Webmaster’s Note: Years ago, a pro-lifer overheard Patricia Baird-Windle say that abortion was part of her religion. For years, everyone who heard that pro-lifer recall that conversation, said to themselves, “Surely she must have heard her wrong.”
Well, now it’s official. It’s in the FLORIDA TODAY. Patricia Baird-Windle said, “I now consider abortion to be a major blessing, and to be a sacrament in the hands of women.” and, “At the very crucible of the sacrament of abortion work is the sentence in a letter written to me by a woman when I retired, and that is some women have an abortion out of love for the baby.”
Abortion provider Patricia Baird-Windle reflects on her career, her choices
Interview by Pam Platt, FLORIDA TODAY Editorial Page Editor
PATRICIA BAIRD-WINDLE, as she is today, pictured in front of a stained glass window depicting the Statute of Liberty. Baird-Windle announced earlier this month that she was retiring as an abortion provider. She owned the Aware Woman Center for Choice, first in Cocoa Beach and later in Melbourne, for more than 23 years. Rik Jesse, FLORIDA TODAY
Editor’s note: For the past 23 years, Patricia Baird-Windle has maintained a local, state and national profile as one of the stalwarts on the front lines of the abortion wars.
As owner of the Aware Woman Center for Choice in Melbourne, she faced pickets, threats and lawsuits — and even made law with a case that reached the Supreme Court — all the while providing 65,000 legal abortions to women who came to her Melbourne, Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach clinics. Abortions counted for about a third of the clinics’ services, which also included checkups and contraception.
But earlier this month, Baird-Windle, 64, called it quits.
Several factors played into her decision to sign over management of her clinics to others: A road-widening project forced her to sell her clinic property locally; dogged protests by anti-abortionists, most notably Meredith Raney of Christians for Life, who is involved in several pending lawsuits involving Aware Woman; and her own health problems.
If Baird-Windle retired, she is not retiring. Her talk is still enlivened with laughter and snippets of song, even as it also is tinged with some tears. She is writing a book — working title, Choice Targets, about what she says is the largely uncovered story of what abortion providers have been through since abortion was made legal — and working on other surprising projects.
Florida Today Editorial Page Editor Pam Platt interviewed the mother of five and grandmother of four last week:
BAIRD-WINDLE in 1978, at the door of her vandalized clinic. FLORIDA TODAY
Q: You owned and operated a clinic that performed abortions for more than 20 years. Yet in the early ’80s you said, “I’m not pro-abortion. I know no one who is pro- abortion.” That seems to be a contradictory statement.
BAIRD-WlNDLE: I no longer feel that way. I am now pro-abortion. I’ve come a long, long way.
Like the average person at the time, I knew more about abortion because I had studied it. But it’s one thing on the page, it’s another thing when you’re actually touching women and involved in their lives. I now consider abortion to be a major blessing, and to be a sacrament in the hands of women.
Now that there’s no longer the need for children to work farms and in factories, we should recognize that women should always have the absolute right to say when and where and how they are going to be a parent.
I also believe the men should have a significant say in that. When one of my sons decided to have a vasectomy, I was very upset until I thought, “Wait a minute, Patricia. If you want choice for the woman, you have to want choice for the man.”
BAIRD-WINDLE in 1989, at her clinic in front of a supportive pro-choice banner. FLORIDA TODAY
Q: Where does abortion fall into the context of the revolution known as women’s rights?
BAIRD-WINDLE: This is perhaps the biggest social change ever in women’s lives. Many personality types don’t like change at all, and this particular change, one that clearly places the power in the woman’s hands, is just desperately upsetting to the authoritarian male and some females.
Q: What led you to open a clinic in Brevard?
BAIRD-WINDLE: A number of things. I had been to the First Radical Florida Feminist Women’s Conference, and I was thinking this morning that five of us at that conference opened clinics.
I also sent my daughter, Roni, to the Second Feminist Conference (when she was 16). She came back and said, “Mother, you could run a clinic. That’s exactly what you ought to do.”
I had a lot of medical background, business background, volunteer background, and this all just came at the perfect time.
Q: How did it occur to an Air Force wife to go to a radical feminists’ meeting?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I was the only person there with polyester on. (Laughs)
Because my politics were very liberal in my childhood. I fought my family about racism. And I was ready for a career change just as the bloom of feminism came.
Q: You were a jeweler.
BAIRD-WINDLE: A jeweler and an Air Force wife. The only Air Force wives that worked at the time were teachers and nurses, and I was kind of odd-woman-out.
We were looking for a career change and had been attending all these human potential movement things. And I said, “Look at this. There’s not but two really dreamy choices for me. To put on retail productions at Disney, or to open an abortion clinic.”
Q: You can’t get more disparate.
BAIRD-WINDLE: Well, I have a theatrical background and put on shows all over the Far East, and all over Louisiana and Texas. That was just a natural part of me.
I intend in these next few years to develop a cabaret act.
Q: Like monologues and sing-ins?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Yes, and dancing.
I’ve already paid for some of the arrangements. I want to work the retirement homes and the nursing homes, and hospital wards and stuff like that. I did that when (husband) Ted was in the military and I adored it. Why wouldn’t I want to go back and do that?
Q: You fought City Hall. You fought protesters. You fought public opinion. You fought police departments. What kept you going?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Two tracks to that answer.
One track is the best man on the planet. My husband, Ted.
The other track was my love for women as a group and as individuals.
When you have touched a woman at that level, when you have seen how much this can change her life, there’s a whole crowd of women it brings back.
Right off the top of my head …. we were doing what we call the door- banging thing at the clinic one day, which is keeping a woman separate from the other people for a reason. Her husband was looking for her, said he was going to kill her. We were going to get her out of the back door and into a van where she could be amply hidden, for them to take her to the Orlando airport and get her back to her mother. We understood this intellectually. But when she took off her surgical gown in after-care and was covered from here (neck) down in bruises, it became real to us and we knew why it was her life to get her out of that back door.
Q: You have said this battle over abortion was a “war of attrition.’‘ How were you worn down by it?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I defy anybody to live with the constancy of what the antis proudly call termite tactics, what we know are torment tactics.
If your house is toilet-papered by teenagers and you go home and see that mess, it’s an annoyance. The next time it happens, you’re pretty upset. Annoyance becomes nuisance becomes aggravation. But by the sixth time it happens, it’s torment. By the 400th time it happens, it’s torture. And that is what has happened to us.
It has been a horrible loss of my own agenda. The momentum of choosing what I want to do when, where to spend the money on the clinic, on training the staff, or) doing things to help the women. I certainly lost all my research and development funds and time and creativity.
Q: How about you personally?
BAIRD-WINDLE: The tougher you have to get, the weaker you ultimately are, in some ways.
I knew how tough I was by the time I was 40. I knew what a toughening thing experience can be. But when it is draining on you. I designed a career using all the good parts of me and enlarging and encouraging the good parts of me. It was absolutely an ideal career. And one that gave me opportunities to go farther afield, doing more things. Then, zap! With the advent of Operation Rescue, 10 years and 5 months ago, that started dwindling down.
You could look at my career and say, “Wow. She had it tailored so well that she had absolute autonomy.’‘
But when you get up in the middle of the night because they’ve made the alarm go off a couple of dozens of times at the clinic, you’ve lost your ability to sleep, your ability to concentrate, your autonomy. They are lining up your work schedule.
Q: What about your health?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I realized in 1992 that my health was going south because I started having one infection after another and it just got worse and worse and worse. None of them were great big things. But seven sinus infections in a year is debilitating … and blah, blah, blah. It went on and on. I was always sick.
Q: What was the worst, lowest moment for you?
BAIRD-WINDLE: There were two worst times.
We had a number of death threats through the years and had learned, in a certain sense, to sort of fluff them off. But we got one two weeks after (abortion doctor) Dr. Britton and (clinic escort) Col. Barrett were killed in Pensacola in 1994 that came to us indirectly but was one of the people among the antis whom we knew to be truly rage-filled and likely to blow off. When I got the death threat delivered to me, I got on the airplane and left town for a week.
Q: What was the other?
BAIRD-WINDLE: There was an attempt on my life two years ago, and I don’t want to talk about the details of it. Ted and Roni (her husband and daughter) told me about it after it happened. It was not the fear that that had happened, it was seeing my daughter screaming in front of me that hurt so much. It just scared her so desperately. One of the people who was involved, who I have sworn to protect, sat and held my hand and begged me to leave town. He said, “There’s too much hatred out there, Patricia, and you can’t stop it. You have to leave.” I said, “Hell, no. I’ve been here since 1960 and here I will stay.” My grandbabies are here, my heart is here, I am staying.
Q: You carry a gun, you’ve said on the advice of federal marshals. You were cited and placed on probation for brandishing this gun at people you thought were protesters. How long did you carry a gun?
BAIRD-WlNDLE: I still sleep with it. When I’m alone in this house it’s on my body at all times.
That was a gun I had bought many, many years ago. But I got it out of the safe and made it a part of our lives. Part of what the marshals had said was, “We want you to go out to the range and fire a lot. We want you very, very familiar with the gun.”
It’s been 6 years. It’s not my only weapon either.
Q: How painful was that for you, to be popped for that with guys who were not protesters but county employees?
BAIRD-WlNDLE: That wasn’t painful at all. I knew I was guarding myself on my own property. What is painful now is I believe that I got very bad legal advice and should not have handled it that way.
In light of the rest of this stuff, no big deal.
Q: Opponents of abortion say you foster a culture of death. They call you a baby- killer. They say you did a11 this for money. Did you ever believe the things they said?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Not for one New York minute. (Laughs.) I knew better.
A. I know how stupid they are. B. I know how venal they are.
I have perhaps during the 23 years and five months total with abortion as my public profile, respected two of them.
I’ve had some respect for people who’ve written me unsigned letters and said, “I’m in that congregation and that congregation is wrong.”
Q: Did you ever think that what you were doing wins wrong or immoral? And how did you sleep at night?
BAIRD-WINDLE: If you’re referring “sleep at night” to any form of guilt, there is no form of guilt when you know what you’re doing is giving a woman power over her life, and when she’s doing the right thing.
Q: Despite all the things you’ve spoken of and been through, would you do it again? And why, knowing the kind of pain it has brought you?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Let me back up to the question before. There have been many times I have tried to look at the social change and the moral components of the social change and have wondered whether all of it has been as it should be. That doesn’t mean I would stop abortion. It does mean I would like a lot of social programs to prevent it, to make it easier on women, to make it better for women. That answer I gave made it look like I have a totally amoral view of it, and that’s far from (the truth).
At the very crucible of the sacrament of abortion work is the sentence in a letter written to me by a woman when I retired, and that is some women have an abortion out of love for the baby. That’s the point. They’ve had an abortion out of love for the children they already have and are having a hard time feeding. They love what they are getting from their education and they know they can’t stop it to give themselves the right life. It’s all at once enormously complex and extremely simple.
Q: Is it possible to find common ground with your opponents?
BAIRD-WINDLE: The reason it is not possible in largest measure is because they have allowed with the killing and the torment tactics all of the moderates in their field to leave their field. They hear no moderate voices anymore. They hear nothing, see nothing, but the acts and voices of extremists.
Q: Someone said that you seem to have an almost operatic relationship with Meredith Raney, that the two of you are almost like Javert and Valjean (the opponents in “Les Miserables”). Who’s Javert and who’s Valjean?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Oh, there’s no doubt who’s Javert.
(Starts to sing) “Stars in your multitude …”
Q: Is “Les Mis” part of your cabaret act?
BAIRD-WINDLE: (Nods yes.)
Q: You have described Meredith Raney as obsessed. Would you say you became obsessed with him?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Not in the same way, because I can drop him and attend to my elaborately wonderful, multifactorial life. I don’t think he can go to sleep without obsessing about us. He called himself a nobody in his early days, when he was what I called a dog soldier, he has risen to clearly national stature on the grounds of his obsession.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with him?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I think to call him Javert would be to give him far more stature than he deserves. I will say to you he has been extremely good at being an instrument of torment.
I believe he has, oddly enough, some respect for me.
Q. Do you have any respect for him?
BAIRD-WINDLE: Not in any normal use of the word respect.
Q: Well, you bailed before he did. Did he win?
BAIRD-WlNDLE: He’s 10 years younger than me. He’s supported by people outside my lexicon. He says God pays him. Bull —. Please print that.
No, he didn’t win. He lost constantly for nine and three-quarters years.
No, I didn’t lose. I had a fabulous career. And every abortion and every contraceptive delivered after the arrival of Meredith Raney was a victory.
Q: One thing people forget about you is your Southernness. Is this a key to you and your sticking to this cause?
BAIRD-WINDLE: A lot of it has to do with Southernness, because it’s been an uphill fight from the very beginning. Because I had to learn the graces to keep from being at people’s necks for the things they were telling me when I was 7 years old. My name ain’t Magnolia Blossom for nothing.
I was an intellectual on a country school bus. I didn’t exactly fit in. They fought me constantly. I fought back constantly. I had extraordinarily, bony, knobby, skinny legs. I had to stand up on the side of the hill to catch the school bus with the wind whipping and they wouldn’t let me wear corduroys or blue jeans to school. And I said, “This is cruel.” And the principal said, “But that’s the way it is.” I was a radical that day. I’ve been a radical all my life. I’m as good as any man ever born and ain’t gonna take no garbage off anyone who says otherwise.
Q: Are you still a Republican?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I’m still registered Republican. There’s no Republican in my soul.
Q: There must have been at one time.
BAIRD-WINDLE: No. It was a deliberate, contrarian, sassy thing, sort of early-legs feminist to work on Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign when I was at Tulane. That’s where it started.
I will tell you, one of the things I’m the very proudest of about parenthood is my children all vote properly. (Laughs) And they all vote! Apathetic, they are not.
Q: You have said, “I am a real believer in gratitude and in history.” Have women and families, by and large, been grateful for what you have been through? And do you think they have an appreciation for the history or women’s reproductive freedom?
BAIRD-WINDLE: I think as individuals that many, many of them do. We get calls, we get letters, we get people in restaurants and malls. I think as a political movement, they do not. That’s what my book is all about, really, so they will know.
You have sound bite and short paragraph media. It does not provide regional nor state context, no longer provides investigation or much in the way of large sweeping analysis. What little we get, we get out of magazines. And we don’t get enough out of that.
The hundreds of tactics done to us thousands of times are largely not known to the major public. This war has gone on undercover, and I’d like the public to know. I’d like for it not to go unheralded.
Q: And that’s why you’re writing the book.
Q: What one lesson would you like people to get from your 23 years and 5 months on the front lines of this most divisive issue of the last 30 years?
BAIRD-WINDLE: The stronger a woman is, the stronger her marriage is, her family is, her community is, and her world is.
And if she has control of parenthood, that contributes to that great strength and contributes to the world.
Q: The number of abortions is down, RU-486 is on the horizon in this country…
BAIRD-WINDLE: (Shakes her head) RU-486 is painful. Women have a great deal of pain and nausea and many visits to the clinic. After the first wave of people (to use it), it has settled down in most countries to a 7 to 12 percent use factor.
Q: There are more contraceptives available to women and men. What do you think is the future of abortion? How can it be made less necessary? And do you ever see a day when it will again be illegal?
BAIRD-WINDLE: If through the fickle fates of politics abortion were to become illegal, it would stay illegal less than six months. Women have had this power now since essentially 1969. They would rise back up. They would stop taking us for granted. Though that’s not a worry.
The very best way to make abortion less necessary is to continue doing what abortion providers do, which is make sure people know they should use contraception, that they have the right to use contraception and that the use of contraception is a benefit for them.
Abortion providers do more to stop abortion than anyone in this country.