Celebrating murder

As Hillary Clinton consoles the widow of a slain abortion doctor, anti-abortion forces prepare to launch a week of protests near his Buffalo, N.Y., clinic.

Published April 17, 1999 11:14AM (EDT)

In a quiet, unannounced meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House last week, the widow of slain abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian and her four children were ushered into the discreetly ornate Map Room for a private chat.

"It was a very brief meeting with her family," said Julie Mason, a spokeswoman for Clinton, declining to be more specific.

Lynne Slepian, a former nurse, was invited to the White House on April 9, six months after her husband was gunned down by a high-powered rifle as he fixed dinner in the kitchen of his Amherst, N.Y., home. His children watched him bleed to death from the shot in his back, which came from the woods behind the house.

Dr. Slepian operated a clinic in Buffalo, N.Y., that provided abortions, many to working-class women from nearby states who faced long waiting periods or parental consent restrictions closer to home.

Within days of his death last October, anti-abortion leaders celebrated the incident by choosing Buffalo and nearby Rochester for a weeks worth of rallies, demonstrations and clinic confrontations, which are set to kick off this Sunday.

Pro-choice activists have scheduled their own rally in downtown Buffalo for Saturday.

Clinton, touted for a Senate run in New York, will be in the vicinity of the anti-abortion storm with a speaking date in nearby Niagra Thursday. But "shell be speaking about education. Theres no connection with the rallies going on, theres no plan for her to get involved in any way," said Clinton's spokeswoman.

The wave of demonstrations come at a time when the anti-abortion movement is reeling from a series of defeats -- ranging from the federal prosecution of its leaders to prohibitions on how close demonstrators can get to clinics, to the defection of followers disturbed by a campaign that has spawned a hard core of activists willing to engage in arson, bombings and murders.

One of the activists, James C. Kopp, a follower of the so-called "Lambs of Christ," is being sought for questioning in connection with the Slepian murder. One report had Kopp, who perfected the art of locking himself to abortion clinics, spotted by U.S. Customs agents slipping into Mexico this winter, but that proved to be "a complete fabrication," Buffalo FBI spokesman Paul Moskal told Salon News. "We have no evidence of that whatsoever."

Kopp is also a suspect in three shootings of doctors in Canada and another in Rochester. None of those victims died. A grand jury in Buffalo is hearing evidence in the cases.

Last week local leaders from both sides of the highly charged abortion debate joined forces in a rare display of unity to take out full page ads in the Buffalo and Rochester newspapers to deplore the campaign to turn their area into an anti-abortion battleground.

"At a time when two doctors in our region have been shot at, and one killed, and clinics throughout the nation have been bombed and set on fire, protesters are mobilizing people from around the country to make our community a 'battleground,'" the ad placed by Save Our Civility and signed by some 3,000 people said. "This fosters an environment in which violence can flourish. With all due respect for everyone's right to protest in a peaceful manner ... We say no to violence. We say yes to tolerance and civility."

Operation Rescue National, a sponsor of the anti-abortion rallies, labeled the call for nonviolence a "pitiful philosophy and vision" and urged followers to take to the streets.

Rescues leader, Rev. Flip Benham, virtually blamed Slepian for his own death.
"Mr. Barnett Slepian had murdered thousands of baby boys and girls and last night was murdered himself," Benham wrote on his Web site in October. "Everybody wants to point the finger at someone else," he added, "but until the finger is pointed in the right direction, we are in store for more bloodshed in the streets -- the likes of which will sicken even the sturdiest among us."

Local pro-choice forces are less concerned about violence during the week as they are afterwards, said Debra Sweet, a member of Refuse and Resist, who will be helping to keep clinics open. "They create a climate of violence through their rhetoric," she said in a telephone interview. "The shooters are recruited from within the ranks. It's on the way home that they say, 'Hey, lets shoot somebody or blow something up.'"

"Im confident there will be a bombing or arson in the wake of this weeks events," said Vicki Saporta, a media representative of the National Abortion Federation in Washington. "After its over, its those who have been influenced who will do the damage."

Therefore, pro-choice activists are preparing for the worst. Under the banner of Buffalo United For Choice, activists have been training people on how to keep clinics open and escort patients through crowds of anti-abortion hecklers. Pro-choice banners and posters are being prepared honoring abortion-providing doctors as "heroes."

Local police have also prepared special facilities for mass arrests. The FBI, which has been tutoring police in federal statutes and penalties for violators, is also sharing its "rapid fingerprint identification system" with the police. The National Abortion Federation is providing its "mug books" of known extremists and those who have signed petitions saying the murder of abortion doctors is justifiable homicide.

Nationwide, clinic blockades peaked in 1989, with 12,358 anti-abortion protesters arrested, according to figures compiled by the National Abortion Federation. Last year there were only 16 arrests, and there have been only two this year. Death threats, however, have spiked, and a spate of bombings has plagued North Carolina, where the notorious bombing suspect Eric Rudolph is still being pursued.

"I dont think its going to be all that bad," said Marilyn Buckham, the administrator of Barnett Slepians former clinic, GYN Women Services. "Not as bad as in 1992," when an earlier wave of anti-abortion protests hit the area.

Buckham and others conceded, however, that Slepians murder dealt a severe blow to the clinic. Fear stalks the corridors, prompting rapid staff turnover.
"People are filling in, but its not the same," said one woman.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Abortion Crime Hillary Rodham Clinton