It was a pleasant summer evening as the Right-To-Life convention met at a hotel in downtown Charlotte. A pro-choice group passionately picketed the sidewalk. The police were there, and were actually supportive. The local media, along with CNN, set up across the street.
Good, I said to myself. For once the rest of the world will see we North Carolinians are not a bunch of yahoos known for our archaic senators and obsession with stock car racing, if only for a moment. And yet there is one protester who stands out conspicuously, a senior citizen draped over a cross, sparring with anti-choice harassers as routinely as if he were brushing his teeth. By the time we met the next day, Bill Baird had already encountered a death threat earlier that morning. Over the years he has seen a lot, including a bullet pass over his head through a hotel wall, the bombing of his clinic, and--perhaps most irritating--total strangers offering to pray for him.
"So many 'loving Christian people' threaten to kill me. But so many of these people are really kind," he said. "That priest (Father Provone of Priests for Life) bought me dinner last night." When asked how he tolerates the vitriol, Baird pointed to a childhood that could be brutal. "We were poor. I lost a baby brother and a 9-year-old sister. My father made me wear a dog tag from the age of 12. But it made me more sensitive to other people."
Baird took up the fight for abortion rights when working for a drug company in the late 1950s. He heard a woman scream. He ran down the hall to find her covered in blood, a coat hanger in her uterus. She later died in his arms.
His first arrest was in 1963 for distributing condoms and foam to unmarried people. When the judge condemned him for his "deviancy," he knew he'd found a calling. He provided abortion referrals right out in the open, leading to many more arrests and horrifying jail experiences such as rats, beatings, and the fear of rape, memories which he struggles with to this day. Undaunted, Baird would become the target of three Supreme Court cases involving the rights of privacy, most notably Baird vs. Eisenstadt, which made birth control available to poor women.
Ironically, it would be the "other side" that would afford him more kindness on occasion, while often being totally ignored by pro-choice supporters. At the Charlotte demonstration, he lamented that no one took up a collection to help pay his expenses, or thanked him for his work in the movement, his mission of the last 40 years. On this point Baird is especially bitter.
He has been all but shunned by leading feminist activists. Betty Friedan referred to him as a "CIA plant whose work is of no value." Jackie Cebellos, a former NOW official, said, "If his name was Wilhemina, he'd have our support." Robin Morgan, former editor of Ms. magazine, was quoted as saying, "Men like Baird are in this movement so women will come across (sexually) quicker and easier." According to Baird, "They think I'm doing this to get women. If I were, there'd be easier ways than getting shot at." In fact he says I am the first feminist to interview him.
Baird paints a picture of a very rigid women's movement. He remembers being on a panel with Norma McCorvy, the woman whose case was the basis for Roe v. Wade. "Norma wanted me to help her with what she should say. Afterwards we were surrounded by feminists who said how dare I speak for her. When I showed them the note with her request, they yelled at her, telling her she didn't speak for women. She feels loved and embraced by the anti-abortion movement. The woman's movement didn't reach out to her."
Baird is especially disappointed in Planned Parenthood, quoting the late Abbie Hoffman that it has become a "middle-class monopoly." "I've been attending these conventions for the last 30 years. They (Planned Parenthood) should be here to see what people are up to. What the right-to-life activists don't want you to know is they're against birth control," he says.
Baird, a Unitarian, is especially critical of the Catholic Church's political involvement in the issue. "The Vatican is a country. It has its own stamp. Why doesn't it pay taxes?"
Baird is even more skeptical of this administration. Regarding the new president: "The son is dumber. And now it's payback time for all the groups that got him into office."
While abortion rights differ from state to state, with the North being typically more liberal, Baird found the turnout in Charlotte surprising. "I'm usually out here alone," he says. "I've never seen this many people before," referring to the 80-plus crowd, which included high school kids to seniors, chanting slogans like "Pro-life, your name's a lie, you don't care if women die" and signs like "Pro-child, Pro-family, Pro-choice." Not bad for a town that just got yoga.
You only have to be within five feet of the man to feel his intensity. After all it's not everyone who lugs around a cross in the name of feminism. Had he lost anything, other than the sense of personal safety we all take for granted, because of his devotion to his cause? His family, he replies, because of the death threats.
Still he tours the country as the head of the Pro-Choice League, speaking out for abortion rights and providing referrals and counseling in his upstate New York headquarters. Despite financial struggle, he will not be dissuaded. When I asked about any other interests, he simply replied, "Freedom. Yours, mine, and every young woman's across this country."