Abortion Shootings
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  Slain Doctor Had Long Been Protest Target

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 1998; Page A02

AMHERST, N.Y., Oct. 25—The protesters would gather outside the abortion clinics where Barnett Slepian worked, hurling insults at the staff and pleading with the women who came to end unwanted pregnancies. Occasionally, there would be threats whispered over the phone, or scribbled in anonymous notes.

Abortion rights activists say the charged atmosphere and invective inspired fear, limiting the availability of abortions, and also may have encouraged the sniper who killed Slepian on Friday night.

The well-known doctor was cut down in front of his horrified family as he stood in the kitchen of his home in this Buffalo suburb. Authorities say the fatal shot was fired through a window from a wooded area behind Slepian's home.

Federal, state, local and Canadian law enforcement officials investigating the case believe Slepian, an obstetrician and gynecologist, was targeted because he refused to stop performing abortions.

"This man stood for certain principles," said Marc J. Kozinn, a cardiologist and close friend of Slepian. "He wasn't going to be bullied. That's what he stood for and what he died for."

Slepian is the third abortion doctor slain since 1993. Four other people have died in attacks on clinics. Slepian's killing is strikingly similar to four shootings -- three in Canada and one near Rochester, N.Y. -- in the past four years. In each case, the four doctors were at home when they were shot by a sniper wielding a high-powered rifle. Each assault occurred near Nov. 11, which is Remembrance Day, the Canadian counterpart of Veterans Day. The holiday is recognized by antiabortion activists in Canada as a day to "remember the unborn children."

The violence has been condemned by those on both sides of the divisive issue. "For anyone to take it upon himself to be judge, jury and executioner is nothing but sheer evil," said Karen Swallow Prior, an abortion opponent here.

"This is just a horrifying act," said Carolyn Taggart, an abortion rights activist who attended a candlelight vigil Saturday to honor Slepian. "This is domestic terrorism at its ugliest."

Abortion rights advocates charge, however, that aggressive antiabortion protests have created the atmosphere for violence. Kozinn's wife, Betsy, a registered nurse who worked for Slepian, said, "Protesters called him 'murderer' and they called him all kinds of other names. When you use that rhetoric, it sort of sets a tone for violence."

It also has led to fewer abortion options. "The number of abortion providers has decreased, and we know that is in part due to the violence," said Stephanie Mueller, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation, the nation's largest organization of abortion providers.

Mueller said there are no abortion clinics in 84 percent of U.S. counties. There are about 900 abortion providers, who in 1995 performed 1.4 million abortions. In western New York state, abortion options have declined to a "crisis" level, local activists have said.

In 1992, the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue targeted Buffalo for protests. At least two Buffalo-area clinics have since closed, leaving one clinic and two private hospitals for abortions. Activists said that severely limits abortion options, particularly for poor women and those without private physicians.

"It is clear that the number of providers has decreased," said Susan Dudley, deputy director of the National Abortion Federation. "But for as many physicians who are frightened away, there are additional physicians who are made even more strong in their commitment to stand in the face of this."

Friends say Slepian refused to be deterred from performing abortions, which constituted a small part of his medical practice. For years, Slepian, like other doctors who perform abortions, had stared down demonstrators who confronted him at his home and offices and yelled obscenities at his children as they got off their school bus. At one point, Kozinn said, Slepian bought a bulletproof vest.

Slepian knew he was vulnerable. He told the Buffalo News in 1993, after an abortion doctor was killed in Florida, "It could happen to me or to someone around here." Two years later, after a gunman had killed two receptionists in a Massachusetts abortion clinic, Slepian said of abortion protesters: "When you're using words like 'kill' and 'murder,' that's where it can lead."

Associates said protests were routine outside clinics where Slepian worked.

"It has been scary on the inside," said Melinda DuBois, an administrator at Buffalo GYN Women's Services, where Slepian performed abortions. "Protesters are there all the time. We've always been [alert]. We've always been concerned. We've always been careful."

Researcher Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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