Wholly war

The killing of obstetrician and abortion-clinic practitioner Dr. Barnett Slepian can't obscure the fact that, politically at least, the anti-abortion movement is dead.

By Joan Walsh
October 29, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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The horrific sniper-killing of obstetrician and abortion-clinic practitioner Dr. Barnett Slepian outside Buffalo, N.Y., at the height of election season underscored the fact that politically, at least, the anti-abortion movement in the United States is next to dead. Across the country, even anti-choice Republicans are running from the issue.

Take the California governor's race, where abortion-rights supporter Gray Davis has a commanding lead over his Republican anti-abortion challenger, Attorney General Dan Lungren. This week the Lungren campaign fought back with a bizarre commercial, in which Lungren's matronly wife Bobbi tells voters Davis is trying to "scare" them by hyping Lungren's anti-abortion stance. Her husband opposes abortion, she admits, but it doesn't matter, because the governor has no say over abortion law. "That's federal law," she insists reassuringly -- an ass-backwards way of appealing to the state's pro-choice voters, but a tribute to their power nonetheless.


But Slepian's killers are trying to win through violence what they've been unable to attain through politics -- a de facto ban on abortion. There have been five sniper attacks on abortion providers in Canada and Western New York over the last four years, all within a few weeks of Nov. 11 -- that's Veterans Day in the U.S., "Remembrance Day" in Canada and "Remember the Unborn Children Day" for some pro-life groups. Besides the sniper attacks, clinics have been firebombed or attacked in Georgia, California, Nevada, Oregon and Massachusetts; two doctors have been murdered in Florida; and clinic access nationwide has been so restricted by pickets and protests that Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994.

The violence and harassment has certainly restricted abortion access. The National Abortion Federation says 84 percent of U.S. counties offer no abortion services. And in Western New York state, where Slepian persisted in serving abortion clients at GYN Womenservices in Buffalo, N.Y., despite previous threats, abortion access has become a "crisis," activists told the Washington Post.

And yet the violence has served to further reduce the political clout of the pro-life movement. Author Cynthia Gorney tracked the pro-life movement during its political apex -- the years leading up to, and immediately following, the Supreme Court's decision in the Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services case, which challenged Missouri's restrictive anti-abortion law. The Court upheld many of the restrictions in the Missouri law, leading pro-lifers to envision a future in which it overturned Roe vs. Wade. But as Gorney showed in her 1998 book "Articles of Faith," the victory quickly turned to defeat. Fractious pro-lifers were unable to compromise enough to craft legislation that could make it through Congress or many statehouses. And Webster fired up the pro-choice forces, leading to political gains for pro-choice candidates -- including pro-choice President Bill Clinton -- all over the country in the years that followed.


Salon sat down with Gorney to discuss the disturbing interplay of political impotence and growing violence that has split the anti-abortion movement in the last few years.

"Articles of Faith" shows how the pro-life movement, after the high point of the Webster decision, began to unravel politically. Do you think that political marginalization is a factor behind this worsening violence?

Yes, I think it probably is. In the years after the Webster ruling, militant pro-life people saw legal and constitutional avenues of change closing down before them. It became clear there was going to be no constitutional amendment, which was for many years the great, gold ring for the pro-life movement. Second, the broad message of the Supreme Court's Webster ruling, everybody on both sides believed, was: Look, we're not going to overturn Roe now, but we will. Bring us your laws, so that they can get us to the next ruling, which will overturn Roe vs. Wade. Well, two things happened. One, the effect of the Webster ruling was to galvanize a sleeping populace in a way that nothing before that had done.


The sleeping pro-choice populace.

Yes. Everybody saw it. The pro-life people saw it, to their considerable dismay. What happened was that in a lot of places the political middle had been sort of abstractly pro-life. You know, "We think the voters are pro-life, so we'll vote pro-life." People started looking around at where political sentiment seemed to be going, and a lot of people who'd been hovering in the middle jumped ship for the other side. So did some previously pro-life candidates, like [Rep.] Richard Gephardt [D-Mo.] who now came out and said, "It doesn't really matter what I personally think. We need to have it be legal."


Then came 1992 and the Casey ruling on abortion restrictions in Pennsylvania. Everybody on both sides assumed that the court was going to fulfill its promise in Webster. And, of course, to everybody's astonishment, three justices read aloud from a joint opinion that sounded as if it had been written by the National Abortion Rights Action League. They kept talking about reproductive rights, and how a nation has come to depend on this liberty, and it doesn't really matter whether the original ruling was right or not, it would cause too much upheaval for us to undo this.

Casey dropped jaws on both sides. So now you had a Supreme Court that is clearly not going to overturn Roe. The Constitution is not going to be amended and Congress is not going to pass legislation banning abortion. And then Clinton was elected. The three legs of the tripod are now gone for those who see Washington as an avenue for change. Nobody knew what to do. Then came the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. So you've got a fringe element in the right-to-life movement that says, "They've closed us down. We have no options except to start killing these folks."

What is that violent element doing to the more mainstream pro-life movement?


It is an absolute disaster. Ever since its inception, the right-to-life community has argued very vigorously within itself about the limits of one's emotional commitment to this cause and where pragmatism ought to come in. Those arguments, purism vs. pragmatism, have been central to the right-to-life debate from the beginning. In some years they have taken the form of arguments over how amendments will be worded. Will we support, for example, legislation that says you can have an abortion if you can prove rape, incest or a grave threat to maternal health? The National Right to Life Committee has been a voice for pragmatism.

In the early years, remember, just the sit-in movement was controversial. Some people felt, "What are we doing breaking the law, this is just going to alienate people, we are law-abiding citizens." Then it moved from, "Is it OK to commit civil disobedience at all?" to, "If it's OK to commit civil disobedience, is it OK to put super glue in the locks? Is it OK to put chains around the doors, so that nobody can get in?" The founding idea of the sit-ins was not only to make a statement of social protest, but physically to place one's own body between the victim and the killer. That was the imagery that was very important in those days. So, if we're going to do that, well, maybe we should emulate the Berrigan brothers who poured blood on draft records. So, you can see these lines starting to move over the years --

In the direction of violence.



But though you say violence has been a "disaster" for pro-lifers, aren't they winning by violence what they couldn't win politically, by reducing the number of places where women can access abortion?

The abortion rate has gone down in the United States but I think it would be a very gross stretch of the imagination to suggest that it has gone down because abortion doctors are getting killed. There are a lot of very complex reasons, including better access to contraception. But there are fewer doctors who are willing to learn how to perform abortions. Certainly, fear of physical danger is one of the reasons that there are fewer doctors. There are plenty of other reasons. There are fewer medical schools that are willing to teach it. There are fewer role model doctors, there are fewer doctors who feel themselves called to this because it used to be illegal -- and someone has to do it. Then there's the marginalization of abortion services; we don't think, as other countries do, that this ought to be part of an OB-GYN's general array of services.

So, are they winning? Are they getting more publicity? Sure. Are they scaring doctors more? Sure. Are they making more young physicians and probably middle-aged physicians think very hard about whether they'll perform this procedure? Sure. In that sense, yeah, they are winning. But are they also causing pro-life groups to plummet in the polls? Yes. Are they causing the FBI to bear down very hard on groups that probably just want to picket? Yeah. Did they bring about the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which has been devastating for Right to Life protests? Yeah. So, I would put that in the "loss" column. If you are the family of that doctor who was shot, they are winning. But the number of clinics that are still out there offering legal service to people is very large. And the ease with which women can still get legal abortions is pretty remarkable compared to 30 years ago.


Since no one has taken credit for the Slepian killing, we can only speculate about who they are, their motives, their support. But do you think the cadre of people who support this kind of violence is growing? My gut tells me it's just a tiny fringe. Is that wishful thinking?

There is no question that it is a tiny fringe. But tiny fringes can grow into slightly larger tiny fringes, which may in fact be what's going on. This is a messianic cause, this is a cause that has people acting in -- I guess what they see as -- martyrlike fashion in defense of the unborn. We know there are a lot of people out there who are gun nuts. There are people out there who are willing to go to survivalist camps because they think that the U.S. government represents a mass conspiracy. There is no reason to think that there are any fewer people who are crazy and violent in the name of this cause than there are in the name of lots of other causes. You don't need 500 of them to do big damage. All you need is 10 who are willing to have a little cell somewhere, and spread out, and decide, as someone appears to have done, "We are not just going to get them at their clinics anymore. We are going to follow them to their houses, and get them in their kitchens."

What about the new early-abortion methods on the horizon? You note in your book that Planned Parenthood is doing clinical trials using the chemotherapy drug, Methotrexate, plus an ulcer drug, which can quietly cause an abortion before the seventh week of pregnancy. Is that going to make this issue go away?

There is a variety of opinion on this. The advantage and the problem with Methotrexate and RU486 is that they have to be ingested before seven weeks of pregnancy, which is pretty early. And there are a lot of women in this country, unfortunately, who have to work very hard to get their resources together to have an abortion before the first trimester is over, much less, in the first few weeks after they actually get pregnant. My feeling has always been that medical abortions as opposed to surgical abortions will change the picture but not as dramatically as some people would like to believe. I think that because of the malpractice climate in this country, I am guessing that there's not a great number of OB-GYNs who will comfortably add Methotrexate administration to what they do -- either because they are afraid of malpractice suits, because they are afraid of the complications, or because they don't want to have to follow up. And right-to-life people aren't any happier about medical early abortion than they are about later abortion. I think they know that it would be much more difficult for them tactically, if you pulled it out of clinics and put it back in the OB-GYN's office in the country. That turns out to be the giant tactical mistake of the pro-choice forces when the clinic system was devised.


What could they have done about that, though?

Well, at the time, there really wasn't much they could do about it. Nobody had the foresight to imagine how organized, how persistent and how widespread the right-to-life movement was going to be. There were so many problems that were answered by the clinic system: You got it out of hospitals; you got it away from doctors who deeply disapproved of it; you got it into a system that was quasi-anonymous; you got, in theory, physicians who were really experienced and knowledgeable about this procedure, and knew exactly what to do if something went wrong. You got places where all the equipment was modern and sanitary and new. All of these things were solved by putting them into free-standing clinics. But the big problem was that they were vulnerable to what ultimately happened.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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