like something out of a nightmare. I later learned she was well-known to both Planned Parenthood and the authorities. I read somewhere that she was such a threat that she was cited specifically during the court proceedings that established the buffer zones around Massachusetts clinics. The buffer zones we no longer have, thanks to a fanatical local grandmother and our current Supreme Court.

I got inside, past the security guard in the vestibule, and through to the reception window in the waiting room.

I wish I could remember every single word the receptionist said to me, but I don’t. What I do remember very clearly is that she made me feel comforted. She helped me calm down after the harassment I’d just endured, and I was grateful. I remember thinking, this woman is perfect for this job. It was a weird thing to think, but I did. Something about her demeanor, like she was sorry for what you were going through, but rooting for you, like a sympathetic sister. No judgment, no pity, just kindness. I’ll never forget it.

The waiting room was small and crowded, and my seat faced the door. I went alone that day, but other patients had brought boyfriends, husbands, friends. Friends had offered to accompany me, but I’d turned them all down. One woman in the waiting room was upset; she seemed to be struggling with her decision. I’m pretty sure she changed her mind. Contrary to anti-choice propaganda, Planned Parenthood does not push their services on anyone.

They called me to the back after a short wait. I had to have an ultrasound, because I was a participant in the clinical trials for RU486. The doctor inserted the probe, and I debated whether I should look at the screen. He told me I didn't have to look if I didn’t want to, which I appreciated.

Whether I looked or not, I don’t remember, because my ultrasound was interrupted by screaming. It was muffled, but I heard thumps, banging. Chaos. The doctor left the room, and then a nurse came in and told me, with tears in her eyes, that a gunman had shot up the waiting room I’d just left. The lovely receptionist, Shannon Lowney, was dead. John Salvi, domestic terrorist, murdered her, then drove up Beacon Street a couple of miles and murdered Lee Ann Nichols, a receptionist at another clinic.

It was terrifying, and sad, and every other awful thing you can imagine. The time passed in a blur, and all I really remember is that the staff, all of them, were incredible. I’ve never see anything like it. They carried on, wiping tears, and did their jobs. I was amazed that they didn’t immediately shut down and clear the place out, but they didn’t. I can still see the nurse, wiping her eyes as she handed me the cup with the pills. We had to stay for hours as the police did their work, and as the day wore on, it sunk in that these workers, who were so professional in such horrible circumstances, had been prepared for this—expecting it even, on some level. And they did their jobs anyway. I still think about that a lot, 20 years later.

Other readers have shared their reasons for seeking abortion services, but my story isn’t about agonizing decisions. My reason was simple: I wasn’t ready. I have twin daughters now, and they are the children I was meant to have. I don’t regret my decision, although I did feel guilty for a long time, in large part because of the culture of judgment and shaming that surrounds this issue.  I don’t dwell on the clump of tissue that I saw in my toilet a day after the shooting. But I think about Shannon Lowney a lot.

What I still wrestle with today is not the fact that I had an abortion. It’s the fact that strangers—women among them—will go to such lengths to intimidate patients and providers exercising their constitutional rights. My experience turned me strident; I make very few distinctions between “peaceful" protestors and the John Salvis of this world. I could never be friends, real friends, with an anti-choice person. The issue is too fraught for me.

I tell few people about my experience, and I’m ashamed of my cowardice. The women who share their stories with the world are doing god’s work, and I applaud them. I wonder what it would be like, to feel like I could talk about it freely, to help normalize it, put a face to it. But I’m afraid, too. I’m too proud—too closed off, maybe.

And then I get angry all over again, because I think, why should I have to tell? Does my husband have to tell his boss about his prostate exam? Is it fair that women's private healthcare decisions have become political theater, even on the micro level of day-to-day life? I’d like my daughters to grow up in a society where they would no more think of telling random acquaintances about an abortion than they would a pap smear. But the anti-choice crowd, from the voter to the gunman, will never allow it to be so.

So for now, I’ll tell your readers. For me, that’s a start.