Buffalo Tries to Heal From Anti-Choice Violence

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Glenn Edward Murray

BUFFALO, N. Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–As this heavily Roman Catholic city celebrates Easter, the high point of the Christian calendar, it is also trying to heal from more than a decade of intense anti-choice actions that included a murder of a physician.

Nearly five years after the fatal shooting of a beloved obstetrician/gynecologist who worked at a Buffalo abortion clinic, and a month after the conviction of his killer, this city–for so long a volatile epicenter of the anti-choice movement–remains wary of possible future sectarian violence even as it hopes that the criminal prosecution will give rise to a new, peaceful era.

James Kopp, a longtime member of the underground extremist anti-choice movement, will be sentenced May 9 in Erie County Court. He faces a life sentence for gunning down Dr. Barnett Slepian in his suburban Buffalo home in October 1998.

Kopp also faces federal charges that could carry an additional life sentence. He has also been charged in the nonfatal shooting of a Canadian abortion doctor and is a suspect in three other nonfatal shootings of doctors in Rochester, N.Y., and Canada.

Buffalo Braces for Sentencing

With the state trial completed and the federal trial expected to start sometime in May, the city is bracing for the final chapter in the tragedy.

“I’m hoping after the sentencing in May that we move on,” said Marilynn Buckham, executive director of Buffalo GYN Womenservices, where Slepian performed abortions. “Not that we’ll ever forget him, but we have to move forward.”

Situated on the Canadian border in western New York, along Lake Erie, and buffeted by famously severe snowstorms, Buffalo–a city of 300,000–has more in common with the Midwest than with New York City in everything from architecture to attitudes. A national leader in industry and technology 75 years ago, Buffalo now stands as a symbol of the Rust Belt. It is heavily blue-collar, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and often conservative in its mood and views.

That reputation may have helped make Buffalo a magnet for anti-choice extremists nearly a decade ago, when hundreds of demonstrators gathered for the sustained “Operation Rescue” protests at Buffalo GYN Womenservices. Slepian publicly defied the demonstrators, declaring that he would never stop his work at the clinic.

Barely three months after Slepian’s murder, New York state passed a law to protect access to abortion clinics, which buttressed the federal Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrances Act. The state law was a direct response to Slepian’s death, which Gov. George Pataki called “a violent terrorist act.”

Pro-Choice Advocates Fear Kopp’s Replacement

Still, many people working in reproductive health services in Buffalo and elsewhere in upstate New York say they fear that a terrorist anti-choice group is training a replacement for Kopp and that upstate New York may see more shootings.

“We hope for the best, we prepare for the worst, but our history unfortunately demonstrates that those of us dealing with reproductive health care have to deal with violent threats,” said Dana Neitlich, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Buffalo and Erie County.

In November 2001, Neitlich’s agency was forced to evacuate when a staff member opened a Federal Express package that contained a white powder. The substance turned out not to be anthrax, but the incident was an example of why reproductive health care workers around Buffalo have remained in an exhausting state of alert since Slepian’s murder.

“It’s always our concern–what’s next? Because we don’t think that’s the end of it,” said Buckham at the Womenservices clinic.

Federal Trial Could Bring Graphic Testimony

Next comes the federal trial.

At Kopp’s request, the state trial was heard by a judge, not a jury, and took only one day. Kopp opted for the non-jury trial because he feared that his anti-choice views would not get a fair hearing amid the technicalities of a jury trial. In exchange, Kopp gave up the opportunity to testify on his own behalf or have either side present witnesses or evidence.

It is not known if the federal trial will be handled similarly. A jury trial could last for weeks and would present graphic, traumatic testimony. A jury trial would also provide a platform for Kopp–who professes to be a devout Roman Catholic–and his followers to reiterate their often-stated belief that violence is morally justifiable in stopping abortions.

Among Kopp’s followers is the Rev. Michael Bray, a minister who served nearly four years in federal prison for bombing abortion clinics in Washington, D.C., Delaware, Virginia and Maryland.

During last month’s trial, Bray sat a few feet away from Slepian’s widow, Lynne, who had watched her husband bleed to death in front of their four children. She has stoically and silently attended every proceeding in the case so far, and would almost certainly testify in a jury trial in federal court.

When asked after the trial if he feels that James Kopp accomplished anything, Bray said, “There’s certainly the immediate sparing of children’s lives that otherwise would have died at the hands of Mr. Slepian.” He added that Kopp “stood as a profound witness to the value of human life–if anyone out there is paying attention.”

Buffalo Stands Up to Intimidation

Bray’s comments stand in sharp contrast to the responses of many in Buffalo to Slepian’s murder.

Since then, many in the city have worked to send a collective message that Buffalo will not tolerate terrorism and intimidation. Almost immediately after Slepian’s murder, other doctors stepped forward to replace him at the Womenservices clinic.

“Dr. Slepian’s murder made many more people determined to protect the constitutional right to abortion,” said Glenn Edward Murray, a Buffalo lawyer, a friend of the Slepian family an attorney for the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York as well as Buffalo GYN Womenservices clinic. “If Dr. Slepian had retired, it would have been hard to find a successor at the Womenservices clinic. But when he was murdered, many doctors stepped in at Buffalo because they did not want terrorism to succeed.”

That decision by the doctors was all the more noteworthy because replacement doctors can be at especially high risk. In Pensacola, Fla., in 1993, anti-choice terrorist Michael Griffin fatally shot Dr. David Gunn, a physician at the abortion clinic there. Sixteen months later, again in Pensacola, anti-choice terrorist Paul Hill shot and killed Gunn’s replacement, Dr. John Britton, as well as Britton’s escort. Hill later claimed that Griffin had inspired him.

Despite such incidents, abortion services in the Buffalo region have not only endured, but expanded. Planned Parenthood of Niagara County–20 minutes from downtown Buffalo–started offering abortion services for the first time in 2000. The clinic had started planning to do so before Slepian’s murder, and refused to let his death change that decision, said Denise Hout, vice president for patient services.

“If anything, it just reiterated the fact that a woman’s choice is very personal and needs to be kept personal,” Hout said.

Darryl McGrath is a writer in Albany, N.Y.

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