The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion


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.

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.

Like other militia-style groups, the center of the antiabortion extremist movement is nearly impossible to pinpoint. If there is one, it appears to revolve around the Army of God— a name that has been linked to at least a dozen acts of violence. Some experts believe the Army of God is a loosely organized network of terrorists. Others insist it is just a handy label used by extremists to inflate the public perception of their strength. It is generally agreed, however, that the Army of God, like many militias, does not have a hierarchy, headquarters, or membership list.

This makes them tough to identify, much less to defeat. “It’s harder to fight criminals than it is to fight protesters in the streets,” says Susan Dudley, deputy director of the National Abortion Federation.

The Army of God surfaced in the media earlier this year after a bomb blast at a Birmingham, Alabama, clinic killed security guard Robert Sanderson and severely injured nurse Emily Lyons. Reuters and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution received handwritten letters claiming responsibility, which were signed by the Army of God. In 1997, media outlets received similarly signed letters following the bombings of an abortion clinic and gay nightclub in Atlanta.

The FBI has named Eric Robert Rudolph, a 31-year-old carpenter, as a suspect in all three bombings as well as the 1996 bombing at Centennial Park during the Olympics. For months, federal agents have been hunting for Rudolph in the woods of western North Carolina, where he is believed to be hiding. The best example of the merger between militias and antiabortion extremists may be Rudolph himself, who has been linked to the Christian Identity movement, which is anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and antiabortion. Now that the FBI has accused Rudolph of bombing several different sites, it has become apparent that the targets of antiabortion zealots include far more than clinics.

“These folks are not single-issue,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which monitors antiabortion violence. “One minute, they’re screaming and carrying on about the evils of abortion. The next minute it’s homosexuality, and the third minute it could be the federal government. Abortion is their training ground for the creation of domestic terrorism.”

Building An Army?

It is nearly impossible to track the history of the Army of God, but experts believe it starts with a former real estate investor from Texas named Don Benny Anderson. Anderson is believed to be the first person to use the Army of God moniker. In 1982, he kidnapped an Illinois abortion doctor and his wife with the help of two accomplices. Anderson, then 42, held the couple at gunpoint for eight days inside an ammunition bunker. At the time, Anderson claimed to be the leader of the Army of God.

This kidnapping marked one of the first times an antiabortion activist had attacked a doctor rather than a clinic. Eventually, Anderson released his hostages unharmed. Now he is serving a 42-year sentence in federal prison for the kidnapping as well as for torching two Florida clinics and lobbing a pipe bomb at a Virginia clinic. Experts believe Anderson’s “army” consisted only of himself and his two coconspirators.

Over the next several years, various other extremists embraced the Army of God name. In 1983, Joseph Grace, a 34-year-old house painter, told authorities that he was an Army of God member after he burned down a Virginia clinic. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, received a threatening letter signed by the Army of God in 1984. And when John Brockhoeft, a 37-year-old postal worker, was accused of firebombing two Ohio clinics in 1985, he claimed to be a colonel in the Army of God.

Before Bray became a national spokesperson for what he calls “justifiable homicide,” he too claimed an Army of God affiliation. Bray spent four years in prison in connection with 10 bombings in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., during the mid 1980s. At one of the bombed-out clinics, investigators found a plank with “AOG” written on it. (Asked in a recent interview whether he still considers himself part of the Army of God, Bray said, “If I were conspiring with the Army of God, I couldn’t tell you.”)

Recent letters sent to the media and signed by the Army of God include threats of future violence. While it is unclear how serious such threats are, one letter warned that the East Coast would be the next target. It stated: “WE DECLARE AND WILL WAGE TOTAL WAR ON THE UNGODLY COMMUNIST REGIME IN NEW YORK AND YOUR LEGASLATIVE [sic]-BUREAUCRATIC LACKEY’S [sic] IN WASHINGTON.”

Recipes For Bombs

In 1993, Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, a 37-year-old housewife, shot abortion doctor George Tiller in both arms outside his clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Until then, law enforcement officials thought the Army of God was little more than a catchy phrase. When they began digging in Shannon’s backyard, however, they discovered something new: the AOG manual— a prescription for violence that describes some of the group’s accomplishments.

This 136-page document outlines dozens of strategies for harassing clinic employees and patients. Recommended tactics include squirting superglue in a clinic’s door locks, drilling holes in the roof to create leaks, injecting acid into bathroom walls, shoving Nerf soccer balls and concrete into sewer drains, dumping cow manure outside the entrance, and spray-painting slogans like “Mommy, Don’t Kill Me” on the clinic’s exterior.

In many ways, the Army of God manual is similar to other publications that have long circulated among antiabortion extremists. Books like the Abortion Buster’s Manual and Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, both written in 1985, suggest some of these same strategies. But the Army of God manual goes several steps further.

The manual recovered in Shannon’s backyard seems to be the third edition, which consists of pages added to the end of earlier editions. In the original version, readers are reminded that “non-violence is important.” But by the manual’s third edition, the Army of God is encouraging readers to blow up clinics. There are recipes for plastic explosives, commentary on the merits of store-bought dynamite, and tips on making bombs with the fertilizer ammonium nitrate (which was used in the Oklahoma City bombing).

For prochoicers who pored over the document looking for clues, the most shocking section was the manual’s epilogue. There, the Army of God describes the 1993 killing of Gunn as “the first ‘direct hit’ attributed to us.” Eerily, the manual also mentions that by late 1992, “Douglas Karpen, a baby killer in Houston had been shot. Two accomplices in Springfield, Missouri, had also been shot.”

When prochoice leaders stumbled upon this passage, they were stunned. Smeal says, “They were referring to serious incidents that our side didn’t even know about.” Karpen had indeed been shot in 1992 inside a parking garage near his abortion clinic. And a masked man had fired a sawed-off shotgun inside a Springfield clinic a year earlier, hitting two employees and paralyzing one of them. At the time, these incidents received little publicity.

Several other recent violent assaults against abortion doctors also slipped under the radar of the national media. Police officials did not categorize these incidents as antiabortion violence, but some prochoice leaders believe the radical fringe of the antiabortion movement may be responsible.

This list of abortion doctors who have been victims of violence includes George Patterson, owner of the clinic where Gunn was killed, who was fatally shot in 1993 in a Mobile, Alabama, parking lot; Paul Hackmeyer, who was shot three times in the chest after two men ambushed him outside his Los Angeles home in 1994; and George Klopfer, who was shot at in 1995 while driving along an Indiana highway.

A War Without Generals

The discovery of the Army of God manual— plus the murder of Florida’s Britton in 1994— sparked a two-year investigation by the Justice Department to determine whether there is a national conspiracy to commit antiabortion violence. It found none.

“There were and are cases involving multiple incidents and multiple clinics, but nothing to indicate that this is a national effort,” says Special Agent Bernard J. Zapor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which worked with the FBI on this investigation. “We’re talking about two or three defendants getting together and doing damage to two or three clinics. That’s about as widespread as the cases show.”

Many prochoice leaders remain unconvinced. They wonder if the traditional definition of conspiracy applies, since antiabortion extremists appear to have embraced a strategy of “leaderless resistance.” Militias also use this organizational strategy, which has been promoted by Louis Beam, a former Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation leader. “The people who are pushing the ideas don’t need to know who’s doing the violence,” says Adam Guasch-Melendez, who runs a Web site tracking the exremist wing of the antiabortion movement. “The ideas and tactics are there. Anyone can do the violence.”

The success of a “leaderless resistance” strategy depends on the distribution of documents like the Army of God manual. Over the last few years, this book has become fairly easy to get even though its author has remained anonymous. Prayer & Action News, a monthly newsletter that gleefully reports on acts of antiabortion violence, published the entire manual in early 1996. David Leach, the 52-year-old editor of the Iowa-based Prayer & Action News, claims he reprinted the book because antiabortion activists had received subpoenas ordering them to testify before a federal grand jury— and hand over their copies of the Army of God manual.

“It was a First Amendment issue for me,” says Leach, who has about 200 subscribers. “It’s not a crime to own a book. I’m really uncomfortable with government confiscation of books, especially books that are so mild compared with books they publish themselves, like the U.S. Army manuals.”

A strategy of “leaderless resistance” would enable antiabortion assailants to commit crimes alone or in small groups without worrying that the Army of God itself will be infiltrated by law enforcement or targeted by civil litigation. The Army of God manual even details the benefits of such a setup: “Fortunately the A.O.G. (Army of God) folks are not a real army, humanly speaking. . . . God is the General and Commander-in-Chief. The soldiers, however, do not usually communicate with one another. Very few have ever met each other. And when they do, each is usually unaware of the other soldier’s status. That is why the Feds will never stop this Army. Never. And we have not yet even begun to fight.”