Blight To Life
Just after Buffalo-based OB-GYN Barnett Slepian was killed by a sniper bullet last Friday night, the two other doctors who provide abortions in the Buffalo area went into seclusion in the hope of avoiding a similar fate. Slepian, 51, was shot shortly after returning from synagogue, while his wife and one of his sons were in the room. No doubt all doctors who perform abortions around the country would like to retreat into safety from such violence, which shadows their every move.
If you provide abortions, or even publicly support them, it is not paranoid to assume "they"--an extremist faction of the antiabortion movement--are out to get you. For chilling validation of such fears, one need only glance at the Nuremberg Files (www.christiangallery.com/atrocity/), a Web site that posts personal information about doctors, nurses, security guards, clinic escorts, law enforcement officers who provide protection to abortion providers, owners or directors of abortion clinics, and even, as the site puts it, "judges and politicians who pass or uphold laws authorizing child-killing or oppressing pro-life activists."
The purpose of such a database is purportedly to gather evidence for eventual legal trials. (The abortion haters behind this project envision a tribunal that will try abortion-related activities as war crimes, the way the Allies did the Nazis after World War II.) Of course, the other--more obvious--aim of going public with home addresses, photos, license plate numbers, and even, as the site specifies, "names and birthdates of spouse(s), children and friends" is to make life hellish--and perhaps shorter--for abortion supporters.
There is little doubt that such information can be put to violent use. The Nuremberg Files, which was started by the extremist American Coalition of Life Activists (though the group's name no longer appears on the site), suggests that antiabortion activists send letters to "your local baby butcher squad" with the following threat: "Those who slaughter God's children without affording them due process of law need to understand they are going to be held accountable. Everybody gets a payday someday."
The temptation may be to dismiss such bluster as mere wacko rhetoric. Clearly, these are not the prolifers who back antiabortion legislation in Congress and buy advertisements in the mainstream media. Such groups, including the National Right to Life Committee and the American Life League, routinely decry violence against abortion supporters and point out that the perpetrators often operate on their own. Indeed, John Salvi, the man convicted of killing two receptionists and a security guard at two abortion clinics in Massachusetts in '94, shot his victims during a schizophrenic mania.
But as fringe--or downright crazy--as such elements may be, they are established and influential elements of the antiabortion movement nonetheless. Before his final decline into clinical insanity and eventual suicide, Salvi, for instance, frequented antiabortion meetings and believed he was acting on behalf of the Catholic Church. The shooting even brought him hero status in some circles. ("Salvi deserves a medal" was how one New Hampshirebased antichoice zealot put it.)
Antiabortion fanatic Michael Griffin received similar support for murdering Dr. David Gunn in 1993. After the shooting, 32 people signed on to a statement endorsing "justifiable homicide." And these were not just random nuts but organizational leaders, editors, and clergymen who backed the proclamation that "whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child."
Indeed, the frightening rings around Dr. Slepian's murder ripple outward whichever direction you look. There are four previous sniper attacks that bear an eerie resemblance to this latest one (all occurring in upstate New York or Canada around this time of year, the shots fired from similar positions with the same kind of rifle). Some theorize that an antiabortion terrorist--or terrorists--is staging the attacks in a twisted commemoration of Canada's remembrance day, which falls on November 11 and which some antiabortion activists refer to as "Remember the Unborn Children Day."
Then there's the fact that the Nuremberg site is not alone in its project of stalking abortion supporters. Life Dynamics, a Texas-based antiabortion group, has been setting up its own clearinghouse for information on abortion providers--including pictures and home addresses--in a project it calls "Spies for Life." And consider the fact that one can access the Nuremberg Files through links from other, ostensibly more moderate, antiabortion sites on the Internet.
The result of these efforts is plain to see. Six people have been murdered in attacks on abortion clinics since 1990, and there have been 15 attempted murders in that time. Just this year, a police officer moonlighting at the New Woman, All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was killed in a bomb blast and a nurse at that clinic was severely wounded. There are also 150 incidents of arson against abortion providers on record as well as 39 clinic bombings and more than 100 cases of assault and battery.
But even these grisly tallies do not tell the whole story. They don't reflect the experience of Mary Smith, an abortion provider based in Denton, Texas, who has seen antiabortion flyers featuring her picture tacked up on trees throughout her small town. Protesters regularly picket Dr. Smith's church on Sundays and line her path to work. She fears for her children in school.
And they don't capture the inner turmoil of Richard Hausknecht, a New York Citybased OB-GYN and occasional abortion provider who has spent years speaking out in support of the right to abortion. The local sheriff parked in Hausknecht's upstate driveway all weekend, in an effort to protect the doctor from abortion opponents who might be lurking outside his window. "I really had not given a great deal of thought to the fact that maybe I have been gambling with my life before," Hausknecht told the Voice. "But after this weekend, things are different. Is it going to modify what I do? You bet. If you can be shot inside your own home, then there's no place left to hide."
But if doctors are afraid--and they have every reason to be--some are also redoubling their devotion to the cause of abortion. Dr. Slepian's murder only "makes people more committed," says Vickie Breitbart, board member of the National Abortion Federation. Training to do abortions (which physicians must seek on their own, since it is not routinely provided in medical schools) now includes counseling workshops and group discussions about the violent occupational hazards.
NAF fosters such personal expressions while encouraging trainees to wear bulletproof vests and draw their curtains. But "once they've actually come in and done a series of procedures and seen what abortion means in the day-to-day lives of women, that strengthens their commitment," says Breitbart.
Dr. Slepian's commitment weathered years of challenges. He endured protests at his clinic, received some 200 death threats, and was endlessly picketed, even at his house on Hanukah. Dr. Slepian tolerated such harassment, as he acknowledged in a letter published in a Buffalo newspaper in '94. "But," he wrote, "please don't feign surprise, dismay or certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less-restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider. They all share the blame."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.