Killing doctors isn't an answer Advocates: While the movement they support works to end abortion, the brothers Robert and Paul Schenck say they don't believe murder is the solution.

October 27, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The street glowed with the light of hundreds of candles that spring evening, and the speech delivered by a man with a bullhorn was strong stuff, words to arouse the righteousness of a crowd massed in front of a women's clinic. Mass murder was going on in there, he said. Mass murder of the sort carried out by the Nazis.

The women's clinic, this nondescript building in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., this place where abortions were then performed, was being likened to the death factories of Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald.

When the speeches were over that night in April 1992, the man on the bullhorn, the Rev. Robert L. Schenck, returned to the church in Amherst, N.Y., where the rally began. In an interview with a reporter visiting from out of town, Schenck was asked if in his heart and mind he was convinced that the women's clinic and Auschwitz were morally equivalent.

Yes, he said. In a strictly moral sense, murder of the innocent is murder of the innocent.

Schenck, who has since moved to Virginia from New York State and become general secretary of the National Clergy Council in Washington, says he still believes that. At the same time, he condemns Friday night's sniper killing of an abortion doctor at his home in Amherst. Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, 52, shot once in the back as he sat at his kitchen table with his family, is believed to have become a target for violence because he performed abortions at a clinic in Buffalo.

Police are investigating the possibility that this was another in a series of shootings of doctors who perform abortions in Western New York State and Canada. This was the first death in the fifth such shooting in four years.

If it turns out that Slepian was shot by an anti-abortion vigilante, says Schenck, the killer has a twisted notion of what the movement is about. The killing "is as much an act of murder as the abortion," says Schenck.

As a leader of anti-abortion protests, Robert Schenck had a reputation as a street provocateur. He was arrested in Buffalo for waving a fetus in the face of an abortion rights protester and later was arrested in New York City for trying to show a fetus to Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Schenck, who had met Slepian in the course of many court battles over abortion protests, rejects the notion that speeches of the sort he delivered that night in 1992 incite violence against clinics and doctors.

"When news like this hits you, and it's personal because you knew the person, it runs a tape in your mind," says Schenck, 40. "And you go back and consider everything. Where do I fit in this picture? I don't fit in this picture."

Naturally, abortion rights advocates disagree. If the message being sent is that abortion is genocide, they ask, then what does that say about the women having abortions, the doctors performing them and the places where they are performed?

"What that sort of comparison to the Holocaust, it's disingenuous on their side to state that that doesn't have an impact on the level of violence," Stephanie C. Mueller, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation, told The Sun in yesterday's editions.

Schenck and his twin brother, Paul, both of whom helped organize the 1992 protests in Buffalo, say nowhere in the anti-abortion movement's rhetoric is there a call to vigilantism. Quite the opposite, they say.

"The message is abortion is murder, not murder the abortionist," says the Rev. Paul Schenck, rector of Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville. "There's a huge, huge difference between those two ideas. ... The message of the pro-life movement is to preserve life, not just the life of an unborn baby. The unborn child's life is not more important than a born person."

In its capacity to control all possible sympathizers, violent or otherwise, Paul Schenck says the anti-abortion movement is no different from abolitionism, the anti-Vietnam War movement or the civil rights movement.

"I think most people understand that there has always been a violent fringe on the edges of significant movements for social change," says Paul Schenck.

He says he considers the Rev. Donald Spitz, director of Pro-Life Virginia, part of the fringe. In response to the Slepian killing, Spitz released a statement saying, "The shooter is a hero. ... Whatever action is justified to save the life of a born baby is justified to save the life of an unborn baby."

Such a statement, says Schenck, "is dangerous and demoralizing. ... That is one of the reasons Donald Spitz is not a prominent leader in the pro-life movement."

The Schenck brothers expect the killing to set the anti-abortion movement back for a while. Some politicians may back away from supporting anti-abortion legislation, and people who would otherwise attend anti-abortion rallies may choose to stay away.

Robert Schenck says the killing does not suggest the anti-abortion movement should soften its rhetoric, but it might suggest more emphasis be given to the theme of nonviolence.

"The sadness is that we were not able to reach this individual [Slepian's killer] with the message that we hold all life sacred," says Schenck. "I think, 'Why couldn't we bring these individuals to Christ?' "

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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