The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The radical, unrepentant ideology of abortion clinic killers

Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear Jr. (El Paso County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Paul Hill died as defiantly as he had lived.

America’s most infamous abortion clinic killer was executed at 6 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2003. As the hour approached, supporters gathered outside the Florida State Prison near Jacksonville to promise divine retribution for Hill’s death. They howled as a storm broke above their heads, seeing the weather as a sign of heaven’s wrath.

Inside the execution chamber, however, there was calm. Hill, sentenced to die for gunning down an abortion doctor almost a decade earlier, was peaceful, even as thunder clapped and the lights flickered overhead.

Strapped to a gurney, Hill calmly used his last words to urge others to continue his bloody crusade.

“If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it,” he said just before chemicals fatally flooded his veins, according to the Miami Herald. “May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected.”

In the 12 years since Hill’s execution, dozens of people have taken up his call, attacking abortion clinics with bombs and bullets, acid and axes. They have ambushed doctors in their homes and offices, killing four, including one physician who survived a previous assassination attempt. They have even killed clinic receptionists. At least 11 people have died in such attacks since 1993.

The latest deadly attack occurred on Friday, when 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear Jr. allegedly opened fire inside a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, Colo., killing three people — including a police officer — and injuring more than six. After a five-hour standoff, Dear then surrendered.

Although authorities have yet to discuss the motive for the shooting, Dear apparently did not hide his reasons for allegedly carrying out the attack.

“No more baby parts,” he said, according to a law enforcement official who, speaking anonymously, also said Dear mentioned President Obama and was “definitely politically motivated.”

So far, at least, the Colorado shooter seems to be following Hill’s playbook. Step one: Target abortion providers. Step two: Sow terror.

Step three: Show no remorse.

The alleged Colorado Springs attacker is not alone in following Hill down his dark, remorseless path. Before Friday, four men had followed Hill’s horrific example and killed abortion clinic doctors, employees or guards.

Like Hill, his emulators have proved unrepentant. Their own words reveal a murderously Manichaean mindset that rivals the Islamic State in its black-or-white brutality.

“Abortion is murder,” said Eric Rudolph in 2005 as he was sentenced to life without parole for the 1998 bombing of an abortion clinic that killed an off-duty cop.  “And because it is murder I believe deadly force is needed to stop it.”

[‘No more baby parts,’ suspect in attack at Colo. Planned Parenthood clinic told official]

Violence against abortion providers is as old as legalized abortion in this country. In the wake of Friday’s shootings, the history of such attacks has become its own secondary battleground, with some antiabortion activists and several GOP presidential candidates downplaying the utterances of the man arrested for the Colorado Springs attack.

Michelle Kinsey Bruns, an abortion rights activist who has served as a patient escort at abortion clinics, put the tragic killings at the end of a long list of abortion clinic attacks, however.

Using the hashtag #is100enough, Kinsey Bruns listed 100 such attacks spread out over the past four decades. Her list begins in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, when Joseph C. Stockett was convicted of an arson attack against an Oregon clinic. A year later, Kinsey Bruns pointed out, a man posing as a delivery man walked into a Cleveland abortion clinic operating room, splashed a technician in the face with gasoline and then lit the room on fire. As flames poured into the adjoining room, a 20-year-old patient jumped off the operating table and ran outside in her paper gown, according to the New York Times.

Kidnappings. Arson. Pipe bombs. Kinsey Bruns’s list continues through the 1980s.

The first killing occurred in 1993, shortly after Bill Clinton’s inauguration. The physician David Gunn was shot in the back as he stepped out of his car at the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services clinic on March 11, 1993. The gunman was Michael Frederick Griffin, a handsome 31-year-old in a suit who just days earlier had led protesters in a prayer for Gunn’s soul.

“Don’t kill any more babies,” Griffin reportedly yelled before pulling the trigger three times. He then quietly surrendered to police, confessing to the crime.

Griffin’s fellow protesters didn’t seem shocked by the shooting, Steve Powell, an employee at a nearby office, told The Washington Post’s William Booth. “It looked like they were just happy.”

Shortly before Griffin’s trial, Hill and 33 other antiabortion activists signed a “defensive action statement” effectively condoning the killing.

“We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force,” it read, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We assert that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children. Therefore, he ought to be acquitted of the charges against him.”

[Abortion rights groups: Political rhetoric contributed to shooting]

Hill, a 40-year-old former Presbyterian pastor excommunicated for his increasingly radical beliefs, also defended Griffin on television talk shows.

“Two days after Michael Griffin killed Dr. Gunn, I called The Phil Donahue Show and told them I supported the shooting,” Hill wrote in the foreword to his memoir, titled “Mix My Blood With the Blood of the Unborn.”

“Three days later, I appeared on the show with the abortionist’s son, and compared killing Dr. Gunn to killing a Nazi concentration camp ‘doctor,’ ” he wrote.

A year later, however, it would be Hill himself making the headlines. On July 29, 1994, Hill was waiting in the driveway of another Pensacola abortion clinic when its doctor arrived. Hill picked a shotgun up off the ground and opened fire on the car, killing John Britton and his security escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, and injuring Barrett’s wife before the doctor’s police guard could arrive.

“One thing’s for sure, no innocent people will be killed in that clinic today,” he said as police took him away.

The murders were methodically planned.

“Two thoughts sustained and impelled me as I went through this ordeal,” Hill wrote in his memoir. “The first was that if I did not intervene and prevent the abortionist from entering the clinic, he would kill two or three dozen children that day. The second, and more prominent thought, was that if I did not succeed in killing the abortionist, but merely wounded him, he would, in all probability, return to killing the unborn as soon as he was able. In the coming months and years, he would likely kill thousands of unborn children, under the security of the best police protection available. I was determined to prevent this.”

Also carefully planned was Hill’s surrender.

“When I finished shooting, I laid the shotgun at my feet and walked away with my hands held out at my sides, awaiting arrest. I did not want to appear to be threatening anyone when the police arrived,” he wrote. “I was relieved when they cuffed me. I gave a hopeful and non-resisting look to the policeman who ordered me under arrest with his drawn handgun. I did not want to be shot, and was glad to be safely in police custody.”

[GOP candidates condemn Planned Parenthood shooting but dismiss link to antiabortion rhetoric]

Hill, who had lambasted other antiabortion activists for not being aggressive enough in defending the unborn, didn’t surrender out of cowardice, he claimed. Instead, by staying alive for another decade in prison, he could convince others to also use deadly force to fight against abortion. “Using the force necessary to defend the unborn gives credibility, urgency, and direction to the pro-life movement,” he wrote. “These are traits that it has lacked and that it needs in order to prevail.”

It didn’t take long for others to follow in Hill’s bloody footsteps.

Five months later, a 22-year-old antiabortion activist named John Salvi III walked into a clinic in Brookline, Mass.

“Is this Planned Parenthood?” he asked Shannon Lowney, a 22-year-old receptionist. When she answered yes, Salvi pulled a rifle out of a duffle bag and shot her in the neck, killing her and wounding two others. Salvi then drove across town and repeated the crime, killing another receptionist, Lee Ann Nichols, 38, and wounding two more employees at a second clinic. “This is what you get. You should pray the rosary,” Salvi allegedly shouted.

[Sex, laws and video tape: How Planned Parenthood became an enduring target of the GOP]

He was caught the following day in Virginia after opening fire at a third abortion clinic. His lawyers claimed that he was insane, but a judge rejected that argument and a jury found him guilty in March of 1996.

When Salvi finally addressed the court during his sentencing, he showed no remorse. Instead, he repeated his request to give interviews to the news media to discuss his views about a purported anti-Catholic conspiracy, The Post reported.

“As you know, I haven’t pled guilty though I am against abortion,” Salvi said. “My position is pro-welfare state, pro-Catholic labor union and, basically, pro-life.”

Salvi was sentenced to life in prison but didn’t serve it. He was found dead in his cell in November 1996, a plastic garbage bag tied around his head with a shoelace, according to the New York Times.

That same year, another young man resorted to deadly violence to fight against abortion. On July 27, more than a week into the 1996 Olympic Games, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing two people (one from a heart attack) and wounding 111 others.

The bomber was Eric Rudolph. Like Salvi, Rudolph was a young Catholic radically opposed to abortion.

“… The purpose of the attack on July 27th was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand,” he later wrote.

It would be seven years, however, before Rudolph was apprehended. In that time, he would detonate at least three other bombs. Two of them targeted abortion clinics; the other, a lesbian bar. On Jan. 16, 1997, he attacked a clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. And on Jan. 29, 1998, another one of his bombs exploded outside a Birmingham, Ala., clinic, killing an off-duty police officer and injuring a nurse.

He went into hiding a year later, but it wasn’t until May 31, 2003, that he was finally arrested. That was when a rookie police officer found Rudolph digging through a grocery store dumpster in North Carolina. The fugitive had been hiding in the woods for several years.

Like Hill, Rudolph surrendered peacefully but then used prison as a platform for waging a war of words against abortion. In 2005, just days before he was set to go on trial, Rudolph pleaded guilty to the four bombings. He also divulged the location of 250 pounds of dynamite and bomb components that he had stashed in the forest.

Like his fellow abortion clinic attackers, however, Rudolph has refused to express remorse for his crimes. In an 11-page letter explaining his reluctant plea agreement, he acknowledged that there were several “major facts” against him in his case. “But Washington had a problem” as well, he wrote.

“The problem that they had was that a significant minority of the population, especially here in Northern Alabama, regarded what happened there at the abortion facility on that day of Jan. 29, 1998, as morally justified,” he wrote. “It is my opinion some of these people were likely to vote not guilty no matter what evidence was presented to them.”

Calling abortion “murder,” Rudolph compared his bombing campaign to the American Revolutionary War.

“At various times in history men and women of good conscience have had to decide when the lawfully constituted authorities have overstepped their moral bounds and forfeited their right to rule,” he explained of the moral code supposedly allowing him to kill abortion providers. “This took place in July of 1776 when our Forefathers decided that the British Crown had violated the essential rights of Englishmen, and therefore lost its authority to govern. And, in January of 1973 the government in Washington decided to descend into barbarism by sanctioning the ancient practice of infanticide by that act consigned 50 million unborn children to their graves. There is no more legitimate reason to my knowledge, for renouncing allegiance to and if necessary using force to drag this monstrosity of a government down to the dust where it belongs.”

Like Hill, Rudolph has used the Internet to reach a huge audience since his arrest. But unlike Hill, Rudolph was spared the death penalty. He now has the rest of his life to spout his radical, unrepentant beliefs online.

“It felt strange planning the deaths of other human beings,” he wrote in his his memoir, “Between the Lines of Drift: The Memoirs of a Militant.” “During the next month, the employees of [Birmingham abortion clinic] New Woman would go about their lives oblivious to their date with death. Perhaps it was better not knowing. But I knew, and that unsettled me. I never wavered in my conviction, though. To me this was war. As the operators of a facility that slaughtered 10 to 20 unborn babies every day, the employees of New Woman were mass murderers. I saw them as enemy targets. Pushing aside any feelings of pity, I proceeded with a clear conscience.”

Rudolph has even fought for the royalties to his memoir, which the government has seized to settle his $1 million restitution agreement, according to

Nine months after Rudolph’s deadly Birmingham bombing, James Kopp used a sniper rifle to shoot physician Barnett Slepian as he sat in his Amherst, N.Y., kitchen on Oct. 23, 1998, talking to his wife and one of his four kids.

Kopp was a Catholic convert who reportedly became fiercely antiabortion after a girlfriend underwent the procedure, according to the Guardian. He was prominent in militant antiabortion circles, where he was known as Atomic Dog, and had designed locks that protesters fastened to abortion clinic doors.

Like Rudolph, Kopp disappeared after the attack. For two and a half years, he evaded the FBI by using multiple passports and aliases to travel to Ireland and then France, where he was finally arrested in 2001.

Like his fellow abortion clinic attackers, Kopp used court appearances to express a radical moral code he claimed allowed the killing of abortion providers.

“You served as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner,” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara told Kopp when he sentenced him to life without parole in 2007. “You decided that you know better than any law.”

Until Friday, the last abortion clinic killing was the 2009 slaying of physician George Tiller in Wichita, Kan. Tiller, who had survived a previous assassination attempt when he was shot in both arms, was gunned down in the foyer of his church by Scott Roeder.

Roeder, who was sentenced to life in prison, said he felt no guilt.

“No, I don’t have any regrets because I have been told so far at least four women have changed their minds, that I know of, and have chosen to have the baby,” he told the AP shortly after the slaying. “So even if one changed her mind it would be worth it. No, I don’t have any regrets.”

Scholars have likened this radical strain of Christianity to militant Islam in its embrace of violence and Manichaean, or black-and-white, vision of the world.

“The anti-abortion position is sacred and just, the competing perspective evil and profane,” wrote Joshua D. Freilich and William Alex Pridemore in a 2007 study. “This Manichaean mindset ignores nuances and complexities, and by dehumanizing its opponents and portraying the goal as so fundamentally important, it makes crime and violence more likely. It thus appears that part of the anti-abortion movement has framed its cultural arguments and ideology so that they justify crime and violence. If the ends are so worthwhile and if your enemy is so wicked, in other words, how could you not employ extreme measures?”

Like militant Islamists, violent American antiabortion activists want to control women, some scholars argue.

“The point is clear,” James W. Gibson wrote in “Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America.” “The desirable future for these men is a return to the prefeminist past.”

At times, antiabortion activists themselves have pointed out the similarity. In 2011, the FBI arrested 26-year-old Justin Carl Moose for plotting to bomb an abortion clinic in North Carolina. He was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, according to the AP.

Moose’s self-assigned moniker? The “Christian counterpart of Osama bin Laden.”

On Friday, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. allegedly followed Hill, Rudolph, Kopp and others in acting as judge, jury and executioner when police say he opened fire at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

[Civilian victims identified in Planned Parenthood shooting]

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) called the attack “a form of terrorism.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is a pastor and a Republican presidential contender, echoed Hickenlooper’s comments, but sought to distinguish Friday’s attacker from those who peacefully object to abortion.

“What he did is domestic terrorism, and what he did is absolutely abominable, especially to us in the pro-life movement,” Huckabee told CNN, “because there’s nothing about any of us that would condone or in any way look the other way on something like this.”

Hill and his fellow abortion clinic killers, however, appear to operate by another set of rules. Like many suicide bombers, Hill wrote that he expected to be rewarded for his actions in heaven. He went to his death at peace with what he had done.

“He knew what he did was right, he willingly gave his life for the unborn,” Pentecostal minister Donald Spitz told the Miami Herald after sharing Hill’s final hours.

The abortion clinic killer died with “joy in his heart.”