Suicide Arsonist Rocks Iowa Health Center


s reproductive rights activists across the U.S. gather to commemorate
the 34th anniversary of

Roe v. Wade

on January 22, they’ll of course cheer
the defeat of South Dakota’s abortion ban. Clearly, it’s a victory worth
toasting. At the same time, anti-abortion activists are not turning tail
and vanishing. Bills to expand the reach of biased mandatory counseling
about the psychological and physical problems that the antis attribute
to the procedure—plus 24-hour waiting periods between counseling and surgery,
parental consent or notification requirements for minors, and restrictions
on insurance coverage—are continually introduced at the state level and,
when passed, stymie access. What’s more, antichoice activity contributes
to the near-endemic stigma surrounding the abortion experience. 

On top of this, says the DCbased National Abortion Federation, the first
nine months of 2006 were dangerous for providers. There were 10 blockades,
23 burglaries, 8 death threats, 7 incidents of assault and battery, 283
charges of trespassing, 51 acts of vandalism, 6 bomb threats, and 219 harassing
phone calls or letters. During the same period, nearly 6,000 picket lines
were set up outside clinic doors to jeer patients and staff as murderers,
baby-killers, and worse. 

One of the most disruptive incidents took place on September 11 when 45-year-old
David McMenemy of Sterling Heights, Michigan orchestrated what was to
have been a suicide-arson at the Edgerton Women’s Health Center in Davenport,
Iowa. While the rest of the country was awakening to red, white, and blue
tributes to the fallen, McMenemy, a former Marine with a history of mental
illness, chose that morning to drive into the Center. 


ronically, the Edgerton Women’s Health Center does not provide abortions.
Founded in 1971 as the Maternal Health Center—it changed its name in 2000—it
serves approximately 5,000 family planning patients and delivers between
450 and 500 babies a year. The Center also offers comprehensive well-baby
care to parents eligible for the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program.
Although its patients are predominantly low-income women from the Quad
Cities—Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois—rely
on the Center for everything from prenatal risk assessment to post-partum

McMenemy’s sabotage closed the clinic for two weeks and stunned the people
of Davenport. “He went right through the plate glass doors and drove into
the lobby,” says a still-incredulous Libbet Brooke, a health educator at
the Center. “He then tried to set his car on fire. He had gasoline in an
empty pop bottle and the fire got going pretty quickly. It lasted until
the sprinklers came on. The fire trucks came as soon as the sprinklers
started. When the firefighters arrived, McMenemy walked out of the building
and was immediately arrested.” He was charged and taken to Scott County
Jail. McMenemy has since pled not guilty and is facing a 10-year sentence
for second degree arson. According to the

Detroit Free Press

, he told police
that he intended to die in the blaze. 

Brooke estimates the rebuilding total will be near $200,000. Staff worked
with contractors around the clock to get the Center up and running. “We
worked constantly,” Brooke says. “It’s amazing how much damage can be done
with a sprinkler. Of course, it’s better than having the building burn
down, but it was major destruction.” 

Yet despite this, Brooke concludes that it wasn’t all bad. Their landlord
helped staff establish temporary satellite offices to attend patient needs
during the reconstruction and was extremely supportive. So were patients
and the general community. “It was touching to see how concerned our patients
were. One after another they walked up and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re all
okay,’” she reports. 

In addition, local media attention amounted to a public relations blitz.
“The community was inundated with information about us,” Brooke continues.
“The fact that we don’t provide abortions, but do provide information about
all pregnancy options is now out there.” 

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, activist, and freelance writer whose work
appears in the

Brooklyn Rail

, the

New York Law Journal





and the

Public Eye