A doctor's death brings crisis home Last year, some 300 anti-abortion bills were introduced to statehouses across the country and 50 passed.

October 28, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

THE murder made page one. I am told that we should be grateful for that.

After all, the clinic attacks, the arsons, the foul-smelling acid assaults are routine enough to be relegated to page six or 10. As for the harassment, the death threats, the stalking? They barely qualify as "news" anymore.

But the assassination of a 52-year-old father? The homicide of a doctor who exhibited the kind of daily courage that should not be necessary? That is still shocking enough to make headlines. So far.

On Friday night, Dr. Barnett Slepian came home from the synagogue after observing the anniversary of his father's death. This anniversary apparently ran into another: Remembrance Day, known across the border in Canada as "Remember the Unborn Children Day." Known thereabouts as doctor hunting season.

As Dr. Slepian got up from his kitchen table, a terrorist who must have been lying in wait shot him through the window with a high-powered rifle. Shot him in the back. In sight of his eldest son.

Within hours of his death, somewhere in cyberspace on a Web page dripping with electronic blood, on a site that lists "Alleged Abortionists and Their Accomplices" someone drew a line through Barnett Slepian's name. He became a "fatality."

And within a day, the Rev. Donald Spitz, director of Pro-Life Virginia, sent this condolence note to the widow and four sons: "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. . ." As for Dr. Slepian? "You reap what you sow."

Dr. David Gunn. Dr. John Britton. Dr. Barnett Slepian. Doctors and fatalities.

In 1993, when the first doctor was murdered, Dr. Slepian told a reporter, "It could have been me. . . ." Now it is. In 1995, after being picketed by a bishop outside his office, he said, "If you're using words like 'kill and murder,' that's where it can lead." That's where it has led.

Ignoring a crisis

Too often these days when the alarm bell rings, when abortion rights groups announce another crisis, declare again that this is the worst of times since before Roe vs. Wade, the most anti-choice Congress in decades, the most relentless chipping away at abortion rights since the '70s, there is a ho-hum in the background. The majority of Americans are comforted by a Supreme Court that upholds the right to abortion. Lulled by an abortion-rights president with a veto. Reassured that a new drug, RU-486, is on the way.

We forget how fragile the hold is. Last year, some 300 anti-abortion bills were introduced to statehouses across the country and 50 passed. In Congress, abortion riders were attached like letter bombs to bills and budgets from the Treasury to the Agriculture departments. The Senate is now just three votes short of being able to override a presidential veto -- all three votes up for grabs next Tuesday.

An elusive right

More to the point, anti-abortion forces that have failed in making abortion illegal are succeeding in their strategy to make it impossible. There are fewer clinics and more barriers between a woman and this increasingly elusive "right." Just this month in Louisiana, a woman waiting for a heart transplant was not "sick enough" to qualify for an abortion at a public hospital.

Behind all this "ho-hum" news is the real hum of violence. Fewer doctors are being trained; fewer older doctors are taking risks. Today, 84 percent of counties have no abortion provider. Excuse me, as of Friday, subtract one more provider. One more "fatality." How many other doctors and clinic workers are looking for their own name on "the list."

At this doctor's emotional funeral on Monday, a local father arrived with the two daughters Dr. Slepian delivered. "I want him to be remembered as a birth doctor," said this man tearfully, "not an abortion doctor."

But he was of course, both and neither just a doctor. Dr. Barnett Slepian was an obstetrician and a gynecologist. A man who loved to deliver babies and believed in a woman's right to decide.

Once, when the violence of words and actions had begun to escalate, he wrote a letter to the editor and to the opposition. "Please don't feign surprise, dismay and certainly not innocence," he said, "when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react . . . by shooting an abortion provider."

On Friday night, he became another deliberate target of terrorism. And today no one, not even the most casual reader of page one, the most cursory surfer on the Internet, has the right to be surprised.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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