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The evening of October 23, 1998, pro-choice physician Barnett A. Slepian arrived at his Amherst, New York, home after attending synagogue to say kaddish for his late father. Shortly thereafter, with his wife and four children nearby, he was struck fatally by a sniper's bullet that ripped into his back and pierced his lungs.
As if to warn of this assassination—and in response to the shooting deaths of Pensacola, Florida, doctor John Bayard Britton and clinic escort James Barrett—Dr. Slepian wrote a letter in August 1994 to the editor of the Buffalo News, saying:
The members of the local non-violent pro-life community may continue to picket my home wearing large "Slepian Kills Children" buttons . . . display the six-foot banner with the same quotation at the entrance to my neighborhood . . . proudly display their "Abortion Kills Children" bumper stickers . . . scream that I am a murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they "peacefully" exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of speech. . . . They may also do the same . . . at a restaurant, at a mall, in a store, or, as they have done recently, while I was watching my young children play at Leaps and Bounds. . . . But 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.
Suddenly, with Slepian's death, such a link between hate speech and hate crime has become widely recognized—along with the concept that anti-abortion violence is nothing less than domestic terrorism. Indeed, three days after the murder, the New York Times featured an editorial entitled "Violence Against Abortion Doctors," which, with rare outrage, declared:
[Slepian's] death shows again how tentative the right to abortion has become in the face of terrorism by anti-choice fanatics. Their repeated acts of terrorism must be met with the severest possible crackdown by law-enforce-ment authorities. If an armed police officer has to be stationed outside every abortion provider's home and office, 24 hours a day, let it be done. This is an assault not only on individual doctors, but also on the rights and liberties of all Americans. . . . [Moreover] incendiary rhetoric, and frequent accusations by some anti-abortionists that abortion providers are committing murder, can only fuel more terrorism.
The sad news, however, is that it has taken far too long for these crucial understandings to gain mainstream acceptance—more than twenty years, it turns out—during which time there have been over 1,700 attacks of various types against reproductive health clinics and providers.
One of the earliest of these occurred on February 18, 1978, when the Concerned Women's Clinic of Cleveland, Ohio, was firebombed with patients and staff inside. In response, local pro-choice activists called on Bill Baird—founder in 1964 of the nation's first abortion and birth control center and winner at that time of two (in 1979 it would become three) U.S. Supreme Court victories on birth control and abortion—to come to Cleveland and help organize their efforts to prevent such violence in the future. Baird accepted their request, immediately stating to a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer that a causal connection existed between inflammatory words "feeding the winds of hatred" and a subsequent "lawlessness of the anti-abortion side." He added that he would call on James A. Hickey, then bishop of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, "to condemn violence against abortion clinics and their personnel and patients" and would also "ask the FBI to enter the firebombing case because it may be linked with similar ones in other states." This was the first time such ideas had been proposed.
The very next day, on February 21, 1978, the Associated Press reported: "After meeting with abortion advocate William Baird of New York, Cleveland Roman Catholic Diocese officials have issued a statement urging anti-abortionists to avoid inflammatory statements." The official statement is then quoted: "We call on all involved in the pro-life movement . . . to avoid inflammatory rhetoric . . . and to maintain an attitude that is always respectful of life." The diocese also supported Baird's proposal for meetings between the two sides in the controversy so that opposing activists could "discuss ways of de-escalating the violence." Hickey issued a separate statement personally, declaring: "We reject and oppose the violence that has taken place at the Concerned Women's Clinic. This violent response to abortion is immoral and anti-life."
Police inaction after the Cleveland bombing was another of Baird's concerns—given his familiarity with law enforcement's frequent conservative, anti-woman stance. He had learned that, even though eye witnesses had already described the terrorist firebomber to police, no composite drawing for public identification had been made. So Baird met with Cleveland police officials to urge action.
This effort was partially successful. The February 22, 1978, Plain Dealer reported that the police "will try to assemble a composite sketch of the man who threw a firebomb into an abortion clinic," adding, "After meeting with William Baird, Inspector Edward Nagorski and Lieutenant Michael Haney, head of the Arson Unit, said police will give special attention to protecting all clinics in the city." Unfortunately, once the composite sketch was released, no further action was taken and the bomber was never found.
Baird's effort with the FBI, however, was completely rebuffed. After discussing matters with investigators, he received a letter dated April 6, 1978, from the FBI's New York City office stating:
The facts in this matter indicate a possible violation of Title 18, Section 844i (the use of an incendiary device to damage property affecting interstate commerce) which is investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). However . . . the facts as provided . . . showed no evidence of a conspiracy and did not warrant federal investigation but rather should be handled by local authorities. There is no basis for an FBI investigation in this matter under the Federal Bombing Statute.
A later letter, dated July 26, 1978, states: "On July 3, 1978, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice advised FBI headquarters that it desires no further investigation into this matter." This FBI brushoff stands in glaring contrast to the cooperation and support of the Cleveland diocese. But what is even more significant is that it took twenty years for the mainstream pro-choice movement to publicly cite this important history (after the murder of Slepian, Lois Shapiro Canter, president of the New York State National Organization for Women, became the first).
Less than one year after the Cleveland incident, on February 15, 1979, in Hempstead, New York, Baird's own nonprofit clinic was firebombed. Fifty people, over half of them patients, were inside at the time. Peter Burkin, a twenty-one-year-old drifter who had picketed the week before, unexpectedly burst into the waiting room armed with a flaming two-foot torch in one hand and a gallon of gasoline in the other. A walking molotov cocktail, Burkin screamed, "Nobody move; this place is going up. In the name of God I'm going to cleanse Bill Baird's soul by fire!" While a clinic doctor completed an abortion, Burkin threw the gasoline and the torch. It was only because the staff had been trained for just such an attack that they and all the patients were able to escape in time. And within minutes after the bombing, staffers also helped secure Burkin's capture.
The next day, in a vacant office next door to the charred remains of his clinic, with the acrid odor still piercing the air, an emotional Baird held a press conference. The AP reported his words: "I fault publicly the Roman Catholic Church, the Right to Life people, and all anti-abortion forces who use the rhetoric 'baby murderer, killer, devil' which creates a climate that turns loose lunatics like this." In the same article, Janet Beals of the National Abortion Rights Action League is quoted as saying, "The police and the FBI are not taking these things seriously enough. They think it's all cranks. There could be an organized effort."
Later, District Attorney Denis Dillon—who subsequently would make an unsuccessful bid to become governor of New York as a Right to Life Party candidate—prosecuted Peter Burkin. Burkin received approximately two years in a mental hospital and today roams free. In the summer of 1980, Baird filed suit against the FBI in an effort to prompt a conspiracy investigation into the twenty-seven bombing incidents that had occurred up to that time and to urge effective action to protect clinics against future violence. A federal judge, however, threw out his case. So, in 1984, on CBS's Face the Nation, Baird confronted FBI Director William Webster directly. Webster's reply? Bombing a "bank or a post office is terrorism. Bombing an abortion clinic is not an act of terrorism."
Outraged by such callousness toward issues that affect women, Baird began criticizing the FBI in the press and called for Webster's resignation. The December 13, 1984, Hartford Courant reports:
The Reagan administration is openly permitting extremist groups to continue terrorist activities against abortion clinics, a pro-abortion activist charged Wednesday before a speech in Waterbury [Connecticut]. . . . "Medicine is under siege by terrorists," Baird said. "I honestly believe that the Reagan administration is so anti-abortion that, what they cannot achieve by law, they are willing to do by permitting terrorist activities.
FBI officials late Wednesday denied the charges, but acknowledge that recent statements on the issue by FBI Director William H. Webster had resulted in intense criticism. Webster said Dec. 4 that the escalating violence against abortion clinics is not terrorism because "the objective is social in anti-abortion violence, and I don't believe it currently meets our definition" of terrorism.
In 1985, Baird began calling for a national law establishing 500-foot "quiet zones" around clinics and fifty-foot "demilitarized zones" outside their main entrances, through which patients could pass without having to face anti-abortion protesters. Such space, he argued, would also prevent the shouting of protesters from disrupting counseling and negatively impacting medical procedures. As Baird provocatively began asking in his lectures: how many men would want to undergo a vasectomy, trusting the steadiness of the physician's scalpel, while protesters outside screamed at them or disrupted the clinic by chaining themselves in large numbers to furniture or examining tables? In response to charges that the institution of this idea would violate free speech rights, Baird likened his 500-foot quiet zones to those already in place around New York hospitals and to existing bans on picketers within 300 feet of U.S. embassies and 100 feet of public polling places.
Also in 1985 and subsequently, he called for federal escorts. Jerry Rosa, writing in the New York Daily News of December 28, 1989, quotes Baird as saying, "We are trying to get the U.S. federal marshals to be assigned to my clinic and other clinics to escort women patients, just as blacks were escorted during the '60s because their civil rights were being violated."
Despite, however, all the agitation for federal involvement—first by Baird and then by other pro-choice activists—it took until 1994 for the U.S. Justice Department to set up a task force to investigate the possibility of a nationwide movement coordinating clinic attacks. And then this task force was abandoned a mere two years later when, finding no evidence that could lead to prosecution, the Justice Department gave up the search.
But on November 9, 1998, with the murder of Dr. Slepian—the eighth such assassination in the history of the abortion conflict—Attorney General Janet Reno announced the formation of the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers, a federal effort to investigate incidents of anti-abortion violence and any potential links between them. It also promises to help train law enforcement personnel, identify at-risk clinics, and develop clinic security procedures. Members of the task force will include Justice Department attorneys, agents from the FBI and the ATF, and officers from the Marshals Service and the Postal Service. The Justice Department claims that, this time, a commitment has been made "to have a permanent presence in this area." Arson attacks against churches will serve as a model for investigating similar attacks against family planning facilities.
Still, we must ask why it has taken so long for this action to come about, why we had to wait until so many clinics were bombed and abortion providers shot. It's not as if the existence of a conspiracy of violence was reasonably in doubt. Readily available information on the radically anti-abortion Army of God, Lambs of Christ, and Nuremberg Files has amply demonstrated that.
In August 1982, the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, was repeatedly mobbed by anti-abortion protesters. Then, without warning, the clinic's owner, Dr. Hector Zevallos, and his wife, Rosalee Jean, were abducted from their home. A group calling itself the Army of God claimed credit for the kidnapping. During the eight days that the couple was held in an abandoned concrete ammunition bunker, they were told they'd be killed if Dr. Zevallos didn't pledge to stop performing abortions. Since these threats violated the federal Hobbs Act, which treats as a felony any threat of violence made during a robbery or extortion, the FBI became involved. However, the couple was released when the pledge was given. Three men were later convicted in this case, one of whom—the forty-five-year-old leader, Don Benny Anderson—was also convicted of torching two Florida clinics. He drew two thirty-year terms in prison. The two eighteen- and nineteen-year-old co-conspirators were given twenty years each.
In 1984, the Army of God took credit for clinic firebombings in Norfolk, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Then, in August 1993, Shelly Shannon shot and wounded Dr. George Tiller outside his clinic in Wichita, Kansas. In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that Shannon had corresponded with imprisoned murderer Michael Griffin—the man who had shot and killed Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, in March 1993. Also, in Shannon's backyard, police found a buried copy of the Army of God Manual, which features bomb-making instructions and a call for the assassination of abortion providers.
On January 16 and February 21, 1998, nail-studded bombs exploded in Atlanta, Georgia—the first at a women's clinic, the second at the Sandy Springs Professional Office Building, and the third at a gay nightclub. In unsigned and semiliterate letters sent to news outlets, the claim is made that these bombs were placed by "units of the Army of God." One of the letters declares that all those involved with abortion "may become victims of retribution" and that the group "will target sodomites, there organizations, and all those who push there agenda [sic]."
The FBI has distributed the letter nationally so that the language and style of the writer might be recognized by someone who would come forward to provide information. And now the Army of God is suspected of planting the nail-studded bomb that exploded at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Fugitive Eric Rudolph, currently number one on the FBI's most wanted list, is the individual who has been charged in all these bombings.
The Lambs of Christ, an organization specializing more in psychological terror, was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1988 by Father Norman Weslin, a former Green Beret and recent activist with Randall Terry and Operation Rescue. Weslin has over seventy arrests to his name and, according to the November 8, 1998, Buffalo News, his group, which is seen as "mobile and nomadic," frequently "assists other pro-life organizations or acts as a 'shock' troop before moving on to another city. Critics say they have total disregard for the law and often refuse to cooperate with police. They also have been known to serve long jail sentences without ever revealing their names or addresses."
When the Lambs of Christ targeted Dr. Susan Wicklund, an abortion provider in rural Minnesota, their terror tactics were so emotionally insidious that they received coverage in a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes. The group has also gained a repu-tation for its outlandish public protests wherein "Lambs" chain themselves to cement blocks or superglue themselves to clinic entrances. Weslin claims that his organization has 4,000 supporters across the country, 600 of whom are active protesters.
The Nuremberg Files is a page on the Internet reachable from the Army of God's website, www.christiangallery.com, and run by fifty-four-year-old computer consultant Neil Horsley of Carrollton, Georgia. In 1985, anti-abortion proponents selected Nuremberg, Pennsylvania, as the site for their intended quasi war trials of pro-choice advocates. Today, the website, which is currently being investigated by the Justice Department, features the now infamous "hit list" where Dr. Slepian's name, within hours of his murder, was coldly crossed out. The 550 names appearing on the list are divided into the following categories:
ABORTIONISTS: the baby butchers
The typefaces used in showing the names indicate the status of each person on the list. Black type means the individual is still working, strike-through type signifies a fatality, and grayed-out type indicates that the person has been wounded. The introductory page to the list states the mission:
A coalition of concerned citizens throughout the USA is cooperating in collecting dossiers on abortionists in anticipation that one day we may be able to hold them on trial for crimes against humanity. . . . One of the great tragedies of the Nuremberg trials of Nazis after WWII was that complete information and documented evidence had not been collected, so many war criminals went free or were only found guilty of minor crimes. We do not want the same thing to happen when the day comes to charge abortionists with their crimes. We anticipate the day when these people will be charged in PERFECTLY LEGAL COURTS once the tide of this nation's opinion turns against the wanton slaughter of God's children (as it surely will). . . . In order to facilitate this effort, you can help collect evidence.
There are important links between many of these groups and events. For example, James C. Kopp, known as "Atomic Dog" in the Army of God Manual, has been arrested in several Lambs of Christ protests. He also is the man currently sought by the FBI as a material witness in the murder of Slepian. The current Army of God website—like the Nuremberg Files—is run by Horsley and features an essay, "Why I Shot an Abortionist" by the Reverend Paul Hill, the man who killed Dr. John Britton and James Barrett in July 1994. Paul Hill is reportedly the originator of the "Defensive Action Statement," a petition justifying murder that was signed by thirty-one anti-abortion extremists in 1993 to show support for Michael Griffin. Since then, in January of each year, these extremists and others, comprising as many as 100, gather to honor their jailed anti-abortion heroes at a "White Rose Banquet" in Washington, D.C. Michael Bray, formerly incarcerated for conspiring to bomb abortion clinics, sponsors the event. It was he who, in a 1995 article arguing the advantages of sniper attacks against abortion providers, wrote: "I am short on shelf space, so I traded my copy of the Army of God Manual for the Army's Sniper Training and Employment. And it is uplifting!"
But it doesn't take piecing together such connections and alliances to conclude there is a conspiracy of violence at work. Some anti-abortion radicals are willing to say so publicly. When Bill Baird debated Hill on WEZE radio in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1993, Hill responded to Baird's call for a federal investigation of anti-abortion violence by declaring:
If you are saying there is a national conspiracy to stop abortion and even use force to do so, I would say unequivocally there is! And I am certainly a part of it. . . . I'm the founder of a group called Defensive Action, and the stated purpose of Defensive Action is to proclaim the justice of taking all action necessary to protect innocent life through the use of force. . . . I'm saying it would be just to use force to protect innocent life against an unjust aggressor, and that certainly includes abortionists in general.
As the two-hour debate progressed, Hill chillingly asserted, "Killing Bill Baird is justifiable homicide." Added to this is the obvious fact that fugitives from justice need help from others if they are to remain on the lam. Radical movements tend to have an "extended family," an anonymous support network of helpers and safe houses. This is how food, shelter, transportation, and money are provided to those extremists willing to commit violence. And, contrary to law enforcement claims, such extremists are rarely loners. Many, like Paul Hill, are married with children and have intimate connections with other relatives. No wonder the authorities are having so much difficulty locating Eric Rudolph and James C. Kopp.
From 1978 to the present, Baird has repeated his public warnings about the damaging effects of hate speech, citing the demonizing rhetoric used by the religious right, including the Roman Catholic establishment. Ironically, Michael Griffin included as part of his legal defense of his murder of David Gunn that he was a victim of brainwashing through religious, anti-abortion hate rhetoric.
Still, the anti-abortion establishment refuses to tone down its vitriol. Concerned about escalating violence, Baird sought a peace meeting between the opposing sides in the controversy at the 1998 National Right to Life convention. But his letter offering this proposal was rebuffed by NRL President Dr. Wanda Franz. According to the June 20, 1998, Orlando Sentinel: "Franz rejects Baird's efforts, saying no members of her group are involved in violence and are too busy working on the issue to try to find common ground with their opponents." Protesting outside the convention, Baird later said, "It's unbelievable that people are being murdered and clinics firebombed and she is 'too busy' to help de-escalate the violence." Instead, conventioneers boisterously declared that they were survivors of the "American abortion holocaust" and inflammatory rhetoric spewed from their literature, such as, "Adolph Hitler made 6 million choices."
Paradoxically, by comparing the pro-choice movement to the Holocaust, anti-abortion forces are utilizing the same dehumanization techniques applied in Nazi Germany. With as much skill, they have assembled a dangerous propaganda machine aimed at systematically dehumanizing pro-choice Americans. The machine attempts to reduce feminists, humanists, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, liberal Christians, atheists, physicians, nurses, and anyone else advocating or associated with abortion into categories of evil murderers, baby killers, and devils.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of violence and the threat it creates is rubbing off on some individuals in the pro-choice camp. At the National Coalition of Abortion Providers convention held in January 1998, many of the organization's members were armed for self-defense. Doctors and staff feared being attacked even at the convention.
At "Speak Out," an event sponsored October 27, 1998, by the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Organization for Women, a group called Radical Women distributed a reprint of a 1995 article from the Freedom Socialist newspaper that reads:
Just ask any anti-abortion terrorist. They'll tell you that guns and violence work. What these brownshirts won't say is that their goon tactics only succeed until the
Speaking to an AP reporter on October 30 regarding her husband's killer and New York's death penalty, Slepian's widow, Lynne, said, "If I have anything to say about it, I'll give him the lethal injection myself."
Then, in the wake of the anthrax scare at the end of October—in which personnel at family planning clinics in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana received and processed hoax letters stating that opening the letter had resulted in exposure to anthrax, which would kill the letter-opener within forty-eight hours—such letters began arriving in the mailboxes of leading anti-abortionists, including Neal Horsley and Joseph Scheidler, as well as at the Chicago office of the Pro-Life Action League and Catholic parishes in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Cheektowaga, New York (near where Slepian lived).
Baird believes these developments point to the fact that the well of pro-choice tolerance is drying up. Although anti-abortion forces seem to take for granted the remarkable restraint exercised thus far, more and more pro-choice Americans are ready to say, "Enough is enough. We are tired of burying our dead." They are starting to believe that the time is imminent in calling for "preemptive strikes against terrorists."
The antidote to this risk of escalated violence is that we all need to become reinvolved or more involved in our political system. Our nation must awaken to the political agenda of the religious right and respond creatively. Baird suggests the following specific ideas:
1. Take the growing threat to our eroding rights very seriously. Hold legislators accountable. Inform them of your stand on freedom, privacy, and reproductive rights. Most importantly, register and vote! People who refuse to vote should not complain about the loss of their freedom. Freedom is not a spectator sport.
In the current social climate of this holy war, in which hate speech is increasingly fostering hate crime, both in the United States and Canada, it is necessary that each of us do all we can to, on the one hand, tone down the rhetoric and, on the other hand, see to it that our government provides lawful and orderly alternatives to violence in the defense of our liberties.
Joni Scott is associate director of the Pro Choice League in Huntington, New York (founded by Bill Baird) and a freelance writer. Email her at email@example.com. This article was published in the Humanist, January/February 1999.