The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion

How violent extremists promote a strategy of maiming and murdering clinic workers that is shrinking women's access to abortion around the country

Barnett A. Slepian knew his life was in danger. So the doctor worked in an abortion clinic built like a fortress, with no windows and plenty of surveillance cameras. Still, he is dead. Shortly after 10 p.m. on October 23, a sniper shot the obstetrician-gynecologist with a high-powered rifle as he stood in the kitchen of his home outside Buffalo, New York, chatting with his wife and 15-year-old son.

Slepian, 52, is the latest victim in a long-running guerrilla war that is threatening women's access to abortion across the country. Since 1977, there have been 154 incidents of arson, 39 bombings, and 99 acid attacks against abortion providers, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF). And the severity of violence has steadily intensified. No longer content with damaging property, extremists are now determined to kill. NAF has recorded 15 attempted murders since 1991. And Slepian's assassination marks the seventh killing of an clinic worker in five years.

To make matters worse, the pool of people whose lives are endangered has quickly widened. When Michael Griffin opened fire at a Pensacola, Florida, clinic in 1993, his only target was obstetrician-gynecologist David Gunn. A year later, Paul Hill did not just kill Pensacola doctor John Bayard Britton— he killed one of the doctor's volunteer escorts and injured another. John Salvi gunned down receptionists at two Brookline, Massachusetts, clinics in late 1994, proving that all clinic workers are vulnerable. And last month, the sniper who shot Slepian in his home broadcast a new, more frightening message to abortion workers: There is nowhere you and your family are truly safe.

Emily Lyons's legs: A nail-packed bomb exploded next to Emily, a nurse, as she walked into work at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 1998. The blast shattered Emily's left leg and ripped the skin off her shi
Melissa Springer
Emily Lyons's legs: A nail-packed bomb exploded next to Emily, a nurse, as she walked into work at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 1998. The blast shattered Emily's left leg and ripped the skin off her shi

The cumulative effect of two decades of violence is being felt in every corner of the United States. Clinic owners hire more security guards, doctors keep the drapes closed in their homes, and medical students decide against learning how to perform abortions. Inside the clinic where Slepian worked, the question is how to go on. Even as employees' sobs filled the carpet-lined hallways last week, the clinic's owner dialed frantically in search of a replacement for her slain doctor.

Slowly and quietly, this campaign of violence is eroding women's ability to get abortions. The majority of Americans are prochoice, and pro-violence extremists represent only a sliver of the antiabortion movement. But still, a handful of zealots have sowed enough fear in the medical community that it is now harder to get an abortion than it has been at any time in the last 20 years.

The number of doctors performing abortions dropped from 2758 to 2380— a decrease of nearly 15 percent— between 1980 and 1992. In rural areas, the number of abortion providers plunged 55 percent during that same 12-year period. During the year following the first murder of an abortion doctor in 1993, one-quarter of clinics reported employees quitting because of the violence. Such resignations have continued over the last few years, though at a less rapid pace. Today, there are no abortion doctors in more than 84 percent of the nation's counties.

Mouthpieces For Murder

By terrifying clinic workers across the country, extremists are winning the war over abortion without ever having to pass legislation or sway the Supreme Court. Ironically, the trend toward violence gained momentum with what seemed a major prochoice victory: the collapse of Operation Rescue. This defeat made some antiabortion activists even more militant— and dangerous.

"They'd done the picketing," says Dallas Blanchard, a sociologist who has written three books about the antiabortion movement. "They had marched around clinics. They had done some harassment of patients. But it hadn't changed anything. As groups get less and less successful, they tend to get smaller. And the smaller they are, the more likely they are to commit violence."

Before the Gunn killing in 1993, the idea of having a national conversation about the merits of such fatal tactics seemed unthinkable. Six murders later, it was clear there had been a major change in the public debate. After both the Slepian assassination and the January bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic, pro-murder fanatics were treated as credible commentators. They got the chance to spout their views in newspapers and on national television, including CNN and ABC's Nightline. One of the most visible of these extremists-turned-pundits is Michael Bray, a convicted clinic bomber who wrote a 1993 book titled A Time to Kill.

Bray, 46, is a key figure in a loosely knit but increasingly sophisticated community that has created a nationwide culture of violence. Surf the Web and you can find more than a dozen extremist sites, including one honoring the "Prisoners of Christ"— activists convicted of bombings, arson, and murder. And every year, Bray organizes the "White Rose Banquet," which will be held on January 21 at a hotel near Washington, D.C.

Bray, a Lutheran minister based in Maryland, explains, "While everyone is dishonoring these people and throwing them in jail, we're going to honor them." A prochoice activist who has crashed Bray's banquet describes a "family reunion" atmosphere with 100 activists celebrating recent murders of clinic workers.

In the midst of so much pro-murder rhetoric, it is difficult to determine who stops at advocating violence and who is actually committing the crimes. The attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City raised similar questions, since the antigovernment propaganda of militias had inspired bomber Timothy McVeigh. In fact, in recent years, the ties between militias and antiabortion extremists have grown stronger.

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